From its initial inception in the 1980s, DC Comics' "Suicide Squad" has been boundary-pushing espionage comic and under the radar look at mainstream comics. This May, the publisher welcomes a new writer to the series with experience on both fronts: Ales Kot.
Best known for his Image Comics series "Wild Children" and "Change," Kot has built a name for himself with readers by cutting and pasting various ideas and attitudes about human behavior with the fractured genre tropes associated with writers like Philip K. Dick. "Suicide Squad" represents a departure of sorts for the writer as he takes the company property under his wing alongside incoming creator-owned work, but it also fits well into his wheelhouse.
Below, Kot reveals his take on a wide range of subjects including his history with the series and with comics, his collaboration with artist Patrick Zircher, the human side of Amanda Waller, his longterm career goals in and out of the mainstream and his upcoming Image projects "Zero" and "The Surface."
CBR News: Ales, this is your first big gig at the Big Two. Are superheroes something you've been thinking about doing for a while? How and why did this become the project that took you into that world?
Ales Kot: I always loved superheroes. The symbolism behind them is quite powerful, and their stories helped form my mind since I was a little kid. So yes, I was attracted to their world from a very young age -- I drew my first Batman comic when I was about six, I think? It was a very strange mash-up of many stories, including the "Street Fighter" movie and "Batman Forever." 48 pages, totally free. My mum recently discovered it somewhere and sent it to me, so that kind of blew my mind -- I nearly forgot I made that thing.
I didn't realize I wanted to make comics professionally until I was 21, back in late 2008. Then, it took me about a year to get started properly. I also got married, moved to the US, had to find a new full time job while working on my craft...however, I knew I was good. It was a question of time and commitment. I focused on my own work and thought that it would be nice to eventually get a superhero/supervillain gig where I could flex some different storytelling muscles. By early 2011 I landed my first four projects, three creator-owned, one corporate -- and it all went from there.
"Suicide Squad" happened because [DC Editor] Wil Moss read "Wild Children" and enjoyed my writing enough to contact me and ask me if I would be interested in pitching for "Suicide Squad." I said yes, because it felt like the right fit for me. I wrote up the pitch, focusing on creating a story that will honor the DC Universe and the original "Suicide Squad" run while staying true to who I am and want to be as a writer and as a human being. No half measures, basically, whether the pitch gets approved or not. And it got approved, so here we are.
I get the impression that the original John Ostrander/Luke McDonnell "Suicide Squad" series was a formative book for a lot of comics writers in terms of it being an early example of more adult storytelling in mainstream superheroes. What's your connection to that book, and what basic dictates on how this team works do you draw from its original run?
I read a bit here and there, but never the entire Ostrander/McDonnell run. I caught up on the original series before I wrote up the pitch for my run, and it was exactly what I suspected it to be based on reading some parts and essays in the years before -- a well-crafted, socially conscious, imaginative, twisty, explosive action thriller set in the DC Universe. There are not many comics like it, and the way it influenced certain comics creators is hard to exaggerate. "Thunderbolts" by Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato, "Secret Six" by Gail Simone and plenty other runs were clearly influenced by it.
Some of the basic dictates I am drawing from the original run:
1) No one is safe.
2) There are no good and bad people; there are good and bad choices. Also, complex choices. And complex people.
3) Things break.
4) Social relevance is important.
5) So are explosions.
6) This is not a poem. But it kind of sounds like one.
7) Moving between done-in-one stories and larger story arcs works. And everything can connect.
8) "Suicide Squad" is set in the DC Universe -- taking advantage of that is crucial.
9) Amanda Waller wants everyone to apply themselves.
10) High density of information can go hand in hand with clarity of storytelling.
Jason Pearson's cover for issue #20 is literally explosive. Part of the goal here is obviously to show that you're making a dramatic break from the book's past, but how dramatic is that break? How much are you blowing up from the run before yours versus what, if anything, you continue into your stories?
We grab some story threads from the first 19 issues and play with them. I wouldn't say it's a radical break in terms of the story -- I am not interested in that. What happened before happened, the characters that were on board are on board when we enter #20, but what stays and what doesn't -- that is another question entirely. If anything, there will be a radical break in terms of the overall tone. I am interested in digging deeper into the characters and seeing what makes them tick, in exploring the ethical schizophrenia (not only) the U.S. is caught in, in exploring the politics of power -- all the while creating action scenes that will make your eyes go wide and your brains go splash.
Can we pull it off? Yes.
As for what will continue into new stories, here's a hint for those who were reading since the beginning: what do Deadshot and Voltaic have in common?
Let's dig into your take a little more specifically. In a way, the main character of the book is and has always been Amanda Waller since she's the most consistent force in the series, but you really seem to be coming down on the side of the team in this first arc. How do you view Waller as a player and as a character on her own?
I love Amanda Waller. She is a good example of what I was talking earlier -- an ethically ambiguous person who means well. She can get overly manipulative and she's got rough edges. Does that mean she's a villain? No. Does that mean she's a good person? I don't really see people as good or bad. Our actions define us, continually, because where we live is not the past or the future, but always the present.
Waller will bounce around. She might lose herself a bit. She might lose herself much more. Or she might not. I mean, Walter White from "Breaking Bad" meant well once -- and see where that got him? Now, I'm not saying that Amanda Waller's trajectory will be necessarily the same, but at the same time, why would I tell you what her trajectory is going to be like? I would rather surprise you.
There will be hard choices, that much is for sure.
On the flip side, who's drawing you in to this team? We know Harley will be sticking around from the covers. What's the attraction to her as a character who brings some continuity to the team? What other villains from the depths of the DCU are you interested in playing with?
Everyone on this team is a great character. I am serious. Harley is excellent because she's a much deeper character than she is sometimes portrayed as -- I mean, we are talking about a great psychiatrist who went insane and turned to crime after she fell in love with the Joker. Sure, it took her a while to move on, but there is so much more to her than just being the Joker's ex-girlfriend. She's intelligent, she's empathetic, she's funny, she's vicious, she's inventive, she's clinically insane and she does have a beautiful heart. Harley's got more than one person inside and it's up to her to make them all work together.
As for the other villains and protagonists, I will keep quiet for now -- but there will be hints aplenty in the first two issues. And some new faces as well.
"Suicide Squad" is a book in an odd place in that it's not specifically tied to any of the larger DC franchises and is more of a potpourri of characters from across the universe. How does this first arc in the prison reflect that opportunity to draw from all corners?
Well, the first arc is only two issues, and after that, we get two done-in-ones set in Las Vegas and Mali, respectively. The prison arc will focus on the Squad itself while also showing some larger pieces of the overall puzzle. Waller has more than one secret and some will be unearthed. A few very interesting, relatively well-known DC characters will come on board. With Waller running many teams at once, she might get a bit overworked, and who knows what happens then? Considering how influential some of her secrets are, the effects could threaten the balance of power in the larger DC Universe. The done-in-one issues after the prison arc will show just how much more interconnected everything is.
On the artist front, you're working with Patrick Zircher -- a stylist with a lot of detail in his line. What's been your reaction to seeing his pages come in?
Before we got started, Patrick and I talked on the phone for quite a while, explained where we're coming from and what we want to achieve -- and once we realized that we are on the same page overall, Patrick started sending in pages that are blowing my mind. The pages are very character-focused while gracefully establishing the environments, the clarity of storytelling is stunning and there is a rawness to the overall feel that is quite unique. Patrick's work matches the tone perfectly and then some. He is adding to the tone, improving my sequential work. I love a good collaboration, and this feels exactly like it.
One of the things I love about making comics is that when the collaboration really works, I am all excited about going back and rewriting my text after the pages are in. I am all about making sure the text flows with the pages as well as it can and ideally also creates additional meanings, merges with the themes, responds to the adjustments, creates a more immersive experience overall. Working with Patrick makes me feel this way.
And Jason Pearson is drawing the covers. I remember reading about "Body Bags" in a magazine back in the Czech Republic when I was about twelve and loving the artwork. Oh wow -- I somehow looped this answer right to my first answer, which also partially focused on my childhood comics experiences. Strange how things work sometime. In a similar, circular way, the first page of "SS" #20 might hold a clue to the last page of the entire run.
Your DC gig is a bit unexpected, I think. As common as the "Image to Big Two" jump can be for some guys, I don't think a lot of fans of "Change" and "Wild Children" would immediately go, "Oh yeah, he should be writing a book with Harley Quinn." How do you view this move in terms of your comics career? Is this mostly motivated to expand your audience, provide a creative challenge, scratch a fan itch?
It is a bit unexpected, isn't it? I love it.
Writing "Suicide Squad" felt like the right decision to make for multiple reasons. First of all, I wanted to write a monthly book. With "Zero", the creator-owned monthly I am starting at Image in September, that itch was getting partially scratched already, but I knew I had more in me. Second of all, I wanted to work with DC again if the right opportunity came along. The Batman short I did with Ryan Sook -- I think it's going to be released in a couple months -- was an excellent start. Third, I loved Suicide Squad -- the Ostrander run is amazing. Fourth, when I sat down and thought about what I would do I got flooded with ideas. Five, Wil Moss is a very good editor, and it is an honor to be working with him. Six, DC Entertainment is letting me work from the plan I pitched, as I pitched it. Seven, the money is nice. Eight, more people reading my writing and the comics I co-create is a nice thing. Nine, it is a creative challenge -- the environment is different and writing a comic book with characters owned by a big company like DC requires certain sets of muscles that do not get flexed the same way when I am writing something I own myself. Ten, the art team we put together is great. Wil and I have similar tastes and that helps tremendously.
So that's ten reasons. I could easily give you thirty.
One of the many themes that runs through "Change" is the tension Sonia and W-2 both encounter in trying to make some real personal art while still being paid professionals. Was it weird to be writing that while you were working up to your first big corporate comics gig?
I don't have much use for the more recent meaning of the word "weird" -- I don't classify things, ideas or people as odd or strange. That said, the word "weird" comes from the Old English term "wyrd," which means (among other things) "to become," "having the power to control fate," and since I am in a process of always changing and always becoming and applying my will to become who I want to become, "weird" feels right as long as we're talking about its original meaning. Because writing-wise, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.
Everything I make in comics, movies and video games has to be personal. It makes no sense to me to make something less than that. There are so many examples that show just how well we can make the personal and the mainstream coexist and make sure everyone involved profits that if I don't get it right, it simply means I haven't learned enough.
"Wild Children" made a profit. "Change" made a profit. Both are what I wanted them to be. Which means I am not avant-garde. I am mainstream.
Shifting completely away from the DC talk, the thing that struck me most about "Change" was how its characters shared this sense of disconnectedness while the story itself kind of insisted on a more of a segmented narrative while bouncing between the present, the past, the subplots and the astronaut. It's definitely not a Hollywood three-act structure kind of deal. I wonder how much did you think about form following function while writing the series, and how did the audience respond to a work that took a little more...well, work to dig into?
There's a very simple Hollywood three-act structure at the core of "Change," but it looks like it's well-hidden within the seemingly disconnected narrative. I am happy about that.
Form following function -- both are inextricably connected. It wasn't a case of one following the other, it was a completely crazy, beautiful back and forth. It's like planning a night with someone you love -- you can plan all you want, but once you're in it, just remember the set of rules if you set some, then navigate almost purely by instinct and occasionally maybe consider whatever game plan you two had in mind. I had about two hundred pages of notes for "Change" before we even began. The original pitch I gave to Morgan Jeske, the artist, was "The Last Boy Scout meets P.K. Dick in Los Angeles," if I remember correctly.
The audience response is mostly amazing. Feeling the outpour of people who got hit by the story, being told how it changed them, hearing them tell me it's unlike anything else currently out there, reading the reviews -- it's wonderful. I read all the reviews. If you have a healthy sense of self-worth, you can take a very positive review as well as a very negative one. I maintain that I want to learn, constantly, and that means I need to listen to people who read my work. The final decision on what to take from their critiques/reactions is still entirely up to me. Even a very negative review that focuses on some sort of a misguided idea of what I might have wanted to achieve with the story might have a grain of truth somewhere in it. So I read everything and I am thankful for every story I can release.
Just the other day I heard that Robin Williams loved "Change" enough to recommend it to Bobcat Goldthwait, who made the amazing black comedies "World's Greatest Dad" and "God Bless America," and it blew my mind.
In a general sense, what kinds of comics do you think the industry needs more of? What are the kinds of comics you think you're uniquely suited to provide?
Determining what the industry needs or doesn't need is not something I am interested in doing. I am not an arbiter nor do I care to be one. I do know what I want to see more of, though:
I want to see more invention. I want to see more focus on creators' rights. I want to see unethical business practices abolished. I want more open-minded discussion of everything. I want to see less judgmental attitudes. I want the industry -- each one of us -- to respond to criticism in healthy ways. I want to see more long-term focus. I want to see an industry that takes care of its own. I want no sexism. I want no pandering to the perceived majority. I want to see diversity embraced. I want to see more responsible creators making only the stories they truly believe in. I want to see better marketing. I want to see better graphic design. I want the colorists and the letterers to have their names on the covers of the comics they co-create. I want new ways to talk about comics and new ways to engage potential readers. I want to see the rise of $1 comics that will sell 500,000 copies, long-term. I want to see more strong, ethical comics journalists.
I am responsible for my own acts only. My own acts co-create the present. So making sure my own acts line up with what I want is the key. If other people like what I am doing, the way I live, they are welcome to aim for the same ideas.
As for what kinds of comics I am uniquely suited to provide: any kind I want.
Looking forward, I know you've got two series from Image coming up: "Zero" and "The Surface." Where are you at in production for those books, and what can you say about where they take your comics writing next? I know one is an ongoing series. What's it feeling like to be doing more long term writing?
It's a great feeling and something I was very much looking forward to. I knew I needed to test myself with shorter comics first -- a graphic novella or two ("Wild Children" was the first one, more news on the second one later this year), a mini-series ("Change"), some one-shots (again, more news on that later in 2013). I needed to build my confidence based on doing the work and not just on an idea that I can do the work. So I made it happen.
In terms of production, Langdon Foss ("Get Jiro!") is drawing the first issue of "The Surface," which is a 4-issue SF/thriller mini-series, and I am preparing the second script now. We sometimes refer to it as "District 9 meets Moebius." Brandon Graham's and co's "Prophet" is an influence as well. Langdon and I share a very easy flow, and we are friends first and collaborators second, which makes for a great process.
"Zero," which is the ongoing where artists change every issue and each issue can be read as a separate event, is three scripts in right now -- Michael Walsh ("Comeback," "X-Files") is drawing the first one and Mateus Santolouco ("Dial H," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "American Vampire") the second. The magnificent Jordie Bellaire is coloring everything. "Zero" #1 will be coming out in September, and I am very excited to see what people make of it. It's a big thing -- we begin in 2018 and end in (roughly) 2038.
Writing "Zero"…noir fiction, spy fiction, super-spy fiction are the main reference points here. James Ellroy's work, Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Bryan Talbot's "The Adventures of Luther Arkwright," "The Boys" by Garth Ennis and co., many more of the best spy and super-spy books, comics and movies. The format of "Global Frequency" is a big inspiration as well.
"Zero" is, together with "Suicide Squad," the most accessible, easy-to-digest work I have created so far, exactly the way I want it to be. The first three issues are set in Palestine, Shanghai and Rio. It's all-over-the-globe action and intrigue. The main character is a haunted super-spy who will very much change the world.
"Suicide Squad" #20 hits May 8 from DC Comics.