Interviewing Aleš Kot is something akin to reading one of their books. It’s a wholly immersive experience, one that’s quite unlike any other interview I’ve ever done. Over a month we exchanged emails about their new book Days of Hate, which will be coming out through Image later this year. The first issue is visceral and engaging. It’s brutal in a way that works for me, telling the story of a fascistic near-future vision of America and a war raging between the white supremacist police state and the people dissenting against it. Days of Hate has a focus and commitment that I’ve often found lacking in the esoteric exploratory landscapes of Kot’s earlier work, a striking book that honestly at this point in time feels vital.
A 12-issue limited series, Days of Hate is a comic that feels painfully prescient and almost too timely, but for Kot it’s a story that’s been a long time coming. Spending a large chunk of their formative years in the Czech Republic before, during, and after the Velvet Revolution, Kot’s life has been directly impacted by one-party politics. “I experienced how systems, ideas, and people interact in some pretty deep varieties early on, and it left a mark. I grew up in a family previously profoundly affected by WWII, be it the Germans, the collaborating villagers, the victims, or the Soviets killing Ukrainian prisoners of war behind the village I spent the first few years of my life in. Desolate bunkers and tanks encircled the place, and that was totally normal to me for a very long time. I had to deal with raw, largely unprocessed pain and trauma of my genetic family and my original region for all of my life,” Kot shared.
The thematic threads of political uprising, war, and virulent anti-fascism that permeate Days of Hate were seeded by Kot’s upbringing. “Growing up queer in a place that was and still is largely deeply sexist, racist, anti-queer, and generally bigoted, while slowly realizing (this was one of the things that saved me) that there is a larger world outside and maybe even more people like me . . . the first serious job I got was at a non-profit against state-sponsored violence, so that fascination with war, violence, abuse of power, and totalitarian systems was with me for a very long time,” Kot told me.
Exploring the culture they lived in, Kot took inspiration from their mother, a social worker, as well as the story of the Czech Republic’s first president, Václav Havel, a playwright and politician. It was within this context that Kot began to grasp what the world actually is. “I started looking for patterns in the world, trying to understand it. And so patterns began to emerge. It can make you feel really crazy, seeing and then saying that something is coming, bringing up the ways in which the present mirrors the past or rhymes with it . . . and then later on you realize you predicted specific events and general movements of the world more than a few times, and it’s not like all of a sudden you have a crystal ball, but you also can’t discount that there is a certain level of responsibility in wielding that power, uncertain as it may be,” Kot theorized.
There’s no doubt in Kot’s mind that Days of Hate is a book born from their interactions with the world around them. “If we’re talking my lived experience, Days of Hate comes from all that. It also comes from . . . stuff like encountering barbed wire and cement triangles built to stop WWII vehicles in the woods around where I grew up, traveling through Croatia and what used to be Yugoslavia as a kid with my parents and putting my finger inside the barely two-year-old bullet holes in the buildings, not walking in certain directions because the land mines were still in the ground, seeing the empty eyes of people who committed war crimes or were spies or snitches and having to put them together with how I saw them before . . . I’m seeing these patterns replicated in how people act, in how many Americans act, in what they allow, in who they align with, in their falseness, greed, and fear. It scares me to the bone. But I also see hope, love, a possibility of a better present. I see a country that can come to terms with itself and recognize the power of unity and equality. But it first has to face itself with utter honesty,” Kot explained thoughtfully.
When it comes to the experience of what readers can expect when they pick up Days of Hate, Kot is very much of the Lynchian mindset. “You know, I’m not sure if there’s a way to answer that without giving away the experience, or parts of it, and I don’t want to do that—as David Lynch says, once you finish a movie people want you to talk about it, and he . . . sorta cringes and says that the movie is the talking. I identify with that a lot,” Kot said. “It’s something else if we were talking about, let’s say, The Surface, which essentially evolved and de-evolved into my own Schizopolis phase where I fully embraced the absurdity of living, making stories, emotions, thoughts, eh, life . . . anything would go because anything would go, the story alone wasn’t the talking, it was a mental breakdown and a self-care clinic in one and the boundary between the story and the world was practically non-existent because it was so meta it probably went to the club without me sometimes.”
Days of Hate #1 seems to set up a simple and satisfying premise: a war between two factions led by a female protagonist who hates Nazis. But Kot wants readers to know that they’re committed to creating a world with depth, one that shows the impact of every action. “I can say that despite starting in a genre place that may seem pretty simple on its face, and the story is simple at its core throughout—one of the key storytelling directives I keep in mind is focusing on finding and showing depth, complexity, and the paradoxical in its people and systems. So it’s important to show the people around the people—the families, the bystanders, and so on—and the ripple effects of actions taken,” Kot stated.
Collaborating with Days of Hate‘s artist, Danijel Žeželj, was something Kot wanted for years, first reaching out to him almost a decade ago. “I first emailed Danijel Žeželj in 2010 or so to tell him I wanted to work with him one day. I’m not sure if he even responded at the time—I didn’t have a single book out. But in 2015 or so, Danijel read Zero and found me on . . . it was Facebook, I think? And we talked and agreed to find a project to work on together. We tested a few options we both liked, but things didn’t quite align until I realized I had Days of Hate in me. A lot of the story came all at once, probably because in one shape or another I’ve been working with the themes it contains for a long time, and because the feeling of the times fed into that and created a critical mass,” Kot revealed.
Days of Hate has evolved, like any good story, over time, with Kot adapting and adjusting the story as they were telling it. “I developed the story further, in some cases tweaking it—for example, one character changed genders due to discussions with my ex-partner and a few other people, and the scope of the story became both more intimate and widened when I realized how I wanted to go about exploring character journeys and what I could do to show their connections, direct and indirect, in more depth. I always knew I was rooting Days of Hate in a genre that, if it exists, exists on one line with films such as Army of Shadows, Z, and Battle of Algiers. War films, revolution films, political thrillers. Not one of the three—all three at the same time, absolutely disinterested in the lie that art can exist without politics,” Kot said, expanding on some of their influences for this tale.
Building the world was a collaborative effort, one that saw Kot, Žeželj, and designer Tom Muller crafting an entire living landscape, some of which will likely never be seen in the comic but which was an integral part of the creative process. “Danijel and I went through a decent amount of character designs and some specific testing of ideas like logos that may never even be seen, but are nevertheless important for our understanding of the world. So we went through maybe six or seven trials on the SNPU (the secret police) logo, we talked about who the characters are and how they look, tweaked everything until it felt right. On the design front, Danijel builds up cover images that Tom Muller works with to create a unified design, but the road to that involved us coming up with a whole other design approach and ultimately shelving it about a week before the official announcement because we agreed it wasn’t working the way we wanted it to,” Kot explained.
The process continued as the team went back to references to make sure they were creating something that matched the look, tone, and feel of Days of Hate. “So we all went back and rethought it, looked at lots of Criterion covers and war photographs and references from everywhere—Hiroshima Mon Amour, Night and Fog, the decay of the US, surveillance feeds, whatever aligned with the journey we’re on—and Tom came up with what people can see when they read the book now. On the coloring front, Jordie Bellaire gets some coloring info from me (and from Danijel, if he wants to give it), but with me it begins in the script. I pay attention to color, so I sometimes describe the vibe of the colors in a particular scene, but also leave it open. Suggest it. Not create a box—more like suggest a path with a couple words or sentences. We also talk before the project begins, and I offer references, talk about the feeling of things,” Kot told me.
The team is rounded out by colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Aditya Bidikar, both of whom clearly inspire great excitement in Kot. “The thing is, Jordie is a poet. Whatever she does, it will usually be much better than what I imagine she will do, and I’m already imagining great things. And while this is my first time working with Aditya Bidikar as a letterer, I don’t think it’s my last—the way he blends digital and hand lettering creates a truly unique, grounded feeling, something rooted in a physical experience of the fictional world we are experiencing. That’s a gift. So with everyone, there’s a lot of talking, a lot of listening, and a lot of openness. The story, the characters, the entire experience is what matters, so working with people I have no qualms saying are some of the most talented and hard-working creatives I have ever known is a pleasure and a blessing I am utterly grateful for,” Kot enthused.
Their collaborators have made creating the book something that Kot seems to find almost easy. “When I go to script on Days of Hate, things get really simple. In part due to the finite nature, in part due to the extensive outlining, in part because I’m so thoroughly inspired to be working with Danijel and the rest of the team, in part because writing it is one of the ways of staying sane in a civilization that feels like it’s losing the plot, and in part because of something I can’t name—I breeze through these scripts.”
Like many of us who write comics, Kot sees their part of the creative process as a simple one. “As for the writing itself . . . the process is very straightforward for me. I recently started focusing on characters first, so I do my best to root everything in them, while at the same time leaving plenty space open for poetry and ideas—meaning, sometimes you know a story beat before you know how it makes sense, or if it even makes sense, with the characters, and other times yet you get an image you know feels right so you have to follow it and let everything unspool from it,” Kot shared. “Sometimes there’s a quote that jumpstarts an entire chapter, or a piece of information that reshuffles the way a certain part of narrative is structured. So the outlining could feel messy, but it doesn’t to me—I worked on projects without a firm ending or an amount of chapters set in stone, and I think that adds to the feeling of uncertainty, but Days of Hate is a twelve-chapter story and that’s it, and that helps me feel grounded. It’s a container. It all comes back to the characters because it has to.”
The book’s 12-issue limited format is nothing less than a statement of intent from Kot. “I want to make more projects like this in the future—series that have a definite ending in place, not indulging in the desires for never-ending serialized narratives. I just don’t think that’s my beat. And I think I’m growing stronger as a writer for recognizing that and acknowledging it, no matter what the market pressures, which can sometimes be thoroughly internalized, I feel like. Because the thing is, at the end of the day, I want to give everyone my best work,” Kot stated.
As for influences, Kot re-cites classics like Army of Shadows, Z, and Battle of Algiers as well as entire genres that are all touched on in the first issue. “Come and See, the classic Russian war film. Maybe hints of Cuaron’s Children of Men. Jacques Tardi’s noir comics. Joe Sacco’s documentary comics like Palestine and Safe Area Goražde. German expressionism. Documentary realism. But for most part, I don’t really think about them when working on the project—it’s more recognizing that they’re parts of its DNA, dissecting why they work, and remembering the lessons in case they can be utilized,” Kot explained.
The author is aware that no matter how detached you attempt to be from those influences, they’ll always be present. But ultimately it’s about balancing influence with intent. “I mean, for example, the treatment of the cover for chapter four is inspired by V For Vendetta, and it’s a conscious nod, or there’s a scene in chapter five that would work differently and likely be lesser for it if I did not have German expressionism on my mind during the writing of it. But these can not be dependent on you knowing them to have their full basic intended impact. They need to stand on their own and not detract or take you out. I’m interested in creating something lived in, not in winking at you. Anything I take and apply has to be in service of that,” Kot said.
Days of Hate is a book with a clear message, but for Kot just the book’s existence and creation are the most important act. “Primarily, the hopes are in the act of creation itself. If I didn’t have hope for an extended period of time, I’d likely kill myself. Because I do have hope, I live and create. Secondarily . . . if there are some hopes in regards to what I communicate to the readers and/or how the readers interpret the experience, I prefer to leave all that to myself. As David Lynch said, and I’ll slightly paraphrase . . . the meaning for me and for someone else can be a very different thing, and it’s personal, so I don’t like to get in the middle of that. Days of Hate *is* the meaning,” Kot confessed.
Days of Hate #1 comes out from Image Comics on January 17, 2018.