Ales Kot talks action, art in ‘Zero,’ ‘Secret Avengers,’ ‘Iron Patriot’

March 17, 2014 | 2:03 p.m.

Five years ago, Ales Kot was in a Prague apartment tripping on four hits of acid, trying to figure out what made him happy because life was feeling bleak and pointless.

“While I was there dancing on the edge, I realized that I always came back to comics,” said Kot. “I was always enchanted by them, and there was always something that was really interesting, and there were things that made me feel very alive about them.”

Born and raised in Ostrava, a coal and steel town he calls “the Liverpool of Czech Republic,” Kot was introduced to comic books at a young age with issues of “Donald Duck.” When he got older, he was given translated issues of “Spider-Man” and “Conan the Barbarian” that his truck driver grandfather saved from pulping, and began drawing comic books of his own. There was a thrill in examining graphic storytelling, particularly in how it related to the world off the page.

“That’s the thing about comics,” Kot said. “It’s words and pictures. It’s around us at all times. Reality largely consists of comics, which is a great thing to realize when you’re supposed to be working in the medium.”

As a love-struck adult, Kot moved to Los Angeles for a relationship, and the West Coast location helped him make valuable connections in the comic book industry. At Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon in 2011, Kot met writer Joe Keatinge, who introduced him to Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson. Kot had all his pitches reviewed and two of them were approved on the spot.

Less than two years after releasing his debut graphic novel, “Wild Children,” through Image with artist Riley Rossmo, Kot, now 27, is writing three ongoing series with more projects on the way. This month sees the return of his creator-owned Image Comics title “Zero,” and the status quo-altering “Zero” #6 is joined by two high-profile All-New Marvel Now! debuts: “Secret Avengers” #1, available now, and “Iron Patriot” #1, available March 26.

Hero Complex readers can get a lettered preview of the first five pages of “Zero” #6, due out Wednesday, an exclusive look at “Secret Avengers” #2 artwork, and pages from “Iron Patriot” #1 in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

In a recent telephone interview, Kot discussed his three monthly books, violence and humor in comics, the importance of a tight collaborative environment and more.

"Zero" #6 (Image)

“Zero” #6 (Image)

Hero Complex: When did you first get the idea for “Zero”?

Ales Kot: It would be a few years back, probably 2010 or so. At the time I didn’t know exactly what it would be like or what it would look like, I just had the idea. I wanted to do a series with various artists and I wanted to do something that is essentially my take on the super spy genre, and does things that I want to see in it and is actually relatable to me. That is not concerned with serving the completely old-school Capitalist status quo and pretending that everything is nice and dandy, which is the case with the James Bond movies very often lately, and I’m not really impressed by that.

HC: Do you know which artist you’ll be working with before you start aZeroscript? And do you gear your writing for the specific artist?

AK: Absolutely. I consider comics to be a medium that is incredibly exciting to me, and I always want to make the best possible work. In order to make a script that ignites the artist’s and the colorist’s and everyone’s imagination, including mine, I need to write the script as a love letter to the artist. I need to be aware of the artists’ strengths, if they don’t want to draw something or don’t feel they’re good at drawing something. I need to have a discussion with them to understand what it is and how we’re going to work and how I want to structure the script. How much leeway they want to be given. All these kinds of things play out. I always have the artist in mind, whether that’s “Zero” or “Secret Avengers,” I do my best work when I pick my entire team.

‘Zero’ No. 6: Cover | Page 1 | Pages 2-3 | Pages 4-5 | Panel | PanelPanel

HC: What attracted you to Vanesa R. Del Rey’s artwork and how did you structure “Zero” #6 to best suit her style?

AK: I’ve wanted to work with her for a while. Her style is — I’m going to be throwing out some buzzwords — but the best way to describe it is it’s simultaneously kinetic and very atmospheric. It’s not afraid of shadows. It’s not afraid of finding beauty in things that are partially hidden, which is a theme of the entire issue. At least for the first half, it’s very much about things that are hidden throughout this entire story. And then that culminates with the wonderful work of Jordie Bellaire, the colorist. She essentially works in a way that very artistically goes against that towards the end, when she illuminates everything in the second half when we’re inside Cern. There was this great dichotomy going on that was artistically very inspiring, and I liked that a lot.

I was also aware that Vanessa could draw pretty much anything, which always helps. Those are the kinds of artists I want to pick, the ones that are unafraid. She wanted to be bold and experimental and draw things she didn’t draw before. All of that helped. I left the pages very open for her. I wanted her to play with the layouts. I trust her. I believe that if you put your trust in people, the right people, then the rewards are incredible. And this definitely proved to be the case.

HC: The violence in this issue of “Zero” is just brutal, and all of your comics have very intense, sharp fight choreography. How much of that is described in the script and how much is created by the rest of the creative team?

AK: Here’s the thing: As a younger person — not that I’m that old, I’m 27 — I was pretty wild. There were cases of me getting into fights, and also I have some understanding of what goes on when you’re in a fight, whether we’re talking street fights or a bit of martial arts stuff. I think that all that inevitably plays a role in how I describe fight scenes because I don’t glorify it. There’s time for glorifying a fight scene, if it’s something between two people who are fighting for the beauty of it. If you have two professionals fighting for the beauty of it, that is a beautiful thing. If you have a fight for life and death, things get ugly really fast and there’s nothing pretty about it.

It’s the same way with murder. You can catch that in “Zero” overall and in everything I do. I don’t want to glorify murder in entertainment ever. And that was actually the whole point behind “Zero” from the beginning. It was this sense that James Bond glorifies killing people, and I don’t think that there’s any sort of glory behind death. I don’t think there’s anything cool behind death. I’ve seen people die, I’ve seen people get badly hurt, whether by other people or in wars or other conflicts, and there’s nothing glorious about it. It’s something we as a society perpetuate, but I also hope and believe that we don’t really have to go on with the same stuff over and over.

"Secret Avengers" #1. (Marvel)

“Secret Avengers” #1. (Marvel)

HC: How do you balance that personal philosophy with working in superhero comics, which is a genre that runs on violence?

AK: I balance that by showing the effects of it — not just the short-term effects, what happens in a fight, but what kind of scars does that leave on someone’s psyche? How do things that people do in superhero comics, how would those things affect them? Good case in point is something that I recently mentioned to Marvel, which is that we’ll be dealing with PTSD a bit in terms of one of the characters I’m working on, because there’s no way certain things that you would do would not have an effect on you. Everything has an effect on everything, that’s just physics. I’m actually really happy with how I balance it out at the moment. One point I make is that I’m not interested in creating two-dimensional villains or protagonists. I’m interested in creating people who make choices, and choices themselves can be good or bad, but I don’t believe that people are good or bad. I believe that people just are, and we are products of our choices.

HC: How much of “Zero do you have planned out at this point, and how much flexibility have you given yourself in that overall plan? If you want to do another flashback issue, can you just throw it in?

AK: I’m giving myself absolute freedom with every project. Anything can change at any moment. Nothing is set in stone. It’s all about the story, and the story tells me what it needs. There is another flashback: #9 with Tonči Zonjić, set in Bosnia in 1993. That’s the thing about writing, you can create a really good illusion of having everything planned out perfectly. I am working with synchronicity and going with my gut feelings quite often. I trust my gut. I know if my subconscious tells me, “Look, you’ve got to put this there,” I will later find out why. There was a character that appeared in one of the early issues, and I didn’t know the character existed until I was writing the page. So I wrote the character in, and I trusted that there was a reason for it and I’d find out. And then a few issues later, everything connected.

HC: Who are some of artists coming up for the next issues of “Zero”?

AK: The flashback is by Tonči Zonjić, who does “Lobster Johnson” for Dark Horse. #7 is drawn by Matt Taylor, he’s the guy who did the new covers for the European versions of all the John le Carre books, like “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” He’s really wonderful. #8 is by Jorge Coelho, who did “Polarity” at Boom and “Venom” at Marvel. And #10 is drawn by Michael Gaydos, of “Alias” and “True Blood.” And we go from Mexico to U.K. to Bosnia to Iceland.

HC: What is the progress on your upcoming Image titles?

AK: I’m making a graphic novel about an Iranian transgender pop star, which is called “Anti Star,” and that’s going to be coming out later in the year through Image with Christian Ward, who did “Infinite Vacation” and is doing “ODY-C” with Matt Fraction. I’m really excited, it looks great. I’m doing another graphic novel with Morgan Jeske. A good way to describe it would be to say it’s a witch metal horror romance. It’s black and white, and very black metal. And I’m working on “The Surface,” which is being drawn as we speak. The second issue is being drawn and I’m working on the third one. That’s a sci-fi with Langdon Foss. There are other possibilities happening, and then there’s also the “Zero” TV pilot that I’m currently writing.

HC: Your superhero writing has much more comedy than your other work. Is that a conscious choice on your part?

AK: It’s definitely something that I’m conscious of. Part of it is that, in a sense, taking superheroes 100% seriously all the time seems to me like a complete waste of time because they have great comedic potential. I do believe there are cases where taking superheroes in a manner that doesn’t leave much space for humor can work, if we’re talking about “The Dark Knight Returns,” which is a masterpiece. But even that book has tiny slivers of humor that help alleviate the darkness, the pressing depths of it. I’m definitely aware of that, and specifically with “Secret Avengers,” and even with “Suicide Squad,” I felt there was no other choice. When you look at the costumes those people wear, I can’t see them taking themselves completely straight. I just can’t. It doesn’t quite cohere, so [humor] feels very natural.

When I thought about “Secret Avengers,” I didn’t even have to think about [humor]. It just came. That’s the road I should take because there’s no other road that really makes that much sense. When you have someone that looks like M.O.D.O.K., which is essentially a gigantic brain and mechanical legs, of course everyone is at least partially self-aware. They need to be aware of the situation they are in, and the absurdity of the world they are in. That’s a really rich place to mine. So yeah, I take [humor] as an element that is inherent in superhero fiction, but that said, it’s not always necessary to include it. With “Secret Avengers” and “Suicide Squad,” both of them are jumping between tragedy and farce, and this feels right considering the theme of them being secret government hit squads consisting of people with internal and external issues.

One other thing that I realized is that it’s also easy to mock superheroes in a way where you can descend into Garth Ennis territory, which can be very farcical and I also believe is perfectly valid, but is something I don’t want to do in “Secret Avengers.” I really like the idea of skirting on the edge between farce and tragedy because there’s so much richness in both of those parts. There are clear connections to the War on Terror, there are connections to how our mental attitudes shape us as a people and as a nation and as humanity as a whole. At the same time, combined with someone who goes by the name Spider-Woman or with Hawkeye, who is essentially a hobo archer, it creates an interesting field; I don’t even quite have a name for it. There’s a density to it that’s quite alluring because there’s so much potential for stories. I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface at this point.

‘Secret Avengers': Issue No. 1 cover | Issue No. 2 cover | No. 2, page 1 | No. 2, page 2 | No. 3, page 3

HC: How has your collaboration with “Secret Avengers” artist Michael Walsh changed since working together on “Zero” #1? And what does colorist Matthew Wilson bring to the table?

AK: My relationship with Mike Walsh has deepened because we are very aware of each other’s strengths and we love working with one another, so it’s very easy for us to move forward and experiment and have fun. We really like to challenge each other in a playful way when we’re working together, so that’s helping. It’s a very collaborative environment, and it actually extends to the entire team, because I believe that my best work and best relationships in general, whether we’re talking work or any other kind of relationship, come from open discussion. Meaning anything that needs to be said has to be said and will be said and will be considered by everyone, meaning the team has constant checks on everyone else’s work. With “Zero” that comes down to us sharing one big Dropbox where everyone uploads the files. With “Secret Avengers” we do almost the same thing except with an email chain, so everyone can understand everyone else’s philosophy behind the final thing we put out.

I really like to be aware of all the aspects of creating a comic, and I like to have my hand in all of them without being overbearing, so when it came to working with Mike, I very quickly said that I want us to do something that would have plenty of panels, that would be dense without being too much. When we talked with Matt Wilson, I professed my love for late Tony Scott-era movies, especially when it comes to their color palette and the use of filters and the use of this hyper-real approach to environment and to fiction, where you sometimes feel pummeled by the sensory attack of it all. But at the same time you don’t want to avert your eyes. That’s what I described to Matt and everyone else on the team agreed to that. What eventually happened, as you can see in the first issue, that’s exactly what he did. He just took it and he filtered it through his own understanding of how things work and added his own bits and pieces. Which overall makes me very happy because those colors look like no other Marvel book right now. No other book on the stands, as a matter of fact.

‘Iron Patriot’ No. 1: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

"Iron Patriot" #1. (Marvel)

“Iron Patriot” #1. (Marvel)

HC: WhereasSecret Avengers is a sprawling ensemble piece with a lot of humor, “Iron Patriot” has a very different tone as it tells a more personal, political superhero drama. Why did you decide to add Rhodey’s father, Terrence, and niece Lila to his supporting cast?

AK: That was one of the reasons why I considered “Iron Patriot” to be an offer that I wanted to take on, because I got a chance to do some very important things. One of which is create more African American characters who feel more fully formed and don’t feel like a token thing, something you just want to throw in to get some good points. I jumped at that because I felt that was very important, and the roads they led me to in those first fives issues made me very excited.

HC: Did you suggest artist Garry Brown or was that a name Marvel had in mind?

AK: Garry Brown was someone we agreed on. I didn’t pick Garry specifically, but I like his stuff. There’s a focus on character and character acting that could be seen in his work on “The Massive,” which is really cool. Garry knows how to create tension really well on the page, which is something that, in the case of “Iron Patriot,” was very important to me. And he was very enthusiastic about it. Also I like his inking style. I think his inks are pretty smooth, and there’s a sense of rawness to them, especially when we get to the parts when Rhodey is in physical danger. Also Garry, as we went on, became very open to experimenting with the page. The first pages are very conversational, but towards the end of the first issue, you can see some pages where I consciously wrote them in a way that gave Garry more space, and he took them and he played with layouts and I think that they really show that he’s doing something special.

HC: What attracted you to Rhodey’s story? And will you be addressing his romance with Carol Danvers that was revealed in “Captain Marvel” #1?

AK: Not straight off the bat. It’s something that I’m aware of, and it’s something that I’ve been aware of since I started writing “Iron Patriot,” but there was no push to create an extra layer based on that. I believe that’s good, because first and foremost we need to make sure the character really stands alone in his own story… Rhodey’s character felt like someone I had a really good handle on in that he’s ethically very similar to — the closest examples are really Captain America and Superman in that he wants to do good. Ethically, he’s someone that’s aiming to always to do good. He can make compromises, but his aim is always to ensure that no one is harmed and that he’s doing his best. This focus on himself is something that was very interesting to me, and I wondered how did that get built? How did that get in his character?

I started wondering about his family and the cycles families have, and that’s really where one of the main directions of the story sprung from. And also his past and how certain things might contradict it, and how the entire idealism and striving always to do the good thing relates on a greater level to the Iron Patriot and America as a whole. Coming from that, I realized I had the whole story. And there was also the fact that I had a very specific idea of what to do towards the end, and that was very crucial. I wanted to go into some themes that are not as probed as I would like them to be in today’s fiction. And I want it to be political without being overbearing or without being preachy. I believe that I completely succeeded at that.

– Oliver Sava

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