THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO ISSUES OF ‘THESE SAVAGE SHORES’.
by Jarrod Jones. It’s equal parts historical fiction, monster thriller, heart-rending romance. It’s These Savage Shores, the critically-acclaimed new series from Vault Comics that promises to be one of the finer comics experiences you’ll have this year — or, perhaps, any year.
That’s because (and pardon my hyperbole) every page inside These Savage Shores is a master class in comics storytelling. The care put into this series by Ram V. and Sumit Kumar is evident through every nuanced panel, through every exciting action sequence. Paired with colorist Vittorio Astone and letterer Aditya Bidikar, These Savage Shores is a different type of horror show, one that we’ve been missing in our cultural discourse for longer than some of us might realize.
“Even the most superficial scan of the story will show you my intent to talk about colonialism through this tale of vampires,” series writer Ram V. tells me. “But, going beyond that, I want to talk about a conflict of cultures. The philosophy of a colonizer and its absurd justifications. The nature of that conflict and the profound loss that it creates.”
These Savage Shores does what the typical historical horror tale does, only it inverts the archaic narratives to which these types of stories are often beholden. By twisting our expectations around to a dizzying degree, These Savage Shores gives a voice to people who are often marginalized — even trivialized — in other fictions. It opens up a new world of possibility. And the more we learn about the story’s myriad characters and its period setting, the hungrier we get for the answers to its tantalizing mysteries, scanning for clues that seem to lurk just behind its beautifully rendered pages. But Ram V. has some news for us:
“I don’t promise answers. Answers are less interesting.”
While the writer may not be forthcoming with future plot details, Ram V. is very generous when it comes to process. I spoke with the writer earlier this month about These Savage Shores, and the process and care that went into one of the biggest critical smashes of the year.
DoomRocket: In stories where a European visitor comes popping in on a distant land uninvited it’s typical to convey the natural beauty of these places — but they’re usually depicted from a distance. It keeps these cultures at an arm’s length. In the first page of ‘These Savage Shores’, we’re almost drunk on how alive this land is, how captivating these people are. When you scripted out this opening page, with the intimacy of the couple and the not-so subtle “birds and open flowers” imagery, was this your intention? To bring us as close to these characters as possible before the inevitable violence?
Ram V: I would be wary of pointing any one specific thing as my intention. That is not quite how I work. My writing is as much instinct as it is intent, and I prefer it that way.
That said, part of my intention with the way the story is presented, is to reflect on other existing fictional narratives. The epistolary nature of the story, for instance, is pointing at Stoker’s Dracula but the narrative is turned on its head. In a similar way, this opening and pages that follow later in the issue are pointing at the tendency of the existing canon to exoticize such locations and characters. Romanticize and glamorize them. Turn up the color and the visceral ripeness of the setting. But again, I am turning the narrative on its head.
‘These Savage Shores’ is a story told amid the intrigue between British colonialists and Hyder Ali, the Sultan of Mysore in 1766. History tells us that in this particular year events unfolded that lead to the First Anglo-Mysore War. If you would, please tell our readers about your decision to craft a monster story set during this particular time in history.
RV: The first Anglo-Mysore war marks the first recorded conflict in the larger scheme of events that would later lead to the colonization of India. Even the most superficial scan of the story will show you my intent to talk about colonialism through this tale of vampires. But, going beyond that, I want to talk about a conflict of cultures. The philosophy of a colonizer and its absurd justifications. The nature of that conflict and the profound loss that it creates.
But I don’t want to be didactic or to sermonize. I want to tell a story. It made sense then, to nestle our conflict of fangs and vampires within the conflict that signifies all that I am trying to say– in essence, giving the reader the ability to look at one conflict in context of another.
Tell me about Alain Pierrefont, the aristocratic vampire who kicks off the events of ‘These Savage Shores’. He chalks up his slaying of Carla Hayes, a washerwoman, to a “moment of weakness” and genuinely feels more distraught over his subsequent exile than anything else. In short, Alain is no damn good. How did you go about creating Alain, and what did you want to say with his character?
RV: This goes back to my intention to play with the genre stereotypes of that kind of “civilized colonizer” narrative in fiction. Ego and privilege combine to create this obnoxious and yet perfectly reasonable protagonist. We’ve seen Alain before in many books. Perhaps not as a vampire but every bit as presumptive, every bit as self-obsessed. Everything is about him. The world has no identity other than what he bequeaths to it. With that kind of world-defining agency, it was easy to frame him as the protagonist. It was easy to tell people that this erudite, intelligent, well-spoken… civilized protagonist would be carrying us through our story, only to then have that notion be cast aside. It’s always amusing to hear that people genuinely thought he was going to be the protagonist of the whole story.
At the end of issue #1, perhaps I’m trying to say, “Enough of that nonsense. I’m not telling the same old silly story again. Now, read on.”
I am reminded of this brilliant essay, titled How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina.
Let’s talk about this amazing nine-panel grid in issue #1. Nine-panel pages are often done to death these days — did you factor that in when you scripted this?
RV: I didn’t, really. I don’t pay a lot of attention to trends in a medium. The grid is a tool. It does certain specific things to the pacing of this story that I found to be a useful in writing the story and so we decided to use it.
You could say this about any formalist exercise. Nine panel grids, wide-screen panels, decompression, density – everything at some point is bound to be done to death, popular or dated and unpopular. A good writer/artist shouldn’t care outside how it works with the art they’re creating. These are the tools of a medium. And if they’re used thoughtlessly or as some form of reverent nostalgia, the story and the writing will suffer for it.
What notes did you leave for Sumit Kumar and Vittorio Astone for this page?
RV: In script, this was a pretty straightforward page. It was Sumit who came back with the idea of reversing the reading order on the middle row. From there, we talked about leading the eye. I suggested using the torch in panel 3 to break across the border into the panel below and have the fire and debris from the broken window act as a trail for the eye to follow. Sumit decided to use a consistent image for the background over the last 6 panels and have Alain fall through it, which I thought was brilliant.
The only note I had for Vittorio was on coloring the sky, which we decided, needed a more noticeable color to separate it from the architecture below.
This is part of the reason I love comics. It was one of those moments where everyone worked in perfect synchronicity to create a page of magic.
Later in issue #1, Alain says that Calicut has a “primal, old” nature that is “inextricable and uncaring” in regards to the English’s bickering over trade routes. He says it “speaks” to “his nature.” Alain is a total narcissist, sure, but this also plays into the many historical fictions that touted European travelers as “champions” of distant lands. Was this how you set the tone for the plot twist to come shortly thereafter? That this presumption of supremacy can and often does lead to disaster?
RV: Yes. I think we’ve touched on this in my previous answers. Again, looking beyond the surface, perhaps I’m trying to show the tendency of that sort of period fiction to co-opt other cultures to suit their own narrative. Alain is a foreigner in this new land. Yet he chooses to view it as a place that is all about him. It “speaks to his nature”. He romanticizes it and in doing so he romanticizes himself. He truly loves this place, but only in so far as he loves himself. His world view is tainted by his narcissism.
It leads to disaster, yes. But is that disaster limited to Pierrefont? He had it coming, really, didn’t he? No, the real disasters are yet to come. In reality, sometimes, people do terrible things and the ones who pay for it are innocent bystanders crushed under their machinations.
Zachariah Stern, the man who set Alain on fire in issue #1, hunts for the person or persons responsible for killing Alain. This search leads him to the young Indian monarch, Prince Vikram, the Zamorin of Calicut. I can’t seem to find anything on Vikram — what can you tell us about this young prince?
RV: I’m not surprised you didn’t find anything on Vikram. It’s partly because a lot of the recorded history from the period is fragmented, fabricated or just simply missing. Which makes it perfect for crafting a piece of alt-history fiction.
Vikram Mani is listed among the line of the Zamorin (or more accurately the Samoothiri) of Calicut (Kozhikode). I thought of making him an important character because again, he is an example of an innocent, about to be caught under the machinations of demons and vampires and kings and corporations.
For me, good stories are about fundamentally human things. I think it is important for the reader to see Bishan for who he is. The narrative mythologizes him. He is a demi-god after all. But it is important for us to see him through the eyes of his human companions and friends. It is important for us to see that he aspires to their love and friendship.
We learn more about Bishan, the immortal royal guard, in issue #2. From what folklore do his stories come from? What’s the significance of his mask?
RV: Through Bishan’s stories of his own origin, I’m trying to play with things from Indian (mostly Hindu) mythologies. I used to read them as a kid and they’re the kind of stories passed down from your grandparents and they heard them from theirs. I found it interesting that there are often multiple, contradicting and absurd origin stories for characters in Indian mythology. So, I decided to use that as a way of making Bishan that much more enigmatic. Each time, he is asked where he comes from, he presents to us a different story, a different origin. Each one equally true and equally pertinent to the story in that moment.
His mask came about as a purely functional thing. He is an immortal in service of the Zamorin family. Without a mask, his immortality would become apparent. With a mask, he is an entity. People are free to make their assumptions about him. Maybe it’s a different man each time under the mask. Maybe the mask is what is truly immortal.
The design for the mask was modelled after “Kathakali” make-up which is a famous dance form/performance art in South India. And well known for telling stories of demons and devils. I found that to be a nice layer to add on to the story.
There are wordless sequences that act as preludes to violence in both issues of ‘These Savage Shores’. Was this a conscious decision?
RV: Yes, I think so. I wanted the violence in both issues to feel primal, natural. None of it occurs as a show of power. It occurs as natural consequence. A part of the order of things. So, I wanted it to reflect the way a wild animal will hunt. The wordless sequences bring with them a prowling sense of imminent danger and violence. Like a great cat crouching before it decides to pounce. I like that.
What notes did you provide your art team for these sequences?
RV: Nothing specific. I tend to script in a fairly detailed manner. So, it’s all there in the script. The silent panels, their ordering, size. The most important thing here, is that Sumit immediately recognized the need for a foreboding presence in everything. The art always feels like it’s hiding more inside its inky shadows. That works so well, especially in the silent sequences.
The finale to ‘These Savage Shores’ #1, with script pages provided by Ram V.
There’s a quiet moment shared between Bishan and Vikram, whose father killed himself rather than submit to Hyder Ali. There’s a discussion about death and how it affects us, that even though one might be immortal (whatever that actually means), it’s impossible not to see the beauty in death, or to miss someone who’s left us. How does death work in the wider schematic of ‘These Savage Shores’?
RV: Death and loss are perhaps things at the very core of this book. The Vampire argues that immortality is more desirable, more beautiful than mortality. The Raakshas aspires to the joy of fleeting things. What happens when these philosophies clash? Is it possible to see a similar clash between the philosophy of an imperialist and those he seeks to colonize? These are some of the questions I’m wrangling in These Savage Shores. I don’t promise answers. Answers are less interesting.
I want to attempt at making readers ask beautiful questions of the story and of themselves. I want people to think about the kinds of loss that reach beyond death. When your life is taken from you, you die. What happens to a people when their soul is taken from them? That kind of loss transcends generations. It transcends death. Perhaps through this story, I want to show people a glimpse at the fringes of that kind of loss.
Now. Zacharia Stern is a captive of the prince. Vikram is about to parlay with Hyder Ali. Alain’s vampiric brethren seem to be on their way towards India. Where do we go next?
RV: The pieces are falling into place. I think we’ll see the story churn for another issue before it all descends into conflict, violence, betrayal, anger and loss. There will be war. Lovers will part. Unlikely saviors will arrive. At the end, people will survive, as they always do. Human beings are resilient. But there are things that have been lost than can never be regained.
‘These Savage Shores’ #3 hits stores soon. Final order cutoff for the issue is December 21.
You can pre-order future issues of ‘These Savage Shores’ — or any new title from Vault Comics — through their BookIt program.