Zero is not your typical comic book. The creator-owned Image Comics series from writer Ales Kot first burst on to the scene in 2013, and has fast grown to become one of my favorite monthly titles thanks to its heady brew of cinematic storytelling, kinetic action, and dense narrative that manages to both subvert and exceed expectations. The basic premise asks a simple question: “What if James Bond existed in real life?” From there, though, it is anything but simple, plunging headlong into some dark, complicated territory that ruminates on the nature of violence, humanity’s darker impulses, and the systems of war and violence that dominate the world in which we live. Not only does it feature a different artist for each issue, but it takes a well-trodden genre — international espionage — and deconstructs genre tropes in dynamic, exciting ways that we don’t often see in comics. It should come as no surprise that Zero has been optioned and is being adapted for television too.
Series creator Ales Kot is equally fascinating. The Czech-born writer is fiercely intelligent, thoughtful, but not without a wicked sense of humor — all of which are ingredients that make for great storytelling. And that’s exactly what you’ll find in Zero: great, layered storytelling. On its face, Zero plays out like a globetrotting spy thriller, but beneath its surface in the narrative’s subcutaenous tissue and in its sinews are some tremendously complex issues just waiting to be unpacked. In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see Zero start popping up on the hipper syllabi of political science college courses in the next couple of years. Zero‘s second volume, At the Heart of It All, is available now and in honor of its release, I caught up with Kot over e-mail where we had a long, winding, provocative and extremely satisfying conversation about the core themes he’s tackling in Zero, crafting an evolving visual narrative, the apocalypse as a force for change, and much more.
Nerdist: I’ve read that Zero is, in part, an exploration of “bleak male rage”. How would you define that? This sensibility has obviously permeated throughout pop culture and created a whole series of tropes and cultural idioms, but is this something that’s problematic or simply something worthy of exploration and dissection?
Ales Kot: The bleak male rage is problematic. Roughly 90% of violence in the world is perpetrated by men. We also start most wars.
The bleak male rage is the “black thing” war veterans with PTSD talk about. To quote Alan Moore’s “25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom,” sexually open and progressive cultures such as ancient Greece have given the West almost all of its civilizing aspects, whereas sexually repressive cultures such as late Rome have given us the Dark Ages. We live in a world where we are taught to be afraid of sexuality but we accept hate and violence as normal parts of our daily lives. We can show a head torn off in a comic without a problem but a woman’s nipple gets people upset. It’s time to change that narrative.
In order to understand what is happening I posit that the root factor of violence is often shame. The church or the government (what’s the difference, really?) tell us what we can do and can not do with our bodies, which parts we can show and which parts we can not — and unless we’re harming other people, there is never any need for that. What then does such repression do? What is the aim?
I posit that the aim is to create soldiers. All the unspent energy has to go somewhere. Sex dissolves barriers. War creates them. As long as we stay unaware of our conditioning, we might be processed by the machine.
How to get out of it?
A healthy dose of screwing also helps.
Nerdist: The notion of shame being the root factor in violence, particularly instances of extreme violence is a fascinating one and, admittedly, not on that I was familiar with beforehand. Although we, in theory, have a separation of church and state, the two are so ingrained as to be synonymous in terms of ethos and value systems. This is especially prescient when framed against the backdrop of repression around which much of Western society is built. This Puritanical impulse to feel bad about ourselves doesn’t leave much room for the flip side of that coin in which shame leads to personal improvement. In Justyna Maciejczak’s essay, she concedes that “shame is also a ‘self-critical feeling aimed at reforming the moral self‘ that can manifest through acknowledgment of the moral failure and effort at restitution to those adversely affected'”. That being said, in many instances, a black mark on someone’s record, as in the case of Thomas Hamilton or Kipland Kinkel, is seen as an eternal damnation, and often the only recourse seems to be to lash out physically.
Having just re-read Zero, Volumes 1 and 2, you can definitely trace this narrative throughout the ten issues. At first, Edward Zero is the perfect killing machine because he has been conditioned by Zizek, Cooke and his other teachers over the course of many years to believe that what he is doing is justifiable. “Every promise is a lie”, “Existence is a state of perpetual war” — to not believe in these tenets or to fail to complete a mission is to bring shame on the program and on oneself. For Edward, that transformation begins in the first issue when he sees the fallout of the senseless violence going on around him — a child crushed to death by rubble from the fight between the Israeli and Palestinian supersoldiers.
But is that sort epiphany an anomaly? I understand that it has to happen for the sake of the story, but how can we apply this to our every day life, to identify the systems and act? In your Tumblr post, you mention that education is an important part of the process, but it feels like that with all the bright lights and distractions of the modern world, that kind of idealism and messaging gets lost in the shuffle.
It seems like many of us are living in the same haze as Edward was for much of his time with the agency, albeit hopefully without as many prescription pills. How can we shake off this collective malaise?
Moreover, what can we learn from Edward’s evolution over the course of the book? Why is he an important character? He is initially a tool of war, but then he uses his unique skillset to dismantle these structures. The final moments of issue #8 and issue #10 are particularly affecting. Seeing Edward try to rebuild and assimilate to life in Iceland is a little heartbreaking, especially when the weight of the past bears down on him. Is it possible to make amends for so much awfulness, to bring oneself back from the abyss?
Ales Kot: I don’t see a single thing shame and will can be positively utilized for that can’t be substituted by love and will.
As for Zero’s epiphany and whether it’s an anomaly in today’s world — I don’t believe in quantifying experience, so I can’t tell whether that sort of a realization would be an anomaly or not. My first response to the “it happened for the sake of the story” bit is no, it did not, or at least that’s not the entirety of the answer. It happened because the story exists that way and wants to exist that way. I could make a perfectly planned story and go ahead with it and it would be completely limp unless the way I planned it and the way it felt when writing it cohered perfectly. And that rarely happens to me. I prefer getting lost in the act of writing — it becomes more like transcribing and then editing after the channeling is done. So…set and setting, as in research, preparation and contemplation, then getting lost in the chaos of the act itself, then re-emerging and going further with it, applying analytical intelligence again. But when I write the first draft I mostly switch the analytical part of my brain off.
How can we identify systems and act? I don’t really have any sort of a universal remedy. For myself, it always begins with self-examination, and then trying to see how the external systems resemble my internal systems. I work with the ones that support my own belief system and I don’t work with the ones who don’t. It’s a matter of assigning energy and time. If everything is a story — and I believe I am correct on this — then we are constantly living stories. Everything is belief. Everything is made up. Shortly after the realization that nothing has any objective meaning comes the realization that this means we can assign meaning as we see fit. This, I believe, applies to every aspect of our lives. So it’s about recognizing the world is composed of stories and then choosing and co-creating the narratives I believe in because they essentially reinforce my deepest self, which is a loaded term, so to simplify it I would say my deepest self is a feeling-based non-verbal experience based in my chest and expanding outwards.
So I don’t believe messages and idealism get lost in the shuffle. I believe we’re working on co-creating a better experience for every human being. It might take us centuries to get to the utopia, but I do believe that utopia is possible.
As for your questions regarding my interpretation of the comic, I prefer to let the readers find their own answers — and questions — without my interpretations getting in the way.
N: I both admire and appreciate the idea of “getting lost in the act of writing”, and channeling those creative energies into the raw material from which a story will emerge. I also agree with you that self-examination is the right first step to take. It’s easy to look outward and try to find fault in the world and external factors, but change comes first from within and that cannot happen without reconciling the internal and the external.
Now, to shift gears slightly and talk more logistics, do you have an end in sight for the story? How long could you see it running?
Ales Kot: I suspect I know exactly how long the story will run and what the ending will be. I am open to that morphing, but I suspect it won’t morph much. It already changed a lot in the past year. To say how long it will likely go would be to reveal entirely too much.
N: With the coming television adaptation, how involved in its production/development are you? I know it’s probably a pipe dream, but I’d really love it if the show could also employ the different visual aesthetic for each episode conceit of the comic.
Ales Kot: As for the show — I own Zero, so I’m exactly as involved as I decide to be. I feel it’s too early to talk about it in more detail, but I can say that I wrote the pilot and the story bible, that I signed with 3 Arts and WME as a creator, and that the series is in active development.
N: The scenes of Edward in the future have a particularly apocalyptic quality to them, which is saying something especially when you see bits and pieces of the path that lead him there. But one thing that seems refreshing is that in spite of what is clearly a ravaged or changed world, the apocalypse seems less like a force of end-of-days destruction and more like one of evolution or coagulating over a wound. How do you approach this notion of apocalypse within Zero?
Ales Kot: The notion of constant change is precisely my understanding of apocalypse. Apocalypse, as translated from Greek, means un-covering, a revealing of knowledge, a disclosure, a lifting of a veil. I see it used in the “end of the world” scenarios very often but I hardly even believe anything truly begins or ends. Western culture feared death for so long — I’m bored with that narrative. Death is life, life is death, forever intertwined. Apocalypse is a constant.
N: You’ve likely addressed this before, but one of the most compelling aspects of the comic for me is the constantly shifting aesthetic as a new artist comes aboard for each issue. Why was this an important aspect of the comic to you? Is it meant to reflect Edward’s evolving worldview in a way as his perceptions shift and change over the course of his story?
Ales Kot: Yes, I wanted to establish a visual narrative that would help us convey the constant change present in the world, not just the world of the character, but the world/universe we all live in. Change is a constant. To show this through the text and the visual (there is no separation, as all text is is visual sigils with agreed-upon meaning, or at least sometimes agreed-upon meaning) is important to me because truth is important to me. I believe in truth. I identify with Hunter S. Thompson’s quote on the state of journalism in the United States which posits, and I will paraphrase here, that objective journalism is the reason politics in America can remain corrupt. The idea of journalistic objectivity — as in, the totalitarianism of it, the dogmatic use of it so it conceals instead of reveals — feels rotten to me. I believe that all fiction is journalism, the same as all journalism is fiction.
I also wanted to work with a lot of new artists, forge new relationships, co-create a bigger, vibrant community, show new or perhaps simply less visible approaches to comics as entertainment and art.
N: Agreed. All journalism and all fiction, in their very sinews, have some sort of core messaging that is ingrained into their very DNA. True objectivity is seemingly impossible.
That also reminds me of a great Jack Kirby quote [from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story]: “You fellas think of comics in terms of comic books, but you’re wrong. I think you fellas should think of comics in terms of drugs, in terms of war, in terms of journalism, in terms of selling, in terms of business. And if you have a viewpoint on drugs, or if you have a viewpoint on war, or if you have a viewpoint on the economy, I think you can tell it more effectively in comics than you can in words. I think nobody is doing it. Comics is journalism. But now it’s restricted to soap opera.”
Even though comic book-inspired films are dominating the box office, do you think they’ve broken free from that soap opera perception they’ve sometimes had in years past?
Regarding the artists with whom you’ve worked, is there one who, having not worked with them previously, particularly surprised you? On the flip side of that coin, is there an artist you’re dying to work with?
Ales Kot: Oh wow. Kirby said that? Kirby said that. I just echoed Kirby. So surprised. Perfectly said.
Artists — everyone I ever picked surprised me (mostly) in the most positive way. I’m serious. As for artists I’d like to work with (and haven’t had the chance to work with so far), if we’re talking comics — Chris Burnham, Nick Dragotta, Nick Pitarra, Jock, Fiona Staples, Lynn Varley, Julia Gfrörer, Jeff Lemire, Tsutomu Nihei, Hope Larson, Marian Churchland, James Stokoe, Colleen Doran.
Comic book-inspired films don’t have to break from the soap opera perception. Only we are in charge of our own perception, each one for ourselves. My perception is that there are wonderful comics that are now also wonderful films in their own right — Blue is the Warmest Color being one of them. Oldboy. Persepolis. A History of Violence. Road to Perdition. Snowpiercer. Tekkon Kinkreet. Tim Burton’s Batman movies, which are soap, but perfectly executed, layered, weird soap. I don’t have a problem with soap opera. What I search for is storytelling that is in some way vibrant, alive. This can happen in as many ways as we can imagine — and I believe imagination might just be boundless.
Zero, Vol 2: At The Heart of it All is available now via Image Comics wherever fine books are sold.