REVIEWS

These Savage Shores

These Savage Shores begins in southwestern India in the 1760s, during the Anglo-Mysore wars, a time when the corruptive influence and absolute power of the British Crown and its corporate bloodsuckers, The East India Company, was corrupting absolutely. Into this cauldron of exploitation and greed sails a vampire, Alain Pierrefont, to serve as 'The Company’s' liaison to a young prince, Vikram of the Zamorin. Pierrefont, a reckless sort, goes off the board within the first twenty pages. A dead white man (an undead dead white man maybe more so) doesn’t play well in a political tinderbox, let alone a place populated by non-whites. And so Pierrefont’s people, led by Count Jurre Grano, travel to said savage shores to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture and kill them. It's colonialism by vampire proxy. Standing in the way of this vampire vanguard is the Prince’s protector, Bishan, an Indian immortal, a raakshas. In a deft touch on the theme of identity, Bishan is a shape-shifter who wears a mask in his human form. In his natural state he’s a blue ram’s horn-headed beast like Beast but ganglier. Bishan's mask offers protection, but for whom? Part disguise, part affectation, it serves as a visual cue for this world-weary native son not of this world yet sworn to protect it—a pseudo-superhero at the center of a West meets East throw down between monsters and ideologies.

If you see comics as a team sport and yet often find yourself reading books by sole proprietors you’ll understand why These Savage Shores borders on a revelation. Writer Ram V, cartoonist, Sumit Kumar, colorist, Vittorio Astone and letterer, Aditya Bidikar combine their talents to interrogate ideas both ticklish and troubling. Kumar, Astone and Bidikar share an understanding that the more specific the visual detail they provide, the more focus the reader will bring to the unfamiliar aspects of a script, which can in turn heighten and reinforce the themes of the text. There are moments reading These Savage Shores -- the leopard hunt, Bishan's return from war -- when it becomes like jazz, a simultaneous collaboration and interaction between contributors, each looking to kill.

V possesses a je ne sais quoi that could win him Eisners as easily as find him grinding it out for years on the nth reboot of some lower tier mainstream title. With a few minor and one major exception—the kneecapping of the only female character, Kori—V constructs a tight story using familiar tropes in a foreign setting. Recreating historical conflicts most Western readers do not know in a place most couldn’t pick out on a map requires details. Not the sort of details like which regiment fought what battle where, but finer points: the course a feather takes as it falls, the difference in the handwriting between a prince, an undead fop and a desperate yet proud King or the shade of blood as it drips from Red Coats. Perhaps these details aren't in the script and more a result of collaboration. Even so, V acts as both band leader and impresario. When the story shifts from India to England, the details become less distinct, the colors more muted. The familiarity of eighteenth century Western civilization -- streetlamps, manor houses and vampires -- pale in comparison to the vertical roots of a Banyan tree, the chaos of a Bazaar or the color of Malabar sunsets. V seeds the script with these visual clues and knows how to step from the spotlight and allow the alchemical process of collaboration to take effect.

Assimilation, integration and colonialism—not to mention weighty sub-themes such as identity and honor—are heady starting points that require nuance. V's not trying to earn credits in a graduate seminar, to go further, he's not writing a treatment for a TV or movie. He's writing a comic book and he lets it be a comic book, a rare thing these days. Like many before him, V cultivates his ideas using the agar of horror i.e. vampire fiction. What better exemplar of assimilation and colonialism than the O.G. colonizer and assimilator, the vampire, specifically Count Dracula. V can’t be the first to mine such rich vein of metaphorical brilliance. But if he is? Damn!

To build a story around a mythical Indian demi-god, the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be givens. The choice to set this unfamiliar folk hero against better-known baddies means V has to also have Stoker in his blood. He pays reverence not by leaning into canines, castles and Christianity, but the text itself. As Stoker penned it, Dracula is first and foremost an epistolary novel. Texts count in Dracula. Letters count. These Savage Shores is awash in writers and reporters, all male, sadly. For a writer as smart as V, it's baffling why he sidelines his one female character from this integral aspect of the narrative. Where's Kori's voice? What's (un)said by leaving her out?

Letterer Aditya Bidikar uses bespoke fonts and unique text boxes to discern the correspondence of the correspondents. More than homage, the lettering in These Savage Shores deadlifts the epistolary structure of the narrative itself. Letters, love notes and official reports comprise the bulk of the storytelling and are often written into and onto the images. Text as text. To consistently spend visual capital on handwritten letters prioritize the importance of writing and presupposes the letterer hits the mark. Lettering is perhaps the most obvious comic craft in which such scrupulous attention to detail is often overlooked by both reader and critic. Bidikar’s efforts hide in plain sight in the guise of effortlessness and collaboration that comes from practice and planning.

At the heart of colonialism lies the acquisition of land, by force. Depictions of the landscape are crucial in both subtle and direct ways to show what’s at stake in These Savage Shores. Kumar’s detailed images become rich tapestries thanks to Astone’s colors. Together the two render the palaces at Calicut and Mysore in all their grandiosity and apply equal skill to construct a hunting platform suspended above the jungle floor and an army encampments. Kumar draws animals as if he’s illustrating a field guide. His human figures are formed from fine lines, smoothed and supple, even hard edges appear soft. The emotion on the faces of the Indian characters reflect inner dialogues that appear to say, ‘how dumb do these white people think we are?’

Kumar and V use the nine-panel grid several times -- the first time to a dizzying effect as Pierrefont escapes a vampire hunter, a page sure to be Kumar's calling card for his career in comics. In a less flashy, yet no less masterful execution of the endless possibilities of the nine-panel grid, is an exchange between the Prince and Pierrefont. With Bishan at his side, the Prince calls on the newly arrived Pierrefont, who tells his host, he feels “at home” so far from his native soil. Dead center of the grid and the page, Kumar draws The Prince’s face. His head is bowed in deference to his guest, so the whites of his eyes appear large, a look of calculation and concern. Kumar includes the detail of his teeth, a slight overbite that speaks to naïveté as well as secrets. The Prince warns, Pierrefont, “savage things roam the night in these parts.” Because he’s looking toward his interlocutor, up and to the left, he’s eye line leads the reader’s eye back to the top of the page, to the top of the grid. The Prince’s imploring gaze to not underestimate the situation is directed at Pierrefont, but its placement at the center of the page points to the reader to do likewise. Pay attention say the eyes of the Prince, look at the page, note its construction and the details that emerge when words and images intersect. Pure comics.

Bishan and Kori take the fight from India to England to confront Grano on his home turf for “colonizing” Kori—which cements her role as a plot device and not a fully developed character. In a taxicab confession on the way to Grano's home, Kori tells Bishan, he has always been who he "chose to be" -- which is, conscious or not, a curious (and clever) thing to say to a shape-shifter. She, on the other hand, "was made. By the choices of monsters." Kori's words cut both ways in terms of her lack of agency as a character and V's treatment of her as the story's lone female presence. Her voice is there to hector the hero, not to speak for herself -- a stale statement in a story that otherwise brims with freshness.

When Bishan and Kori confront Grano, the nine-panel grid again takes center stage for a tête-à-tête that serves as the calm before the necessary hurly-burly of the story’s conclusion. The Prince’s lying eyes are replaced by repast as neither predator nor prey need hide any longer. It’s now a question of who eats whom. In a swipe at white privilege, V cops a line often incorrectly attributed to Gandhi for Bishan’s answer to Grano's question: “What do you think of western civilization?” Bishan pauses, looks up from his meal and replies, “I think it would be a noble idea.” Kumar saves Grano's reaction for the penultimate panel, this time the close up isn't of a neophyte Prince but a skilled killer. It's no less effective, another riff from talented players on an established set of notions. Astone finds an impeccable lambent tone for Grano’s skin as Kumar pulls off a face for Grano that masks an emotional slush of rage, irritation and awe. The beat taken, Grano whips back his head and exclaims, “Ha! Very good.” After all, what do white people, be they vampires or nations, need fear from brown, black or red folks who are as plentiful as the resources of their soon-to-be-colonized lands? If the lesson in the first exchange between the Prince and Pierrefont was pay attention than this second iteration between two supernatural monsters seems to announce a reckoning, long overlooked and too often left untold.

Perhaps it’s giving voice to tales rarely told that gives These Savage Shores its shine.  Conventional and imperfect, but of a piece. A personal statement from creators who have found a way to pour new wine from old jars. Like vampires, the medium of comics is resilient, tough fuckers both. When talent and long overlooked lore fuse together and rise above the mire of mediocrity, attention should be paid. What is comics after all if not a welcoming harbor that changes as new ideas reach its shores, however savage.

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