By now you should all know about Ales Kot’s rather excellent series at Image, “Zero.” Written by Kot and illustrated by a different artists every issue (including Mike Walsh, Tradd More, Mateus Santolouco, Morgan Jeske and Will Tempest for the first arc), the book follows the story of Agent Edward Zero, a spy for the Agency who goes on different missions that are shown to the reader from different points of his life not necessarily in order. Lovingly wrapped up together by the supreme talents of Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles and Tom Muller (check out our interview with Tom about the series design right here) “Zero” is an incredibly exciting ongoing series.
Furthermore, I like talking to Ales Kot. Every time I do he always has very interesting answers to my questions and often pushes me in terms of what questions I even want to ask in the first place, as is evidenced by our initial discussion of “Zero” before the series had been officially released — so it only seemed appropriate to reconnect and chat about the first arc of the series right before the collection comes out.
Read on as we talk about “Zero,” Zero, surrealism, the fourth dimension, reality and more.
So before we begin, Ales, as 2014 kicks off how are you feeling — about comics, about where we’re at, about your last year, about how 2014 looks?
Ales Kot: I am excited. The longer I live the more I feel that the world responds to what I put into it in terms of my will and belief. Energy + time = result. Therefore I am excited and hopeful and I believe things will be getting better and better. Sometimes doing such a thing can be complicated: seeing human rights abuses all over the world, seeing humans lie to each other, internal struggles, all that — fuck, sometimes it hurts, you know?
2013 was good. 2013 was me demonstrating I can build my dreams in various ways, once again, on a bigger scale than ever before. 2013 was me cranking it up to 2 out of 10. 2014 is about cranking it up to 3 or 4. While staying kind. And enjoying life.
I am excited about comics. The last two I read were “Black is the Color” and “Very Casual” and fuck, they made me feel things. They made me go places I haven’t gone before. This is what I want from art. I am not interested in reducing comics or anything I do to “business” — business is important but it’s not the entirety of the end goal. It can’t be if I want to be true to myself. The real end goal is create something true that sells well. Because why would I want A or B when I can have A and B? I prefer holistic thinking, syncretism. I don’t want to exclude anyone or anything from my world — I want to find ways to include everyone and everything and just be and enjoy this fantastic fascinating thing while I am breathing.
I hope we won’t get WWIII in the next few years. America feels strange right now. There is dread in the air and sometimes I have really unpleasant visions. I remember Jung getting visions before WWI and all I can think of is who knows, maybe there won’t be anything like that again. And I focus on doing everything I can to not make war, but peace. Focus on my creativity. Focus on being kind. Live one day at a time.
With the first arc of Zero at a close, how are you feeling about the reception of the book? Did the reaction to the book meet or even exceed your expectations?
AK: I hoped for a great reaction overall and that’s what we got. I want the comic to sell more copies than it’s selling currently — it’s a complete darling for the critics and I want the comic to sell twenty, thirty thousand copies, not just barely ten which it is selling at the moment. Overall, though? I am grateful. The way the public is reacting to the comic parallels my own reaction — we are making something that is, to me, perfect.Continued below
And before someone says “Hey, that’s a shit thing to say — how can he say anything he makes is perfect?” I will gladly say that I can and I will because the amount of work I put into comics, and the amount of work my collaborators put into the comics we make together, that’s dedication and determination and craft. Can I write better? Sure I can. But do I work to make sure I always do my best in the moment, my best to my current abilities? I do. So I am comfortable saying it.
How have you found the experience of working with a different artist per issue on the series? Has your process changed at all?
AK: I love it. I get to work with artists I admire and craft individual issues that examine their strengths and often also push them into a new territory at the same time. I am learning how to collaborate with a new person every month. This is very great for my development as a creator and as a human being.
The process hasn’t changed because I always expected it to change often. The fluidity of it was a built-in component I wanted. Embracing change.
Looking at the first set of issues, I do notice that the books came out a bit differently than your original intent, with issue #4 being pushed up due to scheduling. How do you feel about this change in the storytelling flow, and had you considered switching it back in the trade?
AK: It was stressful at first. One of the artists got sick and the pages were late. We had to switch things around or push the issue. I wondered what the best option was. In tone with my previous answer — it was all about embracing the change. Embracing the Black Swan event.
When something you “don’t want” to happen happens, you can choose: either you see it as a problem, or as a blessing, or as something else. I choose to view problems as blessings, as ways that are better for me, and all I have to do is understand why they came and what is it they’re trying to tell me.
In this case it was “switch the issues” and I think Jordie Bellaire or Tom Muller, or maybe both, suggested it as well. Eventually I realized the switch in the storytelling flow here enabled me to do something I wanted to pull of here — just much later on. Now I’m getting to the place where I pull off the trick I wanted to pull off here and it’s much more impactful in its new spot, while the way the early issues and their flow work now is great to me. So I don’t want to change anything about the flow. It all fits.
How have you found the task of outlining the events of the series the further we get in, considering the disjointed order in which events occur?
AK: Fun. I wrote maybe five outlines by now and I often outline an issue before I start writing only to dump the outline halfway through and go on a tangent I did not see beforehand just because a better idea occurs to me. If it feels right, it feels right and it will connect. I trust my gut on this.
I combine being prepared with being open to diving into the chaos. I appreciate order. I appreciate chaos. Both have wonderful things to share.
There’s a good example in the upcoming #6. A massive plot point — and a character point — was something I never outlined. In fact, it was something about one character I left unanswered to myself on purpose. When the time to know comes, I will know, I said to myself. And when the time came — I knew. I circled back, looked at the earlier issues, and the perfect answer presented itself through a panel that felt significant for other reasons before and then just gained so much more layering through that new vision.
I like that you mention that part of the process is about change, about embracing change, because unless I’m reading it wrong I feel like that’s a central idea in the book as well — the new technology posed, the way Zero is pushed as a character into becoming more. I mean, you literally wrote a book called “Change.” So with that in mind, do you think change is inherently a good thing?Continued below
AK: Change is beyond good and evil. Change just is. It’s up to us what we choose to do with it, based on the belief system we build for ourselves, based on our will, based on our imagination. How we put these things together — that’s probably how we co-create this reality. Direct and indirect research is pointing in that direction.
Another thing I notice about the book is we as a reader are often forced to ask certain questions — what is truth or a lie? Where do we stand on basic questions of morality or ethics? I know you like to challenge your readers, but to what extent do you want to challenge the reader’s ideas versus creating something that can also entertain? Is that a difficult line to walk?
AK: Not at all. I have to be writing for myself otherwise I would go insane trying to second-guess some idea of “my readership” which would inevitably be short-sighted unless I simply acknowledge that my “readership” potentially includes every living human being and some other kinds of animals at least. Thankfully that’s what I do — so the brunt of it stays on me. I have to create a narrative that challenges me, takes things that are alive in me, and find characters that do the same, that are alive, that carry living breathing things that feel in some way important. In some cases I know the themes and in some cases I let the themes come — usually it’s a mix of both.
And actually challenging anyone — that’s not the sort of a thing I believe in that much anymore. Lou Reed, in his review of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’, stated that he never thought of music as a challenge — “you always figure, the audience is at least as smart as you are.” You do it because you like it, because you feel and/or think what you’re making is beautiful. You do it because you feel it and want to share it with the universe and then it either connects with other people or it doesn’t but either way you made the thing you wanted to make and that is already it.
With the first arc done and you assumedly well into writing the second, what do you find has been the most rewarding part of the creative process? And what has been the most difficult?
AK: The most rewarding part — the relationships I am creating with people involved, be it the collaborators, the retailers or the readers, and the effect my exploration of the themes in Zero has on my own life. I am writing myself out of pain and genetic memory and ideas on destiny I want to shed and leave behind and I am making new friends and strengthening older friendships in the process while shedding what doesn’t have place in my life now. And, as always when creating well enough, I am proving to myself that I can make my ideas manifest and have success.
The collaboration aspect is beautiful. Seeing Tom Muller get recognition for his beautiful design work is rewarding. Seeing Jordie Bellaire do what might just be the most fascinating work of her career to me together with the new Moon Knight issues, seeing the collaborators get excited and talking to the readers and knowing that my publisher loves the comic and reading the comic myself and knowing that I am making it exactly the way it needs to be done — that is bliss, it really is. So there’s a lot.
The most difficult part at the moment is just deadlines. I am doing well — writing ahead of the schedule in most cases so slowing down doesn’t screw things up — however this eye injury I will expound on later slowed me down for a bit. What it comes down to is I love writing so much, and I love creating in general so much, that I sometimes lose myself in it and forget to rest properly. I am still learning that balance and I am getting better at it. I don’t want to be a victim of the “cult of working hard” because work has to be fun and I intend to have a long, happy, productive life. I intend to be able to run ten miles when I’m seventy and smile as I finish.Continued below
I want to ask, I know you’re not entirely keen on directly spoiling The Big Event of the finale, but it is a landscape changer I want to touch on. I mean, it’s a literal game changer. I know I’ve asked you in past interviews about if you were worried about anything in the book and how the reader could respond to it, such as political ideas, but were you at all nervous about getting to this point and what the reaction might be?
AK: I thought about it and I gave up on the idea of thinking about it. Nothing good in second-guessing the audience. All that energy went into the work instead. And the work is better for it.
I find that the book is very grounded in science, even if it is science of a fictional nature, so as we start getting into the weirder elements — the device in issue #3, the surreal Twin Peaks-esque moments in issue #5 — do you find that the book needs to be grounded in reality at all? Are you looking to make the scope bigger, perhaps even along the lines of what you did in “Change”?
AK: ‘Zero’ is strongly grounded in reality. Everything that happens in it is strongly grounded in reality from my point of view. To me, reality is such a fluid thing. I’ve seen weird shit. The difference between hallucination and reality is the amount of belief I inject into it. Reality is a consensual hallucination.
I am very glad you bring up Twin Peaks because I fucking love that show. It’s such a huge influence. David Lynch is, in general — on my life, on my work. I read ‘Catching the Big Fish’ a lot when I decided to make comics properly in 2008 and 2009. I still come back to it. The first time I saw ‘Mulholland Drive’ was the first or the second time I did acid. I was sixteen, I believe. Talk about mind expansion grenades meeting. Nuclear fusion. I read ‘Lynch on Lynch’ a few years ago as well. ‘Inland Empire’, the entire Los Angeles trilogy, the movies primarily transfer emotion, feeling…and they go into depths I seldom see in contemporary cinema. I want to match those depths. I want to go further, even. I want to go wherever I have to to be true to myself. And David Lynch is such a master guide.
‘Twin Peaks’ married what we call ‘mundane’ and ‘surreal’ so well. It’s all about the point of view though. To us, the city itself is mundane. What happens in it, the Black Lodge and the White Lodge stuff — that’s surreal. But flip that and see it all from Bob’s perspective. Do those words even exist in its mind? Does it even have a mind? And what about the owl? Maybe it sees the people eating cherry pie and talking about coffee and investigating a murder as completely surreal while the Lodge stuff is completely standard to it. What I am getting at here is that there are so many points of view that words such as mundane and surreal and reality are incredibly fluid to me. The reality is not a fixed concept.
I like that you mention reality as being bound by belief, but it begs the thought: as events continue to unfold, is reality or any form of grounding perhaps something that you will stray from?
AK: I don’t see it that way.
Have you found as the series goes on that more of you is making its way into the book? I thought the series back when you first showed me some scripts always read very much like “An Ales Kot Book”, so to say, but are you finding more of you sneaking into the cracks, or perhaps even the opposite?
AK: I believe I am always writing as “me” because who else would I be writing as? Even if an author tries on a new voice it’s still his or her voice because he/she inevitably molds it just by using it for the first time.
On that same thread, at what point do you suppose a Charlie Kaufman-esque confluence of you and Zero is perhaps inevitable? Is Ginsberg Nova going to take off his mask to reveal Ales Kot?Continued below
AK: Zero lost an eye in #4 and in #5 he examines the crack. I got a very bad infection in the same eye a few weeks after #4 came out. I am still dealing with it.
As for the second question — Ginsberg Nova will be back soon.
You know something just occurred to me so I might as well say it. I sort of feel like this part of my writing is just me writing myself out of bullshit. It’s just me getting to the voice. I want to have the voice that does anything, that morphs any way it needs to morph and pulls off anything I want to pull off. No genre restrictions. No idea restrictions. Anything goes. I can work within a genre, sure, and I love that — however I am also aware of my natural inclination to invent things, to not write anything that already exists. Therefore I inevitably experiment to some degree at least.
There is a person — we’re not romantically involved although why am I even saying that? What I want to say is that when I write to this person, when I talk to her, I am completely in command of my voice in a way that is so clear and pure that it’s beyond words. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something I think of a lot now. What is my voice? Who am I? Constant self-discovery. It’s fascinating to me.
You mention Jordie and Tom and I think they’re both very integral to the series, as well as Clayton. Since the book doesn’t have a regular artist how have you found the collaboration aspect between you four growing over the series? Is it ostensibly different than when you work with a regular artist on a book?
AK: The influence of the creative process on how I work with and treat people in general — not just Jordie, Tom and Clayton — feels very positive. I originated ‘Zero’ by creating the story and inviting the creators I trusted on board. Now I find that we are becoming close friends as well as easy collaborators who love to make new things, and that is an immensely satisfying feeling as a whole.
We use a shared dropbox. We share art. We share the scripts. I ask them questions, they ask me questions. The openness is key in any sort of a relationship if you want it to be a good one. I love the idea of radical openness and I am embracing it more and more. So the approach when entering any creative relationship is ideally downright the same in its core aspects — it starts with mutual respect, total openness and dedication to creativity, and just plain being kind.
Then again. Openness. Secrets. Our universe has such a complex relationship with them. Look at internet right now. We’re in the process of…well, I’ll just quote Julian Assange here, from ‘A Call to the Cryptographic Arms’ from the book ‘Cypherpunks’:
“First, recall that states are systems through which coercive force flows. Factions within a state may compete for support, leading to democratic surface phenomena, but the underpinnings of states are the systematic application, and avoidance, of violence. Land ownership, property, rents, dividends, taxation, court fines, censorship, copyrights and trademarks are all enforced by the threatened application of state violence.
Most of the time we are not even aware of how close to violence we are, because we all grant concessions to avoid it. Like sailors smelling the breeze, we rarely contemplate how our surface world is propped up from below by darkness.”
The same applies to much of the thinking behind keeping secrets, behind reducing openness. The threat of violence, whether institutionalized or other, whether physical or emotional, shoves us, tells us “don’t say too much” and “keep your pace” and “don’t step out of line” and “what if the person/collective won’t like what I am/want to say” — and maybe the best way to let that anxiety and violence die is to become completely open and move our governments so they do the same. We’re in this together.
In terms of process, I’m curious: I think a lot of writers and artists tend to look at things in a three-dimensional way in how they analyze the book and the scope, but you seem to me like someone who wants to push beyond that into a four-dimensional space. Given the fluidity of Zero so far, would you say that’s a fair analysis?Continued below
AK: Fair as in true? If so then yes. If everything is a part of me — and I believe it is — then the barrier between the external and the internal doesn’t really exist. And if it doesn’t exist I might as well take that as an offer to collaborate with the way imagination and our creations mold our reality on a more extensive basis. I want my work to change me. I want to wake up tomorrow and learn more about moving the invisible strings. I want to dance with the universe. It’s all waves. Even us.
I finish that paragraph and the next thing I think of is Bruce Lee’s “Be like water.” which basically means “Be like information.” because information penetrates, is everywhere, is inherently leaky. And we are about — is it over 70%? Something like that. We are about 70% water. What are we really? What is our nature? We’re babies. We can barely wipe our own asses at this point. The great chairman Elon Musk might be considered an underdeveloped lizard on another planet. Still — isn’t it wonderful to be alive? I believe in us.
There are things in Zero — both the character and the book — that I would say are decidedly dark. In terms of staring into the abyss and having the dark abyss back at you, has there been anything about the book so far that you’ve come up with that has made you pause, either in that you’re not sure if it’s a good idea or it’s just something you find frightening?
AK: There’s a bit in #9 that…when I came up with it, I think I cried. I am certain I had a very strong emotional reaction to it. Not because it was frightening — it is a frightening scene — but because of the sadness of the situation both within the issue and within the scope of the entire series.
I mean, I get frightened. I have anxiety issues. I do my best to jump through them and just paddle through and learn about their roots and disassemble them and it works. It’s hard work sometimes but fuck — it’s so worth it. Sometimes this kind of stuff just comes out of nowhere. The task number one is not to project it out, not to let my own beliefs and hopes and ideas be affected by the fears. Because the thing about anxiety is, I can recognize the anxiety if I realize that it’s always focused on the future. Never on the present. When it comes to the present I can simply figure out what to do about a situation, and I even if I conclude that I should do nothing (doing nothing can be underrated), that’s still a solution if that’s what I have to do. But when anxiety comes? Oh it’s always screaming about the future trying to drive a wedge between me and what I want.
I am beginning to think that anxiety is an evolutionary thing. It helps me because living with it is not really living, so I always want to deal with it and understand it and let it go. Face my fear and emerge stronger.
Thankfully, when it comes to anxieties about how people will respond to something I made, that probably came…maybe once or twice in the past year? A day or two. I think so, definitely not much more than that. The key is not to confuse the anxiety with destiny. Destiny is formed. Anxiety is a virus.
And that actually connects with my idea that sickness is also an evolutionary device that modern Western science often misunderstands. I mean — what if we’re misunderstanding certain occurrences of cancer and they are really initiation devices that can help us evolve if only we start seeing them as such?
So, I’ve seen you talk about having a plan for the series, but with the success of the first arc and as events happen in your life, are things very much in the same place? Are you thinking about making the book bigger, smaller, or any sort of variant on that initial plot?Continued below
AK: Things changed. The event at the end of #5 was originally scheduled for the end of #15. I changed many things. Many things could change again. Thankfully I have done enough outline work that the story holds together well and allows adjustments along the road.
Where the comic is going is where it was always going. If I described the events of the entire series in two sentences to you a year ago — those sentences would fit now as well. Things that change along the way inevitably color the process and the story and the way it all moves, however in terms of the scope and the journey described in one or two sentences — it’s very much the same thing.
One thing I really like about Zero so far is that each issue seems to reinvent what the book is, either in terms of genre or as a character piece. It’s not sci-fi, but it is; it’s not an action thriller, but it is. Is there anything with Zero you’re really hoping to explore in the future?
AK: Haha, YES and NO I’M NOT TELLING
We talked a bit before the series started about what my perceptions of your potential influences were (such as Metal Gear Solid), but as a tease for the upcoming second arc, can you perhaps lift off a few things that you’ve found to be inspirational?
AK: Okay, since you basically asked the same question in a slightly different way, I will give hints. I’ll post five links, one for each issue.
#6 is set in CERN, Switzerland — and here’s a virtual tour of it.
#7 is set in Mexico and here’s The Counselor for sale and for rent.
#8 is set in the UK and here’s a picture.
#9 is set in Bosnia, 1993 — and here’s a recently released CIA document.
#10 is set on Iceland and here’s a song.
“Zero Volume 1: An Emergency,” collecting the first five issues of the hit Image series, goes on sale next week. Pick it up.