An MIT professor. A Hollywood starlet. A 15-year-old student. A former soldier. You could say the only thing these characters share is their U.S. residency. Separated both physically and ideologically, these individuals couldn’t be more different in the face of conflict, but they all come together as the stars of Material, a new series that launches May 27 through Image Comics. Material features illustrations by Will Tempest, letters by Clayton Cowles, design by Tom Muller and writing by comics auteur Ales Kot.
Kot has made his name by penning titles for almost every major comics publisher, and with Secret Avengers complete and Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier wrapping this summer, Kot’s output will have a noticeable change in upcoming months. In addition to his four-issue Valiant mini-series, Dead Drop, Kot will be increasing his focus on creator-owned work, specifically at Image; his first ongoing Image series, Zero, wraps this June, but in its stead we’ll have The Surface with Langdon Foss (in stores now), Wolf with Matt Taylor (July) and of course, Material #1 hitting stores in two weeks.
As Kot begins to close the door on the superhero portion of his career, the author emailed with Paste to discuss Material and his next creative leap forward.
Titling the book Material and using constant material from the real word as content in the book is a bold move, especially in contrast to your previous books that had a certain sense of pre-determined structure. How do you and your collaborators approach the creative process of Material?
Kot: Well, there actually is a pre-determined structure: the entire comic is done in a nine-panel grid, each scene has two pages, there are four storylines, we always end up with 24 pages of comics and an essay by amazing writers I want people to know about. Each graphic novel collection will have four issues, there is only one artist, Will Tempest, there is only one cover artist, Tom Muller, and there is only one letterer, Clayton Cowles. The creative process therefore has a certain rigidity to it, which is actually very freeing because it frees the entire part of my brain that usually wonders about structure on a page and story level. That’s not to say I’m free of thinking about structure, but it’s still a lot of free mental space, a lot of free feeling space, and all that space is given to the characters and the ideas. Then it also projects itself into the visuals.
I write a script in a nine-panel grid, Will draws and colors it, Clayton letters it, Tom does the cover. Simple.
Material #1 Cover by Tom Muller
Can you talk a bit about the central characters of the book? From its onset they seem fairly disparate in their lives, situations and locations, but I know one of your main goals is bringing people together in life. How do you find translating that into the narrative?
Kot: Well, I don’t think my goals should necessarily be all that my art is about. That would feel fake. It’s a paradoxical movement between me wanting something from the story and the story wanting something from me, and somewhere we meet—not necessarily compromising, but more like…fucking, actually. I really don’t have a better metaphor. Material has to be what it needs to be and what I need it to be, but explaining it is past words.
The central characters…well, we begin with a paradoxical philosopher, an unfulfilled actress, a 15-year-old student protester in a very bad situation and a frustrated ex-Guantanamo prisoner, but labels never really describe a person, just some aspect of them, and even that is often faulty. It could be said that all of them are under pressure—some of them rather privileged, others not so much. You know that Queen song, ‘Under Pressure’? That’s a good song.
If anything, the grand statement for Material, in my head, heart, balls, and other places, is to tell a story of what it feels like to live in America right now. Which doesn’t mean we’ll be in America the entire time, nor does it mean that the entire world is America. What I am saying is borders are weak illusions and perhaps Material is not about America but about the world we are in, or, perhaps, even about the universe. But we have to start somewhere.
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to…
The first few pages of Material #1 drop direct mentions of Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Bruce Sterling and more, as Material sees you utilizing material that moves and affects you while also guiding the reader to specific works. With that in mind, how do you find your influences have changed since you first started writing, at least in terms of what you’ve learned or how you want to create and work with and share what impacts you?
Kot: In the past three years—since I started as a published comics author in July 2012—I feel I’ve unlearned a solid amount of things that didn’t belong to me in the first place. That was what Wild Children, my debut, was about (well, one of the things it was about) explicitly—I wanted to purge certain strands of Grant Morrison/Alan Moore/Frank Miller/and so on influences that could have otherwise overwhelmed my writing. I find unlearning incredibly important. Purging, letting things that are not mine go away, vanish without a trace. Then invite something new in, or rejoice in the emptiness.
Isn’t it interesting how (not just) American culture fears emptiness, fears chaos?
In terms of influences, I’ve grown tremendously. I probably read close to, maybe well over, 200 books over the past three years, and often paid attention to the lessons. Comics I read less and less, but that also perhaps reflects a longer-term trend for me. Then there aret movies, television, which I’m focusing on more and more…then there’s painting, I’m thinking about Pollock a lot, especially, and Frida Kahlo seems to be passing by on a semi-regular basis now…to tell the truth, I don’t know how to answer this question, because it feels like four or five questions at once and also because it asks me to encapsulate the past…how long? Since I started writing as a published comics writer? Or since I realized writing was something that made me feel good?
I read a lot more women and a lot less men. I think that’s a part of a big change for me, a rebalancing process, something much needed. I started reading Virginia Woolf’s diary today, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and I can barely wait to go back to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I am not saying this to score points but because their writing makes me happy, keeps me awake, tells me more than I knew. I pay a lot more attention to race. The New Jim Crow and James Baldwin’s last interview being two books I’m about to read. Jeff Chang’s Who We Be, too. Then writers like Fiona Duncan, Durga Polashi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Porochista Khakpour, Hannah Black, more, more. I just read Natasha Young’s (not yet published) book and Fiona Duncan’s book—they’ll both be appearing in the backmatter essays of Material, same as Jarett Kobek, Bijan Stephen and more.
Influences. I mean Edward Snowden, James Cameron, Werner Herzog, Virginia Woolf, FKA Twigs, Rihanna, Alissa Nutting? I don’t know. I inhale whatever feels right, sometimes suck on it for extended periods of time. Gotta get the nutrients.
I’m learning something, but I don’t know how to convey it except through the art. We’re in a really precarious time charged with a great potential, so it’s my responsibility to either make really great fucking art or to not make any. Sometimes I struggle with that, but most days I’m feeling like I’m getting closer to that goal, sometimes hitting the bullseye. I guess what I’m trying to say is either it reflects what’s presently alive with me and somehow catches it and transfers it as a method of communication that maybe helps someone else see and feel something new — or it’s dead on arrival. And our culture has way too many artists who are currently dead on arrival by their own choice. So if I’m learning something, and there’s a lot.
Material #1 Art by Will Tempest
I’m learning, the thing comes to mind because I think about it every day is how do I make this more relevant and more connected to everyone so I can effect positive social change on as large a scale as possible, while staying true to what is alive inside me, what needs to be communicated inside me? How do I blend the two without a compromise? And, on everyday life scale, how do I live without compromise?
I feel I’m becoming less compromised as I unlearn what’s not mine in the first place and take in what I want to be mine, and the no compromise approach is an overall focus of my life. I see people give so much attention to some kind of a half-assed survival mode that’s not a life at all, people figuring out how to stay out of the way of the corporations that pay them, the government that won’t arrest them if they’re white and don’t commit crime—but we all know there’s a war going on already. It’s a war on the poor, a war on the black, and our society is deeply scared. But this time is also a time of enormous possibility. Something’s in the air. The least we can do is be honest about it. Material is one of the ways of being honest about it and communicating. And therein lies the answer to all of your questions: I suspect I am becoming more honest.
The nine-Panel Grid in comics is a rather fabled device, that some find great affection for and others find exceedingly frustrating. As a creator and someone who works closely with his collaborators, why the nine-Panel Grid? How does it speak to you and Will and Tom and Clayton?
Kot: If Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and Eddie Campbell and others can do it, so can we. The nine-panel grid is perfect. I was just talking with Hope Larson the other day and she said that it’s basically a perfect tool and I responded with something like, “it has its own rhythm,” and the thing is I don’t know how to describe the rhythm, but when I have a nine-panel grid page in front of me I just feel it. It’s the best way to make comics for me. It allows for high information density, it’s beautifully symmetrical and it opens up a large scale of variations, the panels are large enough to convey depth of space and if not one can always fuse a few of them together, and and and…it’s poetic, and I want that. I want poetry.
Material #1 Art by Will Tempest
You’re no stranger to books with strong political and spiritual messages, but Material is more “straight from the headlines” than we’ve necessarily seen you do before. As the book evolves, how do you plan to continue working with the headlines of today and tomorrow?
Kot: There’s no how. It just comes. I mean, I guess there is a “how” in that I have to go by feeling. If it feels right, it goes in.
One thing that stood out to me is the press release for the book, where you refer to Material as “our Cerebus” (mostly in reference to length and evolution of craft). In what way(s) do you think being the “next Cerebus” is meant to inspire and guide the creative process, or even the way we receive Material as readers?
Kot: Length. I won’t say exactly how long I want Material to run, because I don’t want to jinx it, but I want it to run a nice, long time. If there’s one comic I can write for the rest of my life, this is it.
The line between fiction and non-fiction is certainly one that comics blur all the time, but how do you find yourself approaching this? Especially as someone who’s dived face first into speculative fiction and non-linear storytelling, where do you find the balance between doing justice to the real-life material you pull from and properly servicing the story you want to tell?
Kot: I don’t know what reality is.
We don’t. Most, if not all of us. Don’t. Know.
So the idea of digging into the fiction/non-fiction conundrum is something that doesn’t get me wet. I mean, it does, but not in a dogmatic sense where I would try to determine which one is “more real” because I just don’t know. I can perceive something like 3 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum. Means I don’t know much about what’s real and what’s not.
The key is, at least for me, to go by heart and really feel it. If it doesn’t feel right—it’s likely not, regardless of what the brain says, or what anxieties say. But I almost never have that feeling where I just know I’m right! It’s almost always a massive leap of faith.
So the answer is there’s no justice and there’s no line—just this. And by “this” I mean the universe. So whatever happens from the interaction between these two things that almost certainly are one thing…I just want to ride the magic of it, get a nice contact high, have it help me create a comfortable place for myself so I can take more leaps with an easiness of a person who can fuck up without risking losing their health and the roof above their head.
Material #1 Art by Will Tempest
In the past I don’t think you’ve had any trouble getting into uncomfortable territory, and Material certainly opens up the doors for you to take a look at things that make not just potential readers uneasy, but you as well. Is there anything you want to make sure you look at with Material, even if it’s something you’re not comfortable with? Are there things you see as taboo, or refuse to even touch?
Kot: No, fuck it. I’ll write whatever feels right. I just read Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, which is entirely about the fear of aging, America’s obsession with youth—oh, and it’s also full of a female teacher fucking her teen students. I mean, I like Todd Solondz and Todd Haynes, too—wow, they are both named Todd. Strange.
Real art can make people uneasy. I want to make real art. I’m here to make something real. I’m tired with how much of American art overproduction right now is focused on feeding the masses the same old with a little bit of the new—the greens—on the side. And Material is not just greens or just the steak or just whatever—Material is the fucking nucleus for me.
Some of the most affecting art in my life is the art that hit uncomfortable spots. America is half-dead and (partially) spineless in part because so much of its art and therefore public imagination atrophied into boring, lazy masturbation. I have no desire to add to that so I must counteract it. Inventive masturbation—better for the pipes! Reinvent public imagination!
As someone who has watched your career grow over the past few years, I’ve noticed that you’re the type of person who feels strongly about absorbing what life or the world puts in front of you, and taking that energy and putting it back out into the world. How are you hoping to translate that into Material? How are you hoping the book interacts with your/its readership?
Kot: I hope Material opens minds, opens hearts, opens wallets. To the max. It would be really nice if the comic got enough recognition to support a long, healthy run. And if some people got off to it. Or found friends to it. Or chose to stay alive because it reminds them of something good. I hope it will be a reminder that you still can breathe, but also a reminder that some people can’t, and more. I don’t really hope for one thing. I hope it’s going to be good. I feel it is.
Material #1 Art by Will Tempest
So, over the past couple years you’ve done some for-hire work that has been received well, but as you begin to transition out of that stage of your life/career, how do you see the future? Is the future Material? (And I mean that both in the sense of “just for you,” but also as in “for comics”.)
Kot: I have no idea. I’m stretched between ideas and execution like Van Damme when he does that split of his, except that he doesn’t seem like it hurts when he does it. I’m technically one of the many people who is sort of in that comics-to-movies-and-tv exodus that journalists aren’t really paying all that much attention to—not in terms of what it might mean to comics, who makes them and how, that sort of a thing. But how it will pan out…I really don’t have much of an idea, and I’m not interested in leaving comics 100 percent behind even if it works out exactly the way I want it to. I believe I can be absolutely the greatest I can imagine being in all that I want, and that includes showrunning and directing and continuing to use my increasing influence to reduce harm in the world, but I’m also dealing with some hardcore survival stuff like owing on taxes, some shitty genetics and dealing with curing Lyme disease and its related co-infections. It’s a tall order, but I feel blessed overall—I’ve got an incredible opportunity to do something that matters, I have a home, food, enough books for the next three years, I’m growing as a person and I like myself more and more and I’ve got an incredible primary life partner and fascinating, loving friends and collaborators. So I just have to take the next leap and see what happens.