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“I Watch For Patterns”: An Interview with Aleš Kot

Aleš Kot writes and creates stories for comics, television, video games and film. Their new work, Days of Hate, is currently being serialized by Image Comics. Kot and the Journal spoke via email over the last month about that project, its intent and influences, and a myriad of other topics. 

The Comics Journal: How did Days of Hate come about? What was the inspiration behind the project?

Aleš Kot: I honestly can't tell where it began, but I know it was a very long time ago. I grew up in Czech Republic during a revolution and after and thus experienced the massive changes (and in other ways, lack of change) of systems and people, my first job was a pretty hefty one at a non-profit against state-sponsored violence, and my family experienced World War Two so deeply some of the people who came back never really came back and imposed their wounds on those next in line. So that fascination with war, violence, abuse of power and totalitarian systems was with me for a very long time, but so was the other side of it -- Vaclav Havel's "Love and truth will prevail over lies and hate." sounds trite until you realized it's a former playwright-turned-president of a newly formed country saying it, especially one who was so committed to dissent that he spent years in prison risking his life. So seeing these systems and ideas, and the people dealing with them, states, countries bouncing them around...I watch for patterns, and I have a tendency to sadly see where things are going sometimes, and I've been steadily warning against a lot of what's happening in the US and the world now for the past fifteen years. At first I believed people when they told me I was paranoid sometimes -- I was a young kid, you hope other people know better than you, later on you learn when that's a case and when it's not. So I decided not to be a journalist around the age of nineteen because I didn't see journalism working well in the new world that was coming, later on realized I wanted to write fiction or some sort of a hybrid...and here I am, deeply uncertain whether that's any better or not. But I know writing fulfills me and connects with people, sometimes even helps them, you know? And I do have some power and I have to wield that responsibly and do my best to build a better, more equal space for all of us. So there's that, and then there's love for what I call half-fiction, which in the case of Days of Hate connects especially to films like Army of Shadows and Battle of Algiers, but also Joe Sacco's documentary comics...and then it loops back to growing up in villages and cities separated by old T-34 tanks and German WII bunkers and not realizing how freaking weird that was until much later, traveling through Croatia and what used to be Yugoslavia in general as a kid and feeling the bullet holes in the buildings, seeing the eyes of men I instinctively knew have done horrible shit, not walking in the wrong direction from the beach because the landmines are still in the ground, even slowly uncovering a mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war in the village I partially grew up in, which is a process for a lifetime in itself...and I'm seeing these patterns replicated in how people act, in how Americans act, in what they allow, in who they align with, in their falseness, greed, and fear. It scares me to the bone. I started digging into these themes with Zero, but I knew there was much more, and there is much more still -- so Days of Hate felt like the next move in that direction, and when Danijel Žeželj emailed me years after I first emailed him telling him I'd like us to work together one day, I knew it was time. I think Danijel actually read Zero and responded specifically to that. Most of the story came very quickly and the next part was, and still is, about finding most truth in it while making it thrilling and an emotional and cerebral journey I believe in. For example, one of the main protagonists was originally a white man, and I changed it because I had two conversations where people pointed out why that maybe wasn't the best decision. I examined other possibilities, landed on one that was better for representation, story, and characters, and went with it. Another case of this was cover design -- we originally already aimed for something very direct and simple and raw, but we overshot that and it took us talking as a whole team to find an approach that would communicate the story clearly and directly without being self-indulgent (that was 100% my sin there, originally) or otherwise out of sync. Ego has to be the servant, not the leader, said Aleš as they finished their very long answer.

It's interesting that you mention having a conversation about one of the characters being a white man, and that you changed that due to those conversations. With work that is clearly intended to be confrontational, why was the gender and race of the character such a specific concern?

The work has to be inclusive, which is the opposite of what the Nazis and the white supremacists want. The Nazis want a divided society against everything but the Nazi. I believe in a society united against the Nazis, united against the white supremacy. Every white person is complicit in the white supremacy. But that doesn’t mean we have to do what the white supremacy dictates or what the Nazis want. I believe we have to learn how those systems operate in us and others and then chip away at those systems with decisiveness and constancy.

In this specific case, it was partially just a sense of -- is this comic any better for having this white dude in it? Is there anything about the character that can't be explored in different, maybe more interesting ways if the person is not a white guy? Now, I don't have anything against white guys, except for thinking most of them is about as useful as cancer, but it's up to them to change that, you know? I thought the gender dynamics were more interesting, I thought the racial dynamics were less exploitative, and above all, the characters just rang true the way they became and made for a better story.

Without getting into the specifics of the narrative, could you speak to what the intent of the work is? What you've presented so far reads as pretty standard they-kill-us-we-kill-them, and your leads read more like hard noir killers than they read as Havel-ian lovers. 

The meaning is a personal thing. It's different for me than it is for someone else. I don't want to become the tag you put next to the painting. The painting is the meaning.

"I believe we have to chip away at those systems with decisiveness and constancy."--are we talking about the characters here? Or are we talking about using comic books--specifically, comic books steeped in genre--to chip away at that system of of white supremacy? If so, how so? To be clear--i'm aware that there's a long standing argument that art of any kind = social change agent, but I'm curious if that's really something you buy into, that idea that we can participate in generating more intellectual property and content geared towards maximum social media sharability, and that it's going to somehow make Roy Moore feel bad about himself or convince an unemployed Breitbart fan to send money to Morehouse College. Like--how is another violent comic--one with big teeth white guys in suits, with white trash neo-nazis in bars being gross--going to chip away at anything?

I’m talking about any effective approach to social change, not trying to narrow it down to a specific one. I struggle with whether art really changes anything. I struggle whether anything really changes anything. But I’m choosing to believe that, in a meaningless world, we have to build our own meaning, and put it into the world. If everything I did would amount to “I write stuff for a living,” uh, I don’t think I’d like myself much at all. If all Days of Hate amounted to in my head would be another violent comic with two-dimensional characters, I wouldn’t bother writing it — I’m not at all invested in those narratives, which should be pretty clear from my previous work, though I actually really appreciate it being questioned, which is what I think many artists today could use a whole lot more of. What I am invested in is taking those narratives and turning them over in my hands, seeing what they are made of, where they are falling apart, what alternatives there are to them, what could be good about them, what could be bad about them, what's more complex than the binaries (everything), what the narratives mean historically, what does happen to people caught in them. I also think it’s not just about chipping away, but also about building, and stories have an ability to let people know they are not alone. How do I know that some kid in the middle of nowhere won’t read this and write me something like “hey, this comic helped me say something to my racist uncle” or “reading this helped me get the fuck out of my hometown and look for something better”? I get variations on these messages from people, sometimes it’s a professor somewhere teaching something I wrote, other times it’s a kid telling me they were contemplating suicide and something I wrote helped them choose to live. How am I supposed to read something like that and think what I do doesn’t matter? It won’t make Roy Moore feel bad about himself or convince an unemployed Breitbart fan to send money to Morehouse College, but it might let more people know they’re not alone. It might allow me to introduce them to new writers, mostly POC who take no shit and write beautifully, in the backmatter of the comic. It might allow me to explore what I outlined above. And if it amounts to a little bit of positive change, even if I won’t ever be able to measure it — I’ll be glad. I don’t have the time or energy to be cynical about it, but I believe that asking myself questions like the ones you’re asking is very important.

To clarify--i didn't say that I think what you do "doesn't matter". I'm just trying to clarify the approach you're taking, based off the material as it is being presented. The first chapter of Days is set in a near future dystopia where white supremacy thrives, and the main people presented in opposition are other violent murderers. I'm trying to make the connection between that kind of brutality and the Havel quote...but i/m also trying to make a connection to the Ales Kot who presents themselves online. You've always been a performative person, from the very beginning of your career. You've done it when I've spoken to you in person, and you've done it online, and you're doing it now. That isn't a criticism, I'm just curious about how all that informs what you're trying to do here. And i'm also trying to pin down what you are trying to do here. You open the first issue (which has a very Turner Diaries style design) with a gross quote from Steve Bannon, a bunch of Silver Mt. Zion lyrics AND title the story "America First". That's a lot!

When you say I've always been performative, how exactly do you mean that? 

I mean that you've always got one eye on the audience. You tend to speak in complete sentences, you're a networker, and you like to talk. You see somebody make a comment about a movie online, you drop an email to them on the side to engage about work that's comparative. When you decide it's time to cut it off with Marvel, it happens in a relatively public forum at a time when it's going to be picked up in online news sites and forums. You show up in the press with well lit pictures that show off well designed tattoos. None of this is a bad thing, it's a totally normal part of the creative world. You just happen to be doing it in comics, where it's still kind of distinct. And when the work comes delivered in brief serialization, that persona becomes a part of it.

Got it. So, in order to answer this properly, I want to first delineate how I see performativity and how I see performance. I believe that escaping the ego is really nice, but rarely sustainable, because ego has a way of pulling us back into. So I believe in empathy and evolution as guiding principles for my ego. I also see the human society and maybe even the world/universe as quite absurd, which is probably the reason I have not killed myself yet. We seem to be chronically unable to control our collective ego, which is what landed us in the mess we're in as a species, because we have performed a largely performative society instead of performing the one we truly are. I think the micro/macro comparison applies here -- I too have a problem with controlling my ego sometimes. And I think that in this mess -- performance is, to me, playing out of, from the inside of myself out into the world, while performativity is trying to fit my actions, premeditate them, and play into the world, not necessarily in order to be liked, but definitely in order to be heard.

Now, this is really messy, and I suspect we all contains levels of this. What I aim to do is make sure that the performance is rooted in sincerity and the guiding principles as outlined above. So yeah, I like to speak in complete sentences because I value people's time and focus, and want to repay them in turn. I would never qualify myself as a networker, and find the idea of networking disturbing -- I like to make real connections with people, yeah, but networking to me sounds...really rooted in a kinda money-or-benefits first, hypercapitalist ethos that rots people from the inside. Like I can acknowledge connecting with someone about something we care about might be good for my career...but if that's the top reason I would be doing it for, I'd be doing my life wrong. If I want to connect with someone for something related to my career, I come out and say that. If it's something else, it's something else. If it's a confluence of things -- my career can't come first, because I've seen firsthand that that's one of the ways you can lose everything that matters in life. It looks like no big deal until it's an avalanche. 

I like to talk because I like to communicate and connect with people. It matters to me. I was a loner as a kid, and I already said this elsewhere, but I was pretty mercilessly bullied -- first for being quiet, then for reading sooner than other kids, then for being fat, then for acting "weird" or "queer," and that's on top of coping with gradually remembering that I was abused as a kid, memories I only started recalling fully enough to trust them more the past couple years -- so it's taken me a very long time to learn to trust myself and trust others. I'm still learning how to be open, how not to act as a survivor. And somewhere along the way I realized one of the ways to do that would be to push myself out of what felt like a comfort zone, but really was a survivor zone guided by wartime principles, developed and maintained to deal with -- or maybe hold at bay -- both unprocessed genetic memory of my family and experiences I had myself. So in that sense, Days of Hate is about being a survivor, the various methods of surviving...and about living that, and sometimes failing, or choosing something else entirely. 

I mean, these past few months...I killed my Instagram, I only post on Twitter about work and I limit my time spent reading up on news, I'm in the mountains right now focusing on writing and just processing these past few years...I'm not sure if I would be still here without the help of some very good friends and therapists, I'm not sure if I'd be coming to terms with being both a survivor and a queer person, the first of which I kept even from myself for over two decades because it was a protective mechanism that little kid put in place, the second because people dismissed it and tried to beat it out of me. Which I guess is also related to how you classified me and how people generally do -- I know I pass as a guy and I'm okay with that, I don't mind if someone uses "him" or "her" or "them" because I actually identify as gender-fluid, but for the sake of the conversation and us knowing each other, I guess it's a good thing to say. Plus there's the whole thing of mostly passing as a man and the privilege that comes with that, which is a whole another point always worth discussing. But back to your question.

If you're looking for some level of reconciliation with the brutality and abrasiveness of the first chapter, I think that possibility is already offered in the answers above. If you're looking for some level of reconciliation of the work with me as a person...I'm not really interested in creating some comprehensive Aleš Kot narrative, that's other people's job if they want it, though I'm hard-pressed to know why they would. Whatever connections other people make -- they are ultimately their narratives of me and the works, not necessarily mine. I don't feel any responsibility to give people a final picture, only a clear one. I'm interested in uncovering being, and in being honest with it. 

How does collaboration enter into this? Are you able to communicate the depth of influence you're drawing from to Zezelj with just a script? I haven't seen Ales Kot pages before, and I'm curious about whether or not you're getting into all of this when we start figuring out what goes on the page.

It's a really deep collaboration. I'll give you a few examples as to why.

When I decided to make comics, one editor early on really helped me by reading my scripts and giving me advice. He saw something and supported my ambitions. It meant a lot. He also gave me one note I disagreed with immediately: in response to one of the scripts, he told me I was writing emotions that were too subtle to convey, character moments artists would not know how to draw. I told him I was interested in working only with artists who would not have that problem. Nearly ten years later, nothing about that changed for me, and Danijel is an artist who definitely does not have that problem.

We have an almost instinctive shorthand at this point. I think this is down to a deep commitment to our work, which demonstrates in spending enough time in the prep, doing the homework, and open, honest communication at every stage. It also helps we come from countries with sometimes very dark, brutal histories, and that we understand each other's art references -- one of us can reference Clarice Lispector or Army of Shadows and the other gets it, and if we don't, we talk until we do. This is in part because we made sure we were on the same page before we began the work on the pages. We worked on designs for bits and pieces you might never even see in the finished comic, we ran through various versions of characters, and we zeroed on what contributed to our initial aim of making a singular vision that I sort of refuse to try to articulate here because I believe in accepting the mystery in order to fully experience a work of art, and as David Lynch said...

 

In regards to my scripts, it really changes. Sometimes all a panel needs is five words. Other times it needs three paragraphs. Sometimes a chapter has a loose structure where Danijel can play with amount of panels per page, and other times, like in chapter five, I build the rhythm around a precise layout, amount of panels per page, going deep into...well, I can't say what exactly we did in chapter five because that would break the magic, but yeah, things can get dense in many ways. Sometimes we work with bits of storytelling language I only rediscover after the fact, seeing the DNA of works I was looking at a whole lot over the past year so clearly once there's enough remove. Other times it can come during the process, and a good example of that is me, Danijel Žeželj and our lead designer Tom Muller kicking the old design of chapter one and beyond and finding a new approach through combining work Danijel has done for some of Days of Hate ads with approaches inspired by Criterion covers for movies by Costa-Gavras like Z and The Confession, or going directly to reproducing the coloring approach and texture of the trade paperback of V For Vendetta for the cover of chapter four. Other times I write something like "Then -- Huian smiles at the noose. It’s a slow smile, a no-teeth smile, a no smile. Then -- she speaks to it, and her eyes glisten with not today.and Danijel does this.

Plus, I mean...is it really that hard, communicating what the story is? We're looking at many of the things that are going to be happening in the US five, ten years from now, if not sooner, unless we're extremely lucky -- and I almost don't see that happening, as saddened as that makes me to say. Communicating what the story is and making it personal -- it's not exactly particle physics. It's historical consciousness, critical thinking, a connection to the self, empathy with others, love for the art forms within the art form and the art form itself, and choosing to do the work and communicate it clearly. But I'm also a massive process nerd who believes in revising my approach with almost every new project, and of course sometimes it gets hard. It's just that here -- in large part because I'm blessed with a great team, and in large part because Days of Hate feels like something I'm often pulling straight from the gut -- it can get emotionally taxing, but also becomes a release, and flows quite easily. Ideally, every project I ever work on would have a creative flow and synergy in many ways similar to this one. 

I was going to ask about what's different between working with Zezelj and other artists you've done work with, but it struck me that discussion would never end--i imagine there's hundreds of distinctions. So instead--what's the same? You've approached these kind of gigs quite a few times now. Have you found yourself repeating certain behaviors, tactics, language?

I was just reading this interview with Sophie, whose music I like a lot, and she said something I found myself vigorously nodding to -

“The most exciting thing for me is going into somebody’s environment and coming out with something at the end of the day that I could not have imagined in the morning ... that is such an exciting thing. That gives me a lot of energy and pleasure and satisfaction. When you collaborate with someone, you have to go very deep very quickly. There’s not many other situations in life where that’s possible — where you just have met someone for the first time and you’re suddenly talking about love and concepts and ideas. You have to get there very quickly. It’s an amazing experience. I get a lot from that.”

It's not working in the studio for a day or a week, but it's similar. I want deep connections -- like yeah, it's nice to be chill and just enjoy something or someone frivolously but I'm mostly much more interested in depth, in seeing what really makes people tick and working with it. So I guess the first thing that's the same is the desire for that, and wanting to find that place with the collaborators. And how you get there can't be faked, because if you do, you'll suck, the connection will suck and the end product of your collaboration will suck too. So I talk with the collaborator, and I see if there's a real connection to the material, and that happens through talking and maybe getting a little work done together noncommittally. I ask the creators what script format they're most comfortable with, or, if I already have a specific one in mind, if they're comfortable with that one. I tell them that there's total openness in the collaboration -- if you see something that could be changed, as long as it's the best thing for the story, let's talk about it together and see. If it's a small thing, something you'll know by practice I'll very likely support, don't even ask. If you don't like a sequence -- tell me. This is why I ask everyone on my team to tell me how they like the finished work, too -- I thrive on feedback. I still read all reviews, even the barely intelligible ones, even the hateful ones that pop up once in a long while, because of the possibility of finding some nugget of truth that might help me become stronger. And it all comes back to that Sophie quote -- that's key for me. 

Other than that...I rewrite a lot after the art comes in. Days of Hate isn't on the rewriting level of, let's say, Change or Material -- Change was straight-up inspired by Elektra: Assassin and the way Miller and Sienkiewicz collaborated, and by various poets, Woolf, Ballard, Burroughs, the cut-up method and so on, while with Material studying Altman came through a whole lot for me and affected the collaboration from the ground up. But even with Days of Hate, I do take a look at every page, analyze how it works visually, analyze my writing, ask myself "is that the best you can do?" and then go from there. I'm interested in writing to the artist's strengths, whether already acknowledged or not, during every part of the process, with a pull towards a symbiosis where every part becomes the hive, or the body, the soul, with the seams no longer fully distinguishable. With Change and Material I sometimes erased or changed up close to 80% of an issue. With Days of Hate it oscillates roughly between 10-40%, but the changes are usually more subtle. I think that comes from rarely using narration or captions. The flashbacks seem to be the parts with most fluid emotional charge for me, so the deepest rewriting usually happens there.

Have you actually found "nuggets of truth" that have made you "stronger" in unintelligible bad reviews? Stronger in what way? Emotionally as a person? Or more distinct as a writer?

Well, I said "barely intelligible," so I'll go from that -- and say yes. I know "nuggets of truth" is a phrase that probably deserves to be brought behind the stables and shot and talking about getting stronger might sound like cliché-speak, but I don't mind. I like being cheesy sometimes, plus it's true. I've been blessed with a really varied and mostly successful writing career, and I'm not interested in writing just for myself, I'm interested in connection, influence, and change on personal, communal and societal levels. I suspect the best way to do that with fiction is to learn how to fully pull the personal into the universal and master the craft, so I'm focusing on learning that, and in order to learn how to speak to as many people as possible as clearly and deeply as possible, I need to learn how they think and why, which means I need to listen. It isn't even a question of influence and change first -- first it's a question of making an actual, real connection, of being able to see, of allowing to be seen. There's no real influence or change without that. So in order to achieve that, I have to read and listen to people with different points of view, make those different points of view as varied as possible, and keep them in mind while thinking about myself in the world, and that includes how I tell stories.

As an aside, this is obviously not the same as allowing white supremacists to spout their hateful, violent ideology. This is not the same as silently tolerating that half your family voted for a serial abuser. This is not the same as silently tolerating or even making space for the million way more subtle ways in which oppression demonstrates itself. I'm only saying this because lately there's been this tendency to use "we have to listen to people with different points of view" as a way of perpetuating abuse and allowing the structures that support it to flourish, and I'd hate for anyone to assume that's the point of view I'm taking. Anyway.

Emotionally, for a really long time, I wanted to be loved, but I didn't have good, healthy boundaries fully in place for my own self -- I'd sacrifice a lot because I'd assume I had to earn being loved, and that resulted in being less true to myself, which in turn resulted in a less fulfilling life. This was something that also projected itself into my work. But I self-examined, started becoming more and more aware of that glitch, so I worked on it and, for example...I'd read a review, not one I'd classify as "barely intelligible" but one that I keep in mind as an early example of being face-to-face with my decision to deal with criticism constructively, where the reviewer disliked a book of mine, named some reasons, and also made an assumption about what I was trying to do -- and the assumption was really unkind and untrue and it was coloring the entire review, but some of the structural notes on the book were still sound. I went "okay, I don't think what he's doing here is cool or kind or fair at all, but I also think there are some notes I can take a lot from despite that." So I did. And it helped me learn (or reminded me? I think I always knew and tried, but the world sometimes has a way of beating you down, plus blind spots, etc...) that I should be open to listening to anyone -- at least briefly -- as long as they're not trying to do harm. What they think and feel is their own. What I think and feel is my own. There's plenty to learn. Of course I want everyone to love me and treat me well -- I want everyone to love everyone and everyone to treat everyone well! And the knowing that that's not the case is painful, always, because I believe that world to be possible. But I also do think that in order to actively strive to be a decent human being every day, and perhaps doubly so for being a writer, I have to deeply focus on listening to people because so much of writing is listening. So it really helped me on both levels you mention. This happened with Wild Children, and I realized I should find a better balance between ideas and characters for Change in part because of that review. The adjustment wasn't a case of changing that so I'd get a better review next time -- it was a case of changing that so I'd find a clearer way of expressing myself and explore another way of storytelling and communicating. I'm certain I brought that experience into how I communicate with people overall, because sometimes I can go very abstract, and now I'm more conscious of that and how it might connect and not connect with others. And yeah, later on I encountered reviews that even got the names of the main characters wrong and sometimes there would still be a sentence that would illuminate something about a character dynamic or the tempo of the story or something else, and click -- a light bulb goes off. The learning never ends.

When you began working on Days of Hate, did you always imagine it being a 12 issue series?

Yeah. I think I made a mistake these past years, thinking I had to pitch comics as ongoing projects, that I had to think of them as ongoing projects. I don’t think we talk enough about how insidious the whole process of working in the mainstream comics industry can be — that creators and publishers essentially feel they have to pitch themselves and their projects to the retailers first because of the pre-order system. I respect the retailers and the publishers, and I’m also concerned that this system is a self-defeating machine that has, over the past decades, erased important parts of the art form’s ability to truly connect with the widest possible audience in ways that would mean both pop and art. And like — shiver! Even my saying this makes me worry I’m going to get less orders for my next book now because I stepped out of line, wasn’t thankful enough, didn’t realize this system is the best we’ve got right now otherwise it’s all going to fall down, whatever. So you know, to see myself fall into the same mode of thought, it really was on me, and I felt disappointed in myself for that. And I think the best way to deal with that disappointment is to change my approach, so whatever I want to do now is tightly written from A to Z, promoted more responsibly, usually largely worked out before I bring it to anyone...which seems like a common enough thing, but in an industry so fond of never ending its stories, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that we all die and that we should be perhaps way more comfortable with our stories dying when it’s their time, too. 

Are you familiar with the theory of good and bad readers? Nabokov used to talk about it with his students.

I've read that quote where he does the 10 questions, but not an actual theory. How would that apply?

I just started getting into Merve Emre's work on the subject these past few months, so I don't really have much of a unified theory, but I do have a few potentially pretty disjointed thoughts, some spurred by your earlier questions. For one, I'm interested in the idea that the inside baseball of the Western, largely US-led culture led to the creation of writers and readers who believe writing can change people and change the world without necessarily asking "which people" and "which world, and to what ends." And if fiction becomes more widely misread as some sort of a descriptive how-to manual or a confessional essay (case in point, the recent humbug around "Cat Person" and what Larissa Pham says about it here), what does it say about our ability to understand text and narrative? What does it say about our concept of reality? And when I turn these ideas on myself, what are some of the real vantage points from which I'm writing, maybe even unconsciously, if I'm entertaining this idea of "changing people" or "changing the world" with any of my work, even if it may be a tangential hope secondary to the work itself and to how it changes me, which are really the only two things I can likely somewhat control? So if we have bad readers...what if I'm both a bad reader and a bad writer? 

This part from Emre's recent essay posits something important to me. 

"...how did the state, acting through the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Rockefeller and the Ford Foundations, exercise power in the world and how did its exercise of power leave an enduring mark on the aesthetic qualities of literature? The standard critical narrative is one of surreptitious coercion and writerly resistance through the production of sophisticated formal allegories for state control. This is an idea aptly expressed by Michael Walzer, who argues that the state must first be “personified,” “symbolized,” and “imagined” to be critiqued—a critique that must likewise take place on the level of narrative character, symbol, and other imaginary features of the text. But critiqued by whom and for what audiences? Who, precisely, was reading and decoding these representations of state power? And what did the knowledge produced by critique set out to accomplish?" 

How did these same forces affect me as a reader and as a writer? How can I identify them, then decide what I want to keep and develop -- and what to unlearn or create a boundary against? Emre says that to ask the questions posited in the paragraph above is not to find concrete answers, but I am very invested in trying. I think I have to accept being a good and a bad writer at the same time, and the same as a reader. I think in some ways there's badness I'm undoing -- increasing awareness of unconscious market pressures can mean more space for self-expression that is not reactionary to those pressures, increasing awareness of privilege can lead to creating expansive spaces for those less privileged, a re-processing of possible approaches to reading and writing can lead to more possibilities, more worlds posited in communication, fiction, and whatever lies between and around them. I also think there's a badness I want to keep, though I'm not sure it's really a badness as much as a very cold passion, though even that sounds fake, or maybe more accurately incomplete. I think being a writer is at least in some part about trying to say the unsayable and hoping to get as close as possible to the experience of it, and maybe offering a chance at that sense of experience to others, and that experience is in no full way definable by words. Which is absurd, doomed, and beautiful, but really much more. Nobody can ever describe an ocean fully but if there's an ocean inside you nobody but you can see maybe the best you can do is try.

How do you combine the feelings and thinking you're describing with your choice to pursue such an intensely limited sector of readers? Over the course of this conversation, you only speak of influences that are prose based, both historical and contemporary, and yet you're making comics via Image--meaning your books will only reach so far as Diamond is willing and capable to try--with an artist whose appeal has never been in the direct market that you'll be drawing your initial audience from. While one side of this reads to me like you are bringing a set of ideas and references into comics that isn't there in the work of your peers, I feel like the argument could also be made that you're playing it safe by positioning yourself as the one genre writer who has a library card. Being the smartest person in the room usually means you need to find a bigger room.

You know, I finished reading your question and I just laughed in recognition of something I'm very much consciously processing, and that laugh also rang with this joy of that process also being recognized as something necessary by a person who is not me. So yeah, I know what you mean. I'm working on it. I'm really cautious about talking about my dreams and aspirations in that regard, because the last few years were quite rough for me and I want to really build what I want to create from the ground up and protect it and let it grow, but what I can say is there's a few projects I'm working on that are not comics, or are only tangentially related, and I think that's what I'm largely growing into. I love making comic books for all the right reasons, and I intend to continue making them, but it feels natural that over time I'll make less of them, in more concentrated bursts. The nice thing about Days of Hate is we're already getting interest from publishers from France, Italy, I think maybe even some other places? So I feel like people are recognizing the work to some extent further than you're implying because it does get further than the US/UK distributor, but it's still nowhere near where I want to be, nowhere near the reach I believe the stories I make can have. And just organically, looking at my life from early on, and seeing my progression and certain patterns...the next steps I'm taking and want to take make such sense to me that I think feeling really scared of them is maybe a healthy thing. I recently got this tattoo that says "The Sea Hates a Coward" to remind myself that these are the steps I do have to take. The only alternative is giving up on myself and that's really not my kink. Plus the Sea would hate it.

Bringing a set of ideas and references into comics that aren't there otherwise always felt like precisely one of the key reasons to even make comics in the first place -- because what would be the point if I was just rehashing the same stuff others are doing? I'd feel empty and sad if I'd be doing that. And playing it safe in comics sounds like a very boring way to treat a deeply interesting practice. I think I pushed and maybe even did some new things and worked within traditions that felt important to me. I think I still do. But I also have to look at where I'm at realistically, and what you're describing is on point. I don't like the idea of being the smartest person in the room, though I don't really think that way. I like being a leader, at least sometimes, because the projects I come up with can be quite complex and the high of getting a plan together and working and seeing it execute is like almost nothing else in the world, but that's not the same thing as being the smartest person in the room -- it's about making sure everyone on the team is better than I am at something that's key for the whole scheme, it's about getting the chemistry right, about making sure the processes are bubbling and stabilized and moving towards their full bloom. I always want to work with people smarter than me, in all the key ways, including emotional intelligence. That way lies growth and the most fun. And I want the processes of creation and reception of the creation to be both as rewarding as I can imagine them being when I close my eyes and dare to dream. There's a lot of dreams left in the tank.

And yeah, I have a certain intensity and determination, I never stop learning, my sense of aesthetics is on point. I've learned a lot about myself, including strong and weak points. Where I'm at now sort of reminds me of how I felt the last few years before I left school as a teenager -- it's not that I'm better or worse than others around me, that's not how I've been taught to look at people, but that it's starting to feel like I'm seeing a place ahead of me that's the next big challenge, I have for a few years now, and I've worked on discovering it and moving towards it (mostly) very quietly, and it scares me, and it excites me, and it somewhat weirdly feels like the universe is pushing me towards it and like it's the most natural thing in the world. I hope I'm right. I'm so afraid of jinxing it! I really wish I could tell you more, but I think it's healthy to keep it to myself for now. 

Having read issue two of Days of Hate, i'm again at a bit of a loss connecting the person I'm speaking too with the comic I'm reading. Whereas issue one included the requisite cliffhanger surprise moment that so many first issues of Image Comics tend to have, issue two is an even more common offense: a 22 page comic where all the main characters have terse conversations in rooms and little happens to move the story forward. There's parts that are different and compelling--a woman looking at a noose in her own home, sending me back through pages to see if i missed that before, and then wondering if it will be put to use--but it's mostly parts that aren't, like the way a racist is depicted as a loving father, which is something i inadvertently read in a Chuck Dixon Punisher comic this very morning. I don't get it, Ales. I want to trust that we're going in a different direction than a lot of the books you're sharing shelf space with, but that shelf you're sitting on is one that is almost completely built on failing to meet expectations--the battle between political content and genre trope tends to either be non-stop proselytizing at straw men, or it goes the other way, descending into a Die Hard clone where the lead happens to wear a Public Enemy t-shirt. I guess I will be the dumbass in the cheap seats: do you have anything to say here besides "violence is bad, except for those times when, you know, violence is good"?

Oh, I'd bore myself to death if that was it! I couldn't write it! I just couldn't. But I don't think it would be helping the experience of the story or fair of me at all to try and convince someone -- anyone, including myself -- of what I'm trying to say. Maybe I'm not trying to say anything, maybe I'm saying everything as I experience it? I don't feel like stories always come straight out of me. I don't even feel like me sometimes! That's not deflecting responsibility, that's describing the process before, uh, the next stage of the process, where the final shape is found. Actually, I'm not even sure if the final shape is ever really found. If you feel like I'm talking in circles, it's because I'm talking in, uh, spirals, I suppose? I'm being protective of the potential experience of the story by not trying to impose an externalized shape upon it. What it means to me is not what it will mean for someone else. If you'll find it to be a failure, your reading will matter just as much as mine. 

I can relate to the desire for easy answers and explanations in advance, because who among us hasn't experienced existential angst when only being able to read two chapters of a larger whole and trying to determine the entire shape of it, but I'm perfectly content with letting that lie. I guess I'm also not really interested in creating expectations? I think expectations can be horribly destructive for art. Or rather for our experience of it. The art will be fine.

Well i'll trust you about that then--you've extended me plenty of patience, so I'll return it. Tell me: what comics are YOU reading right now? Are there any that are grappling with the issues that you've brought up in this conversation?

The only monthly comic I'm reading right now is Punisher: The Platoon. I grew up reading whatever comics I could get my hands on -- and until I was about sixteen, that wasn't many at all -- but I managed to get to Preacher relatively early, and I've never seen anything quite like it. Thus began a life-long love affair with the works of Garth Ennis. I get that his Punisher work, as well as his excellent Nick Fury mini-series, are largely applications of everything he learned from James Ellroy about writing heavy paranoid historical thrillers about wars that rarely if ever end, and I love Ellroy's writing a lot as well, but hell, I don't mind the similarity. I admire how they both seamlessly root their stories and characters within the political without making any of it condescending, preachy, or dogmatic, except for the few dogmas that are real for a reason. Ennis has his faults, too, and they're well-catalogued, but I barely see them in The Platoon, while all the best things he's known for he's in complete command of. Plus Jordie Bellaire coloring Goran Parlov, that's an art team whose work I'd look at any day. If I consider The Platoon in the light of your second question, well...there's an issue of Zero I even dedicated to Ennis, and while that comic was always rooted in the basic idea of trapping people in what seems like a cheap James Bond / Jason Bourne retread and then turning into a full-on meta-onslaught that included theories on war as a virus, the conflict in Bosnia, and a ghost of William S. Burroughs, and worked primarily as my own way of dealing with toxic masculinity and the way it can threaten to swallow everything...with Days of Hate I'm already done with that and in a very different place as a creator, so I think what's primarily informing me with The Platoon is the sense of seamless integration of politics into the whole without any of the preachiness, yeah. War is rarely black and white, and I think that depicting it dogmatically except for where it counts -- or depicting resistance movements or the government or any other sphere of the society that way -- would be doing a disservice to the story, to the readers, and to myself. I'm not really interested in heroes and villains. I think I'm way more interested in people interacting with other people and with systems. I spent a lot of time recently thinking about how Ridley Scott's work has this obsession with people and systems, and how they often end up either escaping or being crushed by them, sometimes both at the same time. I think he's also one of my key influences, or maybe we just share some similar focal points.

Tardi's West Coast Blues I think about a lot when contemplating Days of Hate, because of Tardi's ability to say a lot with a little. It's also a beautiful black and white book, and Danijel's art is so beautiful in black and white that I'm hoping one day we'll get to release a special edition of the whole thing. But also just...West Coast Blues has this sense of poetry while spiraling towards a black hole, and ability to find humor and humanity in that. And the rawness of the action -- I think it's really important, if you're writing something that involves a fight scene, a shootout, anything like that -- to do right by it and show it in all its possible chaos, disorientation, rawness. Elegance during time of survival is rarely, if ever, intentional. War is sloppy. Horror is sloppy. Crime is sloppy. Humans are sloppy. 

Humans also die easy, which brings me to Julia Gfrörer's Laid Waste. That's the comic I connected with the most in past year or so. I haven't really thought about it in connection to Days of Hate until you asked me the question, but in retrospect the time of me coming up with it and the time when I read the graphic novel seem pretty well-aligned. The sadness of that story and the beauty of its art, and the ugliness of its art and the beauty of its story, I just...I dunno, Gfrörer is just my favorite graphic novelist at the moment? I'm very into decay, I'm very into love, Laid Waste is about love and decay. It carries weight beyond its size. 

I'm living in the mountains until March and I don't like reading comics on a screen, so that's about it. I'm really looking forward to reading Connor Willumsen's Anti-Gone, the Mirror Mirror II anthology, and a few other comic books when I get back. One day I'm finally gonna get to rereading the Stern/Romita Jr. Amazing Spider Man run in its entirety, and that's going to be a good week. I haven't read it since I was maybe ten, and back then the Czech translations were pretty bad, came out whenever, and out of order. I'm pretty sure I never even got to find out how it all ended.

Where do you see yourself when issue 12 of Days shows up in stores?

 I gave this question a lot of consideration, and the best answer is I honestly don't see myself anywhere in particular. I think expectations suck the life out of life. I've got some intuition, and definitely dreams and wishes...but those are mine to keep. Right now it's very much about learning another level of day to day work for me -- writing first thing in the morning, eating well, working out, boxing, maybe learning ballet later in the year...reading a lot, organizing dinner parties, spending good time with my friends and putting my energy into causes dear to my heart, going to therapy to unclog some arteries and learn some new tricks, sleeping well, learning skills for the next stage of my life, not spreading myself too thin and carefully choosing where and in who I invest my time and energy, learning more about self-care in general and putting all of that towards the dreams I'm not speaking of. 

Days of Hate #12 will come out next Spring. Maybe I'll go to the beach?

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2 Responses to “I Watch For Patterns”: An Interview with Aleš Kot

  1. Iron Weal says:

    Wow, this guy is a real deep thinker. So brave and daring of him to express these totally unconventional and dangerous viewpoints. You don’t see this kind of hard-hitting honesty much in the media these days– I can’t imagine the New Yorker of the New York Times or the New York Book Review publishing an author who thinks the way Kot does! Kudos to Fantagraphics for taking a big risk and publishing this explosive and intellectually challenging interview.

  2. Dustin Riccio says:

    I considered myself to be an Ales Kot fan up until Material. I hated that book so much I’m now afraid to go back and reread the stuff I liked. The level of po-faced intellectual wankery was just unbearable and the way it casually dropped in the names of actual people who had been murdered by the police felt like the laziest kind of pretentious shock tactic. It was more like an illustrated reading list than anything else, and one made by overly enthusiastic college freshmen with no sense of humor at that.

    Just off the top of my head, I think a recent comic series like No Mercy by Alex de Campi and Carla McNeil does an infinitely better job of examining social issues through the lens of a genre story. Conversely, Kot doesn’t seem interested at all in synthesizing big ideas into a genre comic template… which begs the question why they’re making single issue floppy comics that’ll be sold next to action figures and the like. Why not just write an essay?

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