Note: This Crosstalk reveals key plot points of the comic Zero.
Oliver Sava: In the three years since Ales Kot debuted his first graphic novel, Wild Children, with artist Riley Rossmo and colorist Gregory Wright, he’s established himself as one of the most unpredictable, ambitious writers working in mainstream comics. Whether working on for-hire superhero projects at Marvel, DC, and Valiant or building his own concepts with numerous creator-owned series at Image, Kot consistently delivers rich, character-driven stories that aren’t afraid of tackling big questions about society, government, and the nature of existence, and he’s worked with some of the industry’s boldest artists to bring his ideas to the page.
The high point of Kot’s young career is the recently concluded Image ongoing Zero, a series that spotlights the writer’s strengths with a provocative, constantly evolving narrative that teams him with a different artist for each chapter. The rest of the creative team—colorist Jordie Bellaire, letterer Clayton Cowles, and designer Tom Muller—is consistent for the entire 18-issue run, but each issue employs a different artist to visualize a key moment in the life of Edward Zero, a secret agent who gradually turns against The Agency that made him a killer. That’s the plot of the first 14 issues, but after that, things get weird. Really weird. William S. Burroughs eating psychedelic mushrooms and traversing the multiverse weird.
But it all works. Those first 14 issues explore the psychological and sociological aftershocks of violence and war with a riveting action story (with the occasional detour into the surreal), and then the final four issues unpack the central ideas of that narrative with abstract, experimental storytelling that invites readers to engage with Edward’s story on a different level. The ending of the series is cryptic and largely open to interpretation, but that’s something Kot loves to do in his work. You can trace that back to Wild Children, which foresees criticism that Kot’s work is confusing or nonsensical. Just before the graphic novel’s conclusion, the narrator says: “I know what you’re saying. ‘This doesn’t make any sense.’ Well… it doesn’t. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the horror of it. That’s the ultimate gift of life. You are free. Life doesn’t make sense. It’s up to you to decide what it means.”
That could be a cop-out if Kot didn’t know how to write satisfying endings, but that’s not the case. His conclusion for Marvel’s Secret Avengers was a chilling look into the fear and paranoia that drove S.H.I.E.L.D. director Maria Hill to become obsessed with increasing homeland security, but it didn’t lose sight of the humor and empathy that made Kot’s run such a delight. Zero’s finale is much more challenging, but Zero is a much more challenging series than Secret Avengers. Kot has used his Marvel work—Iron Patriot, Secret Avengers, and Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier—to explore a lot of the themes that come up in his creator-owned projects, but they are presented through a more accessible superhero filter. His Image titles are a bit more alienating, but that’s because he packs a lot of ideas and emotions in those stories, many of which aren’t pleasant to confront.
But before we get into the finale, I want to praise the book’s format, which allows Kot to take advantage of different artists’ strengths to give these major moments in Edward’s life extra weight. Tradd Moore draws the first time a young Edward sees a man get killed, and the meticulous detail Moore puts into the man’s exploding brains emphasizes how vivid this moment is in Edward’s memory. Will Tempest’s stark, sterile artwork creates a suffocating atmosphere for the issue where Edward, fresh after losing his eye, starts to have serious doubts about his role in The Agency. The story of Edward’s birth in war-torn Bosnia is especially haunting because Tonči Zonjić creates an overwhelming atmosphere of decay and isolation, welcoming Edward into a world of darkness that will eventually creep its way into his soul the same way it creeped into his father’s and his father before him.
Shea, who were some of your favorite artists on Zero? Do you think Kot is saying something deeper about perspective by having the visual element of Edward’s story defined by so many different creators?
Shea Hennum: I certainly think he is. Kot’s choices in artists isn’t arbitrary by any means, or, if it is, he does an exceptional job of concealing that. He appears to be wholly conscious of each artist’s unique aesthetic when producing a script. In those two issues, #15 and #16, where the fungus is front and center, you get Ian Bertram and Stathis Tsemberlidis on art, and they both have this gross, grimy texture to their lines. That Stathis issue in particular—the fungus blooms and grows and spreads across the whole page, and those little bits of visual flourish don’t have the same impact without that visceral texture.
In issue #17, Kot and Robert Sammelin are constantly cross-cutting back and forth between two fictions—one that may be ensconced within the other, or it may be happening concurrently; there’s a lot of disorientation in the transition between beats, but it’s vital that those beats are really clear and solid. Sammelin’s style is dynamic and inky, but it’s illustrative, detailed, concrete, so he serves that issue’s ideas and tone. There’s never any question about what we’re seeing—who is who, what is what. But then issue #18 is more abstract; the fictions collide—it’s all catharsis and emotion and ambiguity (emotional, narrative, ontological). You pair that with Tula Lotay’s art, which is a fantastic construction of curvilinear lines overlaid onto one another, this gorgeous cacophony of abstraction that needs to be parsed a little bit, and you get this interesting interaction between the narrative and the way it’s visually mediated.
When I spoke with Kot, back when the series first launched, he described each script as a “love letter” to the artist, and that’s clear when you look at something like the page layouts in issue #2. Kot has a good handle on what Tradd Moore is capable of and what his strengths are, and you not only get some really energetic action in that issue but you also get those incredibly dense, incredibly claustrophobic grids. So I think Kot is working with artists whose aesthetics sync with what he’s trying to do with that particular issue, but then he’s obviously constructing the script itself, the nuts and the bolts of the thing, with the strengths and tics of the artist in mind.
In all honesty, I was reticent about a series that would constantly be shifting artists—I’m especially critical of Marvel’s practice of double-shipping, which quickly leads to artistic inconsistency, which completely detracts from the story—but I think Kot managed to figure out how to tie that constant change into the story and make it a vital and distinguishing component of the series. And other writers have clearly picked up on this model’s possibilities, because you have people like Curt Pires doing something similar with The Tomorrows over at Dark Horse.
In terms of my favorite? Tula Lotay, Tradd Moore, Tonči Zonjić, Vanessa Del Rey, Morgan Jeske—really all the artists on the series have been fantastic, but I think those are the ones that have resonated with my tastes the most. I’ll also cheat and add cover artists, Paul Pope, Cameron Stewart, Christian Ward, and Sarah Horrocks.
Now, I’ve alluded to some of the ideas that Kot is furthering in those last few issues and how they forcibly reoriented the series, but what would you identify as some of Zero’s thematic through-lines? How do you think the series fits into the rest of Kot’s oeuvre?
OS: Violence, shame, pain, war, guilt, fear, beaches, prejudice, surveillance, institutional oppression, personal discovery, and at the core of it all: change. “It’s all about evolution, you know?” Uma says in Wild Children, and it’s a mission statement for all of Kot’s work. He followed Wild Children with the miniseries Change, a complex piece of existential horror in Hollywood that had Kot working through his personal issues on the page in order to evolve as a writer and a person.
The character of Richard Doublehead functions as a very interesting entryway into Kot’s mind and how he views the trajectory of his career, with Doublehead serving as an explicit stand-in for Kot, especially when Doublehead returns in The Surface, Kot’s sci-fi miniseries with Langdon Foss. An interview with Doublehead in The Surface #1 is especially enlightening in regards to how Kot approaches his art and the way Change affected his life:
I originally built this project, as I tend to with anything I work on, in order to work with myself, to change something, to transmute something. “Change,” which you can still buy at your local comic book store and on Amazon and such, is probably the clearest example of how psychomagic works when applied right. I mean, holy shit! It CHANGED things massive.
If Change was Kot’s psychomagical spell to kickstart his career, it worked. Zero launched shortly after Change concluded, and that quickly led to Kot getting work on DC’s Suicide Squad before being strongly courted by Marvel Comics. Change ended with the message that “nothing is too beautiful to happen” and “nothing is too good to last,” and Kot’s profile in the industry grew considerably once he embraced that optimistic outlook. In that same interview, Doublehead goes on to recite a William S. Burroughs’ quote when asked to define “psychomagic,” a quote that informs a lot of Kot’s creative point of view:
It is to be remembered that all art is magical in origin—music, sculpture, writing, painting—and by magical I mean intended to produce very definite results. Paintings were originally formulae to make what is painted happen. Art is not an end in itself, any more than Einstein’s matter-into-energy formulae is an end in itself. Like all formulae, art was originally FUNCTIONAL, intended to make things happen, the way an atom bomb happens from Einstein’s formulae.
Kot approaches his work as a way of ideally inciting change for both himself and the world at large, and that personal investment has brought a lot of depth and passion to his projects. With its commitment to exploring the roots of violence and war and their devastating impact on individuals and societies, Zero stands as one of the most important comics of the new millennium, and I hope it ends up being translated in a lot of languages because this is a story people all across the globe should read. I feel like Kot’s new Image ongoing series with Will Tempest, Material, is shaping up to be another essential title thanks to its political bent, albeit one that is a bit more specific to the U.S. whereas Zero has a more international scope.
In Zero, the big change is Edward recognizing the “black thing” (a.k.a. “ugly spirit”) inside him (and all men) and forcing it out of his body, which is what the last four issues are all about. The 14 chapters that precede them largely focus on showing the gruesome brutality that the “black thing” drives men to commit, which manifests primarily in scenes of deeply unsettling violence. Kot is intensely committed to not glorifying violence in this title, and I often found myself audibly groaning because the fight sequences were so painfully visceral. Issues #13 and #14 were particularly hard to stomach, with Alberto Ponticelli’s scratchy, slightly exaggerated style accentuating the grotesqueness of an enraged Edward in action and Marek Oleksicki’s more realistic rendering capturing the exhausting intensity and hateful intimacy of Edward’s close-quarters fight with the brother of the man he killed way back in the first issue.
While violence is shown in grisly detail, sexual abuse is never shown on the page, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a huge part of the plot and a major aspect of the “black thing.” Edward’s mother was a Muslim woman, Marina, who had been regularly raped during the Bosnian War, and his father was one of Marina’s old schoolmates who grew to become one of her abusers by living in a shame-based culture that degraded them both. By the end of the series, it’s clear that shame is one of the major through-lines of this story: Shame was the key tool that The Agency used to brainwash children to become their perfect agents, convincing them that they are nothing so that they can be molded to whatever form The Agency sees fit, and Edward has to fight that deep-rooted shame in order to remove the “black thing” that lingers inside no matter how hard he tries to run from his old life.
The “black thing”/”ugly spirit” is something that Kot pulls directly from the work of William S. Burroughs, and it’s not the first time he’s turned to a major literary figure for inspiration in his work. (Most notably, Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” plays a very large part in Kot’s Secret Avengers.) Shea, what do you think Kot is trying to say about the nature of ideas by explicitly appropriating the works of notable writers? What does the introduction of Burroughs bring to Edward Zero’s story? Does that huge stylistic and tonal shift in the final four issues work for you?
SH: I think Kot’s use of other artists’ ideas plays into that postmodern ideology of no idea being original. And even that idea is at least as old as the Bible: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” That’s not to say that Kot is uninspired or a plagiarist. But Kot has talked about his love of Jean-Luc Godard, and Godard famously said “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” He’s more interested in being honest with himself than in being original, at least as far as I can tell.
However, Kot doesn’t pass these ideas off as his or appropriate them without credit. Borges makes an appearance in Secret Avengers the same as Burroughs in Zero, though only briefly. (And even that meta-fictional author-as-character conceit you can trace back to Charlie Kaufman, Grant Morrison, and Kurt Vonnegut). He ensures that readers know full well what he’s drawing on. In that vein, he doesn’t simply stitch these ideas onto others’ ideas and call it a day. He builds upon them and couches them in a very personal language.
In this way, his already polysemous comics take on another layer, and they act as vehicles for and documentation of his personal engagement with these ideas. The ugly spirit, the black thing, is inside me and it’s inside you and it’s inside Ales; Zero, its creation and publication, is then, for Ales, the scene in issue #18 where Edward reaches into himself and pulls it out. It’s him interacting with this idea that Burroughs posited, and we’re not watching Ales parrot back these concepts but earnestly and openly interrogate it and his relationship with it. The character of William S. Burroughs is like the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues; he becomes a tool to directly, clearly, and cleverly approach these big things and to facilitate a discourse around them. I don’t know how else Kot could’ve made that thematic pivot, honestly.
So to answer your first question: I think Kot’s use of others’ ideas—the mediation of direct experience via language or the power of thought or what have you—stems from this idea that art isn’t the creation of something for us, the audience; art is for the artist. In Kot’s case, those ideas become tools to explore those ideas. That Burroughs quote you provided was first used by Kot in an interview with The Quietus, and just proceeding that, he says: “I knew I wanted to write [Zero] in order to dissect, understand and mutate precisely that bleak, dark thing that came hand in hand with anger and violent impulses.” It’s clearer in Zero than in anything else, but that exorcistic quality is present in everything he’s done, with the possible exception of Iron Patriot.
To answer your second question: yes. I can understand why it might not for others, because it is a substantive shift. The series constructs a seemingly clear conception of itself and then subverts it to the point of overturning. That’s definitely going to rub some readers the wrong way. But Susan Sontag, who Kot himself has referenced on a number of occasions, concludes her essay “Against Interpretation” with the statement: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” And while it might be hypocritical and/or ironic of me to cite that line in this conversation, those last few issues embodied that to me, that call to stop intellectualizing and start emotionalizing. They engaged on a visceral, inarticulable gut-level, and in that way they felt consistent with the rest of the series.
On the topic of Sontag: In the first two essays collected in Against Interpretation, “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” she hammers home the habit of critics to dichotomize form and content as an either/or. We’ve attempted to parse the content of Zero, but we haven’t approached its form. Oliver, do you think that the physical format, its serialization, its 24-page installments, its length, works for the series? How do you think Kot has used this format to his and the artists’ advantage?
OS: It’s interesting that you note Iron Patriot as the exception to that exorcistic element, because even in that book Kot is trying to negotiate his own personal pacifist philosophy with the militaristic foundation of Marvel superheroes. He does that by exploring the consequences of these heroes’ actions, which, in the case of Jim Rhodes in Iron Patriot and Maria Hill in Secret Avengers, are done in the name of the U.S. government. Like his run on Suicide Squad, I think there was a lot of unexplored potential in Kot’s Iron Patriot, but there’s also something to be said about doing a quick four or five issues on a book and then jumping on to new things.
Which brings us to form. A five-issue miniseries isn’t going to allow Kot the kind of freedom that an open-ended ongoing will, and there are restrictions on a single issue of a Marvel or DC comic that aren’t there when Kot is working at Image. To start, those superhero publishers have ads sprinkled throughout the issue, which pull readers out of the story, even if they’ve become accustomed to ads like I have. Can you imagine an issue of Zero with those half-page Nick Lachey Twix ads that DC ran in its comics last month? It would completely destroy the immersive atmosphere that the Zero creative team works so hard to create.
Zero has no ads, not even Image house ads, so there’s no point in the single-issue reading experience where the creative team’s vision is not at the forefront. The absence of these promotional items also lends Zero a certain air of prestige, not unlike TV series that don’t have commercial interruptions. (The one exception is the final issue of Zero, which ends with a one-page ad for Kot’s new ongoing series Wolf, but that’s Kot making sure that readers know where they can find more of his work in the future.)
The book’s immersive atmosphere begins with Tom Muller’s design work, which gives the cover images intense graphic impact and makes each single issue function as a self-contained piece of art. “Self-contained” is very important here, and Kot showed off a new side of his talent by forcing himself to tell complete stories in each chapter. Teaming with a different artist further sharpened that skill by making Kot consider the specific strengths of his collaborators in his scripts, giving each issue a flavor that is unique to the artist and allowing him to build creative relationships that have carried over to his other books. Michael Walsh (Zero #1) and Tradd Moore (#2) joined Kot on Secret Avengers as artist and cover artist; Will Tempest (#5) is on Material; Matt Taylor (#7) is on Wolf; Adam Gorham (#12) is on Dead Drop, Kot’s current Valiant miniseries; and Jordie Bellaire is the colorist on The Surface. The format of Zero made it possible for Kot to collaborate with a huge variety of artists in the last two years, and clearly these people have enjoyed the experience because they keep working with him.
An open-ended serialized ongoing with a constantly changing art style has the opportunity to evolve in a way that a smaller story can’t, and I’ve loved watching Zero grow over 18 issues and consistently shatter my expectations. I would have liked to see the series continue because it was so exciting seeing the different creative dynamics in each issue, and it feels like there’s more going on with the alternate universe Edward being held at gunpoint by his son than what Kot has shown, but that doesn’t diminish the power of the series’ conclusion. And just because the comic is ending doesn’t mean Kot is done with Edward’s story. Kot has specified on social media that the Zero comic is over, and he’s written a draft of a Zero TV series that isn’t a straight adaptation but a reimagining of what he’s done in the comics.
Considering how much the multiverse came into play in the final issues, I love the idea of a Zero TV show showing us an alternate version of Edward’s story, ideally one that follows a similar path of self-discovery but doesn’t hit all the same beats. All the weird Burroughs stuff probably wouldn’t make it’s way into the TV show, but it’s very easy to imagine Kot taking a similar left turn in Edward’s narrative by drawing inspiration from a different artist that has worked in the medium Zero is moving to. (Maybe someone like David Lynch?) Shea, is there anything about the prospect of a Zero TV show that excites you? Are there any unanswered questions of the comic that you would like to see further explored? And do you think the Burroughs elements are so essential that they need to be a part of Edward’s story, no matter the medium?
SH: You mention David Lynch, and I think there’s definitely something in that. There’s a fairly explicit allusion to Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge in issue #17—which some readers will recognize as that show’s kind-of multiversal or spiritual nexus point, a dream space that exists outside of time and is inhabited by Jungian shadow aspects and Cartesian evil demons—so Kot himself is obviously familiar with Lynch. And it would be interesting to see Zero done in that similar vein. Not so much a riff on Twin Peaks in particular, or David Lynch in general, because I think that kind of thing usually ends up in the second season of True Detective, which is little more than a Nic Pizzolatto stand-in for Mulholland Drive, at least at this point. But I would be interested in something in that vein, that seamless blend of between populist, more straightforwardly genre tropes and the odder, more obtuse ideas and imagery.
If that’s the milieu of the Zero show, I would be keen to see the Burroughs elements show up (or someone similar; maybe Kafka, Calvino, Moravia, or Abe—there are plenty of heady artists to toy with). I don’t know if it’s an absolute necessity, but I think that arena is still pretty fecund and there’s room to do a lot of interesting stuff with it. And in the hands of the right director, these bits could be visually elucidated in an original and compelling way—think of Bergman’s work on Persona. So is it a requirement that that stuff be included? No. Conceptually, Zero is malleable enough that you can make it work pretty exceptionally without it. But there’s enough that can be done with it that it wouldn’t feel like a rehash to include it, and it would work well with the show if Kot planned on retaining that metaphysical, dreamlike turn of the comic.
To answer your first question: I am excited. I’m trying to temper my reactions more than I have in the past, so I’ll retain a certain amount of skepticism; it could easily go pear shaped with the wrong producer, cast, writers’ room, or roster of directors. But I like the idea of a Zero show very much. We’ve discussed how appealing Zero was to me as a comic because of its cool factor—that thing you see with stuff like Le Samouraï, The Prisoner, Egon Schiele paintings, old issues of Heavy Metal, where it’s almost an inarticulable aura that fills the air around the thing. Maybe that comes from Zero’s subject matter or its roster of artists or some indiscernible X factor, but I like the idea of seeing something like it on television. Now that Mad Men and Hannibal are over and True Detective season two is underwhelming, there’s only… what? Person Of Interest and maybe Westworld when it drops? There’s most assuredly a dearth of that ilk. Zero, at least as an abstraction, could fill that void.