Talking Comics with Tim | Ales Kot on <i>Change</i>

By most accounts, 2012 has been a damn fine year for Image Comics. Ales Kot was one of the many independent creators involved in this success, given the July release of Wild Children (the writer's graphic novel collaboration with Riley Rossmo). Wednesday sees the debut of his new Image miniseries (with artist Morgan Jeske) Change. In October, we offered a preview of the project, about "a struggling screenwriter/successful car thief, an obscenely wealthy astronaut and a dying cosmonaut on his way back to Earth". After reading this interview, be sure to check out Comic Book Resource's interview with Kot regarding his other upcoming Image projects, Zero and The Surface.

Tim O'Shea: What prompted you to open Issue 1 with quotes from electro duo Holy Ghost's 2011 song Do It Again and Sylvia Plath's The Rival?

Ales Kot: The Holy Ghost quote alludes to separation, tuning things out, not paying attention, not seeing the full picture. The Plath quote is about the other, the shadow we all carry with us, the beauty and terror intertwined. Both quotes reflect some of the key themes of the comic.

When you make a choice to have a character that likes to cuss, what does that bring to dialogue dynamics? How does it help the story you want to tell?

I don't think I had much of a choice. The characters speak -- I just write things down and apply my own sensibility but only to the point where it doesn't conflict with what feels right naturally, which is an incredibly vague statement no reader will probably have any use for. So let's try it again: I tune in, hear and write down what the characters have to say, sometimes there's a scene I already have completely formed in my head, sometimes I just have an idea or a key piece of the scene or sometimes I don't have anything at all, but whatever the case, I listen because that's what writers have to be good at. Then I edit everything into something that feels right as a scene. Sometimes it doesn't work and I have to throw it out, sometimes it works perfectly, sometimes it needs readjusting later. I love the process.

W-2 came fully formed when it came to certain aspects. The cussing was one of them. Same with Sonia. Most people just cuss - some more, some less - some do it because they need to blow off some steam, some do it only when they're scared, some just use cussing the way others use punctuation. W-2 cusses because it's natural to him.

I love that you created a rap artist with the name W-2. How many false starts did you have with his name before you settled on that?

Thank you, I'm glad you like it! No false starts. I had Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow on the table in my living room when I was thinking about the character. The book largely focuses on V-2 rockets Nazi Germany developed during the second world war. Yes, this is how my sense of humor works sometimes.

How challenging is it to bring a third character into the story (mostly set on the planet) who is in space?

When I began working out the shape of the story, I wanted to include a setting or a character that would immediately connect with Morgan's aesthetic sensibility. Morgan was already on board for the project, but I felt that it was right to bring a wild card into the mix by simply following my gut and looking at his other comics for inspiration. We both love SF, Morgan draws amazing astronauts -- so that was it. I let the astronaut come to me in visual form, described him to Morgan, we got exactly who we wanted...and then I had to come up with a way to make the narrative work with the astronaut, which was exactly the kind of challenge I love. It already felt right to have the astronaut in, but the logistics of it needed to be sound and precise. I'm glad to report that I figured it all out just a few days later.

It was challenging, yes, but creating the astronaut and finding his place within the narrative was the leap into the unknown -- both literally and figuratively -- that turned this project into something much more complex than it was before.

The story utilizes layouts that seemingly escalate the tension of the narrative in certain scenes (such as Page 18). How much did you request that in the script versus that being a creative choice made by the art team?

Morgan and I have a tight collaborative process that allows for a lot of empty spaces where we can invent and reinvent things on our own, but also discuss ideas and tell each other what we want whenever we feel like it. I trust Morgan's artistic choices as he's quite attuned to the story. With #1, for example, we discussed the overall shape of the issue, what we wanted it to do and how we would go at it. At that point, we already knew we wanted to make a dense comic with increasing tension. When I wrote the script for #1, I specified the amount of panels per page and I described every panel, but I also told Morgan to add, subtract and simply change things as he sees fit. When the pages come back, I work with them and include everything that was altered in my editing/rewriting process. It feels very holistic. I find openness, trust and creativity paramount for relationships in general.

Before embarking on this project, had you tried your hand at writing rap lyrics before?

I'm pretty sure I did at some point, yeah. I enjoyed Eminem's first three albums as a very young teenager, then got into the UK grime scene, raggacore, Beastie Boys, Wu-Tang, MF Doom, DJ Rupture's brilliant Gold Teeth Thief mix introduced me to Dead Prez ... this great piece on Ghostface by David Brothers reminded me that I never listened to most of his solo albums, although I loved everything I heard, so I went back and explored further. I used to write poetry a lot, and anything can be poetry when you do it right. Comics are poetry. Rap lyrics are poetry. Jumping in the middle of the empty street at 3 am can be poetry. So I tried, yeah, but it never felt quite right -- I needed to become a better writer to even try again, and that took years of listening, thinking and writing.

The end of Issue 1 features lyrics to W-2's "Four Ways to Forgiveness." By including that, is an attempt on your part to inject some element of intertextuality (albeit all of your own writing) in the narrative?

Not an attempt. Everything is connected, that's all I'm willing to say. May the discovery be a journey in itself.

Was this story written with Morgan Jeske in mind, or did he join the project after you had written the script? Either way, why do you think his art is a good fit for your work?

Written with Morgan in mind. I like to write for an artist, work in tandem and in a team, feel the closeness shared creativity and enthusiasm bring to the mix. Before I start a project, I do my best to read and reread everything the artist has done before, picking my collaborators carefully, researching and dissecting their work.

Morgan was the right artist because there was no project before I looked at his art. His work on Disappearing Town made me think - yeah, I better come up with a great story, because I really want to work with this guy. The sensitivity of his line is beautifully coupled with its love for every angle of whatever he's drawing. There's something distorted about it, too -- you can see the lightly broken elegance and energy of Pope's work but also shades of Quitely's focused distortion and Corben's grotesque horror merging with Ba's & Moon's ink ballet. I could see that Morgan feels scenes as he draws them. The way he takes inspiration in and works with it until he turns it into something new is close to what I aim for. We like similar art, we're both nuts for learning as much about other artists' process as possible. Morgan's constantly pushing himself, which is another trait I value greatly. No cheap shots. No half measures.

As an independent creator, how challenging is it to build your reading audience -- considering that you have folks like this Robot 6 reader who [seemingly] refused to pick up your work, based on a version of your bio blurb on your website?

Based on his comments, it's not clear whether the reader refused to buy my work or simply felt a bit put off, in his own words, and then read my work anyway. I certainly hope it was the second.

Overall, building my reading audience one reader at a time feels like the right path. Talking to retailers is also very important. Image did a nice overprint and Change #1 is selling very well, so I'm hoping retailers will make sure they have #1 in stock when #2 ships. But it all begins with me making the best comics I can create. Then it's down to making sure people know about my work, being open to critique, doing signings, cons ... if readers want to contact me directly, my Twitter and Tumblr are always at their service, as is my email. Communication is the key.

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