Wednesday, June 26, 2013

interview 004: ales kot

by Shawn Starr

I had the opportunity a few months back to interview writer Ales Kot about a bunch of topics but mostly we focused on the mini-series 'Change' he was working on with artist Morgan Jeske from Image Comics. Now that the collection is getting released i figured it was a good time to share this conversation.

You were born in Eastern Europe right? I was wondering what kinds of comics you read growing up.

Czech Republic, so I guess that's Eastern Europe? Feels more right in the middle of Europe to me, always did, but I suspect it's officially classified as the Eastern Europe. 

Growing up, the first comics I remember reading were Ctyrlistek a.k.a. 'Four-Leaf Clover', which was this off-the-rails kids comic about a cat scientist, a tough pig, a pretty bitch (she was a dog) and a nervous rabbit. That thing was large in the Czech Republic for a very long time. So that was one, reprints of the Disney stuff would be another - I remember reading the adventures of Donald the Duck when I had pneumonia, I might have been about four. 

Add Kaja Saudek, the comics-making brother of the world-famous photographer Jan Saudek (Tarsem Singh put a homage to his work in the film "The Cell"), whose comics are probably the most accomplished Czech comics that ever came out and I was off to a decent start by the time I was four or five. Then my grandfather, who was a truck driver, brought some comics -- oh wait, there's a whole another story here, specifically a story about my sexual identity being completely rewired that I love sharing. My grandfather took me to Netherlands when I was about five years old, via truck. It was great. I spent most of the time reading 'Conan The Barbarian' stories (the first two Conan books I ever read, I think) on the backseat and then one day I discovered a porn magazine underneath the backseat, most likely forgotten there, either by my grandfather or one of the other drivers. The magazine was full of very hardcore sex acts and the king, the queen and everything in between of all of the entire magazine was a very detailed three-way between a man, a woman and a hermaphrodite. My mind was blown. Walls melted. Which probably explains why I'm answering this interview in a motel in Palm Springs in between fascinating sex acts and writing scripts. My point is, I love it when most walls prove to be non-existent and that connects to every kind of art.

And with that, back to, comics. Here's some pictures:

And then. One day, my grandfather was transporting comic books - basically overprint stuff, lightly damaged or even completely okay issues of the Czech translations of 'Spider-Man', 'Conan the Barbarian', 'GI.I.Joe' and others. I was in. Then came video game magazines like 'Level' and 'Score' and through the reviews within came more culture shocks. The gentlemen who used to write for the 'Score' magazine created a comics magazine called 'Crew' (which is in Czech similar to "krev", which means blood) and oh my, were they serious about this. 

Lewis Trondheim, reprints of the best '2000 AD' stuff like Johnny Nemo and Slaine, the best 'Lobo' comics by Alan Grant and (usually) Simon Bisley, shorter things from Vertigo, Frank Miller's comics, 'Hellboy'…explosions inside me, imagination firing up. Obviously, none of this would happen that easily without my parents, who were incredibly supportive of my reading from early on. I knew how to read really well by the time I was three and a half thanks to them. I also made a 48-page comic when I was six or seven. Completely forgot about that until recently. Work ethic!

I've seen a list of your favorite comics before, and i think one of you favorite writers also, but i haven't seen you mention your favorite artists before, can you name a couple and what you take away from them?

Winsor McCkay, Jim Steranko, J.H. Williams III. and David Aja for their mastery of inventive layouts. Paul Pope for the energy with which he created his style and still continues to move it forward. The 'Battling Boy' stuff looks and reads amazing. Frank Miller because his work taught me that there is no right and wrong when it comes to the number of panels per page - all it comes down to is what you want the page (and the story) to achieve. Brandon Graham for his playfulness.

Chris Weston is the quintessential '2000 AD' artist to me - 'The Filth' and 'Ministry of Space' are full worlds, detailed and moving and dirty and beautiful. Junji Ito, Brendan McCarthy; for their tendency to go surreal. I love Ito's line work, its density, its weight on the page - the way he layers it makes me feel slightly physically ill, which is perfect considering the kind of comics he makes, and McCarthy is a perfect freak. Jerome Opena perfectly updates the 'Heavy Metal' magazine era Sci-Fi comics and merges them with superhero comics. Kevin O'Neill for being one of the most hilarious and dedicated storytellers out there. Same goes to Eddie Campbell.

Will Eisner. Alex Toth. Jack Kirby. Bill Sienkiewicz. Howard Chaykin. Jacques Tardi. Frank Quitely. Katsuhiro Otomo. Newer creators like James Harren, Sean Murphy, Morgan Jeske, Ron Wimberly, Tomer Hanuka, Jason Latour, Chris Burnham, Fiona Staples. Many more.

What are you currently reading/watching/listening to, and what has had the greatest effect on you recently?
'Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said' by Philip K. Dick. Having a hard time figuring out how much of Jason Taverner I am. Or how much of me Jason Taverner is. Or how much of us is Philip K. Dick. The walls are flinching and I just stopped in Fullerton yesterday. Edit: I actually finished the book now and I have to say it might be my favorite P.K. Dick novel. The way it ends…I woke up with the last line echoing in my head in the middle of the night in San Francisco, on a sofa, just a few hours after I finished reading the book, and the sentence was still working itself into me and rewiring me. It changed something in a beautiful way. The journey and the last sentence. All of it.

I am also reading the script for the adaptation of Ellroy's 'White Jazz' written by the Carnahan brothers. I am looking forward to catching up on Kieron Gillen's 'Young Avengers' and 'Uber'.

A documentary about Crips and Bloods on Netflix. It's called "Crips and Bloods: Made in America". Worth noting: these gangs started when the Boy Scouts enforced racial segregation so black kids had no chance of getting in. Other than that, I am excited about seeing the "Evil Dead" remake tomorrow and also "Sightseers", which is a new film by Ben Wheatley who made "Kill List", one of the most horrifying horrors/thrillers of the past decade. Wheatley is a very accomplished director and I suspect he is only going to get better.

My fiction diet is pretty noir-heavy these days, so I balance it with process books, plenty of scientific articles, Psychology Today stuff, reading up on Buddhism, astrology and else.


Greatest effect recently: 
Seeing my complete family after nearly four years and figuring out a lot more about our history and how the attitudes in the family were formed and shared throughout many decades by the internal decisions and the external circumstances. Interrogating everyone so I could determine how to better understand us and change my own life through that understanding - and hopefully also help others live their life a little bit better than before. There was a trauma from seventy years ago that clearly got carried through time and space and influenced every generation of my family since and I know I figured out a way to transcend it. Which is a pretty amazing feeling.

You have a well defined Internet presence, how important is the Internet to you as a creator, both in getting your work out there and taking in others work ?

About as important as it is to most relatively well-off of the people in the world today - a lot. I love the Internet. I love the deep web. I love that I am here, now, seeing the new infrastructure being built as many old ones crumble. I don't love the way many corporations are approaching the Internet - as something to be controlled, something to be squeezed dry. The Internet is expansive, by definition. It can be used as an evolutionary tool, as a way of sharing, it can be used as a creation tool for a more honest society. I mean, look at Wiki-leaks. Look at Kickstarter. The spreading of knowledge. The ways we now connect. And what is post-Internet? Tell me. Show me. I am interested.

I could say that it's easy to be overloaded and to overload, that it's easy to pay attention just for five seconds and move on then it is to read a solid essay, and so on and so on…but you know what? That's not on the Internet. That's on us. The ways the Internet changes us are the ways we choose ourselves. And I choose honesty, mystery, complexity, simplicity. I choose excitement and astonishment. I choose quiet, sometimes too. The Internet is a toolbox unlike any other we had before and I choose to create a better now with it. And the way to do that, for me, is to be as honest and loving as I can be at any given moment.

Prose has had a long history of utilizing short stories as vehicles for political philosophy, and while there is no lack of comics about politics, 'Wild Children' is the first comic since 'Flex Mentallo' to try and change the idea of "comics". As your first published work, was it a conscious decision to come out with such a firm mission statement, and why did you think it was necessary?

Yeah, it was a conscious decision, but if I remember correctly I wasn't trying to change the idea of what comics are or can be. All of what I stated in 'Wild Children', in regards to comics theory, is stuff I already saw in, within comics - it's there, all people have to do is look for it. I thought it was necessary to come out with something that felt true to who I was at the time. That definitely worked.

One of the common critiques of your work is the amount of influences on display. 'Wild Children' was the first comic I'd seen with actual footnotes! Do you find it necessary to be upfront with your influences, and do you find that doing so helps you work through them faster than merely alluding to them?

That depends entirely on the work itself. Being completely upfront with my influences was the right choice with 'Wild Children', which was a very "this is where I come from", mission statement kind of a comic. In a different way, that was also partially true for 'Change' - a story set in LA will automatically have more cultural references because people are very immersed in it and most of the key characters are directly involved in the process of creating comics, music, movies. Is that some sort of a thing I want to focus on in every comic or movie or anything that I ever create? Fuck no. It's all about the work and the work always starts from zero, as Paul Thomas Anderson says. Or maybe I'm just paraphrasing him. Is that me being upfront about my being influenced by Paul Thomas Anderson's theory on creating stories? Not really; I knew that instinctively long before I read that quote of his, but the quote itself reinforced the understanding. It's a constant back and forth. The work always begins with nothing.

'Wild Children' definitely helped me work through some influences very fast, as I hoped it would.

How tight are your scripts and how much do you collaborate with your artists to achieve what's on the final page ?

Thank you! The scripts depend entirely on how tight I am with the artist. I always aim to do my best to create a long-term relationship that's not just about the work but also about being friends and genuinely understanding each other. The collaboration on 'Change', specifically, was like a dream for me - Morgan (Jeske) and I are process nuts and we talked about what we want to do and how in very clear terms before we sat down and started doing it, which helped immensely. We also acknowledged that the process might change as we go, precisely as it did - and being prepared and comfortable with a certain level of chaos was crucial, because 'Change' was not an easy project to pull off. I wrote the script for #1 (you can download it, as well as the significantly different final lettering draft, right here) in a fairly tight way, calling the panels and many angles, but at the same time being very open to Morgan changing things as he sees fit. I cherish that kind of a collaboration. As we went on, I started writing in a much looser style because the trust in our storytelling increased with every page Morgan delivered. By the time we hit four, I sometimes described an entire page in five sentences.

So the collaboration went approximately like this: we talked for a bit and I gave Morgan some sort of an idea as to what might be in the issue, then wrote the script, sent it to Morgan. Morgan did his magic on layouts, we talked through them - maybe adjusting something like 2-3 panels in #1 and #2, later on almost nothing. Morgan did the pages, sent them to Sloane Leong who then colored everything. Sometimes we had an idea for a particular scene/panel and we discussed colors in detail before Sloane started #1, but the pages she sent back were always even better than I hoped they would be.

Then came the lettering. Ed Brisson was very nice and a true pro - I sometimes rewrote things 2-3 times because the entire process was very intense and I was determined to always find the best way to say things. The amount of changes made between each script and the final lettering pass…well, this probably illustrates it the best: in 'Change' #4, I cut twelve pages of lettering entirely. Why? Because the art told the entirety of what needed to be told.

Can you give an example of embracing chaos in 'Change'? For me, until the final issue pointed it out and i re-read the series as a whole, i never noticed the ever present drone in the background throughout the series.

Haha, the drone! That is a good example. If I remember correctly, we made sure to have the drone in the air since the beginning because I felt it was important, but I had no idea what the exact reason for it being there was. I just knew it felt right to have it there. Then, I think it was while I was coming up with the script for #3…it clicked and I knew what the drone's purpose was.

This is symptomatic of the way I approached writing the comic. I had about two hundred pages of notes and a few different outlines for 'Change' and the story changed and rewired itself plenty of times as we went along. I knew what would happen at various points of the story, but that was it; and even some of the most (seemingly) crucial story points have changed radically. The final decision was that the story would grow out of me in real time.

A big reason for the smooth sailing is the team. Morgan Jeske ran with my ridiculous ideas and invented and reinvented himself so often that I will be shocked if he doesn't win the Russ Manning award. This was a true collaboration - the characters, the story…wouldn't be alive without Morgan, without Sloane's amazing colors that are unlike anything else in comics right now…if someone else created 'Change' and I would see it on the shelf, I would buy the comic immediately solely based on the art and colors. And that's the way I want my comics to work.

Embracing chaos, another story: Sloane turns in the colors for #4 and I look at it and eventually realize that I need to cut twelve pages of text from the comic entirely - simply because the storytelling was so strong that there was no need for words. It's all good until we are two days away from going to print and I count the pages and realize we made a rookie mistake and the pages don't follow the left/right scheme properly, which means most of the two-page spreads will be cut in half instead of presented properly. So I create two empty pages that balance everything out and then have to come up with text…which proves crucial to the end of the story and makes me rewrite most of #4 once more.

There are ways to balance order and chaos and love both when creating pretty much anything - a work of art, a relationship, a life. In fact, loving and embracing both is perhaps the key to that balance.

'Change' #1 is a dense first issue, I've read it four or five times now and it just keeps growing in my head, how important do you find the first issue of a series to be, and what do you think it has to accomplish to be successful?

That's amazing - and exactly how I wanted the first issue to feel. I don't think there's a definite formula for the first issue of a series, but I think it's enormously important. What it needs to accomplish is always different. I loved Abhay Khosla's essay on what 'Saga' did right in its first issue.

What the first issue needs to do, always, is it needs to be the right first issue. Which sounds ridiculous, but it's as simple as that. I can't quite explain it. It needs to be alive in all the right ways, in all the right ways that are true to what you have set to do.

Successful? You mean artistically? It needs to be a comic I would buy with my money. That's how I make comics. Would I buy it, happily? Would I re-read it, happily? Would I feel good about buying it? If the answers are yes, then I can release the thing. If not, it's back to the laptop until I get it right.

You have a line in 'Change' #1, "You use intuition, logic, connect ideas and symbols, and the three-act structure and the chekov's gun and all that...You put a little chaos back in the movies.... This is a cliche, but i hope you know that it comes straight from the heart...You have no future in this business darling" do you find this to be the truth as a writer, that innovation is shied away from, or at least not rewarded as it should, either in comics or elsewhere?

Partially, of course, yes! Innovation is often shied away from. Are we getting better at embracing innovation? I certainly hope so, but I have no good way of measuring it. I believe we are getting better at embracing innovation, but that might also be simply because I want things to always turn out right. As for the right rewards and who should be or get or do what, I say fuck all of it. I don't care. I am not here to judge what other people deserve and why. I want to focus on doing my best work and creating a life worth living.

There was an interview that Vice did with Bret Easton Ellis a couple years back where he described Los Angeles as an isolating city, that "There’s a lot of space for something to lurk, I guess. It’s also a weird city because it doesn't change. There are no seasons. There’s not a fall. There’s not a winter. It’s a strange city to live in." and i get a little of the same vibe from 'Change' #1. For Los Angeles to, as the title says change, does it have to die?

There is a lot of space for something to lurk in Los Angeles, yes. One wonders, though - was that interview conducted around the time when Ellis finished' Lunar Park'? Because the novel is very much about his subconscious, right? And if it is, then does his description of Los Angeles then also show the landscape of his mind at that time? No change, things lurking? Because I live in Los Angeles and I love the city. While the season thing is partially true as well, the seasons do move - they just move differently and on more subtle levels. What I wrote down just yesterday:

"Chicken, egg, biscuits, gravy. Pecan pie. Americano the size of a child's head. Read a film script at a diner, have some iced tea. Wear a well-fitting white shirt. Hit the letters, write things down. Get out. The sun, it's just enough, the Summer hell around the corner. Trees swaying in the wind, all flowers. Pretty latinas walking around with their kids, all smiles. Echo Park in the Spring."

Los Angeles in the Spring is completely different than Los Angeles in the Summer. I call bullshit, Bret Easton Ellis. I love you and you are not right about this. The seasons just change in different ways.

Death is life. Change is life and death. It's all a dance. So I dance the best I can, like I am dancing right now, around and with your questions and within my answers. And I am smiling. Because, who knows? Perhaps we are all here just to play.

You can purchase the trade paperback collection of 'Change' by Kot, Morgan Jeske, Sloane Leong, + Ed Brisson in your local comics stores starting today as well as on Amazon

Ales' new series from Image Comics 'Zero' (featuring artwork from Michael Walsh among many others) is also currently available for pre-order (JUL13 0415), and you can also catch him monthly writing 'Suicide Squad' for DC Comics with artist Patrick Zircher.

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