In July, Image Comics gave us “Wild Children” by Riley Rossmo and a then unknown Ales Kot. In October, Eric Stephenson named him as the breakout writer of comics in 2013 during our NYCC interview. And today, we’re going to be chatting with Ales about his upcoming book “Change,” the success of “Wild Children” and the future of comics.
Turn and face the strange below.
To start, how did you find the success of “Wild Children” to be? The book seemed to somewhat come out of nowhere and found lots of praise. As a new comic creator, was it a relief to so easily break in, so to say?
Ales Kot: Three years of blood, sweat and tears. It wasn’t about “breaking in”, but about learning the craft well enough to make the stories I wanted to read myself and imposing the highest possible standards while doing that. I also had to understand the overall industry landscape better — go to a few Cons, read a lot of books and articles, meet people, see the attitudes. Then make my move.
I went to the Emerald City Comic Con in 2010 with the last money I saved for my big comics push. There was a sense of immense frustration at the time, because I was pitching to various publishers and the responses I was getting were mostly kind of discouraging. Good thing I knew what I was doing.
Things changed in Seattle, big time. I showed some of my pitches to Joe Keatinge, who had a table next to Ben Templesmith. Ben helped me by offering me a place to stay during the Con and letting me borrow half of his table. Joe helped by staring at the pitches I put together — and immediately dragging me to the Image booth and setting up a meet with Eric Stephenson. Eric approved ‘Wild Children’ and ‘The Surface’ on the spot. I met Riley Rossmo next day and we started working on Wild Children a week later.
It was a relief to see the comic resonate with so many people, for sure. The fact that the comic also sold — and is still selling — so well is even more surprising to me, but it’s something I also hoped for.
In terms of producing a graphic novella versus a mini-series, how do you feel it changes the perception the readers have in digesting the story? Is one publishing format particularly preferable to the other?
AK: To answer your second question first: not to me. I love comics, pure and simple. Any format. The way to figure out what the right format is seems to be a simple question of “What feels right for this story?” or, alternately, “What kind of story fits the format I want to work in right now?”
As to your first question, it changes everything. A self-contained story that can be read in one sitting X a story that needs to be waited for, chapters unfolding on a monthly basis. It’s a completely different game with a different set of possibilities and variations that sometimes merge. In other words, it’s worth an essay, not a short answer.
The objective, however, stays the same: make stories people will want to come back to — ideally stories that will change their lives by igniting their imaginations. Because once that happens, anything can happen. And I want people to realize they can do anything.
So for those who are unfamiliar with “Change,” how would you describe the book?
AK: A screenwriter turned car thief, an enormously rich disconnected rapper and an astronaut on his way back to the Earth walk into a pub and there’s a scary shadow watching them from a corner and a very strange guy behind the bar.
I mean, they don’t actually walk into a bar, but the rest is true. ‘Change’ is about these people trying to survive — and maybe accidentally save — Los Angeles before it turns into Atlantis and gets swallowed by something terrible lurking in the Ocean. It’s the Last Boy Scout meets Lovecraft meets Kirby meets Charlie Kaufman’s work, basically.
The team of creators on this book is constantly surprising me with their dedication and quality. That sounds like a PR sentence and I guess it is, in a sense, but it’s true and that’s what matters. Morgan Jeske is evolving in such a rapid manner — he sent me the first page of #3 and the beauty of it shocked me. Here, take a look:Continued below
Sloane Leong is doing a great job coloring what is a VERY hard comic to color, mainly because of the different environments and timelines, but also because we went pretty rich on symbolism. And Ed Brisson is teaching us all a master class in comics lettering. I’m growing by working on this comic, both as a professional comics creator and as a human being.
It comes down to the comic itself, I think. It’s a comic designed to bring in change, you know? It’s doing the job, however unexpected and strong the influence is in certain ways. My life completely changed since I began writing it.
Do you in any way feel that “Change” is a spiritual follow-up to “Wild Children”?
AK: In a sense. Some similar themes and ideas are being explored. Wild Children was mostly about me looking out and saying hello to the world. Change is about me balancing things out by looking in both directions and focusing more on the characters while not abandoning the themes I’m interested in.
I think that Change is a much tighter comic as far as my writing goes. If you liked Wild Children, you’ll likely enjoy Change, but if you haven’t, I still suspect you might like Change.
Saying more would be counter-productive. May the mystery be a part of the game.
Having been given the opportunity to read this book in advance of chatting with you, it reminded me a lot of the first issue of “Bulletproof Coffin,” which was a comic that dealt with comics and storytelling on a meta-textual level. For you, how important is it to use the space of your stories to explore the medium as a whole somewhat beyond “just” a source of entertainment?
AK: Bulletproof Coffin is one of my favorite comics of the past few years, so hearing this
from you is amazing. I read Alan Moore’s “Writing for Comics” maybe ten times in the
past five years, and there’s something he said that left an indelible mark.
“Rather than seizing upon the superficial similarities between comics and films or comics and books in the hope that some of the respectability of those media will rub off on us, wouldn’t it be more constructive to focus our attention upon those ideas where comics are special and unique? Rather than dwelling upon film techniques that comics can duplicate, shouldn’t we perhaps consider comic techniques that films can’t duplicate?”
The book’s cheap and easy to get. Same with “Do Anything” by Warren Ellis, another hugely influential book. The medium’s fascinating and I want to explore it and find new exciting ways to put words and pictures together.
With that same thought in mind, at what point in your process do you decide to what extent you want to break the fourth wall, and how does that factor into your writing habits?
AK: Writing habits — I kill those. Maybe that’s my habit. Every project is a new beginning. Everything you write is a diary in a way, but that doesn’t mean I want every single one of my projects to be meta on some obvious level.
We’re not necessarily breaking the fourth wall in Change. Mostly because the fourth wall doesn’t exist. There’s no wall between the imaginary and the real. There’s just a soft blanket, or a veil, if you may. Maya.
That is a clue, by the way.
This book follows three interlocking stories at once right from the offset. What, if anything, do you find is the main difficulty of tracking the three stories? What do you use to keep the various timelines in order?
AK: Just my brain and a file with notes that’s about 200 pages long. It’s actually not difficult at all — mostly a matter of patience, determination and love.
Given the audacious scope of the book, from a somewhat post-apocalyptic LA to the outskirts of space, do you find it at all intimidating the pressure of how you’ll tie it all together? Or, given that you know how it ends, is that not a big concern?
AK: There’s a pressure I put on myself — I want to create the best story I can create. It feels fine. I know what happens in #4 and I’m already done with the first draft. Morgan’s drawing #3, Sloane’s coloring #2. We’re in good shape.Continued below
The book also makes a lot of very specific references throughout, from people to places and things. How important do you find cross-media referencing towards both elements of world building and offering clues for the greater story you’re telling?
AK: Quite important. Los Angeles is a territory where cross-media referencing matters, so omitting it from the narrative that’s already concerned with people who work in entertainment wouldn’t feel right. And clues — oh yes. So many just in the first issue alone.
The first issue ends with an interesting addendum that fans will be sure to attempt to dissect. What, if anything, can you tell us about what is planned for the ‘backmatter’ of the book? And is it exclusive to the single issues?
AK: Well, the backmatter in #1 = sleeve of W-2’s latest record and lyrics to one of his songs. There will be some similarly interesting backmatter in #2 and #3, but not in #4, because the final issue is going be 28 pages long instead of the usual 20-24. And no, backmatter won’t be exclusive — the trade will collect it all. I see no reason why everyone shouldn’t get the same treatment from us, regardless of the format they buy.
With one of the characters of the book starring as a rapper, it’s clear that music plays an important role to the comic. While I’m sure most readers will add their own soundtrack, what do you hear as you read and write the book?
AK: It’s a mad playlist. Sinoia Caves, Oneohtrix Point Never, Animal Collective, The XX, Beck, Brian Eno, Smashing Pumpkins, El-P, Ebola, Slint, Enduser, Pixies, Fiona Apple, Nico Muhly, MellowHype, Tori Amos, William Basinski, Ghostface Killah, Kanye West, Silkie…most recently ‘The Haunted Man’ by Bat For Lashes and ‘Hospice’ by The Antlers.
Both “Wild Children” and “Change” are showing that you aren’t interested in doing comics in any way but your own (as obvious of a statement as that is). Given your upcoming set of creator-owned books at Image, what do you see as the future of comics in 2013?
AK: I’m very interested in collaboration. That’s where the fun’s at, and that’s where the most beautiful things tend to happen. Creator-owned or work-for-hire – either can be great if the team and direction are right.
As many past creators proved, there’s a way to make mainstream comics without selling yourself short. When telling stories, I do my best to aim for the David Byrne rule: never for money, always for love. Because money is nice, but love is better. Ideally, my work will be bringing both.
The future of comics? I’d like to see a more open community that can deal with critique in a mature way. I’d like to see less sexism, less pandering to fanboys and suits, less shady short term market manipulation, a less corrupt system and more genuine stories.
What do I predict? I have no idea. Let’s make our own world and our own luck.
“Change” #1 is in stores December 12th, 2012 from Image Comics.