It was about 1am in the morning when I got on a call with Ram V: 2022 Eisner Award nominee and upcoming writer of DC’s seminal publication, Detective Comics. Work was in a few hours, and I resolved to try to keep the interview as quiet as possible, lest I wake my housemates up through the thin walls of my building. It was near the end of the interview that this came up in conversation, and when I told him my situation, I heard a soft chuckle sound out through my headphones.
“Oh, you’re on ‘Tom Taylor Time’.”
DC Comics has regular online writers’ rooms between different teams throughout their publishing lines – one example being the Batman group, which includes both V and Taylor. A typical meeting might take place at 11am in California, where DC’s corporate headquarters resides. That means V is sitting down at 7pm in his home in the UK, while Taylor is up at 4am in Melbourne – a scenario that many who work international jobs are familiar with.
It was 4pm for V when we began our conversation, the light of the day shining through a window to his right. Behind him sat three rows of square canvas prints, displaying twenty-one different covers from DC. Some were easily recognizable, like the cover of V’s latest comic, Aquaman: Andromeda (with Christian Ward). Others, V isn’t allowed to disclose just yet.
Complete with a teapot to his left and a heater and desk lamp to his right, his house looked pleasant and warm! It seems like a very relaxing environment to be working in as he writes his stories, ranging from books such as The Swamp Thing to These Savage Shores. It’s here that he sat to answer my questions, the creator in the last days of his COVID-19 recovery.
“I think it was Ivan Brandon…” V said, taking a beat to make sure he was remembering right. “I met him at a convention once. He said to me, ‘Don’t expect to have any rewarding experiences with your books. At least for the first year-and-a-half or two.’ I’m happy he was wrong, in that Black Mumba was quite a successful experience, self-publishing.”
V seemed very proud of his work on Black Mumba, and with good reason! The graphic novel was an independently funded anthology book that V and his team of artists produced through Kickstarter and printed in 2016 – the same year his first internationally published book, Brigands, was released.
“But I took encouragement in the value of what [Ivan] said,” he continued, “because it was a learning experience. I was learning how to make books, how this whole process worked.”
Self-publishing is not an easy feat, mind you. “For me,” V said, “I would go back to self-publishing only if I thought I was doing something with a book that a traditional publisher wouldn’t be able to handle. I look at it as a creative drive, rather than a commercial or a financial one.”
Interesting. Does he have an idea that fits that description?
“Oh yeah, I’ve got plenty of ideas.” A coy smile grew on his face for a moment. “But it takes a lot of time and effort. So it would have to be at a point where I’m going, ‘okay guys, I’m disappearing for two years, I’ll be back with a book!’”
The more the two of us spoke about it, the more excited he seemed about the prospect. Sometimes you get your best answers when an interviewee refutes you, and such was the case when I asked if this idea would be independent for creative or marketing reasons.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m legitimately saying no publisher in the industry in their right mind – unless they were doing boutique publishing – could publish in the format that I’m intending to publish in.”
“I’d like to challenge the idea of what books are,” he said. “What defines your fiction reading experience? Because I think– most people think you start a book when you open up the cover and you look inside, and you read the first page. Nah. You start a book the moment you hear about it. The moment you hear the title, the moment you see the cover, your experience of reading that fiction has begun.”
However, it might be a while before that book is on the cards. Right now, V has plenty on his plate! His comic, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, has been nominated for a “Best Limited Series” Eisner – while he himself has been nominated for “Best Writer”. He’s also busy being the current co-writer on Venom, working on Dylan Brock’s story as Al Ewing writes for his father and original Venom, Eddie.
“Venom’s an interesting experience.” He leaned back a little in thought. “I kind of got onto the project because of Al’s involvement, and I knew that was going to be exciting, collaborating with him. And, frankly, there has been a trip! We’ve got about 30-35 issues worth of story co-plotted out. The only thing I find challenging about it is the back-and-forth nature of it, in that… you never get a grip on the story beyond the next arc. You don’t know the other side of the conversation. And I think that’s an interesting way to write. It can lead to some interesting results.”
Meanwhile, Ram V is also the writer for the ongoing Carnage series – a book that directly appeals to my interests, being a fan of both psychotic aliens and the colour red. I said he must have been having conversations with himself in equal measure.
“That’s easier! See, I have conversations with myself all the time. That’s a lot easier to handle.”
V was unable to say much about the plot of the two books, other than hint at the direction they may both be going in. “There’s definitely a point at which they combine and collide,” he said, “even if that point is a bit farther away. I’m very much a person who believes books should exist for their own characters, and I don’t think we’ve had a Carnage run that hasn’t done what all other Carnage runs have done over and over again. So I’ll try and do something new, something different with it.”
Of course, “something new” is exactly how he pitched his upcoming run of Detective Comics to the higher-ups at DC. The comic will be presented in an elevated, operatic style – meaning, in simple terms, that it “espouses the aesthetics that make operas distinct”. He has a lot of the story mapped out already, and he’s planning for the comic to be “somewhere between 24 and 30” issues. It occurs to me that 27 issues would be a particularly appropriate number, though I didn’t say this at the time.
“I came to [Detective Comics] with an approach and an idea that I had had for a very long time, that I had spoken to other creators about.” Ram V paused, thinking through his words. It was clear that he’s fully aware of how ambitious the project is. “I said, ‘How is it that [Batman] comics have never had this… kind of slightly elevated, operatic, melodramatic theatre-play written as a TV show? Like Hannibal, or like most things Bryan Fuller does? Or, why isn’t there like a Robert Eggers version?’”
I immediately perked up at that. Eggers’ work is fantastic, no question, but Hannibal? Well, that’s only one of my favourite television shows of all time. V was more than happy to elaborate.
“They’re both examples of that similar school of thought, that all of these mundane things have meaning, and they have drama, and therefore nothing is mundane: everything is high drama. That’s how theatre plays work, because you have such a limited capacity in terms of set, length of time, and what you can do with it. Everything depends on the drama that is created within mundane character interactions.”
V believes this aesthetic, while prominent in other mediums, isn’t so common in comic books. “Some of the Denny O’Neil stuff, some of the Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale stuff, borders on it. The thing that probably comes closest to it is parts of Morrison’s run.”
“I just think it’s in the blood of the character,” he continued. “It’s a person who dresses up like a bat, wears a black cape and cowl and hangs out at night. It’s very hard to ignore the operatic line, you know?’
Aloud, I wondered if people were scared to represent opera in comics because of its association with music. V was quick to shut that down, to the point where I honestly felt a little silly for saying it.
“No, no. Opera, like every other medium, is entrenched in the beauty of the narrative first. And sound is only one mode of expression of that narrative. The lyrics of the opera are just as important as the musical arrangements, just as important as the costumes, just as important as the sets. It’s nice that we can listen to the sound separately, it’s nice that we can read opera separately; but no one ever says ‘sound is secondary to the word.’ The opera is performed narrative. It has always been, as much as comic books are performed narrative, thanks to the excellent artists that we have.”
So, that’s the style of the comic – what about the story? What sort of detective work should we expect in Detective Comics?
“How much detective work did True Detective have?”
Essentially, while there is certainly a mystery to be solved in the story, his run may not always have a focus on it. “There’s a lot of detective work in it, but it’s not necessarily about him being a detective. It’s about him being Batman, Bruce Wayne. Troubled character, troubled friend, distant lover, distant father… all of those things.”
So, what should we expect in his book – and indeed, others he’s publishing within the world of DC?
“Just go in expecting to read a story about characters,” he replied. “A story that will make you feel things, a story that will remind you why you enjoyed these characters in the first place, if you’ve been reading before. Or if you’re completely new to them, it’ll let you discover the character that makes the superhero. I’m sure you’ve heard of Aquaman, I’m sure you’ve heard of Batman. But do you know Aquaman? Do you know Batman? Even if you haven’t ever read them, this would be a good place to begin your discovery.”
Throughout our discussion, V expressed an infectious enthusiasm for mythology across all of his books – both in terms of its presentation, and the truth that often lies beneath it. “If you go back and look at all of these mythologies,” he explained, “and actually do your research into them, they contradict themselves! Like, every two minutes! Somewhere Zeus is someone’s father, and in somebody else’s interpretation he’s someone’s brother, and in somebody else’s interpretation, he married this person. So, I think comic books are our era’s modern-day mythology. And they must necessarily contradict themselves all the time, to be anywhere near as interesting and anywhere near as sustained as the great human mythologies have been.”
I started to talk about what I’ve heard regarding superheroes as a kind of mythology – but to my surprise, V cut me off. This was his third objection of the interview, and perhaps his most poignant.
“It’s not superheroes,” he said. “It’s the pantheon of human beings with great powers, behaving badly. That is what every mythology is. We turn them into Gods in hindsight, but really, people are just writing about terribly misbehaving human beings, who have way too much power.”
These mythologies are built on their contradictions and reinterpretations. Change is an essential component to building literature, and comic books are a perfect vessel for that kind of experimentation. I thought about this – and as I did, I reassessed an earlier comment V had made during our talk. I’d like to conclude this piece with what he said.
“Change is part of the human experience. There’s such a vocal and vehement contingent of the comics readership that is so fearful of change. I understand. Not all change has been great. But you will never find a Dark Knight, you’ll never find a Batman: Year One, you’ll never find an Eternals and you’ll never find a Miracleman… if somewhere, someone along the line didn’t come along and say, ‘I want to change how this is done.’ And it’s always one thing to look in hindsight and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s a great book. That’s how change should be done!’ But if you’re not willing to hit a whole ton of golf balls, you’re never gonna hit a hole-in-one.”
You can follow Ram V at @therightram on Twitter. Detective Comics #1062 – illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque, coloured by Dave Stewart and with a backup from Simon Spurrier and Dani – can be pre-ordered from your local comic book store until the 26th of June.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch