Welcome to the CBR SUNDAY CONVERSATION, a weekly feature where we speak in-depth — and at-length — with some of the most interesting members of the comic book community. These discussions run the gamut in terms of topics, from current projects to classic stories, talking trends, tastes and wherever else the conversations lead.
Ales Kot writes about wild children, about lost cosmonauts and car thieves and the screenwriters of the sun-drenched apocalypse. “Zero,” his ongoing tale of ruthless trained killers, from childhood indoctrination to the ordeals of unfeeling operatives, sees its first arc collected as a trade paperback this week from Image Comics.
Kot invited CBR News to gaze into his creative process.
CBR News: Let’s start with David Fincher. You’ve said he’s an influence. How would you define your mutual interests and concerns?
Ales Kot: I will define some of them at least. Fincher said he likes movies that scar. He used “Jaws” as an example — and not swimming in the ocean since. I don’t want to make you scared for life, I don’t want to give you wounds. However, I do want to give you an experience that functions as a portal, an access to your subconscious unconscious. I do this through seeing the work as a portal to my own subconscious and unconscious, because if it works for me, it will work for others as well, because collective memory is a thing that exists.
Fincher says his idea of professionalism is probably a lot of people’s idea of being an obsessive. I love being possessed, obsessed by the act of creation, immersing myself within it. It’s a trance and that’s how great things can happen for me, one of the ways, one of the most profoundly exciting, change-inducing ways.
Walk me through this out-of-body experience. The inclusion of the “sitter” makes it sound like a lot of planning went into it.
Long-term planning began — when exactly? These experiences are intrinsically connected to the human race, so perhaps it began at birth. Shamans and tribesmen talked about it. Nowadays we say some things are “illegal drugs” and “legal drugs” yet the fact of the matter is these are all substances and the legal/illegal lines are nowadays usually drawn to benefit governments and not citizens. I drank some beer when I was four because my parents let me have a sip and I felt nice and fell asleep. I was twelve and I smoked a cigarette because I wanted to try it. I ate chocolate long before that. Nearly any substance can be beneficial; nearly any substance can be a drug. It’s all about the dose.
As I was growing up I realized this. I observed the hypocrisies inherent to the sort of thinking I described in the paragraph above. I don’t want hypocrisy in my life. I studied books. I wondered. Eventually I read and tried enough to know what was too much of a risk for me and what wasn’t. I like adventure. I like scientific exploration. I like self-exploration. I like exploring the world. This was one of the ways of doing all that. I read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” and Terence McKenna. I read some of [Timothy] Leary’s work and John C. Lilly’s “The Scientist” and such. All of this helped immensely.
In the specific case we are talking about I was going through a rather fast-paced part of my life. I was trying pretty much everything at a very high rate in that near-invincible way one can sometimes connect with, even though the invincibility is, in body terms, not real. This specific period of my life wasn’t something I would ever recommend to anyone but myself, however I regret nothing. That night I went to a club with some friends and afterwards we ended up in the apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend. One of the friends was a doctor, and well-educated at that, so the going was easy. Keep an eye on us. Make sure your primary focus is on our well-being through this entire time. Ensure we have what we need, be it a question asked at the right time, a hug, water, fresh fruit — whatever the thing is. Simply be in the moment with us and feel the atmosphere and let us do our thing and if it seems something is going wrong, act accordingly.
One has to pick a person that can be trusted. A good close friend who is experienced. In my case, there was no need for anything. Then again, I once managed to dance in high heels during such an event.
In pursuing that experience, were you looking for answers to any questions besides, “Can I do this?” or “What is it like?”
Totally. At that time I was interested in a few different questions I can immediately remember. Number one and two are questions I am still interested in:
1) What is my nature?Â
2) How much of this world/universe do I see now, and how much more of it can I discover?
3) Can I develop an addiction to any sort of a substance and then drop it, essentially test-driving my will?
(The answer on this one was a firm no, I can’t get addicted. Until I realized, a few years later, that I was addicted to sugar since a very early age. Still in the process of dropping it from my diet, not completely but keeping it under 20g per day, usually coming from fruit. Feels great!)
Other questions came and went and many stayed, of course. These were some of the ones that come to mind immediately.
You mentioned a collective memory earlier, some form of shared consciousness. Do you think of that as spiritual? Is it something we can fully know?
Well, the way I see physical and spiritual, they are one and the same thing, only manifesting on different levels, with things we currently often label as spiritual simply being things we are not able to see or do not understand them well enough. So I think of it as spiritual and physical.
I also believe we all know everything, always. I believe consciousness is fractal — everything in each part. This goes back to my experiences and to the experiments of David Bohm, a physicist at the University of London. Bohm believes objective reality doesn’t exist. The universe is a hologram. But I’ll backtrack a bit further. It’s 1982 and Alain Aspect, a physicist at the University of Paris, discovers that subatomic particles (such as electrons) are able to communicate with each other regardless of the distance separating them. Now this discovery, it cancels out Einstein’s idea of no information traveling faster than the speed of light.
Now Bohm uses this discovery in his research and finds out that when a hologram of a rose is cut in half and illuminated by a laser, each half still contains the entire whole of the original image of the rose. Boom. This repeats with every new division.
What we get is the whole in every part. Of anything.
Can we fully know everything? Yes. Based on this theory and my own research, I believe we all carry what might just be the complete knowledge of everything within us.
What comes next is the matter of accessing that knowledge and applying it.
So the answers are within rather than without. Is fiction — or really any writing — a means of gaining perspective? Like holding up one mirror to another so you can see the back of your head?
Very much so. I treat fiction as a vehicle for self-exploration. If the self-exploration is honest and goes deep enough it will resonate with me and therefore it will also resonate with other people. The emotional charge becomes inevitable. Coupled with knowledge of the craft and dedication to deliver whatever the story requires, it gets me somewhere good and neat. The destination changes and adjusts as I go along, however massive an outline I create.
James Ellroy writes these massive outlines that have about as many pages as his actual novels. William Gibson just starts with the first sentence and lets the novel take him along. I choose to embrace whatever feels right for each project. P.T. Anderson said this thing, I will paraphrase — he said that in order to do the best job possible he attempts to unlearn everything he knows before he starts a new film so he can dive into the experience with fresh eyes. And then he lets the knowledge come back as it needs to. I identify with that and I just choose whatever feels right at the time. The focus is always on the mirror. What is the thing that is alive in me right now? I should explore that. Is it an idea, a feeling, a fear? I should go toward it. I should examine it.
That sounds a little like a self-exorcism. A periodic, ongoing self-exorcism.
Yeah. It’s like — I was born with genetic memory. As I grew up I learned things. Some have a good effect on me, some do not. By the time I was fifteen or so I was the first draft of a book. And I felt terribly overwritten and about ten different kinds of wrong. So I started exploring the meaning of every word and every sentence and every character, and the meaning of the spaces in between, eventually going to exploring the way the book is made, the publishers, the history of the publishers, their associates, the history of books and literature as art, the history of books and literature as history. I learned things. I cut things down. That left space for new things, some good, some not. I repeated the process. Seeing myself right now, if I was fifteen, I would be very happy. I am, in a lot of ways, the man I wanted to be. Still — it’s a process and it’s ongoing and there is a lot left to improve. There is also a lot to enjoy.
So self-exorcism is a part of it. Leaving the part of self that doesn’t need to belong. Accepting new ones. Searching. Finding. Breathing in and out and looking up at the sky and thinking I can see the stars out tonight and being grateful for something as simple and as small and at the same time as big as that.
What needs improving?
There’s a two-fold answer to this. My first gut response is nothing because I am already everything I will ever be. I suspect that answer is correct, yet it also doesn’t encapsulate the wholeness of life.
The second part of the answer is: a lot. I can do better with some interpersonal skills. I can be a more attentive and committed listener and speaker. I can improve the ways I take care of my body. I can learn more concentration and meditation skills. I can be a different writer. I want to learn how to direct. I want to learn how to create a new art form. I want to learn how to run faster and I want to learn a few martial arts properly, on a very solid level. I want to learn Chinese and I want to learn to code. Maybe, if I follow my earlier thoughts, it’s less learning and more remembering of things I already know.
I want to be better, more precise, more direct at realizing my dreams. I want to be a kinder person overall. There’s so much to change.
I would also like to state that I do love myself a fair bit already. It’s not like I’m crucifying myself. I love my life and I love myself. I am just aware of things that can be expanded upon and/or extracted. Modify my reality. Challenge my limits.
There’s this sense of trusting the viewer, of letting the viewer understand the experience for themselves, removing some sort of imagined totality of my understanding of my own creation — that is within me. It’s one of the things I want to expand upon because I believe in the reader, in the viewer, in the person interacting with my work. The only totality of my creation I subscribe to is that you can see anything in it, which again connects with what seems to be emerging as the core theme of this conversation. So that’s another Fincher connection, also. He makes his best work when he truly trusts his audience.
I recently watched a documentary on Wong Kar-Wai’s key cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and he was mentioning the very same thing, which pleased me immensely. Sometimes I wonder how working in more traditionally Western structures, for example a very clear three-act structure I play with on “Iron Patriot,” influences me — it’s an experiment. At the same time I am working on things which are very much about exploring the opposite possibilities, no linear outlines, possibilities opening up as one writes, creates. I do hope I am becoming a holistic mutant that is simply moving between and merging things as I see fit, limited only by my own imagination, and actually yes, that is what I am.
Fincher’s camera angles often connect with the whole “seeing yourself, out of yourself” experience. This is of course not just Fincher but a very traditional shot for many directors — is the shot behind the protagonists’ back where we see them and then see what they see as well.Â
Fincher is interested in risks — so am I. I am interested in challenges. Challenges help me erase my perceived — but really imaginary, usually — limits. Again, it’s neat how well these things connect in the narrative of this interview. I just sort of stop to appreciate them.
What’s an example of a creative risk? Is the penalty for stumbling the loss of the audience? Something else?
What happens in “Zero” at the end of #5 is a creative risk. Without spoiling anything for new readers, the scope of the series — and the seeming design of it until that point — shows something much bigger, something I have never seen done in something that primarily worked as spy fiction for most of its duration. It’s the equivalent of a TV show doing something like this at the end of the first season, and saying: “This is not the story you thought you were reading. This is something new.”
The penalty is not being truthful. From that come other penalties — be it losing the audience, losing your momentum, losing your fuel, losing your thread. When I am not true to myself the universe slaps me fast. The point is to stay true to what needs to come out.
Any sort of a jump into the unknown is a creative risk. I choose to walk into a situation that is new and unpredictable with a belief that it will work out somehow. I make a tight plan and I stick with it or change it depending on my knowledge and on my gut. I focus on my belief and on my will and on my creativity and on my aim to be true to myself. What comes from that — the reaction of the universe, the world, the people — that is something I won’t be able to control, nor do I want to control it. I do my best and let go.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Ales Kot and follow him on twitter at @ales_kot.