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Kot Unwraps the Near-Dystopian Mysteries of “The Surface”

by  in Comic News Comment
Kot Unwraps the Near-Dystopian Mysteries of “The Surface”

We live in a world that’s growing smaller and smaller, every day. New technologies continue to break down the barriers of distance and communication, allowing people and companies to no longer be restricted to conducting business in just their country of origin. However, this globalization also means that wealth and political power is moving into fewer and fewer hands. So what happens when the world becomes an oppressive, almost Feudalist dystopia, where the average person has to struggle for whatever scraps those in power deign to give them? And how do you fight back against such a system when culture and technology is designed to keep the masses docile?

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These are two of the central questions fueling writer Ales Kot and artist Langdon Foss‘ new, creator-owned series from Image Comics. “The Surface” takes place in in an undefined future, following the quest of three socially conscious hackers in search of the titular mythical place that will help them change their reality on a fundamental level. We spoke with Kot about the world of “The Surface,” its polyamorous hacker protagonists, his often philosophical approach to telling its story, and the series’ long journey from his original idea to publication.

CBR News: In “The Surface,” you and Langdon Foss are taking readers to a future Earth where it’s not your typical sci-fi style dystopia, but it’s by no means a bright future, either. Approximately how far into the future is the story set, and what do you want readers to know about the technological, social and political climate of this world?

Ales Kot: The date in the first issue is set as uncertain, and I like it defined that way. What does time mean now, anyway? We live in accelerated times. Pasts and futures colliding within the present like waves against the rocks. In time, everything changes, the waves grow and recede, the rocks smooth out, change shape, disintegrate. Time is not just a flat circle; it’s whatever we make of it. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to leave a part of a story open.

The story is set in Tanzania. Imagine a world where corporations buy out most Western (and many other) governments while China and the Saudis divide Africa and other continents. The vast majority is being slowly laid off and killed, while the poorer yet are either bombed or otherwise killed or used in factories that manufacture weapons and all manner of objects that help keep the majority docile enough to perpetuate the status quo. All this while the top one percent — or, frankly, even less than that, about a hundred people if we’re talking top level — make profit for the sake of making profit. Greed, like Ouroboros, swallows itself.

At the same time, there are also positive elements to globalization, such as an increased evolution and merging of races and technologies. Diversification. Increased connectivity and information density. Of course, these things are not inherently positive. They are what we make of them, same as The Surface — it’s an oasis that allegedly projects one’s interior goings out into the world in a physical manner inseparable of what we call the “ordinary reality.”

Your three protagonists are Mark, Nasia, and Gomez, described these these characters as “hackers.” But from what I understand, that doesn’t just mean they have an affinity for computers.

Mark, Nasia and Gomez are polyamorous outlaw hackers who left the United States when the word “hacker” became near-synonymous with “terrorist,” another deeply misused and abused word. As the “Matrix” and plenty of people before taught us, reality is code — or, at least, code is a huge, important part of reality. So figuring out how to read and manipulate the code is crucial to living the life one wants. This sort of hacking doesn’t apply just to computers, no.

Case in point, their relationship. Being polyamorous, they’re essentially an open triad — meaning they’re all lovers, and don’t impose any unnecessary rules on what their relationship should be, or whether they can make any kind of a connection with other people as well. Now, people sometimes tend to make polyamory sound like something that has to be all about sex, but that’s merely lack of imagination. There’s plenty of kinds of human behaviors and they don’t always fit into simple definitions, but as long as there’s kindness and openness and honesty and communication involved, one can be truly surprised by what’s possible between consenting people, whether it’s two of them or twenty.

When we enter the story, the dynamic between Nasia, Gomez and Mark is loving, but also a bit unreal and perhaps uncertain — but isn’t it always?

Your three protagonists sound like very socially conscious people, and the series begins with them leaving their home because it’s become too oppressive. That suggests to me that when the series begins you’re dealing with morally discouraged characters — is that a fair assumption? Was it easy or hard for them to flee the U.S.?

Morally discouraged because they fled a country instead of staying there? I don’t think that has to have anything to do with morals, which are fluid and dependent on society instead of on what the individual believes is right. If we talk ethics, that’s about the individual and how he or she or it interacts with the society in an honest way that is rooted within oneself, and even in that case — it’s more about them improvising on the go than being morally discouraged. After all, they’re searching for the Surface, hoping to change things. I’d say them leaving the U.S. is a way of wanting to survive and improvise while staying true to what they want to do, which is help make the world a more equal and honest place for everyone in it.

Do Mark, Gomez and Nasia know if others have found the Surface?

There’s rumors, but nothing confirmed. There’s a map they got, but they don’t know whether it’s a real thing or a wild goose chase. They just go test it out, because the only way to find out if something works or not is to do it and see.

Are they the only ones looking for this mythical place? Are there parties with a vested interested in keeping them from finding it?

No, there’s more parties looking. Corporations, family, greed. Not everything is what it seems — right from the get-go.

As for the last question — nope, but maybe the opposite, parties that want to find it. You’ll have to read it to know for sure.

Do your protagonists eventually find the Surface? And if so, how does that change the story?

I’d like to keep this a secret. I want the readers to come in cold, at least to a certain extent, and feel the desert heat and the melting reality as the stones turn into turtles that turn into screens. Consider that a hint.

You and Langdon Foss aren’t just telling an epic story about a search for a mythical place — you guys are creating a possible future world. How much detail do you give Langdon, and what are some of the cool and interesting ideas that he’s added to this world?

Working with Langdon is fantastic. He’s performing as a consummate professional who cares about every bit of every page, delivers steadily, and outdoes what I offer in terms of my input. The process is a constant one-upping of each other in terms of finding and defining what ends up on the page. His art inspires me, and it seems that my art inspires him. I delight in our collaboration.

What Langdon adds is density, playfulness, atmosphere, character — everything. There is no aspect of the script he doesn’t help improve upon. A good example is his reworking of a double-page spread that shows a key city in our tale. We had a beautiful version — but it didn’t feel right to him. Who am I to say he shouldn’t be able to redraw the page? So he did, and the final is a much more organic, permeating presence that radiates off the page in a way that will likely help bring it back into the story later on.

I give Langdon as much as I feel is right. Sometimes, it’s a short paragraph that merely describes an action, sometimes an entire page of descriptive text. I don’t feel I am fully in control of where the imagery comes from. To assume that I am in full control would mean to assume we humans don’t have plenty of parasites that might be writing (ha, code again!) our everyday actions, and as medicine already proves, we certainly do have those. So what do I know, at the end of the day? I’m here for the ride.

I understand you and Langdon have been working on “The Surface” for a while — I believe the project was originally slated to come out in 2013. How does it feel to finally have the release date for issue #1 in sight? And how far along are you and Langdon?

2013, correct. Seeing the release date creep close — March 11 — feels fucking astonishing and a bit surreal. We’re working on issue three right now, with #4 production following in April.

I originally pitched the series to Oni Press with Dan Hipp attached — back in 2010 or so. Then I had Ulises Farinas on it and got ready to publish at Image — then that fell through as well when it became clear that while we liked each other, we had different ideas about the project. When neither one of these collaborations worked out, I got ready to dump the project and move on, but some time later I saw Langdon’s art and went — well, this feels just right. Why don’t we talk and see?

Sometimes, the right choice isn’t the first one or the second one. Sometimes, things take time and reworking and more belief that seems reasonable. But I don’t really care about being reasonable. Another abused word. Pfui.

One of the luxuries of a creator-owned comic is that you can tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Do you have that end mapped out already, and do you have an approximate idea on how many issues you would like “The Surface” to run?

I believe I know what the final page of “The Surface” is, but then again, I felt similarly with other projects, and then things changed.

I believe in rigorous preparation of the most professional order, and I believe in being fluid with storytelling and in going by feeling. One enables the other. The sequence in which these steps are applied is fluid, and so is their intensity. If anything applies across the board, it’s that the project shows the way. As a writer, I have to be the best listener possible. Otherwise — how am I going to hear the story I’m telling?

“The Surface” arrives in stores March 11.

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