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Ales Kot talks inspirations, the return of the 'noir comic'

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Image Comics

Like the best novels, comics are often a window for our feelings—a way for us to understand our emotions through the words and pages of another character. But in his latest creator-owned title, Material, which debuted last month, writer Ales Kot takes this “emotional connection” to an entirely new level, crafting a story that is rooted in personal experience and reality.

Kot is no stranger to creator-owned books: he’s the writer behind the espionage series Zero, and his newest book, Wolf—an LA crime noir tale—hits comic stores this summer. EW spoke to Kot about two of his newest series, the stories behind what inspired him, and more.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKY: Image is so great about creator-owned books, and what I love about them is that every comic is unique, which is certainly the case for Material. How did the idea for that take shape? Was there anything specific that inspired you wanting to tell this story?

ALES KOT: The key to writing Material is honesty. I wanted to create a more personal reflection, a work less fraught with considerations of the old me. As I go through therapy and an overall complex process of shedding behavioral patterns that I no longer want in my life, my path becomes clearer. With Material, I am primarily interested in people and poetry. What I am decidedly not interested in is genre and false conflict. I want to explore what it means to be alive, in America and out of it, now. So what inspires me: everything. The information overload many of us have to deal on a daily basis can anesthetize, but it doesn’t have to. My anger inspires me: my anger at seeing fake art and fake behavior cause pain to people. My love inspires me: seeing real art and real behavior bring us closer to love. But it’s not black and white. What also inspires me is the paradox at the center of things, which is in certain ways the heart of poetry. The question was, how do I do what many of the most connective works of art do to me? How do I transfer the feeling of being alive in complexity and simplicity that will feel sufficiently real and evocative without being didactic or otherwise condescending or unwillingly unclear? I looked at shows like Mad Men, at writing by Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, films by Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, so many others. So another reason for making Material comes from wanting to make a comic that is closer to reality than most comics are, not in order to excel, although that’s a part of it for me always, but mainly, primarily, in order to connect.

Regarding Material, I have to say that I really love how you add notes to readers in the panels. I know you did that in Secret Avengers and as someone that actively read that series, I can say that it was something that really added to my experience.

Thank you. I did that in my debut, Wild Children, in 2012. I love when writing opens new worlds for me, new ways to learn, and the notes serve as one of the ways of achieving that effect. 

What you’re doing in Material—asking and addressing the hard hitting questions on race, gender, and other issues—is something that many Image series are doing in their own ways, like Bitch Planet and Sex Criminals. Do you find that it’s daunting to address some of these things that will undoubtedly come up as Material continues?

It’s not an either/or question for me. I feel fear, yes, but I am not afraid. Saying “I am” afraid would point to a rather unhealthy identification with anxieties that are temporary at best. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, “Go in the direction of your fear.” It’s not even my fear. I see fear, anxiety, as a temporary virus that floats by and sometimes tries to stick on to me, but that advice resonates correct regardless, because one of the core parts of my being has to do with a wilderness and exploration. I have to keep them, and I have to use them. If they atrophy, if they are not used, I am as good as dead. And I don’t want to be dead. I want to live. So facing the fears and exploring them is what it’s about for me. How can we change the country or the world or the universe we live in if we don’t talk about the problems we are having? One of the most toxic habits I see, especially in America, is the phrase “be nice.” It’s a thinly veiled “shut up.” It’s used when we stand up in a way that is too sharp, too defined, when we say that gender inequality is still a problem, when we say that racism is still a problem. F*** being nice. What we can be, and what I believe (not just) America could use more of, is kindness. Is it always enough? No. There is no one perfect cure and there is no one perfect way. But not averting our eyes is always a good start.

With your first issue of Material, you put a lot out there—including four main characters, who are all very different and who seem to be the type of characters that will be open to interpretation from readers. What do you hope that readers take away after issue one?

I’ll keep that to myself. I don’t want to tell the readers what to look for. I want them to find their own way. Being didactic about one’s art strikes me as an equivalent of putting explanations of what paintings mean right next to them in museums. Just let me look at the thing itself. Let me feel it.

Let’s talk about Wolf, which will start with 58 pages of story. What made you want to hit the ground running with a maximum sized issue?

Nothing else felt right. I wrote a standard-sized issue, then added a few pages, played with a TV pilot version of Wolf as well on spec just to see what would happen…and then I ended up realizing some of the scenes felt right to be included in the original comic, so I went back and reworked the script. Thankfully, the collaborators were agreeable enough to say yes to the larger workload. I’d like to think they all understand it comes from my desire to deliver the best, most truthful version of the story possible.

Wolf is very much a crime noir book, and I think that’s a genre which is really becoming more and more prominent. But this is definitely a darker kind of crime noir, almost like urban fantasy. 

America is built on crime. Crime’s always been prominent, and the crime genre has been as well, it’s just that for a long time we didn’t call certain stories by that name. What else is the Native American genocide? What else is slavery? I have to reiterate this point: America is built on crime. The inspiration for Wolf was partly a desire for an exploration of the under-explored. I could chart my inspirations and they would lead in many different directions: my years spent in Los Angeles, my semi-regular engagement with things we cannot see (after all, we do see only 3% of the electromagnetic spectrum, and there are ways to amp that number a bit), my reading of Clive Barker’s fiction at a tender age of nine or ten, my daily facing of the racial abuse many of our fellow citizens are facing, diving into weird fiction by the likes of Lovecraft and Barron, being lost on the US-Mexican border, encountering ghosts and strange hieroglyphics in a Prague apartment, having visions of things that happened decades ago and only finding out they really happened years later, investigating, paying attention, wanting to have an output for all the weird in me. Hannibal and the first season of True Detective I find particularly inspiring, too—there’s connective tissue there. But then there’s more, such as the strange way some of us still treat women. What’s with the whole “male savior” archetype? These are some of the questions we explore in Wolf, some of the reasons why making the comic felt like the right thing in the first place. So if I go to where the inspiration really came from…it could be simply the image of Antoine Wolfe, our main protagonist in #1, a hard-boiled ex-army detective who can see too much for his own peace of mind, living in a glorified shack in Echo Park surrounded by boxes of books, empty bottles of booze, prescription pills and some things we can’t quite figure out until the end of issue one. It’s a cliche, but the biggest cliches are often cliches because they are true: it all starts with a character. And Antoine is real.

Will Wolf be rooted more in fantasy? Or will it have a healthy amount of real world elements as well?

It’s a perfect blend. It really is, for me as the first reader, the Los Angeles we explore is decidedly our Los Angeles, but it has a massive amount of citizens we do not see. And Antoine Wolfe does, which means he’s in demand. Of course, there’s also something strange crawling through the hills, ripping people up…a girl who just lost her parents…a hyper-wealthy racist named Gibson Sterling…vampires…werewolves…and a whole lot of uneasy, oozing atmosphere. But not all is doom and gloom, because we’re in a hyper-sunny LA, the kinda place where it might be Christmas and you won’t even notice. Which is my way of paying tribute to Shane Black’s work. So if you loved Lethal Weapon…I’m really selling this hard, wow! 

Talk a little bit about your creative team. For both these comics, you’re collaborating with people who you’ve previously worked with (Will Tempest and Tom Muller on Material, Matt Taylor on Wolf.) How was the experience of working with them on these new projects, given that you’ve already worked so closely and know each other’s styles?

It’s great. I make sure to suit my process to each collaborator, so the first collaboration is usually a process of figuring out what is the best way of going at it. Now, entering our second collaborations, I feel we’re past that. I don’t know if I have a “style,” I come more from the Soderberghian school of approach where I morph according to what the project requires, or that’s how I think of it, anyway, but with Will and Matt there are certainly styles they have that they both modified to fit our collaborations. With Will and Material, the main modification is a steady focus on nine panel grid, which I consider one of the most brilliant structural possibilities in comics, and Will’s coloring of his own work. With Matt and Wolf, the main modification is Matt’s further exploration of film noir techniques.

You’ve tackled established characters like Bucky Barnes and The Avengers. What are some of the challenges of creating your own characters and doing your own world building?

Nothing is a challenge. It’s all a blessing. I get to build my own characters from the ground up, discover them in the recesses of the psychosphere, and there’s no corporate oversight to tell us what we can and can’t do. On top of that, me and my collaborators own everything we do. So if it is a challenge, it’s only a challenge in a way I chose for myself when I decided to make stories for a living—and I always preferred the word adventure.

Material is currently available in comic stores and Wolf is out July 22 in comic stores.

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