by Jarrod Jones. Grafity’s Wall is a rhapsody, of youth, of art, of movement. A story that captures a single moment of social despair: Neighborhood tenement gets torn down, its inhabitants scattered to whatever ends they can find. Life goes on, as it must, as though people losing their homes is just another Thing That Happens. Not long after, something truly incredible: A young artist named Grafity, paint stains on his fingers, approaches the fallen bulding’s last standing wall and finds endless possibilities amid the detritus. He begins to paint. And then his friends show up.
Grafity’s Wall is a poem. About one summer in Mumbai, about four young people fighting to find a future in a city that often swallows kids like them whole. It’s about fissures, in friendships, in family, in the future. About barbed opportunities that scrape you on your way to the next step in life. More than anything else, Grafity’s Wall is a proclamation of love, of the comics form, of friends, of living. And a reminder that our tenuous control over our own lives is no reason to give up.
First released in October 2018 by crowdfunding publisher Unbound, Grafity’s Wall was many comics readers’ first introduction to writer Ram V. (These Savage Shores, Justice League Dark) and artist Anand Radhakrishnan. As far as first impressions go, Grafity’s Wall packed a wallop. With a new expanded edition coming to shops this March (courtesy of Dark Horse Comics) with never-before-seen process pages from letterer Aditya Bidikar and Anand RK, I was given the opportunity to speak once again with writer Ram V. about Grafity’s Wall and the considerable artistic impact it’s already made.
‘Grafity’s Wall’ is a series of snapshots that capture life during one summer in Mumbai, where you grew up. And like the book’s central street writer Suresh Naik, “Grafity”, you did a bit of writing yourself as you came up in the world—though I presume you didn’t use other people’s walls. What kind of stories were you writing when you were first starting out? What kind of stories motivated you to write in the first place?
Ram V.: I think I’ve been writing and drawing as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a family of storytellers. My father would make up stories and tell them to me and my sister when we were kids. My grand-uncle was a part-time magician and full-time fibber. One of my uncles wrote short stories for Tamil Magazines. So, there was always an interest in telling stories—but narrating rather than writing. And I think that’s invaluable—to have an inner narrator and that sense of knowing how to deliver a story.
My earliest memory of writing something of length is from when I was twelve or thirteen. I’d just read The Lord of the Rings and I began writing a poorly-made rip-off over the duration of my school holidays. I ended up writing something that was some 40k words long. That’s the size of a novella. It was awful and should rightly never go anywhere near publication, but having the desire and dedication to sit down everyday and write—knowing that I had that in me was invaluable.
I read and tried to write a lot of things. I read sci-fi, fantasy, crime, spy-thrillers and at some point tried to write all of those things. I think, my mid-twenties I began to be interested in writing the kind of comics that I write. It was also around the time where [I] started being interested in grounded stories about people and relationships and the things that make us tick.
How much of your personal experiences growing up in Mumbai inform the stories of ‘Grafity’s Wall’?
This is always a difficult question to answer. It is of course informed by a lot of my personal experiences. A little while ago, I even had a Twitter thread about all the little things in Grafity’s Wall that came from my own experiences and circumstances in Mumbai. But it’s the “how much” that makes the question difficult to answer.
This is a work of fiction, of course. I believe that fiction reaches for the internal truth rather than the factual truth of things. So, events are changed and realities altered. Characters are both unique and based on my friends, myself and people I knew. So, all of them are true and untrue to varying degrees. But I think the truths you find within the narrative experience of Grafity’s Wall are the truths as I learned them when I lived in the city.
If you would, please share with me how you met Anand RK, and how the two of you began forming ‘Grafity’s Wall’.
I first came across Anand’s work when I was in India. I was just trying to get some creator-owned work off the ground. I approached him to do the cover for Black Mumba, which I self-published via crowdfunding in 2016. I think it’s rare to find someone as talented as Anand that is also just fantastic to work and collaborate with.
It was in November 2017 that my editor at Unbound, Lizzie Kaye, got in touch with me about creating something like Black Mumba. I didn’t want to repeat myself with the black-and-white, grim tone of that book. I’d been mulling over doing something related to Graffiti having attended a talk at the London Design Festival by Muralist and Street Artist Tom Eaton.
Later that year the two things just meshed. I talked to Anand and Aditya at a bar in India (I was there attending a convention.) It was 3am and I vaguely talked about this idea. Anand loved it. He’d always wanted to work on something set in Mumbai and grounded in reality. Aditya offered in his drunken stupor to hand-letter the whole thin! [Laughs] A year later we had Grafity’s Wall up and running.
Did you and Anand know from the beginning that the story you were about to tell was going to be so grounded in reality? I know you’ve long had an affinity for science-fiction—was there ever a point where ‘Grafity’s Wall’ might have taken a more fantastic bent?
Yes, I think we were quite clear at the very beginning that we wanted this story to be grounded in reality. There are moments where reality is thin in Grafity’s Wall—but I think, personally, I need to tell these kinds of stories alongside the fantastical/sci-fi/superhero stuff I do. Because it scratches a different itch for me. Just looking at people. We are fascinating all by ourselves.
I think my endeavor continues to be the same. One book that’s a little bit more grounded. That spends more time studying the odd and strange things that people are.
A bit early into the story, you and Anand conjure something quite beautiful. Suresh has just spoken with his father, who has thrown his sketchbook out the window. He warns him about dreaming too much. Later, Suresh is looking out the window all contemplative-like, watches the city rip down a block of tenement buildings as the people who once lived there look on. You cut this scene with Suresh’s sketchbook pages skittering in the street, picked up by the wind, scattered off and away. The people’s hopes torn down, Suresh’s dreams thrown away. Then, the next day, Suresh finds a single wall from the tenements still standing. He gets to work. Grafity’s street writing has now become a willful act of rebellion against those who’d tell him not to dream. Could you tell me a bit about this scene, the social implications behind it, and how this ultimately formed the inciting incident of ‘Grafity’s Wall’?
Oof, it’s a question with so many loaded answers, I wouldn’t know how to answer it in full without writing an essay, or a book. Also, I think its more interesting to glean things from the story than to have me explain them. But I will at least say this. Economic oppression is the great evil of our time. We took all our greed, our prejudices and bigotry and we introduced them into a system so a faceless machinery would act out our violences and we could be absolved of personal responsibility.
India, its poverty and, frankly, the economic imbalances around the world, are partly a result of this. And it manifests in ways where the spaces we occupy are complicit in the oppression. That scene is a reflection of the violence that is inflicted upon us by those more powerful. Grafity his father. The people their city.
And yet, it is also a reaction to peddling narratives about the poor. I dislike defining a people by their economic status. Poor people also dream. They have powerful dreams and a powerful drive to achieve them. If we are to contend with poverty, first we must stop approaching it with condescension and pity. I think human beings are amazing creatures. Their creativity survives such depths of misery and shines through it. As much as I want to reflect on the violence of that scene, I want to celebrate the resilience of the creative spirit.
I’ve known graffiti writers and whenever I’ve asked them about how they got started, the answers I got could all be boiled down to a strong sense of compulsion. Compulsion and the driven need to say something. Writing is a compulsive act—I don’t think that’s a controversial thing to say—regardless of how you do it. But writing is also about discovery, isn’t it? When someone’s painting on a wall, or writing an outline or a bit of dialogue, there’s that moment of discovery that makes you feel as though you’ve transcended in some way. What discoveries did you make—about yourself, about Anand—during the production of ‘Grafity’s Wall’?
I don’t know that I can quantify a discovery like that. And I think this is probably linked to a pet peeve of mine. There is a tendency among creators and readers to want to quantify things in art. Perhaps it’s a valid way to go about things. My personal approach is that the whole point of expressing something through fiction to try and express something that is not concise and quantifiable and accurately shaped.
Through fiction we reach for a thing that cannot be condensed and distilled without losing meaning. And each time you write a thing—especially something like Grafity’s Wall—a story that is a little more grounded, a little more personal, you are trying to reach for something in the darkness. You know when you’ve found it and there is a joy to that sensation but can I quantify it? Can I describe to you the sensations of conveying an emotion that I cannot articulate without fiction? If I could, what would be the point of writing Grafity’s Wall?
But I can say this. I discovered things about the way I work. The way I approach the craft. I discovered I can trust myself to tell disparate stories and still coax meaning from them. I discovered I can craft a narrative without necessarily knowing exactly what comes next. I learned to trust myself and to trust my collaborators. I think it comes through in the next thing Anand and I are working on.
I discovered that Anand is an observational genius. That he captures the essence of a gesture of body language in his mind in a way that is rare. A lot of people are good at reproducing human acting on the page. But it’s harder to insinuate it into the character rather than present it on the page. Anand’s work does that.
Tell me about Chasma, the delicate, soulful scribe who hands complete strangers letters he’s written and longs to love a struggling actress. I think every writer has been Chasma at some point—wondering what the point of all these words are, will anybody ever read them, will anybody ever care about them. What parts of you are written into this character, Ram?
Ha! I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise. But you could say the same about Suresh and Jay too. I’ve been all of these characters at one point or the other. So yes, there’s a lot of this character that comes from me.
I did in fact write letters to people. I went on to be ridiculed for it. But equally, I have friends who held on to the things I wrote to them for years and found them meaningful. There is no better feeling than knowing that your words have left an indelible mark on someone. Graffiti on the emotional canvas of a friendship.
Dark Horse is adding Anand’s sketchbook and process pages to the new expanded hardcover edition of ‘Grafity’s Wall’. There’s something so perfect about that, when you think about Suresh and his sketchbook, how it was cast out—it makes me feel like I’m finally about to really see what Suresh had cooking in that book. What can you tell us about these pages, about what they will add to the reading experience overall?
I’m always fascinated by Anand’s sketchbook pages. And by that, I mean the pages where he sketches for sketching sake. Not trying to design a character or develop a style. Those are great too. But I was recently quoting someone talking about good writing being all about good observation. I think visual art is similar—it stems from good observation and you can see that in Anand’s sketches.
I think that’s an amazing insight. Seeing where the fundamentals—the skill that lies under the cartooning and the style, the craft that forms the basis of all of that. I think we get a glimpse of that in these sketchbook pages.
I’m a nerd for process and Aditya Bidikar’s newsletter rarely disappoints. As the book’s letterer, Aditya brings in supplemental pages to the expanded edition to describe his process for ‘Grafity’s Wall’, and how he chose hand lettering over digital. When you were writing scripts for the book, did you know how Aditya would ultimately approach the lettering? If so, did that knowledge affect the way you drafted captions, or dialogue?
I mentioned this before. But Aditya basically lettered this book because of a commitment he made over a drunken bar-conversation. Because surely, the amount of effort that has gone into the lettering of this book is insane and can only be committed to under the influence.
I watched him come up with the process for this. There is so much skill, craft and work involved in the tiniest aspects of lettering. And, I think a lot of people who read comics don’t quite get to see that. It is even more apparent when the lettering is done by hand. So, I’m glad people will get to read Aditya’s process notes on that.
From a personal standpoint, it makes the book look like it was “crafted” rather than “produced.” And I love that.
You have some projects lined up with DC—more ‘Justice League Dark’ work coming down the pike—but what about future creator-owned work? Do you think you’ll make time for something as introspective and (for lack of a better word) quiet as ‘Grafity’s Wall’ sometime in the future?
One book—always on the go. Something quiet, introspective and exploring the fundamentally human questions. That is the aim and I’m a fairly determined guy. So, you can count on seeing more work like Grafity’s Wall.
How would you describe the act of creativity? How do you think Grafity would describe it?
It is humanity’s saving grace. The one thing that keeps us from the abyss. Grafity would probably describe it the same way. Goes to show how much of me is in my characters! [Laughs] Although Anand might have a different take.
‘Grafity’s Wall: Expanded Edition’ hits stores March 18.
Check out this 4-page preview of ‘Grafity’s Wall’:
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