The Surface #1
Written by Ales Kot
Drawn by Langdon Foss
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Designed by Tom Muller
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
The thing about Ales Kot, comics’ current game changing hip priest, is that he’s both cynical and hopeful. More specifically, Kot is a trippy writer who is nonetheless also a very personal writer, and rather than be another in a long line of pale cranky wordsmiths, he believes in comics as a method for speaking directly to the kids. And Kot knows that the kids today are trying to find their way in a sea of digital noise and generational terrorism, of trying to correct all that shit adults did to wreck the world and whine about it, of trying to make sense out of unfair systems and rules and chaos. Kot’s work to date has been mostly unpredictable but it tends to focus on inheritors of bad systems, be it The Winter Soldier shaking off his sidekick mantle once and for all and going cosmic or Zero and the increasingly more complicated world of counter-terrorism, where the sickness and the cure are all too often the same thing. But in its debut issue, The Surface has set itself up to be the defining statement on this subject by Kot and his ridiculously talented collaborators.
Set in a near future where you don’t opt in to sharing, you opt in to not sharing, The Surface focuses on a trio of wild children, hacktivists who want to change the world and think that an “urban legend” about a surrealist garden of eden might be the answer. One of them is the son to an anti-open data politician who presides over The Three State Union, a hint at a fractured US, and so they’ve gone off grid, or so they think. They’re not sure whether “The Surface” actually exists, but they’ve got belief and chutzpah on their side and the resources to pursue that belief and hope it has an impact on their future.
As illustrated by Langdon Foss, this is a future on the precipice of dystopia, not quite unsalvageable just yet but also not too far from doom and so it is still recognizable as our own world, only a little twisted and more tech assimilated. The trio at the heart of the story have unique styles that are truer to youth fashion than the bulk of the comics out there trying to court the Tumblr demo—Nasia looks like if Meredith Graves fronted a cyberpunk outfit instead of a noise punk band, Gomez alternates between styling himself after a The Warriors lead and a skater, and Mark packs an eye pouch and a half shaved head. These feel like real kids, still navigating style and confidence and full of insane ambitions.
Foss’s aesthetic is equally unique and organic, situated somewhere between peak era Moebius and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan work, grimy and urban except when it’s beautiful and open and natural. Kot pushes that aesthetic to its limits, opening the issue with a 2001 nod where a tech obelisk frames the story over a strong blue and pink palette from Jordie Bellaire before giving way to an almost painfully bright Tom Muller design spread that fades back to urban desert tones and immense detail. A lot of these “big data is evil!” stories spend so much time setting up the tech wizardry and privacy violations of their world that the characters and setting just end up being the same. But Kot and Foss fucking get it, only walking you through enough info on the real world analogues to make it easier for you to get the stakes and parallels. So you get Lifelogs as an evolutionary step up from Facebook, a platform for sharing that involves wearing tiny cameras and microphones at all times to let the world live your experiences with you. And you get cyberterrorists supplanting ISIS and al-Qaeda as the boogeymen of the future’s neverending global war.
The effect is one of immersion, like having a conversation with a real life young’un who just assumes you know about the trends and gadgets and will only bother giving you a brief explanation before counting on you to just put the rest together yourself. There is too little time, too much data to absorb, for anyone to waste time overexplaining tools. At the same time, Kot fleshes out The Surface with a number of meta touches, ranging from newsfeed stories on some of the background of the story to interviews with basically himself. There are also hints hidden throughout the text, as well as references to relevant other works and meta-remarks on the references themselves (“Obligatory comics reference to show the author’s understanding of the art form’s history” next to a Spider Jerusalem reference is my favorite), all giving the work the feel of a true passion project, one that continues to unravel in the creators’ brains long after unveiling.
These elements add further depth and understanding to The Surface but the work excels at making an immersive atmosphere even without these details and addendums. Foss and Bellaire have done an incredible job just making this world carry the weight of reality, with some of the initially more outlandish seeming creations revealing themselves to be rooted in the real world. Take some immense skyscrapers rising up out of the city the kids visit in Tanzania. So huge they disappear into the clouds with no end in sight, these structures appear to be modeled after human hair, twisting and turning, their follicles buried in the old city below. Near them are drones, keeping an eye on all activity. Or look close at “Starnuts,” a coffee chain that gives you more than just caffeine and sugar in the morning, it also gives you a dose of “the best Polish speed,” as well as a download card for some chart topping speed metal. Seems a little extreme until you remember this is meant to be a document of our hyper attention spans run rampant, a glimpse at a world where governments are falling apart trying to keep data privacy open even as they try to keep data itself closed.
That’s the kind of brain splitting conflict Kot has explored in a number of his works, but where prior series like Change and Wild Children were more convoluted and abstract, The Surface is a pointed effort to strike back at the criticism of Kot’s work as “sloppy and cryptic,” as he meta-explains in the backmatter. That doesn’t mean the ideas are any less grandiose or difficult, but it’s clear Kot wants to prove that he can be a little more linear and not lose the element of his writing that makes it undoubtedly his own. Kot also leans more on Foss here, giving the artist a script that lets what would have been handled by cryptic wording in other Kot comics be revealed through tight paneling, zoom ins on symbolic imagery and mirrored pages. There’s a lot of talk about holograms and how when cut in half they reveal the same data and Foss is tasked with depicting that in the pages too at certain points. A sequence in the desert in particular has three characters looking out on the terrain from separate widescreen panels, all with the same posture, but each lit differently by Bellaire’s coloring. Given the way the plot unfolds in the first issue, it seems to be a comment on examining the world in front of you in its current form just before you move ahead with a decision that will change everything. It’s a pivotal moment for each of the characters, and it’s equally important that this panel always has the character isolated, with no dialogue.
There’s also a lot of hope in that image, a suggestion that if you can rein in your thoughts and take in your surroundings you will have a better chance at making the change you believe in. It’s an artistic statement that says that the world may be shitty, but there’s still beauty in it, and if you can focus on that beauty before you head down your new path, you’ll be the better for it. It’s not about ignoring what’s in front of you or shutting yourself off from the world, it’s about taking control internally before you do so externally. Kot has never been less “sloppy and cryptic” than he is here, but this story is still personal, a hardened cynic’s attempt to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world and deciding maybe it’s time to trust in the kids to persevere. They don’t need your belief to succeed, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The Surface #1 will be available from Image Comics tomorrow, March 11th
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover