Everything is Material: Material #1-2

Material #1-2
Written by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Will Tempest
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Tom Muller
Image Comics

Ales Kot is a writer who, in a relatively short time has established himself as an independent voice in comics who you know is going to have something interesting and substantive to say (and I've enjoyed his takes on the military-industrial-espionage complex, and the fundamental nature of reality itself, in Zero and The Surface) even if he pisses someone off in saying it (or the way he says it). With Material, Kot and artist Will Tempest are telling stories that feel incredibly "right now." Material is a work of fiction, and yet it's not. It's a challenging, intellectual, provocative, sometimes frustrating, political book that takes a distinct point of view, and does this while effectively telling a series of moving, emotional stories. It's a little pedantic, but it's got a strong emotional core. It's illustrated with images that go from impressionistic to emotion-filled. At the end of all these things, it's something you can't easily characterize and won't easily forget. 

Through the first 2 issues, there are 4 main stories being told in Material. Julius Shore, a professor of philosophy at MIT, who's getting older and losing interest in his work until he's approached unexpectedly on his computer by an insightful artificial intelligence. Actress Nylon Dahlias' career is in something of a free fall as she loses herself in drugs, and she's approached about a pretty unusual project, that being a movie which is essentially the barely (if at all) fictionalized account of her own life. There's Franklin, a young African-American teenager in Chicago who tries to stand up to police brutality and ends up in a "black site" as a casualty of the modern police-terror state. There's also Adib, a Muslim American man recently released from Guantanamo Bay, who's facing tremendous difficulty in returning to his life in Oklahoma (deathly afraid of his dog, not feeling anything towards his wife) and can only experience any emotion and sensation in the care of a dominatrix. Each issue also contains an essay by a writer whose work Ales Kot admires.

There's a lot to unpack in these first few issues (kind of an understatement). But at the outset, it's worth saying that the issues rise and fall on the strength of the art from Will Tempest, and he delivers some art that's nontraditional and spare, but ultimately quite effective. Kot and Tempest have collaborated previously on issue #5 of Zero where Tempest's clean, almost clinical style (combined with great colors from Jordie Bellaire) worked perfectly for the storytelling which entirely took place inside a sterile debriefing room and headquarters. In Material, Tempest's scope is more ambitious; he's not just showing two people inside a room, the story moves from classrooms to studios to the streets of Chicago to secret prisons to dominatrix chambers. Tempest is using a much rougher, more impressionistic style and also coloring his own work here. His colors stay relatively thematically consistent with respect to each character, and I wouldn't describe them as realistic colors; they're more to set a mood and tone, for Professor Shore they're cooler and somewhat more realistic, but for Dahlia (who's often lost in drugs) they have a more variable, manic, warmer quality that's also more divorced from real-world coloring.

While his lines are rough, they can convey great emotional detail (even if it is quite spare). Particularly in the second issue, Tempest's art makes the story feel very personal. He uses a lot of close ups on the faces of our four main characters to get at their emotional state. For each of them, that state is pretty unhealthy and we really feel their sense of loss and unease at the world. My sense of the art here is that Tempest is using varying levels of detail (and the fact that many scenes are not fully fleshed out) not only in order to prioritize what's important in the story, but to show us how the characters themselves perceive what's in the story, and what's a priority for them. For example, when we see Professor Shore lecturing his class at the beginning of issue 2, the level of detail used to depict his students (and how he perceives his students) is a highly impressionistic, very general, blurred sketch that barely depicts human figures in an almost undifferentiated way. In the context of the story I took this to be a representation not just of the fact that the focus of the story is on the professor (and not his students) but that it also exists in the context of the story. He's older, cynical, no longer inspired by his life or his teaching, and his students likely hold little interest to him at this point. It's sometimes roughly sketched work from Tempest, but all the choices feel quite deliberate.
I'm pretty sure I've struggled more with what to say about Material than almost any other comic I've reviewed. I've struggled with how I feel with these first few issues because that question goes to the heart of what it is that I (or any reader) expect/want to get out of reading a comic, one that ostensibly is there to tell a story. Does this comic work as a story? I think it does, but I can see why not everyone would feel that way. As discussed above, the art is spare, and it doesn't necessarily feel like the comic is primarily here to tell a story. Moreover, is the question of whether this works as a story the right question to ask? Kot and his co-creators are trying to do something highly ambitious and experimental with Material, which is to use the architecture of story to create something existing somewhere between story and journalism; using the structure of fiction to deliver some very pointed critiques of society, in a way where there's a delicate dance between whether the ideas overwhelm the story. It feels like, as much as it's designed to tell stories, it's more designed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

At times, this book can feel like an educational experience; that's both excellent and informative and something that can take a reader out of the comic. Many pages have "suggested reading" at the bottom of the page, in case the reader wants to learn more about the topics addressed on that particular page of the issue. It's either informative or pretentious (or both); I find the multimedia-style format useful and additive. If printed pages had hyperlinks, the story probably would take you directly to the supplemental materials. It's very reflective of the way so many of us consume our information now. In the second issue, Kot provides suggested listening for each page. This idea I actually quite love; maybe it's because I've recently read musical-themed comics such as Jem, We Can Never Go Home, or Lumberjanes, but I find the idea of a soundtrack for a comic to be an enriching one.

Moreover, at the bottom of the pages of each issue relating to the story of Franklin and the consequences of his interaction with the Chicago police, there are the names of numerous African American victims of police brutality and violence (people such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and (sadly) too many others). It's meant (I think) to make the reader uncomfortable in a useful way and to provoke a reaction. It's a reminder that this is more than fiction taking place in a vacuum; this is reality, this one incident depicted in a comic is reflective of the very real, tragic, racist violence experienced on a daily basis throughout the country. This one young man being depicted in this comic is meant to be a stand-in, a representation of what African-American men all over this country are experiencing. Fictionalizing a real story, even in a "ripped from the headlines" story, makes it easier and safer for a reader to consume. It's "just a story". On the other hand, it might also be okay to let the reader infer something like this without the constant reminders. Would that blunt its effectiveness? Not necessarily - there have been plenty of works of fiction that have been highly political and didn't necessarily need to tell you that they were based as a general matter on real events.

So this (along with many other aspects of the book) may be off-putting to some. But what I think Kot is trying to do (with all of the narratives in these first few issues) is bridge the gap between the reality being depicted and its fictional nature. Providing the names of real victims does that, as does the depictions of scenes of torture throughout history that are included in the parts of the comic that focus on Adib after he's returned from Guantanamo Bay. It's a reminder that torture of enemies (whether political prisoners or heretics) has a long, inglorious history. Kot actually makes his intentions pretty clear. As Professor Shore says near the beginning of issue 2, (quoting Jack Kirby), "comics is journalism." That feels like the thesis statement for this comic. It's also an idea he's clearly fascinated in with his work more generally. Reading The Surface and the most recent arc of Zero, those works are all about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and among artist, reader and subject. This is made abundantly clear in Dahlia's story, where the director who's sought her out wants to make a movie that is essentially whatever she wants it to be. The first issue shows us what seems to be a meaningful, heartfelt discussion between her and the director. As it turns out, it's a scene from the movie.
The comic isn't all theory and experimentation. Kot is a writer of wit and edge, but also compassion, and all of those things come across in Material. All of the four main protagonists depicted in Material feel like damaged people, to one extent or another. But as much as we see what society, or the government has done to them, or what they have done to themselves and are doing to themselves, they don't feel like objects of pity. Each of them is facing difficult challenges and reacting in their own way. From Abid turning to the comfort of a dominatrix because it reminds him of the torture to which he was subjected, to Professor Shore trying to use the interactions with (what might be) an AI as a way to learn more and perhaps get more substance for his discussions or scholarship (since, after all, "everything is Material"), to Franklin trying to move past his capture in a black box facility by engaging in playful teasing with his friends as a way to feel normal, to Nylon Dahlias trying to reach her own emotional truths in an honest way in a circumstance that's very honest and completely artifice. All of them are just trying to deal with what life has dealt them. Kot and Tempest make their struggles both highly specific and very universal, and do so with compassion.

If the purpose of art is meant to both inspire and provoke a reaction, then Material is highly successful. It's not a straightforward read, but I think if you take it for what it is (rather than get frustrated about what it isn't) it's a complex and rewarding one.