NYCC EXCLUSIVE: Ales Kot Doubles Down with "Zero" & "The Surface"

NYCC: Ales Kot's Brave New Worlds

"Change" and "Wild Children" writer Ales Kot discusses his two new Image Comics series' "Zero" and "The Surface."

Most writers are content to announce just one project at New York Comic Con, but not Ales Kot. Image Comics revealed two new creator-owned books at their "Image Comics Experience" panel from the "Change" and "Wild Children" writer. "Zero" melds traditional, real-world espionage and super-spy fiction starting in May, and each issue features a different artist illustrating a stand-alone story. Each issue of the ongoing series will be able to stand on its own but also act as a part of a larger narrative. So far, Kot has recruited Michael Gaydos ("True Blood"), Riley Rossmo ("Debris"), Tradd Moore ("The Legend of Luther Strode"), and Nick Dragotta ("FF"), among others. The series focuses on an agent by the name of Edward Zero who makes a decision a few issues into the series that will lead to his death two decades down the line.

Meanwhile, Kot also has a futuristic fantasy in the works with "Get Jiro" artist Langdon Foss called "The Surface." This four-issue miniseries follows a trio of hackers in the future looking for a mythical place called The Surface that will offer them sanctuary from the overly governed world they live in. As these things tend to go, though, The Surface turns out to be a lot more than our heroes expected.

CBR News talked with Kot about working with so many artists on "Zero," developing the world of "The Surface" and how Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" plays into both.

CBR News: The concept of not only doing one-off stories, but also having a different artist on each of them is a pretty interesting one. Was that one of the initial ideas you had for "Zero?"

Ales Kot: Indeed. "Zero" is a story created to be both an ongoing comic book made of self-contained stories and also a comics series that rewards readers who read every issue. Each issue will cover one mission, but there will be an ongoing story that will become more defined as we progress. You'll be able to buy an issue and enjoy it by itself -- that is the point -- but there's a larger narrative at hand.

I always loved spy stories, and super-spy stories as well. It's an important distinction to make. On one hand, you have films like "Argo" and "Carlos" and books like "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" that fall on the real spy/terrorism side, and then also the James Bond movies, the Bourne stories, "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright," "Casanova," all of that. "Zero" is a combination of both.

What can you tell us about Zero and the decision he makes that changes the course of his life?

Zero: thirty-three when we first meet him; we begin in 2017. Edward Zero lost his parents early on, the agency took care of him. Decades of unspent anger and unprocessed pain. Highly intelligent. Twenty-one scars. He's not the kind of spy you put inside a building, he's the kind of a spy you use for the dirtiest work possible. Has a substance abuse problem. Doesn't even like his job. He's just going through the motions until the action comes, because the action allows him to temporarily forget that he's alive.

The decision -- I can tell you that it occurs in #4, and the first arc ends with #5. I won't spoil things beyond that. A side note, because this is fresh on my mind, and also connected to the question, albeit tangentially: the documentaries and research of Adam Curtis are a big help. I can't recommend his work enough -- "How to Kill a Rational Peasant" is the last essay I read. The amount of notes I took borders on ridiculous.

Will the stories come out chronologically or will you be taking more of a non-linear approach?

Chronologically for the most part, but there will be some small trips, both to the past and to the future. The agency Zero's working for -- and the reason he's working for them -- is a huge part of the why.

You're dealing with this agent's life over an almost 20-year span, Do you have every issue mapped out at this point?

I have the first 15-16 issues mapped out (mostly) tightly, and the rest in a broad outline. The bones are there, and I constantly revise all of the story, staying open to new ideas. If all goes well, the entire series should be 30-35 issues long, and that's about 700-800 pages of possibilities. Do I know what the last scene is? Yes, I do.

You're working with a lot of great artists on this book. How did you go about securing them for issues?

Slowly. As Edgar Allan Poe said, "There is an eloquence in true enthusiasm," so I made sure I knew what I was talking about before I pitched the story, and then approached those artists whose work and creative attitude I respect. John Layman, who writes "Chew" and "Detective Comics," used to edit "Global Frequency," which utilized the same tactic of done-in-one stories, switching artists every issue. He advised me to be prepared for hell when scheduling all this, so I began setting everything up very early, a year before the official announcement. We should have nine scripts and five issues finished before "Zero" #1 comes out.

Before I started thinking about "Zero," I realized that I want to collaborate with many great artists, and I wanted to find an organic way of achieving that. The story of "Zero" began as a near-future dark spy ops story -- think "Homeland" meets "Brave New World" meets the revamped James Bond movies -- and then I realized that a simple genre exercise wouldn't be enough, because I don't want to deliver something you could have already read. I examined the whole super-spy archetype and realized it's a black mirror that travels through our history, reflecting many of our worst fears and primal animalistic hopes. It's not a big revelation, but I needed to be reminded of that angle, because it set the foundation for what came next.

"Zero" is me and the Zero Collective -- all the artists, Jordie Bellaire on colors, Clayton Cowles on lettering -- working in the genre, but also hopefully reworking it from the inside. You know how "Breaking Bad" turns into a horror series and you realize it only at a certain point, because you thought you were watching something else? With "Zero," we're aiming for a similar effect, but instead of horror -- we're going somewhere else with it. I'm fairly certain that I came up with a story that will simultaneously reward readers who look for a satisfying genre work, and also readers searching for something original.

Moving over to "The Surface," what can you tell us about the three hackers that star in the series?

Mark comes from one of the wealthiest families in the US. He created a mobile phone app that saves thousands of lives every year before he was fourteen years old. The app is connected to tsunami warning systems all over the world. It starts producing an alarm every time a tsunami wave threatens to endanger areas designated by the phone's user. Mark is well-composed and a little bit cocky. If you look at the picture, he's the guy in front.

Nasia worked with mute children since she was seventeen, and programmed software that transcribes their internal processes into language. This open-source software was widely modified and is now used in a variety of fields, including military. In fact, even Mark's father's company uses it. She also used to write a column for "VICE" when she was a teenager on the run.

Gomez is a strange mess of a man, he's a bit of a distanced weirdo who'd love to be perceived as a leader, but often sabotages himself. He also likes urban beekeeping and ramen.

All three of them are very open-minded people, or they at least initially seem that way. They decide to leave the US because laws inspired by real-life laws like NDAA have made it near-impossible to enjoy living there. A disintegration of once-common truths and values makes facts and dreams seem almost meaningless. It's the current culture in the US brought to an even stronger extreme. "1984" won't likely happen, but as Michio Kaku says in his fascinating "The World in 2030" talk, "Brave New World" eventually might. The future we establish in "The Surface" is a combination of that approach, "Idiocracy" and people who are trying to change the world for the better by lifehacking -- by creating resilient communities, by being good and empathetic to one another.Here I come mentioning "Brave New World" again, it's clear that the book is a huge influence on my thinking. I read it for the first time when I was about fifteen, and I haven't been the same since. Aldous Huxley's entire body of work is fascinating.

The Surface sounds like a pretty wild place, how do the hackers hear about it and why do they want to find it?

The Surface is the worst kept secret in the world. Almost everyone has heard about it, but no one ever found it. It is said that The Surface morphs and changes its position quite often.

Mark, Gomez and Nasia want to find The Surface because they see it -- some consciously, some subconsciously -- as a way to escape their own problems, at least for a while. It's escapism. It's about the journey, not about the destination, or so they think. They don't really expect to find the place, because it sounds like a myth, like something no-one has ever discovered. Imagine the surprise when Mark, Gomez and Nasia discover the place where everything changes in sync with their imaginations. You can ride that wave, or you can try to act like you're not responsible for it. The choice is for each one of us to make alone.

It sounds like finding The Surface might not be all it's cracked up to be for them. What kind of challenges do they run into once they find the place?

The problems will be two-fold. Just like with life, they will emerge from the outside as well as from within, both almost at the same time. Spoiling what they will be would be just mean. There will be action: robots, humans, and many other species and things will collide in many a different fashion, and you can expect many ways of problem-solving: running, jumping, thinking, punching, feeling, combining, refining, using science, using blunt objects, using imagination...

That city-ship you see in the teaser image is definitely a part of the coming storm. There are old wounds and lies and fears that will come back to haunt the protagonists. Beings with unclear purpose appear. Humans driven by trauma make their play. Also coming: ronin of uncertain origin, bonobos and more.

I loved the way films like "Inception" or "District 9" created fast-paced stories that still made you think and feel things. With "The Surface," we want to achieve a similar effect, but instead of going overboard with the "future is a grim and horrible place" scenario, we want to explore a future that's much more complex than that. What if Moebius worked on "Inception" or "District 9?" That's my way of looking at this.

How did you hook up with Langdon Foss and what made him the right guy for "The Surface?"

I sent him a pleasant e-mail. He responded with grace and genuine curiosity. I loved Langdon's art from the first time I saw it in the promo materials for "Get Jiro," the graphic novel Langdon did with Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose and all the other people in their stunning team. We started talking, realized we vibed on a very similar human/post-human wavelength, and talked stories long enough to be 100% sure that we're compatible not only as people, but also as creators. Then we met in San Diego this year, had an amazing time hanging out, agreed to do some ridiculous things there next year -- and then Langdon turned in the first piece, the one that's posted with this interview. I had high hopes, and what Langdon created exceeded them. He's a great human being, and a responsible, smart, uniquely creative artist. There's no creator in this world I'd rather make "The Surface" with.

Image Comics will release "Zero" #1 in May 2013 with "The Surface" to follow later in the year.

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