Ales Kot writes comics, amongst other things. His first graphic novel, Wild Children with Riley Rossmo, was published by Image Comics last year. He quickly followed this with Change with Morgan Jeske, also at Image. The collected edition was just released by Image last week.
Now he’s writing the superhero series Suicide Squad for DC and his creator owned espionage comic Zero for Image.
We put on the new Zomby album With Love and had a chat about how to entered the comic industry, the philosophy behind his work, and more.
Klint Finley: Wild Children was released less than a year ago. Now you’re writing a monthly Image book, a monthly DC book and have a Batman project on the way. It seems almost as if you came out of nowhere. How did you break into the industry?
Ales Kot: I imagined stories and pages and used my will to create them physically. Once I had physical proof of my work, I honed it until what I wanted and what was in front of me aligned. One of the key decisions was — and is — the aim to only create comics I would buy myself. I decided to make comics and therefore become a comics creator in 2008; I met Eric Stephenson from Image Comics in 2011 and he approved two of my comics proposals during our first meeting. The road to being published in July 2012 included many changes and struggles within the path.
I do not see entering comics as “breaking in,” because that, to me, suggests something aggressive. I chose to enter comics by imagining and creating comics I wanted to make, by believing in their potential and quality, and by showing readers all that.
What made you decide to be a comics creator, instead of one of the many other creative paths one could pursue?
It is true that I am a comics creator. I also work on video games, films and multiple art projects that are in some cases multimedia projects and in some cases explorations of media that perhaps do not even have a name at the moment, if they ever will. My path is to create whatever feels right within my imagination; whatever is alive within me. This applies in art, in life. I see no difference between one and the other.
With comics specifically, I remember being given Donald Duck as a 3-or-4 year old with undiagnosed pneumonia. I vanished within the pages; the empty spaces between the panels of the comic turned on my imagination. By the time I was eight, I probably drew over two hundred pages of comics, but I do not remember wanting to be a comics creator, except for a few days when I hit sixteen and spent most of my days stoned, expanding my mind via many possible routes. Then, in 2008, in the midst of a psychospiritual crisis, I contemplated suicide and wondered whether I could find anything within myself that I genuinely wanted to do or at least try before I died. The answer was “I want to make a comic book. That could be fun.”
[referring to the Zomby album] “Overdose” is the purest jungle I heard in YEARS.
How did you meet Eric Stephenson? At a con?
I met Eric Stephenson in Seattle during the Emerald City Comic Con. Joe Keatinge, another comics writer, saw some of my pitch materials and he introduced me to Eric pretty much immediately.
Above: Panels from Suicide Squad # 21
How did you land the Suicide Squad gig?
Wil Moss, my editor on Suicide Squad, contacted me because he read Wild Children and enjoyed it enough to remember my name. He asked me if I would be interested in pitching for it. I put together a pitch, Wil liked it, it got approved.
Wild Children deals with the education system, you’ve said that Zero is about war and Suicide Squad obviously deals with the prison system. It seems that institutions and the way they affect people is emerging as a major theme in your work. Is that deliberate?
That is an intelligent observation, thank you. The narrative thread you just traced between my works was subconscious more than conscious on a story-to-story level. I am consciously interested in how institutions we create affect our life; institutions that are official and the ones that are hidden deeper within the fabric of our lives, the ones we create within our society and within our heads, sometimes without giving them names or without even realizing their presence. I am interested in chaos, order and their interplay.
You’ve said you want your stories to have a social message. I get cynical at times about the potential for art to have a positive social effect. But you come from the Czech Republic, where you actually had a revolution named after a rock band and a president who was a playwright. How do you think your background affects your work?
To me, every story ever made has a social message or messages within it. To me, everything is political because politics at their core mean “relating to citizens,” and I see connections between everything in this universe, and as such, everything relates to me and the responsibility that comes with that is tremendous. I am now interested in using fiction as a vehicle for self-exploration.
This is largely cut from another interview, because I see no better way to describe that part now:
The region I spent most of my first two decades in is very industrial, very similar to north of England, and it carries wounds and scars that go very deep and very far back in time. For example, my grandfather lost two people who were dear to him in the second World War before he was 10 years old, and then had to take care of the farm with his mother. My father worked, among other things, as a miner – specifically the kind that places explosives deep in the shafts where no one else dares to go. The air is immensely polluted and the forests away from the cities are alive and breathing and vast. It’s a rough region that is simultaneously very beautiful. I feel very lucky that I had parents who were – and are – supportive of me despite their own baggage, which comes with the region. I was a smart and wild kid who wanted freedom and that alone was hugely intimidating to almost everyone around me until I became old enough to leave. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how many deep wounds incidents such as the Second World War and the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia had inflicted upon almost everyone, generation after generation. There were also many wonderful events, such as my parents bravely escaping Czechoslovakia with me in 1988 in order to live in West Germany, the Velvet Revolution in 1989, our subsequent arrival back home, being encouraged to be honest and fair despite the environment that often promoted the exact opposite, playing soccer and watching a ten times copied videocassette of Rambo III with my dad back when video recorders were a luxury…the point is, I can only write that what is alive in me, and what is alive in me will always be influenced, amongst other things, by that which I have lived through, by my genetic memory, by nature, by nurture. The best I can do is be honest about it and create stories that use the personal experience in a universal way.
The Velvet Revolution and president Havel are certainly important to my upbringing. He stated that “Truth and love triumph over lies and hate,” and hearing those words as a three or four year old was very formative. Growing up in a country that woke up from a fever dream of Russian occupation and could actively rebuild itself was also hugely inspiring. I could observe boundaries being pushed and straight-up erased on a grand scale.
I am interested in erasing and embracing walls; there is perverse beauty in holding something close while simultaneously knowing you are able to let it go if it wants to. Playful walls within freedom, created for exploration and adventure. Perhaps that is what humanity is working with on a large scale; perhaps nation-states and borders are precisely that — a game we are playing until we decide, ideally peacefully and with love, that it’s time to create a new one.
To come back to where I started, the statement of using fiction as a vehicle for self-exploration; if we accept the hypothesis that the world is a mirror of one’s internal self, then any creation simultaneously reflects inwards and outwards. The social message, the political aspect, seems inescapable on both levels, which are one.
What was your access to American comics like growing up? I grew up in small towns in the U.S. and my access wasn’t always great.
There were a few publishers after the Velvet Revolution; some of them releasing Czech comics, and at least one of them released reprints of American comics as well. The contact I distinctly remember as crucial after the Donald Duck experience is my grandfather bringing a huge pile of comics to me when I was about five or six; they were mostly reprints of Spider-Man circa Roger Stern / John Romita Jr. era and Conan the Barbarian by Roy Thomas and various artists. I could find comics in the stores after that, but not many; perhaps two or three Marvel reprints each month and then some Czech comics, that was about it.
Later on, the amount of comics publishers grew, and the Crew magazine specifically (Crew looks and sounds similarly to “blood” in Czech) had a huge impact on me during that time. This would be late 90’s and early 00’s. The magazine reprinted 2000AD comics, Vertigo Comics, Dark Horse comics and plenty others. My understanding of what comics could do and could be expanded very fast.
What is your process like? How do you split up your day — writing, researching, marketing and social media, etc.?
I like to wake up around eight or nine in the morning, wash my face, meditate, eat a banana and a good, high-fiber, high-protein, low sugar protein bar (ideally coconut or peanut butter flavor), drink green tea, then dive into my inbox and answer emails for about an hour. After that it’s about ten and I write, occasionally answer interviews, eat lunch, write again…until four or five pm. Then I stop.
Research never stops – work on myself, reading, observing the world, it all goes in. As for marketing / social media, I find little spots of time here and there. I like to have a plan of the day and then work with it; being firm and at the same time being like water.
The first Suicide Squad arc is called “Discipline and Punish” — was Foucault an influence?
Since you’re writing the Squad, I have to ask: have you been reading Michel Fiffe’s COPRA? Any chance of a Suicide Squad/COPRA cross-over?
I read and love COPRA. While Michel Fiffe owns COPRA, I do not own Suicide Squad; unlike my other work, which I own, Suicide Squad is a work-for-hire situation for me, so I can not make a decision on whether an official crossover will happen or not. That would be up to Michel and DC Entertainment.
Suicide Squad #22 includes a direct nod to Michel’s work.