An interview with 'Material' writer Ales Kot about the themes and ideas in his new creator owned comic.
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Ales Kot is one of the freshest, most cerebral voices in comics. He cut his teeth on DC Comics’ Suicide Squad with a run focused on the demented serial killer Jim Gordon Jr. before taking his talents to Marvel. Kot wrote two of their quirkiest titles, namely, Secret Avengers, which made supervillain MODOK a full-fledged Avenger and had a good mix of references to Jorge Luis Borges and Nick Fury Jr. and Agent Coulson having existential crises in the middle of space. Speaking of space, he has also written Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier, which followed the titular character’s trippy adventures on distant planets depicted in the style of Heavy Metal by artist Marco Rudy.
But Kot has also worked on creator owned comics as part of the Image Comics renaissance. Zero is an espionage series created by him and his Secret Avengers collaborator Michael Walsh and has found critical and commercial success. However, Kot’s latest comic Material is very different. It is the year 2015 in comic book form with a variety of characters from long winded professors to wannabe Wes Anderson film directors, fading starlets, and even a young black teen, who protests police violence and is detained without cause in a place that isn’t a police station.
I had the privilege of corresponding with Ales Kot over email about some of the themes and ideas of Material as well as his own personal influences for the series.
Sound on Sight: With its non-linear narrative, political subject matter, and references to other films and works, Material reminded me a lot of a French New Wave film. How did you translate the techniques and ideas of the French New Wave to comics, and what particular films were you influenced by?
Ales Kot: That is wonderful to hear. One of my deepest, most treasured memories is seeing Truffaut’s 400 Blows for the first time. I was on a bus from Prague to Ostrava, the city near which I was born, and I was maybe nineteen, living alone for the second year of my life. It was dark, and I watched the film on my laptop, immersed. I believe I cried at the end. I recognized myself. My love affair with the French New Wave started that day.
It’s hard for me to say which parts of Material are influenced by the French New Wave, and which parts are influenced by other sources. When I create, I often choose to not be conscious of the specifics of the “how,” instead going into myself and observing the story as it emerges, typing it down. I have integrated so much art language in many forms that I have a near-Borgesian library at my disposal. This, of course, sometimes makes it harder to trace things back when I get asked a question such as this one.
I can certainly see the Godard influence — Contempt, Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, and Pierrot Le Fou, to be specific. The Truffaut influence I already spoke of. Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Louis Malle. I feel that one of the core aspects of Material that connects with the French New Wave is its rejection of the dominant commercial product of its era. Material is a labor of love and love only, a desire for connection, a desire to show and tell what it is like to be alive now, a desire to be a part of a conversation that sees past selling material.
Of course, there are other similarities. Making the comic is cheap and fast, the same way the films were. We utilize a style that is documentary, yet also fragmented. Focused in an almost Dogme 95 way in some places, but then very French New Wave in others. The editing is entirely its own beast — everything in Material is wrapped around the nine panel grid, the same comics grid Watchmen uses, but within it one can find space to do just about whatever. There is fragmentation, but there is also long, uninterrupted gaze. There are many ways that lie in between. I hope that Material shows, same as many (not just) French New Wave films show, that dedication to the unanswered is of prime artistic importance. When a society desires to pretend it has all its answers, and its desire becomes its politics, the society is sick. It is an artist’s responsibility to reflect this sickness and help evolve from it towards a more holistic, less fascistic state.
SoS: Material‘s professor character Julius Shore introduces the idea of hypercapitalism early on in the comic. How has hypercapitalism affected both you personally and your writing?
AK: I waited to be asked this question since I started creating art while simultaneously desiring to be paid for it. Thank you.
Hypercapitalism affects me deeply on an everyday level, and I believe that is true for every single one of us. In a sense, as long as we disperse with Sontag’s idea that one shouldn’t use cancer as a metaphor, hypercapitalism could well be the cancer of our current time. But the truth of the matter seems to be that while a metaphor like this is flashy, it’s also incomplete, and therefore false. When I think of hypercapitalism I don’t think about the negative or the positive much these days. Instead I think of complicity.
I work with hypercapitalism on an everyday level. Writing this on my MacBook Air, produced in a cheap factory under horrendous circumstances, makes it so. Taking paychecks from Disney and Warner Brothers makes it so. Buying things not made in my immediate vicinity makes it so. Speeding up, however unconsciously, my art production, and therefore damaging my balance and lessening the quality of my work in the progress makes it so. But that doesn’t mean hypercapitalism is inherently and simply bad — perhaps it’s better than anything we’ve had before. It’s also very far from being good.
Hypercapitalism is based on the concept of infinite growth that pays no attention to human life, or any life. What it does is it pays enough lip service to pretend it cares. We can see it in corporations demanding to be treated as people. Oh, the fallacy of even that sentence! Corporations can’t demand. The people running them can.
I work against hypercapitalism on everyday level. Choosing actions and narratives that put life and people ahead of money in myriad of ways. Telling stories that push these approaches. Conducting myself, in plenty of ways, ethically. Because I can imagine a better world, and that world is either devoid of hypercapitalism or its version of it is a severely mutated one. To find life that simultaneously accepts and asks for the entirety of one’s self instead of just their net worth: that is my life’s mission.
So hypercapitalism affects me paradoxically. I understand that it’s likely for a reason, the next evolutionary step that we will eventually transcend, but on the other hand, I want its massively toxic, deadly effects to be gone already! Perhaps, in its own way, I am using hypercapitalism to gain more insight into the paradoxical core of human existence.
Since you asked about its effect on my writing, I’ll explain that aspect, too, briefly. I have, in a few cases, taken a writing job not only because I felt I had something to say, but also because I felt it could give a jolt to my career, push it further, and that the extra money would also be useful. Did the work suffer for lacking the purity of simply wanting to do it for its own sake? I am of the mind that purity is often overrated, but here I don’t know, and I suspect it might have! What I do know, and feel deeply, is that my best writing is resolutely unconcerned with money or career, and resolutely concerned with making a connection.
But even that statement feels incomplete. Because where does one end and the other begin? I am talking of making a connection on a machine made by exploited people. I am setting up projects while not only following my heart, but also my sense of commerce. I feel I am coming to terms with being paradoxical, and as I do, living in hypercapitalism feels easier. That doesn’t mean I should stop striving for a better world — but it does mean finding more time for kindness, both to myself and to others. We are all in the machine, together, some of us ground to the bones way more than others, and I don’t understand if I am making things better, worse, neither, both, or…who knows. I just know that a connection, a genuine human connection, can not be overrated. That’s what guides me now.
SoS: Why did you choose a college professor as your initial POV character? How did you construct the character of Julius Shore?
AK: I don’t really feel that Shore is the initial POV character. I feel that all of the characters present in the scenes are people, and the amount of focus they get will change reader from reader. However, since Shore’s presence is dominant in Material exactly one quarter of the way, I also get what you’re getting at, and the answer is I don’t know! And I love it. I love creating while not knowing. I read this panel about Maggie Nelson’s ‘Bluets’ and someone said that Nelson is very good at unknowing. I aspire to the same thing. As Adorno says, intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality. And that gets us to Julius Shore! Because (at least) in the beginning, that’s exactly how he is. He’s intolerant. He’s making a stand against the digital, just like Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, without acknowledging that the digital is also the natural. There is no escape from nature! It’s everything!
So, in a sense, the starting point of the construction was being pissed off by that sort of a dualism, which really perpetuates wars, be it wars small or large. It’s a very ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that I find not only brutally limited and limiting, but also impotent. If you wage war all the time, you don’t have the time and energy to fuck. If what you create is war, what you get is war. If we create in our own image, what does this say about Shore? One thing it says, to me, is that he’s dealing with a personal conflict, and he’s turning it into an universal one. That doesn’t mean he gets to escape himself.
SoS: How do you think the idea of hypercapitalism is related to the prevalence of police violence and torture currently in the United States?
AK: Acceleration of production is glorified at the expense of human well-being. Reaching of state’s and/or corporations’ needs is glorified at the expense of human well-being. Maintaining of the prison-industrial complex creates short-term capital desired by those who identify more with acceleration of production and reaching of state and corporate needs than with bringing on a more just world for everyone and not just a select few.
Police, NSA, CIA, FBI and others are tools used to reach those needs. Their rights and their equipment are getting boosts because those who privilege their greed above the needs of the masses are afraid of people rising up against them. And we can see that happening, we can see that growing — people agree that it must explode. And explode it does, bit by bit.
The lie of hypercapitalism was that it’s sustainable and good for everyone. Now that we know this is untrue, largely thanks to the internet (let’s not pretend it did not give us a huge boost), we are facing the lie with eyes that are clearer than before. And the people who are used as tools against us are also us. They are used to maintain the lie, because if they faced the lie instead, they would have to face the void at the center of (not just) American society. The challenge seems to be: how do we face it together?
SoS: Which Material character do you connect to the most and why?
AK: I connect with them all. I have no way of telling or calculating how much I connect with one as opposed to another. Just like with people, I go by feeling, and the answer can change. I truly do connect with them all very deeply.
SoS: Through the actress Nylon and “visionary” director Sailor Rosenfield, you provide some interesting commentary on the state of film in 2015. What kind of connections have you found between filmmaking and creating comics?
AK: Nylon Dahlias is an anagram of Lindsay Lohan. My friend Durga is behind this, and she graciously allowed me to use it in Material. The connections between filmmaking and making comics…well, I feel I elaborated on it in the first answer, but I can go a bit further now: Harvey Pekar said all comics are is words and pictures, and you can do anything with words and pictures. What film adds to this is sound. What film doesn’t have, at least not yet, is a simple and immediate way to move through time in more directions than forward and back by simply interacting with the form. Yes, one can find ways of doing that with film — the brain is a wonderful editing instrument, and so is the heart — but it’s not as immediate and intuitive as looking at a comic book page comprised of nine panels. Yet when one looks at a film reel, the same effect is reached, and when I read a comic, I can often hear sounds, voices. Therefore there are multitudes of connections.
I believe that comics and film both allow us to travel in time and space.
SoS: This might be a tough question, but which thinkers and philosophers have had the biggest influence on your comics writing, Material or otherwise?
SoS: How is your creative process different in creating a “genre-less” comic like Material versus your upcoming book Wolf, which looks very grounded in the both the fantasy and detective genres? How did you transition from action-driven, but still incredibly clever(I loved the Jorge Luis Borges references in Secret Avengers.) stories for Marvel to something more cerebral and idea driven in Material?
AK: Whatever I do, whatever story I work on, the key to doing it right is immersion. Most of the time, I don’t think about the stories I tell in terms such as “more cerebral” or “more action-driven.” I follow the inner voice of the story. It’s like sculpting, in a sense — there’s a big block of marble that is already present in my imagination, and perhaps in our shared imagination, and what I do is go in and recover it and then work on uncovering it further until it’s a statue, except that film and comics are statues of movement, multiple static pieces connected together to form an illusion of movement. Or perhaps the movement is real, or even better, and perhaps closer to the truth, both real and not real simultaneously. And just like that, we’re back to the paradoxical.
SoS: This is just for fun. What’s your honest, unfiltered opinion on the overrated (in my opinion) American thinker Henry David Thoreau?
AK: I should finally read Walden in its entirety so I can tell you. But whatever my take would be, it would not be on the person, but on his work. I refuse to contribute to the culture of hot takes on people. Our history and actions never define us in our entirety, because the present is always ahead of us.
Material #1 is currently available at local comic book stores, Comixology, and from the Image website. Material #2, which is written by Ales Kot with art by Will Tempest, will be released on June 24, 2015.