feature by Vernon Miles, originally published in IMAGE+
With every passing week, DAYS OF HATE starts to feel less like science fiction. It's a future where neo-nazis roam the streets of a bitterly divided America and find themselves hunted by shadowy left-wing factions. The influences of today’s political divisions are clear, but for Aleš Kot & Danijel Zezelj, it's also very personal cautionary tale by two immigrants driven by their own experiences growing up with civil war and hatred in Central Europe and the Balkans. DAYS OF HATE takes an unflinching look at the tragedy of hate as it permeates the United States.
VERNON MILES: It seems impossible to separate DAYS OF HATE from the politics it throws itself into. Where did DAYS OF HATE start for you, and how have the events of the last few months impacted the way you view the story?
DANIJEL ZEZELJ: Coming from a country which seemed sound and safe and then violently fell apart within months (due to the war in the Balkans from 1991 to 1996) made me look at every state and system differently ever since. We naturally like to believe that things are nice and safe because it gives us a sense of comfort, but the shit is boiling underneath constantly, waiting to explode. I might be speaking from the perspective of an immigrant, and that’s how I always felt wherever I lived, but what is happening in the United States right now, and for the past months, does not surprise me at all.
ALEŠ KOT: I don't really know where it began. I come from a place on the Czech-Polish border that still has old tanks and bunkers and barbed wire in the fields and in the woods. I come from a family riddled with war trauma and with dictatorship trauma—first the Nazis, then the supposed communists, though that was just fascism by another name, and then the Russian invasion to boot. My great-grandfather died in Latvia fighting for the Nazis. My grandfather was in the uranium mines and fought as a guerrilla before joining the secret police apparatus and becoming one of the worst people I've ever gotten close to. My dad stole paintings to fund his escape from the dictatorship. I beat my first Nazi once I grew big enough to successfully fight back. What I mean to say is what is happening is not surprising to me. It began a long time before I began. If you pay attention, you see it. This is just another part of the spiral. We all choose our place.
MILES: What made you choose Los Angeles and New York as the locations for DAYS OF HATE?
ZEZELJ: I've lived in the USA since '96, first in Seattle and then in New York, and quickly realized how culturally and socially different various parts of the country are—contrary to the illusion of unity and harmony that I had before. For our story, built on a combination of contrasts, it was important to emphasize these tensions and use them as a background.
KOT: I needed to begin with duality. Two main characters, two cities. Los Angeles and New York are two wholes but also two larger parts that click seamlessly into each other—the perfect, rigid grid of one and the wavy gridless ocean of the other, the way one is a city but the other a wilderness masquerading as a city, how one drowns in heat all year long and the other spends half its year covered in frozen water. Of course, to write about the United States of America today while only staying in these two cities felt wrong, so we move all over the map, but never leave the USA.
MILES: There’s a 1969 French film called Army of Shadows about the French Resistance that is a very brutal and grim look at the paranoia and betrayals inside the French Resistance during WWII. I couldn’t stop thinking about that and how unsettling it is seeing that sort of reality in a not-very distant future for this country. Were there any historical sources for your view of underground resistance movements?
KOT: Everything I read since I was about eight years old, and a lot of stories I heard and overheard. Army of Shadows is actually, art-wise, the single most important source, and it's rooted in its director's actual involvement in the French Resistance. Then it's people's stories, articles, and essays here and there, various snippets. Orwell's essays. Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny. Hannah Arendt, of course. My good internet acquaintance Matthew Cobb gifted me his book called The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, which I intend to read as I write the upcoming chapters, and I have been saving The Battle of Algiers and Come and See for years now.
The strange thing is, I never had to read much on the resistance movements—it just came in without me explicitly seeking it. I've been fascinated with violence, war, and power for a very long time. One of the first books on World War II I ever read was a personal account of someone who survived the concentration camp experiments. I was eight or nine years old. I sincerely believe this was one of the healthiest things that could have happened to me because it taught me that humans are capable of any evil imaginable. It didn't scar me or scare me—it opened my eyes to understanding that, given the right set of wrong circumstances and a lack of personal ethics, anyone can become a Nazi.
MILES: Radicalization is one of the most prevalent themes in DAYS OF HATE, not only with the neo-Nazis one of the main characters fights, but with accusations from her ex that she herself had become radicalized. This seems like a particularly topical issue with debates occurring at the national level over whether or not it’s fair to equate far left groups with the neo-Nazis they opposed, sometimes violently. What are some of your feelings on this and how it relates to DAYS OF HATE? Is that something we’re going to see explored more as the series continues?
KOT: As I said before, we all choose our place.
As for DAYS OF HATE, it's an American tragedy. It's about its characters, two women torn apart by an impending war, a man in charge of the secret police, and a Muslim man who left his family to fight for their survival. Beyond that, I'll let the work speak for itself.
MILES: DAYS OF HATE has a very distinctive art style that seems evocative of street art. How did this emerge as the style for the project?
KOT: It's Danijel. It's his work, and it's even better than I hoped and believed it would be. I knew who I was collaborating with.
ZEZELJ: The theme and the story is the trigger. We want it to feel and look contemporary, like a documentary, but also visceral, as if you could smell it, hear it, and feel the texture.
MILES: Danijel, scenes of urban decay seem to be a speciality of yours. I remember seeing your illustrations of war-torn Syria in Harper’s Magazine last year. What draws you to that topic?
ZEZELJ: It’s true, urban decay was and always is the most inspiring landscape to me. I find it beautiful, emotionally charged, alive, and symbolic at the same time, as if industrial buildings are skeletons of broken dreams. Graffiti and scratches on concrete walls are the new alphabet. Books are written on the walls of any big city.
MILES: Some of the scenes, particularly some of the vast landscape panels of the city, are pretty breathtaking and detailed. Were there any panels in this comic that were particularly challenging or any places where you tried something new for you?
ZEZELJ: There is immense clarity and intelligence in Aleš’ work. The whole story feels new to me. It’s fresh and charged, and both Aleš and I feel an urgency and necessity to put it together and out the best way we can. It is challenging, and it has to be. I would like every image and every page to reflect the fire of the story.
MILES: The spray paint effect on the shadows in this book are outstanding. How did you accomplish that effect?
ZEZELJ: It’s very simple. I splash white acrylic over black ink using an old brush. My technique is quite primitive.
MILES: It’s fascinating that DAYS OF HATE, a book that deals heavily with prejudices and nativism in the United States, comes from such an international team. Aleš immigrated to the United States from the Czech Republic. Danijel is from Croatia. Aditya Bidikar is from India. And Jordie is an American living in Ireland. How do you think these international experiences played a role in how you approached DAYS OF HATE?
KOT: The USA is built by people who came from elsewhere, horrifyingly on the bones of those who have already lived here and those who were enslaved to build a bright new future. Not "being" from here supported me in not lying to myself about what the USA is and what it's built upon. I can't speak for anyone else, but for me personally, coming to terms with that and putting in a hand towards building a future that is no longer built on exploitation of others is what matters to me, because I believe this country and this world can do much, much better.
Art functions as an immersive mirror—a way to see ourselves, our community, country, world. I don't know why I'm making this story. But I know I have to.
DAYS OF HATE #1 debuts 1/17 and is available for preorder now.
Vernon Miles is a reporter with the Alexandria Gazette and freelance writer for Image+. He lives in a crowded apartment in Washington, DC with two roommates and a lop-eared rabbit named George. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.