We've barely scratched the Surface - The Surface #1 - 2

The Surface #1 - 2
Written by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Langdon Foss
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Designed by Tom Muller
Image Comics

"I want to know what this universe is about. I want a full perspective, not some third rate partial understanding of this reality. I want to blow up all ideas that are not true so I can see what's underneath and real."

That's a quote from Issue 1 of The Surface but it feels like it could be the ethos for the comics of writer Ales Kot, who in a relatively short time has made a mark on comics, bringing wit and edge to books like Suicide Squad, and questioning the nature of time and reality in Secret Avengers and Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier. Last summer I looked at Kot's ambitious take on espionage stories in Zero, but through 2 issues, The Surface feels like his most boundary-pushing work yet. 

Kot (with an able team on art) is trying to work out nothing less than the nature of reality and what's behind the curtain, and we're along for the ride. In fact, much like in last week's Multiversity: Ultra Comics, we (the reader, along with the writer) are a part of the story. The Surface is one of the strangest, most ambitious books I've read in a while. It embraces meta-narrative, and uses the very structure of story to go to the idea that our world, our entire reality (particularly the reality presented inside a comic book), is an illusion.  Which is not a new idea in comics or science fiction, but a fertile ground for exploration. The Surface asks the more interesting question though, which is - if our world is a hologram, who is projecting that hologram? Why does it (meaning our world) exist? What's behind the hologram? 

It's some point in the indeterminate future. Society seems to have limped along (and not yet completely collapsed, though that seems imminent), with the requisite advances in technology complemented by the corresponding advances in terrorism. There are people who install cameras on themselves and log every moment of their lives online, called Lifeloggers. Sharing every moment publicly is the default and privacy is the opt-out. Thanks to a news source called Blinkfeed, we get news updates with links to additional information, including several updates regarding the Verhoven-Delany corporation, which seems to be the most powerful corporation at this time.*

Gomez, Nasia and Mark are three rebellious hackers living in hiding in Tanzania (controlled by the Chinese and Saudis), only Mark's father is Loki, President of the Three State Union. They're on the lookout for "The Surface", a place where they'll find out the true nature of things.  The first few issues of The Surface contains several disparate threads, and in addition to following these three characters as they seek The Surface, we're also met with questions and imagery from an unknown narrator, along with news updates from Blinkfeed, and and interviews with a mysterious author known as Doublehead (who comes across suspiciously sounding a lot like Ales Kot).  


This book really is designed to be seen as a multimedia, multi-sensory experience. Will everything come together and work to tell one unified story? It's hard to say at this point, but there's a lot going on. There's a helpful explanation in issue 1 as to what The Surface is or might be, and that's the idea that our entire existence is a hologram being projected. From where? By whom? These are not questions that are answered, at least not yet.  What I'm struck by most in these first few issues is Kot's ambition and scope. There's humor and wit and unorthodox storytelling to spare in this issue, from arguments between competing narrators, to sly predictions about future events as critiques of the present, to a coffee shop chain called "Starnuts" that sells a latte which also contains speed.  The book is bursting with ideas (I would say this book is messy, but not a mess, if that makes sense), and Kot doesn't seem to discriminate between high and low culture as far as sources for inspiration. 

Kot himself recently pushed back on comparisons between himself and the work of Grant Morrison so I won't go there, except to say that, he does seem to share a sense of vastness, and a sense of joy about the comics medium and its ability to explore the nature of existence, and to see the hidden places, the in-between places (Morrison would of course be the first to say he does not have a monopoly on these themes). Kot also plays with text and narrative by including interviews with a comic book writer (called "Doublehead") as part of the story who appears to be at least somewhat based on himself.  However, Kot's work has actually reminded me more of that of Warren Ellis. Like Ellis, Kot has a political edge and (at least as this book is progressing) a desire to seek out the true nature of existence hidden behind the visible world (see PlanetarySupreme: Blue Rose, etc.), and to use a fair amount of science fiction jargon. There is actually a "Spider Jerusalem" reference in the first issue so clearly Kot sees this as well.

Kot has highly skilled artistic partners in Langdon Foss and Jordie Bellaire, with overall design and cover work from Tom Muller and letters from Clayton Cowles. This is a beautiful looking book with art that suits and complements what Kot is trying to do from a storytelling perspective. The thoughtful design work begins on the cover of each issue which presents images that summarize or relate to (in an oblique way) some of the events of what's contained inside the issue, and Muller has also given each cover a weathered appearance, that of an artifact from a long time ago. The pages from Blinkfeed have a minimalist aesthetic to them, along with small messages which appear to be surreptitious communication by one of the dueling narrators to one of the characters in the story.** Cowles also provides some varied lettering throughout the story that reflects the multiple narrators and narratives without being obtrusive.

With respect to the comic that is devoted to the main narrative, Foss and Bellaire provide art that is bright, over-the-top and dynamic. Foss (also working with Kot on Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier) uses somewhat cartoonish, slightly exaggerated figure work, combined with intricate details to bring the story to life. Foss brings a lot of visual storytelling skill here, and puts a lot of care into these first 2 issues. The panel structure and color scheme vary greatly from page to page. The future is brightly colored, but also somewhat washed out and worn looking (no mean feat combining those elements, but Bellaire is up to the task). The sandy browns of Tanzania are contrasted with the more gray-dominated colors surrounding President Loki, as he investigates his son's whereabouts and struggles with his own sanity.  When the characters finally reach The Surface, it is a thing of weirdness and beauty, as it's like wandering inside a person's mind and seeing all of the different random thoughts and concepts floating all about.  The art contributes to the general sense of instability and uncertainty in reading the story, as you never quite know what's going to be waiting for you on the next page.

If you're looking for easy answers and don't like being confused, The Surface is not the place for you. However, if you're looking for a gorgeous, weird, metatextual, 4th-wall breaking story that'll leave you thinking about big things, then take a look within The Surface.

* The homage here seems to be both to Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoven, and to science fiction author Samuel Delany, author of Dhalgren and other books (which also play with narrative and reality in highly complex ways). The movie Starship Troopers features news stories, the end of which ask "would you like to know more?"  That same question shows up at the end of every Blinkfeed news item in The Surface.  

** This reminded me of MindMGMT, another book delving into the hidden nature of things which I took a look at last Fall