by Jarrod Jones. One of the great pleasures (and surprises!) of running a low-key comics site like DoomRocket is that I’m allowed to ask questions of fascinating creators. There are some artists and writers I speak with more than others, and some I’ve yet to speak with at all, but so far one of the most surprising and satisfying experiences I’ve had interviewing any creator has most certainly been my annual chats with the comics writing powerhouse known as Ram V.
Ram’s been writing a lot, as he does, working on a diverse array of projects alongside an eye-widening line-up of artists and editors. 2020 has already seen some impressive outings from him, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say his most important and intimate work of the year is still to come.
It’s an original graphic novel called Blue in Green, published by Image Comics, a graphic presentation of music, mood, and mystery. The type of music is jazz, a compliment to the rhythms adopted by Ram and artists Anand RK & John Pearson; it’s improvisational in places, crescendo spikes followed by tempo shifts, an arrangement of style and character and theme. As for mood, well. There’s a bit of horror in it, the personal kind, the kind that keeps us locked up in places far away from the love and understanding of others. Aditya Bidikar hand-letters every utterance and thought for this book and his font choices and placement create a smooth studio production feel before he yanks the cords out and all becomes distortion and unease. And the mystery? A photograph found by frustrated musician and teacher Erik Deiter just hours after the funeral of his estranged mother, a still image that sends Erik on a vertiginous journey to a past that no longer wishes to be ignored.
In short, Blue in Green is terrific. It’s captivating like a concept album, inspired like a wave of instrumental improvisation, impactful like a proper graphic novel ought. And, designed by Tom Muller, it looks like a million bucks, like a freshly-printed Blue Note album assembled by Reid Miles. (Look him up; you’ll be glad you did.) There’s so much to crack with a book like this. So I put some of my questions concerning Blue in Green to Ram V. and, as ever, his responses were generous, surprising, satisfying.
1. Flipping through these pages, the fascinating, etched style embraced by Anand, the smears and burns left by John, the edged word balloons from Aditya, I couldn’t help but get swept up by—and I realize this is almost a comic criticism cliché at this point—that “classic pre-Vertigo” vibe, a proper Berger book. ‘Books of Magic’, ‘Black Orchid’, that kind of thing. When you were constructing ‘Blue in Green’, was there a bit of that mindset at play? Because, if you were aiming for that, well. Bravo.
Ram V: I think its interesting that you call that Vertigo painted style a comic criticism cliché. I think at this point the cliché has outlived the thing it is referencing. Where has that aesthetic gone? I mean why haven’t we seen a progression of that style? Why isn’t it more prevalent now? I don’t know the answer, but I think there is some interesting digging to be done there about the kind of stories we’re telling.
Rather than look at it as trying to invoke a Pre-Vertigo/McKean/Muth/Sienkiewicz style, I want to look at what that style brings to a book. It has a kind of textural realism to it. It evokes very real sensations of touch and tone and atmosphere. We then marry that with the abstract and surreal quality that painted work can bring. It does this very specific thing of juxtaposing the real and the unreal—never quite letting you settle down in one place. The mundane things take on a dream-like quality. Dreams and nightmares begin to feel like you could touch them. We wanted that specific sensibility. I knew that was the aesthetic for this book and this story before we set out to tell it. We worked for a good month and a half developing the look and feel of the book.
And so, all of the things you mentioned were touchstones but that approach was taken for a reason.
2. Early in the book, there’s an aura of detachment and dread that hangs over your focal character, Erik Dieter. It’s clear he hasn’t spent much time with his family over the course of years, and a family tragedy brings them back into his life. You write a caption during Erik’s mother’s wake that I found familiar as someone who has moved around a lot in his adult life, something that has popped up in my own mind (though in different forms): “Everyone is everyone else.” How important is this feeling of detachment for Erik and the story of ‘Blue in Green’ overall?
I think it really sets the tone for Blue in Green. This character who views his own life and relationships as insipid and bereft of true depth and emotion. He desires deeper meaning. He knows something’s missing, but he doesn’t know what. I think, oddly, it makes him that much more real. I think we’ve all felt like that at times and so in him we recognize something human.
Then, as the story progresses his pursuit of intense experiences, a rich and interesting past, experiences of pain and joy are all seen in the light of his “detachment” and I think for me that was the thing I wanted to explore. And I think that’s where the existential horror of this story lies.
3. Erik sifts through the memories of his mother’s life, left behind in the form of mementos, records, photographs—and one photograph, specifically, an old shot of a man he’s never seen before, compels him to go on this vertiginous journey. Of the things that struck me before Erik came across this photo, one of them was his mood, colored by grief and shame. Afterwards comes interest. Selfishness. Compulsion. I don’t necessarily mean to get personal here, Ram, but has grief ever affected the way you have navigated your career? Have you ever come up against a reaction you’ve had borne of grief that startled you, like, “that’s not me… why did I do that”? If so, did moments like these end up informing some of this story? It feels quite intimate.
I don’t think I’ve quite reacted in this way, but my experiences of grief and sorrow have always seemed oddly fascinating to me in hindsight. I’ve never said “that’s not me…” rather I’ve said, “Is that me? Am I this person? Is this how I deal with grief?—if so, how strange. If so, how dreadful? beautiful?.”
I don’t think its affected how I’ve navigated my career, but I think about the relationship between knowledge and grief a lot. Knowing the truth of things and the sadness and grief that can come with that. In some way Erik’s journey does that—his need to know and feel is driven by his grief. His grief is further intensified by what he knows. That kind of destructive cycle. I know that cycle, I know that craving for genuine experiences and where that can lead.
4. ‘Blue in Green’ embraces several genres without owing itself to one more than any other. Thriller-mystery, kitchen sink drama, moments of outright horror—we run the gamut alongside Erik. Can you tell me about ‘Blue in Green’, about when this was merely a set of notes jotted down for future reference? What part of ‘Blue in Green’, before it was ‘Blue in Green’, stood out to you first, that “eureka” moment when you knew this was getting written?
To be very honest, I don’t think there was ever one Eureka moment. For me, that’s not how ideas work, really. They build and develop and fester and grow in my head. Probably my earliest inkling of this story was during a conversation with a bassist at a jazz performance in Seattle after I’d attended ECCC. We talked about how jazz and good writing are trying to do similar things. Trying to reach for a complexity that is difficult to distil/articulate, thriving in the ambiguity of human emotion. But even so the influences and elements that came into the book have all been there for a while.
Angel Heart, Whiplash, Burroughs, Paul Auster, James Baldwin—all of those have spent a lot of time in my head, contributing to the thing that Blue in Green would eventually become.
5. I’m curious to know more about Anand’s creative journey with this story. What he’s brought to this graphic novel—the mixed media, the diligent architectural line, the McKeanesque figures—is simply exquisite. Did you write things for Anand to interpret, or did you improvise pages with him, like a jazz instrumentalist might do during a jam session?
As I said before we spent a lot of time early on figuring out the visual tone and aesthetic for the book. We went through a lot of iterations and techniques before we settled on what it looks like now.
Part of the motivation for Anand behind working on Blue in Green, I think, was the ability to do something with his textural, multi-media, painterly style. And you can see his thoughts and ideas with that evolving even through the pages in the story.
I wrote the story very freeform, almost a page at a time. Each page of story in reaction to seeing the previous one. As you say, almost like improvisational call and response. We sat down over video calls and pretty much every day. I think there is an unexpected energy and thoughtfulness we’ve achieved with that.
But beyond that its all Anand on the page. He really is a master and builds atmosphere & tone with ease. He knows when to lean into the realism and when to exaggerate. I think he’s still figuring out what his voice in comics will be. But I think this book goes a long long way toward showing that he has something that is uniquely him to contribute to the medium.
6. Aditya is one of my favorite letterers, chiefly because he has an ability to bring a style to any book that fits better than anything anybody else could possibly come up with. His balloons, his captions, they snap onto the page, fit as though they were always there. When Aditya brought fonts for you to check out, did you already know what you wanted to see, or did he end up surprising you?
Aditya is everyone’s favourite letterer! To me the quality I like about him the most is his fearlessness. If Anand and I were pushing ourselves creatively with the writing and art, you can see Aditya pushing the lettering and the narrative aspects of it at his end. The book is full of clever little things with the lettering and a lot of them are Aditya’s ideas and a few of them mine. But it is always thrilling to work with a collaborator who’ll push himself to contribute to what the book is doing as a piece of narrative art.
Aditya did bring in the fonts and we did a few test pages. We decided on a slightly unhinged, jerky style for the lettering here and I think it works to create this nervous, frantic energy. I like that a lot.
Of course, a madman, he talked himself into hand-lettering the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s a thing he’ll want to do again for a while. But the results are gorgeous. Again a thing that was crafted and not produced.
7. Let’s talk about tempo—I mean, pacing. [Laughs] When you’re piecing together the plot, how do you mete out your turning points, your character shifts? Is there such a thing as “too much, too fast”? Which do you prefer, that the world would shift its axis gradually or do you like something more instantaneous, shocking?
Ordinarily, I would. I’d write an outline, figure out plot turns, tune the tension and character arcs and such. But with this book, I did none of those things. I had some vague sense of where I was heading and a fairly experienced understanding of structure.
So, this was written more improvisationally, more like a jazz tune. One page after the other, like notes in a composition. It felt a lot more like writing a novel for me. One that focuses on character interiority. I’m not quite sure yet exactly all the ways it has affected the final result. But I suppose that’s something I’ll digest over time. It made for an interesting creative process in the least.
As to what I prefer, whatever suits the story best. In general, I’m a slow burn kind of guy. I get tired of plot-based trickery easily. I’d much rather pacing and tempo be driven by character choices and compulsions.
8. The kind of stories we create are influenced by what media we are consuming in the moment. I can’t imagine you wrote this without listening to music. So, what were you listening to leading up to the act of writing ‘Blue in Green’? Was there a particular piece that stayed in heavy rotation? If so, why?
My Blue in Green Playlist:
- Blue in Green – Miles Davis
- ‘Round Midnight – Miles Davis
- In A Sentimental Mood – Duke Ellington
- Lullaby of The Leaves – Gerry Mulligan
- My Foolish Heart – Bill Evans Trio
- Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson
- Invitation – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
- Green Bird – Sebastian Wolff (Cowboy Bebop OST)
- Yesterdays – Wynton Marsalis
- Passion Flower – Johnny Hodges And His Orchestra
- Romain – Bill Evans, Jim Hall
- Haupe – Duke Ellington
- In Your Own Sweet Way – Wes Montgomery
- Naima – John Coltrane
- God Bless The Child – Sonny Rollins
- The Peacocks – Till Bronner
- When Your Lover Has Gone – Ben Webster, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Ed Thigpen
Beyond sharing my playlist there isn’t much point in me talking about why these pieces were on rotation. I wrote a whole book to transmit just that, ha!
9. There’s been some discussion in comics Twitter this past week about “making it” and being aware of when it happens—or not, depending on your level of humility. How do you quantify success? Or maybe I want to ask: Do you think that, for any creative person, following the lure of success is a mistake?
I saw that discussion. I didn’t participate in it. What’s the point? What does “making it” even mean? It’s such a random, arbitrary thing.
The more important question is why do we need to quantify success? There are functional reasons, sure. Do I earn enough to pay my bills? Do I earn enough to live comfortably? Do I earn enough to have a private jet? An island? We could keep going.
Of these, the first quantification is perhaps of some importance. It’s important that artists are valued in society and earn enough to live comfortably and continue making work under stable and healthy circumstances. I think that’s a good thing to work toward. But beyond it, I really don’t care. Being recognized, sales figures, peer adulation, awards are all good and important and things to take joy in. But they have very little to do with success, in my opinion.
I think creative accomplishment and quantitative success run on two different and vaguely parallel roads. Very early on you can choose which road you walk on. The problem with walking on the quantitative success path is that there are a million things that fall to chance. They fall to things that are not within your control. And it’s easy to become preoccupied with them, in my experience.
I choose to walk on the more creative road. Where I control the work. And that’s all that matters. I make the work as best I can. I tell the story I want to tell without worrying about its marketability or its potential or the sales, etc. I wrote Blue in Green because it excited me. Just like I wrote Black Mumba the first time because it excited me. I want to hold on to that. It’s why I started writing in the first place.
Every once in a while, I look over at the parallel road and I do what I can to make sure that’s going well too. Simple things—be a professional, be smart and vocal about your rights, value your own work, be a good person to work with, don’t be an ass outside of work. Make sure your work is accessible and seen by the people who might be inclined to. Simple stuff that takes the bare minimum effort.
I’ve found that this way, I still enjoy and love what I’m doing, and the quantitative success is a byproduct of being excited about your own creative endeavors.
Have I “made it” in comics? Who knows? I’m making a lot of comics. A little more than I ideally want to be making at one time. And I’m in a place where I can do that full-time and focus on doing it well. That’s all I’d ask for. Everything else beyond it is lovely but effectively unconnected to my sense of joy and satisfaction.
10. To wrap up, I read a caption in ‘Blue in Green’ that sent me reeling: “We care for nothing beyond that which was created and that which was consumed.” There are so many different ways to interpret that line. But, do you believe that? As creators, is there more to the sum of our lives than what we leave behind?
I suppose that is the question I’m asking isn’t it? Is the artist simply a vehicle for their art? Or must we see them as more than that? But it isn’t such an objective judgment made from a distance either. It is much more personal than we realize, that most people have a need to be creative, make art. And at some point everyone’s asked that question—will I accept pain and suffering to create something beautiful? And, if so, does that make me less valuable than what I create? Am I loved for who I am or for what I can make? Is one better than the other?
As always, I don’t have the definitive answers. They’re infinitely less interesting.
The ‘Blue in Green’ OGN hits stores October 28. Contact your LCS to score a copy of your own.
Check out this gorgeous 4-page preview of ‘Blue in Green’, courtesy of Image Comics:
More comics interviews to get those synapses firing…