Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing The Surface 1, originally released March 11th, 2015.
Writing becomes not easier, but more difficult for me. Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.
Drew: It’s not often that we scrutinize whether a work of art “justifies its own existence.” Indeed, it’s a focus we tend to reserve for sequels, re-masterings, new editions, or other works that might be accused of returning to a specific well, but it’s curious that we’re not equally dubious of ALL art. I suspect it’s because we don’t actually care. Why a work of art exists may be an easy target when we dislike it, but ultimately, the only thing that matters is how it exists. There may be creator-side issues that explain why the nuts and bolts of a work of art are the way we are, but on the audience side, we can really only evaluate whether or not those nuts and bolts work. As a guiding principle, that philosophy has kept me happy, allowing me to both separate art from the artists that make it and remain blissfully ignorant of whatever business considerations might go on behind the scenes. But with that happiness came a kind of complacency, forgetting that there might be works of art that might actually be about their own existence. The Surface 1 is one such work, focusing so self-consciously on its own existence that I can’t help but feel a little insecure about justifying a written discussion of it — not because it’s bad, but because that self-consciousness is kind of infectious.
The story itself revolves around “the Surface,” a maybe-mythical space shaped by the beliefs of those who exist in it. I would be hard-pressed to think of a more obvious analogy for the creative process, but writer Ales Kot doesn’t allow any of it to come easy. The issue is actually littered with symbols that seem to dead-end as quickly as they begin. Take the very first page, for example.
You don’t have to be Freud to pick up on the sexual imagery here (or colorist Jordie Bellaire’s cheeky inversion of the colors we associate with the respective genders), but — at least as far as this issue is concerned — they don’t seem to serve any purpose. Gender and sex play minimal roles here, and could hardly be considered themes this issue grapples with, let alone important ones. Kot may well be planting seeds for something down the road, but I’d like to suggest that it’s actually a red herring. Or, more precisely, it’s just there to keep us on our toes — phallic and yonic imagery may not be important going forward, but whetting our appetite for symbolic significance might be.
Then again, it might not have an explicit purpose. Kot suggests later in the issue that there’s virtue in art that’s “willfully sloppy.” Er, it’s not quite Kot that I’m quoting there — the issue features two interviews with “Doublehead,” apparently about the writing of the very issue we’re reading. In those interviews, Doublehead refers to writing Change, which is the title of Kot’s first miniseries with Image. Change actually features a writer character called Doublehead, making it not quite clear if we’re supposed to understand Doublehead to be Kot. Does Doublehead exist in the world of Change, and that comic is his account of those events, while The Surface is a fiction he’s writing for readers in the world of Change? Or is Change fictional to Doublehead, too, and he actually exists in some world between the fiction he writes and the reality we read it in? Ultimately, those questions fall by the wayside, as the interviews focus on the anxieties of bringing a long-gestating idea to light, even if the creator doesn’t know how it will end.
Actually, that last bit may be the idea that most resonates with me about this issue (and again, may have leeched into my approach for this discussion): potent symbols whose purpose isn’t yet clear (and I should emphasize yet — this is a Kot series, after all). I suggested that phallic imagery wasn’t a key component of this issue, but Kot does introduce one more classic phallic symbol at the issue’s midpoint.
Curiously, artist Langdon Foss focuses so tightly on the end of the gun, it actually becomes a yonic symbol. Again, we don’t have any context for what that symbol might mean — and perhaps it’s narrative potency as a gun introduced but not yet fired is more important — but it’s such a striking one, we can’t help but follow it, even if where it leads isn’t clear.
Or perhaps we’re meant to take President Loki’s words at face value: there’s no meaning to all of this. I tend to ascribe to the notion that all meaning in art is projected by the audience, but with the voice of the artist so omnipresent in this issue, it’s hard to ignore Kot’s intentions. Then again, with so many layers of fiction going on, it’s hard to suss out what exactly those intentions might be. Even the narration is difficult to parse — we’re given both these white text boxes and the slightly more stylized black ones in the first image, with no indication of whose these voices might be, or if either of them have a diegetic origin at all. I have a half formed theory that one represents Kot, while the other somehow represents the comic itself, but I’m honestly not even convinced which one I think might be which.
All of which is to say this is a dense, sometimes even frustrating read. The adventure of our intrepid heroes into the Surface is a clear enough thread to follow, but with so much emphasis on what this all means (and what it means to Kot, specifically), it’s hard to know which way is up. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it. I’m notoriously bad at evaluating first issues, which is why I’m glad I’m discussing it with someone that’s quick to call me out on it. Spencer! Do you feel like you have a better handle on what this series (or even this issue) is all about?
Spencer: A better handle? I don’t know if it’s possible to have any sort of handle on The Surface yet. I have some theories and ideas about what this all “means,” but there’s no way to know if they’re any more or less valid than yours, Drew. I don’t think you’re overthinking things, though. The search for answers and meaning is an overwhelming theme here (which I’ll expound upon in a bit), and at one point Kot actually straight-up asks the audience what they’re thinking.
We’re clearly supposed to be reading deep into this book, looking for the meaning in pretty much every little detail, which is why Kot even goes as far as to point out when otherwise unremarkable lines of dialogue are clues.
Clues about what? I’m not quite sure, but they obviously mean something. That’s the only other certainty I can reach about this issue: Kot wants us disoriented. Clues and symbols that may just be red herrings? Disorienting. A title page that comes exactly half-way through the issue? Disorienting (I actually thought the story was over when I reached it the first time). Including only two parts of a three part interview with the author? Disorienting. Just as the search for meaning in life is hard, so will be our search for meaning within The Surface.
But while we may be looking for the meaning of the issue in front of us, the characters within The Surface are searching for the meaning of life itself. I mean that quite literally — Mark, Gomez and Nasia are literally seeking a place capable of showing them the inner workings of the universe. There’s even a bit of a search for God — or at least for the origins of the universe — at play here, which is best seen via the theory of the universe being a hologram.
If the universe/hologram is being projected from somewhere, then it also stands to reason that someone must be projecting it, right?
Actually, it seems entirely possible that Kot may be setting up a major meta-textual collision here. If the universe of The Surface is being projected by someone, and if the Surface itself gives people the ability to rewrite (or retcon?) their past, then could Mark, Gomez and Nasia eventually discover that the universe they inhabit is simply a story concocted by some guy named Ales Kot (or concocted by Doublehead, who was, in turn, dreamed up by Kot)? Or perhaps Kot is inviting us to question how real our universe really is? Are we responsible for our actions, or are they dictated by someone, be it family, society, God, or just some vague sense idea of fate and destiny?
It’s trippy stuff, and again, these aren’t easy questions to ask (much less answer), but Kot does seem to be implying that the questions are worth asking anyway. Quests for meaning like the ones these three kids are taking aren’t something we see too much of anymore these days, and even less in the future of The Surface. Mark and his friends live in a world where the internet is an inescapable part of everyday life, where individuals’ every actions are recorded and posted online, and where any information they don’t have is ridiculously easy to obtain (like instantly mapping the layout of the canyon they eventually climb down). It would be easy to assume they know everything, that all the meaning that can be found has already be found, but instead they go searching for it anyway.
In a way, it’s the fact that they go searching at all that seems to make Mark and his friends the “heroes” of this story. In fact, Gomez doesn’t believe in the Surface at all and only goes along to prove his friends wrong, but the fact that he’s willing to look at all seems to make him just as “heroic” as Mark and Nasia. If The Surface is all about compelling its readers to search for meaning within its pages, it’s only appropriate that its heroes are the characters who go looking for meaning themselves, and it’s just as appropriate that the villain is the man who believes that life has no meaning.
Of course, it seems likely that Preseident Loki reached his conclusion through a search of his own, so perhaps his sin is less that he believes life has no meaning and more that, when faced with this revelation, he didn’t give his life meaning. Maybe that’s the ultimate moral of The Surface 1. Kot is encouraging us to take an active role both in reading this issue and in our lives in general, to search for meaning and, if we can’t find it, then to come up with our own interpretation. We can give our lives meaning in the same way we can assign meaning even to a book as vague as this one, and that’s quite a liberating thought.
It’s also a bit of an intimidating idea, though, and The Surface can certainly be an intimidating title to tackle. There are more conventional ways to enjoy this book — its narrative, characters, and art are all worth talking about in their own right — but Kot’s focus on finding meaning within an issue that essentially eschews meaning just about overwhelms any attempts to dissect the issue any other way. So Drew, I don’t think you’re wrong to get caught up on what Kot intended the issue to say, but I also think that much of what Kot’s saying is that, ultimately, determining what this book is actually about falls on us. I’m not really sure whether I find that frustrating or fascinating; much like every other aspect of The Surface, I imagine that will be up to each reader to decide for themselves.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?