Writer: Ales Kot
Artist: Will Tempest
Release Date: May 27, 2015
#1’s cover is what you’d call glitch art—a representation of a lag in the rendering capability of whatever mediates between us and some mysterious figure. It serves as a perfect entryway to the issue: something is amiss. A hiccup in the Matrix. Déjà vu.
An MIT professor who looks like Noam Chomsky lectures a class: we’re becoming machines, he says. A student calls “bullshit!” The hot new actress is in a slump. She brandishes a gun and snorts lines of crushed up klonopin off a desk in an LA hotel room. A 15-year-old black child protests police brutality and the global devaluation of black lives. He’s struck down by an officer and his truncheon—the scene is all silence and rain. A Muslim man of unspecified ethnicity goes home after a literally tortuous experience in Guantanamo Bay. Inside, he consoled himself by psychically transposing his BDSM-lover into his captor’s place.
These are the beginnings of the four stories that steer Material, and they are explicated two pages at a time, cycling through and restarting. Each page is built on a nine-panel grid. Each story is color coded and easily identifiable. Structure dictates the ebb and flow of this comic, which appears to stand in stark contrast to the deconstructionist technique employed by Kot in previous works like Wild Children and Change. However, Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (Deconstruction’s opening salvo) remarks that the limits of structuralism are implicit in the foundational (and facile) notion that you can ever be exterior to the structures you’re parsing. This is Material #1 by Ales Kot, Will Tempest, Clayton Cowles and Tom Muller, and in this way it’s very much, or appears to be, the most honestly deconstructionist work in Kot’s oeuvre.
In the first scene, the student who calls “Bullshit!” on our MIT professor is rendered distinct in a mass of opacity, though it’s difficult to discern any specific features about him. He is a dissident in the crowd—conscious and critical of the framework he is, by necessity, a part of—but he is still very much a part of the crowd. He can reflect on it, but he’s unable to extricate himself from it. In that way, the book is physically an admittance that you cannot exist outside structures. Narratively, it’s about all things that constitute a structure.
This first issue is rife with footnotes (directing the reader to Bruce Sterling, Jean-Luc Godard, Bifo Berardi, David Lynch, Jackson Pollock, et al.) and overt allusions (to Andrzej Zulawski, for example), and they self-reflexively reveal the constituent material that fed this beast. In spite of the copious annotations, Kot’s writing here seems leaner, more stripped down. He’s not jumping through Zero’s metaphysical hurdles, or even his more recent The Surface, though there are still speculative elements in Material. Counter to those more explicitly genre stories, much of this comic feels ripped from the headlines. For example, the names of unarmed black men and women (boys and girls, in some cases) who have been killed by police strobe under panels depicting the unlawful abduction and torture of a young black boy, a scene which culminates in a footnote directing readers to articles on real-life police black sites—alt text reminding you of the reality of state sponsored terror.
Tempest’s artwork is similarly polysemantic. His linework is wiry and lithe, and he occasionally leaves aspects of certain characters undefined. Facial features distort at the wrong angle and become hyperrealistic at others. You get a sense of what someone looks like, and then you see him or her from literally a different angle and he or she appears as a different person. It’s unclear whether this affect was intentional, but the overarching theme (as far as I can determine) subordinates these aesthetic quirks naturally and seamlessly.
Tempest also colors the comic, coding each story with its own palette and cordoning off each of the stories into its own discrete parts. It’s as if they exist in separate realities, which speaks to the power of color as a tool of atmosphere and storytelling. It will be interesting to see how this separation is incorporated into the serial as it progresses, because, right now, it seems poised to create a dissonance—on the one hand, themes of social interrelatedness, and on the other, visual discrete compartmentalization. That discontinuity creates a rich, fertile ground to expose and explore.
It’s difficult to proclaim anything about the totality of Material, because it’s not even close to being concluded. And there are certain plot threads that Kot and Tempest introduce that may give some trepidation (is Kot deft enough to handle the story about the disproportional effects of police violence on black communities? What about the psychological effects and sociological implications of the U.S.’ use of torture?). But as far as first issues go, Material delivers something rich and challenging, something that may make some readers uncomfortable. Thankfully, it emphasizes intonation and milieu, and it doesn’t fall into the trap of more recent Image #1s, where the first issue is only ever a pitch for the second issue.