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Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj’s Days of Hate is set in 2022, but in many ways, it’s a comic perfect for 2018. Set in a United States beset by bigotry, political machinations brings unlikely people together on both sides of a guerrilla war against a white supremacist state.
Despite that plot synopsis, the first collection of the Image Comics series, Days of Hate: Act One — released Wednesday — makes it clear that this isn’t a story about violent revolution against cartoon villains; instead, it’s a complicated, subtle story that demands empathy from the reader. Heat Vision spoke with writer Kot about the influences behind the story, the environment it exists in and the collaborative act of creating it.
Before we started the interview, we were talking about the political and social moment we’re in. It sounds like a strange question, but are you enjoying where culture is right now? Because, based on what we were saying earlier, it sounds like you are — that you’re finding value in this shift as opposed to, you know, terror or horror or existential despair, which I know a lot of people are feeling instead.
I’m really big on meditation. It’s not necessarily something that I practice daily nowadays, but it helped me at some crucial points in my life, and I think I integrated some basic Buddhist principles and meditation principles into my life. And one of the key things that really really helped me was this idea that all these thoughts and feelings that happen inside me can be observed — they don’t have to be acted upon or confused for reality of the situation. I try to look at the world that way as much as I can, because I absolutely feel all of those things, from terror to despair and, you know, all the stuff in between. It’s like being in a maximized Steven Spielberg movie — if you combine Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, you would get something like this in a weird way, sadly. It’s a terrifying time; it’s also a deeply fascinating time. It’s like that saying: May you live in interesting times.
That’s a very good description of of of how it feels right now.
Yeah. Some people look at it as a curse, some people are like, what? It’s tough. Stuff happens, and there’s only so much I can do about it.
It’s interesting you say that. You’ve said before that Days of Hate is not a response to what’s happening politically right now, but it feels very much like it is. It definitely takes place in the world as people are perceiving it, I think. Am I wrong?
Well, I don’t think that you’re right. I mean, I think that you’re right in that people will be perceiving this fiction in a million different ways. I didn’t want to really impose any sort of a specific understanding beyond what’s on the page, because the older I grow and the longer I write, the more I feel like people get everything that they need to get through the experiences of the characters and the emotions. There was this recent thing that David Cronenberg sort of went in to in, I believe, a speech that he gave when he got an honorary degree. He was talking about the crime of art and about how there are the unforeseen consequences of art — that you can’t really know what you’re doing, not in the context of the entire universe. So, all of these notions of socially progressive work can basically also, kind of, be possibly delusions. They might be realized more accidentally than not. And so, for me, it’s more about looking at the things that are happening inside me and processing them.
In some cases, that can feel a bit like exorcism; in other cases, that can feel like working out some ideas about the world or about people and how people act. Sometimes, it comes back to the meditative state and imagination, where I wait for the scene and when it shows up, all I’m doing is just kind of transcribing it as it’s happening in my head or wherever it comes.
One of the things that I get from Days of Hate as a reader is, despite everything that’s happening in there, that it’s a hopeful book. As a reader, the experience and empathy you feel with the characters comes across. Everyone here is a person and people can make bad decisions and people can make good decisions — they do what they think is right, if that doesn’t sound too pat.
I find empathy to be a basic guiding principle, I think, that people don’t talk about. I don’t think we as humanity have fully integrated the concept of there being more than one kind of intelligence, and I think we often confuse intelligence for cunning. I think that the idea of emotional intelligence as being equally important, if not more [than other types], is something that we’re slowly starting to understand.
With Days of Hate, the focus on the character and the focus on everyone really being people does come out from a few different sources. I think the one very obvious [influence] that I thankfully have gotten close to as a kid is Hannah Arendt and her works like Eichmann in Jerusalem and on totalitarianism in general, and the idea of people just doing their jobs. And they’re not being some sort of a great evil or great good, but simply people making individual choices that create a mass of some sort. I think it’s a really really important view, it’s something that I’ve, you know, worked to integrate into my life on all levels.
I find it important to make that also be a part of the fictions that I work with, because it’s more interesting that way to me. It makes for better, more fascinating stories to me. And, you know, between that and looking at works that influence me profoundly like Hiroshima Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras and Army of Shadows by [Jean-Pierre] Melville, all of those things sort of somehow coalesce into this whole. I could talk about my individual reasons why I also find it crucial to work on Days of Hate and to make that particular story, but the thing is, I find that I barely know [that] when I’m writing something. I feel like the process of writing is, in itself, a part of the art of the adventure of it out of that part of the process. I feel like if I don’t get lost in the work to a certain extent, I’m not sure if I’m deep enough.
So along those lines, how much of this is a process of discovery in terms of plot? Before starting to write the series, did you know who Amanda is, or who Freeman is, or is this something that all of this unfolds as you’re writing? Do you start with, “This is what I’m thinking of — these are themes I want to explore,” and then it goes entirely freely from there? Or do you have roughly the plot you’re working in and work within that, and the characters expose themselves within that?
I feel like every work, to some extent, asks for its own way of writing. Again, it’s the process of discovery — not even necessarily a process of discovery of the story itself, but the process of discovery of what is the right creative flow to work. I study that a lot; I continue to be huge process nerd. I think of the people that really really affected me deeply when it comes to process. I mean, god, I could start listing off the names and approaches, but I wouldn’t get to the end of it, but I’ll say for a few examples — You have someone like William Gibson who starts from, what I understand, page one, sentence one and just goes from there. Which is fun. And I’ve done that and it worked really well, but it was one specific project, which was [2013 miniseries with Morgan Jeske] Change.
And there are projects where there’s some sort of middle ground; Warren Ellis was recently talking about this — you write out the basic beats of, let’s say, the book and chapters. And then you widen them into individual scenes and then you realize what the key points of the scenes are. And then you go into it. At every level, you have to be open to the possibility that it will change because you’ll get an idea that it will simply just be so correct that you might have to dump certain parts or rewrite or redo things.
Then there’s that kind of, I don’t know, Alan Moore approach almost, where you know completely everything and you’ve outlined it for 50 pages, and have drawn each nine-panel grid and then you go from there. And with Days of Hate, for me, I wrote a few outlines, but I’ve tried to keep the basic outlines down to, I would say, like a page per chapter and I wrote out whatever I needed to in the other part which was like random sentences, set pieces, anything that may be in any specific way interesting quotes from other media scenes from other media. All those things. And then, when I start writing, I sometimes look at that file because I need to, and sometimes I don’t.
For all the empathy with its characters and the emotion in the work, Days of Hate is also very understated and restrained in terms of its presentation.
I think a lot of that comes down to the collaboration with Danijel [Zezelj] and the fact that he’s able to do things to depict several character changes in body language and facial changes. They don’t have to be large [moments]; people sometimes talk about comics in that way [as if] comics are in some way an exaggerated hyper-reality and everything’s hyper. And I know that that’s completely valid for certain comics, but that’s not really everything the medium can offer, especially when it comes to subtlety in human interaction. I prefer working with artists who are able to depict humans as humans, and able to depict two paradoxical things within humans at the same time — which is a lot to ask for your artist. It’s a lot to ask a director and it’s a lot to ask the same biographer and an actor you know, in another field. But it’s what I need for these stories, and so working with Danijel, who can do that, enables me to feel really secure in knowing from the start to the end that whatever I’d put on the page is either going to be on the page or it’s probably going to be improved.
So part of that containment just comes from working with a really great team who are all kind of hitting it out of the park on that.
You mentioned the team, and it’s worth noting that the book looks great. Danijel’s work is incredible; Jordie [Bellaire]’s colors work so well with Danijel’s line art, but you’ve also got Aditya Bidikar’s letters and Tom Muller’s design — I feel that the austerity of the Days of Hate design feels like it almost sets the reader up for the world in which the story takes place in, the authoritarian nature of the thing. It feels very much like a complete package that everyone’s working on the same page. How much input does the rest the creative team have? What does the collaboration process behind the book look like?
Danijel is from the Balkans originally. I’m from, you know, what you could call technically either Central or Western and Eastern Europe [Laughs]. So we both have experiences with systems that, to some extent, were totalitarian. And now observing the changes in the world, there is just a level of instinctive understanding of history — and human experience — where we can understand each other in shorthand. Jordie is one of my absolute favorite collaborators in the world and one of the most fascinating color artists, to me, that I’ve ever seen work in comics — I mean, ever. The same goes for Aditya Bidikar, the letterer. I’m super, super pleased to be working with him.
It’s a very simple process. We talk about everything beforehand, and I think that’s crucial for everyone getting on the same page. Everyone does their job, and everyone is communicative and open to getting to getting the best pages out there. Tom and Danijel especially; we tried some things for covers. I had some ideas and eventually, we landed on basically a stripped-down process, similar to how we made covers for Zero. One of the things that we were looking at were like classic Criterion covers: Traffic or Army of Shadows or Night and Fog. You can totally see you can see the influence when you know.
I find it crucial for a creative team to be made of people who are better at their jobs. And I don’t mean just technically better. I mean they’re smarter and sharper at their understanding of their jobs than I would ever be unless I gave it my entire life, like an extra hundred years ago or whatever than they were already have. They are, to me, geniuses of their respective fields, and so I just feel incredibly honored to be working with them.
I think Aditya is basically at the beginning of a fascinating lettering career. I think Jordie is starting to hit some of her peaks. Danijel’s been around for a while and his work is getting better and better, as far as I’m concerned. And Tom, Tom doesn’t even have his first design book out yet! But I think a lot of people are going to go, “Holy shit, this person should be doing things and this person should be getting paid a lot more money to make projects that a lot where people can see!” and I want that for all of them.
A story like this could go multiple ways, and — especially in the American market as it currently exists — there’s a much more melodramatic version of this story to be told. There’s a much more bombastic version of the story, and everyone involved seems to appreciate that. No one is doing something intended as, “This will be an amazing page that will knock everyone else out.” Everyone seems to be on the same page in terms of tone.
You know, there’s a page in chapter seven that’s totally not understated. I looked at it and thought, “You know what? This is so unsubtle, but it’s also so on point that it works.”
The collection coming out this week is the first six issues, right?
Yeah, it’s the first half of the entire story.
I’m not going to spoil anything, but it ends in such a place where simultaneously everything seems possible and so many things seem inevitable. When the “End of Act One” page appeared at the end of the sixth issue, it felt very climactic, very much like the end of an era — whatever is happening next is going to be different. So it’s funny that you say there’s a bombastic page in issue seven, because of course there is. What comes next is different.
It’s not even that it’s bombastic. It’s just such a statement that it’s — I don’t want to say what Danijel did with that page, but you’ll see it [and] you’ll know exactly what I mean.
You know, there there’s a reason why chapter six opens up with the quote from Macbeth. I know that is very in vogue to bring up Shakespeare nowadays and also Steven Spielberg and all these other classics. They are definitely deeply influential, but I don’t think that this book would be possible without looking a lot at Marguerite Duras and her writing, and looking at Jane Campion, you know? It’s fascinating for me to see all those influences merge but [the work] not be overwhelmed by those influences. I no longer feel like I need to be proving myself to anyone.
It may just have to do with the fact that, you know, when I look back — my experiences as a human being absolutely guaranteed that there is no way for me to stay the same without some level of very unhealthy atrophy. I nearly died; there’s literally like two-and-a-half years of my life that I still have to do active cleanup on, because I had Lyme disease and my life just completely fell apart. It was that bad. That was around the time when I also quit Marvel, because I realized that there was a very limited amount of time that I might have. I just wanted to do something good, but then I ended up in a place where I was like, “Well, I can’t even do anything because I can barely even type right now.”
I had to go through a very serious reappraisal of priorities in regards to writing and life and how to live. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that basic first recovery of “I am able to not just fight for my survival again; I’m able to live a bit.” I wonder if those parts are also reflected in what I’m writing. With Days of Hate I feel like, hopefully, it’s reflective of something in turmoil that I’m processing right now — I just changed. And I’m happy about it.
You said something about not only surviving but living a bit and that fits with my reading of Days of Hate. From other media perspectives, Days of Hate is set in a political dystopia. It’s, on some level, about insurgency and about fighting back against an unjust system, and our traditional reading of those stories is that they are dystopian, they’re hopeless aside from the hope of, “Maybe one day we will triumph.” But there are other types of hope in Days of Hate. There is a more personal — again, optimism is not the right word — there’s a more personal hope in there.
I’ll say that, I know where the book is going largely. I know where the characters end up more or less. It’s the kind of thing where I don’t even feel like I should be commenting on it. Because I feel like it’s a journey [for readers] to go through on their own and interpret on their own. I like to use that quote from David Lynch, when someone was asking him about the meaning of Twin Peaks and what it all means; he just was like, ‘Well, the meaning’s in the work.’ It’s already there. I gave you the work, why are you asking me this question, you know?
Sometimes, I love to play the game because, to a certain extent, I think that being open about how art gets made is what enables kids who might be in a similar position, like I was when I was much younger, or, you know, less privileged positions than I was, because relatively speaking like I didn’t have it all that bad even though there are some very hard parts. There are kids for whom making art, and seeing other people tell strange stories or stories reflective of the world or stories imagining different worlds, can be the difference between sometimes life and death, sometimes survival and living. I know that it certainly was that for me, and I know that at a certain point in my life, as a teenager who was very much struggling with various things that weren’t exactly conspiring in my favor, being able to realize, “wow, there’s a whole world where people make things and they are actual people and here’s how they do it.” I wouldn’t be without those people.
So, you know, there is that paradoxical thing where I want to tell you everything, but I also don’t. I don’t want to be the equivalent of the paper next to the painting in the museum telling me what the painting is about. I want to stare at the painting, and find what I need to find in it, like if I’m staring at Jackson Pollock or whoever. I don’t want to be told. If I want to analyze it in some way, I can look at [the explanations] after.
Days of Hate: Act One is available in comic book stores and digitally now.
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