When Ales Kot took over DC's team comic Suicide Squad last month, most readers were not only shocked by the team's new member, but there were also a lot of critics and comic fans who were surprised by Kot's writing.
As one of Newsarama's own "Best Shots" reviewers said: "What was once a struggling title has found a startling new voice and new direction."
What might be even more surprising is that Kot's "voice" comes from a corner of the world that doesn't often influence American comics: He grew up in Czechoslovakia, and he and his parents escaped the country in 1988 during Soviet occupation, then returned when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.
Although he was interested in comics since childhood, his break into American publishing came in 2011 when he took some of his pitches to Eric Stephenson of Image Comics. By July 2012, he had published his first graphic novel, Wild Children, which got such wide acclaim that DC took note. And within a few months, he was on board for Suicide Squad.
For those of you who are still "startled" by what Kot brings to Suicide Squad, it might be worthwhile to check out the writer's indie work.
And this month provides the perfect opportunity, as the writer's most recent comic series, Change, will be collected and released by Image Comics on June 26th.
When describing Change, Kot says, "It's the best story I have written so far."
Originally released as a mini-series, Change tells the story of how a few interconnected people in Los Angeles try to save the city before it turns into Atlantis — and gets swallowed by the something terrible lurking in the ocean.
Newsarama talked to Kot about his unusual upbringing and how it influenced his work, particularly on the themes explored in Change.
Newsarama: First, Ales, let's talk about your upbringing, because I know with a name like Ales, you're probably from the other side of the world. And how much does your background influence the stories you write?
Ales Kot: I was born in the Czech Republic. The region I spent most of my first two decades in is very industrial, very similar to north of England, and it carries wounds and scars that go very deep and very far back in time.
For example, my grandfather lost two people who were dear to him in the second World War before he was 10 years old, and then had to take care of the farm with his mother. My father worked, among other things, as a miner – specifically the kind that places explosives deep in the shafts where no one else dares to go. The air is immensely polluted and the forests away from the cities are alive and breathing and vast. It's a rough region that is simultaneously very beautiful.
Nrama: Yet you emerged from this environment as a comic creator?
Kot: I feel very lucky that I had parents who were – and are – supportive of me despite their own baggage, which comes with the region. I was a smart and wild kid who wanted freedom and that alone was hugely intimidating to almost everyone around me until I became old enough to leave. It wasn't until much later that I realized how many deep wounds incidents such as the Second World War and the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia had inflicted upon almost everyone, generation after generation.
There were also many wonderful events, such as my parents bravely escaping Czechoslovakia with me in 1988 in order to live in West Germany, the Velvet Revolution in 1989, being encouraged to be honest and fair despite the environment that often promoted the exact opposite, playing soccer and watching a ten times copied videocassette of Rambo III with my dad back when video recorders were a luxury...
...I could go on for hours, days even, but the point is, I can only write that what is alive in me, and what is alive in me will always be influenced, amongst other things, by that which I have lived through, by my genetic memory, by nature, by nurture. The best I can do is be honest about it and create stories that use the personal experience in a universal way.
Nrama: You have a fascinating background. What drives you as a creator now? How did you first get interested in making comics, and is that still your motivation?
Kot: I am driven by love and everything that is alive inside me.
I became interested in making comics as soon as I read my first one, or at least the first one I remember – a Donald Duck issue someone in my family, I am not sure who at the moment, gave me when I was in bed with pneumonia, age 3 or so. I distinctly remember being transported into a new world and forgetting about my woes. I was encouraged to indulge in my creativity, so drawing comics came shortly after.
Making the best comics I can make is definitely one of my key objectives in life. I have a profound need to share, to communicate, and comics are a wonderful form of communication that will be hugely important to our evolutionary development as a 21st Century species.
Nrama: Let's talk specifically about this new release from Image, the collection of your recent series Change. How would you describe the story?
Kot: Los Angeles is going to die in two days and the only people who can save it are a screenwriter turned car thief, a rapper turned producer, an astronaut on his way back from one of Jupiter's moons, and a little boy hidden inside a bigger boy.
Change is a speculative fiction horror thriller imbued with a healthy dose of absurdism and surrealism. It's a rather simple story that becomes more complex as it moves closer to the annihilation of Los Angeles.
It's the best story I have written so far.
Nrama: What was the inspiration for the story? How did you come up with it?
Kot: I will give you a laundry list that will include some of the key inspirations: not being honest with myself and wanting to do better. A huge personal upheaval. Apocalyptic dreams. Jungian analysis. Kanye West. Entertainment business. Forgotten wounds that were still influencing life. “Hospice” by The Antlers. A deep want to create a collaboration that would be completely fluid, with all the freedom it required. Four years of life in Los Angeles. Tony Scott; his work, his suicide.
As for the process itself, it was very exciting. I had about two hundred pages of notes and random bits, plus about six outlines.
Nrama: That's a lot of preparation.
Kot: Regardless, once the first issue formed itself mostly according to the outline, with an inclusion of a few seemingly random elements...I threw almost everything I had written out of the window and, with the exception of a few scenes, simply rewrote everything bit by bit as my own mind unraveled itself and showed me the right path. I had to take chances and allow myself to trust the creative chaos of the moment; it was a decision I am wholeheartedly happy about.
None of the process would be what it was without my collaborators. The creative partnership with Morgan Jeske is a treasure and one of the most beautiful things that came into my life during the past few years. Working with Sloane Leong, our colorist, was a great experience that added layers of meaning to the story as Sloane connected and just knew.
A good example of how the process worked: I cut about twelve pages of texts out of the last issue because the art was telling the story so well that there was no need for words.
Nrama: What are the broader themes you're exploring in Change?
Kot: Apocalypse as a personal event. Apocalypse is change. Apocalypse means uncovering; lifting of a veil, disclosure of knowledge.
Kot: Comics-wise, I am currently working... on some comics for publishers I won't talk about until they get announced — and a few creator-owned projects at Image, the first of which is coming out this September. Its name is Zero, and it's an ongoing series about a secret agent, Edward Zero. He's the perfect execution machine, in a sense – throw him at a problem and he will solve it.
However, he is also a bit of a sociopath.
The question I am interested in answering is, what happens when a sociopath realizes ideas and systems he based his life upon are deeply broken and simply not right?
Zero answers that question. It's a speculative fiction action thriller that begins in 2018 and ends in 2038, with each issue drawn by a different artist because each issue will stand on its own. At the same time, all issues will form a larger story.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell readers that might pick up the collection of your Change comic?
Kot: If you read this interview, thank you for your time and energy. Whether you choose to buy and read Change or not, it's been a pleasure talking to you.
Readers can pre-order the Image collection of Change by Ales Kot and Morgan Jeske, or pick up a copy at a local comic shop.