If you don’t know Ales Kot’s name already, you will soon, since he is one of the most dynamic, exciting creators in the industry today. His debut graphic novel Wild Children, in which a group of anarchist students take their school hostage, was at once unsettling, thought-provoking and deeply immersive. Now, the Czech-born writer is taking his talents to Image Comics with the brand new ongoing series Zero, an international spy thriller starring Edward Zero, one of the top field operatives for the mysterious, shadowy Agency. Despite the highly cinematic action and the slick veneer of genre fiction, Zero belies a deeper meaning, one which delves into the very nature of war and identity themselves. What would you do if you discovered the agency you were working for was a lie? This is a question that lies at the center of Zero, one which drives its protagonist to fight a war both inside and out.
Ales may have put it best on his Tumblr:
“ZERO is a secret agent. Edward Zero. He’s the perfect execution machine, in a sense — throw him at a problem and he will solve it. Just remember that the way he reaches the solution may not always be to your liking, because he’s a bit of a sociopath.
“But what happens when a sociopath realizes ideas and systems he based his life upon are deeply broken and not at all what they were supposed to be?
“This is the question. ZERO is the answer.
“ZERO is about wars internal and external. ZERO is about secrecy and freedom. ZERO is about conflict and resolution. ZERO is about growing up.
“ZERO is a speculative fiction action thriller that begins in 2018 and ends in 2038.
“ZERO is coming.”
To take you further inside the world of Zero before it deploys on September 18th, I caught up with Kot to pick his brain about the heady themes percolating under the surface, referencing Foucault, and how to cope with a constantly shifting visual aesthetic.
Nerdist: Given the current geopolitical climate and issues of secrecy and espionage becoming legitimate concerns rather than genre fodder, Zero seems to be particularly prescient. Why do you feel it is an important story to tell?
Ales Kot: Zero is a speculative fiction action thriller – one of the most popular forms of entertainment and exploration these days, and I am interested in investigating it.
It feels like an important story to tell because it’s alive everywhere; around me and inside me. I want to be true to the world and to myself twenty-four hours a day, every day. In order to do that, I have to work with everything that is alive inside me – my fears, my hopes, my beliefs, my drives, my experiences, my past, my present.
Hemingway said there’s nothing to writing, you just sit at a typewriter and bleed. I’m going with his advice.
N: I find it interesting that you refer to your work as “speculative fiction.” Why that particular label?
AK: The label of “speculative fiction” is a blank space. It encompasses everything, not just genres but also the spaces between them, around them, pockets within them. The term “speculative fiction” is very useful for me because of the narrative freedom it implies.
N: Your first arc on Suicide Squad was entitled “Discipline and Punish,” which if I’m not mistaken is a reference to Foucault. Like Suicide Squad, Zero seems to hone in on these powerful institutions and shine a light on these “disciplines” employed by the military-industrial complex and global intelligence agencies. Is the modern world becoming a prison, a system through which the powers that be can try to manage our responses? Or have I just had too much coffee and I’m reading into this too much?
AK: Yes, that is a reference to Foucault. Nice catch!
Can one ever read too much into anything? I don’t believe in the tyranny of one true interpretation. You can read as much as you want into it.
The modern world is becoming the story we believe in. This story is continually re-created by our beliefs and the actions stemming from these beliefs.
I don’t believe the modern world is becoming a prison. I believe it’s becoming more free every second. This doesn’t mean I am oblivious to the fact that Chelsea Manning just got 35 years in prison for telling the truth about the US government and that it’s now illegal to be gay in Russia; quite the opposite. I simply refuse to give in to the narrative that says the world is becoming worse.
I can’t change the world. What I can change is myself. And every internal change inevitably influences the external world, as we constantly interact. So I focus on changing myself instead of the world, and Zero is a part of that internal process becoming external.
N: War and its repercussions are obviously central to the story. You manage to simultaneously present violence in an exciting, cinematic fashion while showing its horrors and not overly glamorizing it. How do you toe that line?
AK: I start from the place of knowing that there’s nothing glamorous about violence. The animalistic tendencies and urges to fight and kill are within me and acting like they are not would be lying to myself – however, the way I choose to work with them and use them is entirely up to me, and I choose to transmute them into creative, positive energy.
Lot of my understanding of how war affects people comes from a relatively recent understanding of its repercussions within my family. My grandfather lost his dad and a girl he loved dearly before he was ten years old due to the events of the Second World War. His reaction to these events created long-standing negative belief patterns that went through our family for generations and influenced me directly on levels I did not see until recently. Now that I recognized them, I changed them for myself and I broke the circle. It took over seventy years to do so.
Being in fights when young helped me understand how to depict violence responsibly. Training now does the same thing. Observing and examining the war meme from as many angles as I can with an open mind is very helpful.
What would we do if all the wars stopped? What we do with all that extra energy? Can that even happen, on a biological level? And if so, what would a world like that look like?
N: I understand that each issue will have a different artist, which bums me out a bit because I loved the art in this first issue, but I’ll keep an open mind. What was the impetus behind this decision? Does that affect how you write, knowing that it’ll wind up with a different visual aesthetic?
AK: I loved Global Frequency, which utilized the “one story, one mission, one place, one artist” system, when it came out years ago. I enjoy done-in-one stories. I enjoy working with great artists. At the same time, I also wanted a large canvas to explore… so I decided to mix the approach to a done-in-one narrative with a large continuing series. Once I realized that Zero‘s point of view evolves quite often, utilizing different artists became the right choice.
The format affects how I write, very much so. Every script is a love letter to the artist I am working with. Every artist works differently, and I study their art diligently to achieve a smooth flow of creative synergy.
At the same time, the visual aesthetic is held together by the characters, by the story threads, by Jordie Bellaire’s coloring, by the lettering of Clayton Cowles and by Tom Muller’s design sense.
N: In past interviews, you’ve been outspoken about creator-owned work. Do you prefer working on creator-owned projects versus playing in an existing toy box? Why?
AK: I love both. What it comes down to for me is this: With a company-owned property, the company gets has the last word on what goes into print. Therefore, unless I am given free reign, I can not create something as creatively satisfying as the work I own myself, with my collaborators. I can still create a good, satisfying story when I am working on a company-owned property, but I don’t have the final word on it – unless a no-edits clause goes into my contract, and I believe that one day it will.
Zero is me having free reign. I am interested in having full creative control in everything I do.
N: A bit on the lighter side, what comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
AK: Michael Deforge’s LOSE #4 melts body horror and teenage romance into a package that makes me chuckle and look behind the toilet at the same time. Because that’s where I read it.
East of West #5 was a very emotionally satisfying end to the first arc. Seeing Nick Dragotta let loose and allow more Nihei influence in his work is a wonderful surprise.
Satellite Sam, for its passion and excitement about the era it depicts, and because seeing Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin collaborate on something so dear to them is a joy.
Hawkeye, because it’s a ’70s superhero comic that never was transported into our time – and again, the joy of everyone involved in it is infectious.
Saga because it’s human and tender and because it teaches me about life.
N: Odd question, but bear with me – what would be inside your ideal burrito?
AK: Brown long-grain rice. Fresh guacamole. Black beans. Cashew cheese. Tempeh bacon.
Take a sneak peek at the first 5 pages of Zero #1, courtesy of Ales Kot and Image Comics, and feast your eyes on all four awesome variant covers by Chris Burnham, Becky Cloonan, Michael Walsh, and Paul Pope, which are then turned into a creative chimera courtesy of Tom Muller.
And while we’re here, why not take a look at the cover art for Zero #2?
Ales Kot’s Zero #1, published by Image Comics, hits your local comic book store on September 18th, which is also my birthday, so do me a favor and pick yourself up a copy. Keep up with Ales’ many exploits on Twitter and let him know what you thought!
Are you excited for Zero? Let us know in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter.