In the span of six short years, Ramnarayan Venkatesan (better known by his pen name Ram V) has become one of the most highly-sought after writers working in mainstream comics. Beginning his career with independent creator-owned titles Black Mumba (self-published, 2016) and Grafity’s Wall (Unbound, 2018; Dark Horse, 2020)—hard-nosed morality tales set against the bustling megalopolis of Mumbai—V later transitioned into writing landmark keys-to-the-kingdom level properties for DC Comics and Marvel Comics.
V’s current stints on Venom and Carnage coincided with the release of the latest Tom Hardy-fronted Venom sequel, and his run on Detective Comics with Rafael Albuquerque began just as Matt Reeves’ The Batman was finishing its theatrical run in cinemas worldwide. Gaining the trust of the two largest North American comics publishers to superintend their most valued commercial brands miraculously never came at the expense of leaving the independent comics world behind.
The mercantilist-era vampire-thriller These Savage Shores (Vault Comics), collected in 2019, was quickly followed up with Blue in Green (Image, 2020), a portrayal of the artistic will in decline among jazz musicians; and just this year, the Eisner and Harvey Awards recognized V and Filipe Andrade’s collected The Many Deaths of Laila Starr (BOOM!) with awards nominations in several categories. A many-splendored tale of circumvolving reincarnations, Laila Starr took as its starting point the expulsion of the avatar of Death from the realm of the Gods due to a human finding the forbidden path to immortality.
Known for his character-centric approach to writing, V’s stories have also become synonymous with a robustly versatile understanding of genre and a high literary sensibility made famous in comics by the 1980s British Invasion of creators to America. I spoke with Ram V from his London home to discuss his unromantic approach to authorship, the question of editorial gatekeeping, and the niche aesthetic embodying the comic book industry as a whole.
-Jean Marc Ah-Sen
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JEAN MARC AH-SEN: You've described the revelatory impression that Neil Gaiman’s writing had on you, and how it was instrumental in your decision to leave a career in chemical engineering for the arts. Who were your writing influences outside of comics?
RAM V: I think the most overt influence on my writing is Paul Auster. I’m a big fan of his work and of his prose. I would also say that Michael Chabon is an influence. It’s predominantly those two in terms of writing style. In terms of content and ideas and conceptual influences, I draw from a wide array of reading—I’ve read all the big sword and sorcery books, I’ve read sci-fi; Stanislaw Lem, Cormac McCarthy, Jeff VanderMeer. I could read out my library at this point, but in terms of writing style, probably Auster and Chabon are the biggest influences.
Did you view your emerging narrative voice as a synthesis of these influences, or ultimately as a departure from them?
To an extent I think that’s a natural process—that you do start off emulating a lot of your influences. If you are inherently driven to want to entertain yourself while you’re creating things, though, I think there’s a natural tendency to push beyond what you’re already doing. Once I got to a point where emulating wasn’t interesting anymore, that’s when I started synthesizing other influences; through that, eventually you start finding out things that work for you and become part of your unique voice.
What were some of the seminal texts that made you fall in love with the comic form? What is it about comics in particular that makes you consistently return to it, rather than pursue film and television opportunities, or prose writing?
I wouldn’t say that I return to comics over film and television, or anything of the sort. Very early on when I started writing, I just wanted to be a writer. I didn’t want to be a comic book writer or a film and TV writer. I started off writing prose, and had a few short stories published with digital magazines, but comics just happened because a cousin who was a filmmaker in India came to me and said, “You have a very visual writing style. Have you ever tried writing a graphic novel?” That’s what put the idea into my head.
In terms of seminal texts, Sandman brought me to the medium in a way that my childhood reading hadn’t; afterwards, I followed the entire line of '80s Vertigo creators. When I pushed my interest beyond that, I found European creators and books from Asia. I’ve read enough to have seen a variety of ways the medium can be used. I would say that I have an inherent need to write stories in a way that makes it possible for me to translate that to a visual medium. I think making good comics is about understanding design on a page—in terms of narrative design and structural design—and I tend to be someone who doesn’t like romanticizing the idea of why someone is good at an art form. I’m good at this art form because I understand design, I understand how to put things on a page, how that affects pacing, and why I want the story spelled out a certain way.
When you are doing work-for-hire, you must often tap into histories and narratives that span decades, and which may carry the cultural baggage of bygone eras. What is your approach to handling characters that require continuous modernizing reappraisals, but also that their origins be honored? Do you feel a sense of responsibility when working on these properties to appeal to audience expectations?
I think there are two parts to your question. The way I see it, there is a reason to understand why these characters are so successful. There were hundreds of characters created, but some of them have survived this 80, 90-year span. It’s very interesting, from a narrative point of view and from a storytelling point of view, to understand what makes some characters so iconic. Why are they perennially embedded into the cultural consciousness of the people? Some of that has to do with business and marketing and the money behind them, but a lot of it has to do with these characters quintessentially being excellent vehicles for storytelling.
So inasmuch as that is an important thing to understand—I do a lot of reading and I do try to understand what is the core of this character—I take objection to the idea that there is something to be honored. The moment we start talking about things like “honoring” and “reverence” and “staying true,” there’s almost this weird religious connotation. Even though I think superheroes are our modern-day mythologies, I know that the moment that we start honoring mythologies, they become ossified—they become artifacts that can’t be changed. I think that’s very bad for the longevity of these characters. It might be great to develop "fanatical fandoms," but in the long term, it works to the detriment of these characters. Suddenly, you get to the point where new stories aren’t being told because no one thinks about the characters outside of the core shape and structure that has been given to them 80 years ago.
In that regard, I consciously try to ask myself, “Okay, I understand why this character is so successful and why people like this character. But how do I write this character without being a product of their 80-year history?” My creative process is very disconnected from ever thinking about how people are going to feel about what I create. I create purely for my own enjoyment, and I believe that if you’re authentic in your work and you put a little bit of yourself into it, then human beings will recognize other human beings. That’s why there is an emotive connection to my work; beyond that, I’m not trying to fulfill any sort of expectations.
Your creator-owned work like The Many Deaths of Laila Starr and These Savage Shores brought a refined literary sensibility back to comics. Graham Greene made a distinction between his literary offerings and what he called “entertainments”—work that was geared toward a populist sensibility. Do you make such distinctions in your work, or do they ring false to you? Maybe you feel that you give the same treatment to every project that you are engaged in?
I did a creative writing course at City, University of London. I don't think he will take umbrage with me saying this, but Jonathan Myerson—the director of the program—was very insistent that we were going to be writing literary works and not genre fiction. I have since gone on to do enough research to know that these are just marketing terms and not really creative terms. I understand that Graham Greene used this shorthand to refer to his different pieces of work, but I really don't make that kind of distinction. I write the things I write because I want to have fun. That in itself carries that “apparent contradiction.” I'm entertained by interesting, intellectual, weird, pushing-the-form kind of works, but I am also equally entertained by great characters, great storytelling, and a well-written plot. As a consumer, I enjoy both things, so I imagine as a creator, I don’t draw a distinction between the two. In fact, I hate it when people say “Sometimes this can be just for fun.” Well, yes, but fun doesn’t mean it can’t be intelligent, fun doesn’t mean it can’t be all of these other things as well. I think people like to put things into boxes because it lets them define their own work, and I think there’s also a joy to having work that is transgressive and that pushes between the boundaries that people have created for marketing departments.
How do you decide which corporate-owned properties you will work on? You have had stints on Justice League, Justice League Dark, Aquaman and Catwoman. Do you need to have an emotional attachment to the characters, or perhaps a sense that these properties can contain the narrative objectives that you are planning?
On a purely philosophical level, I don't think about character at all. I think about whether I have a story to tell. Only then do I see if the character is the right vehicle for that story. If I’m asked to write a certain title, I’ll think to myself: “What are the character’s relationships? What is their 'baggage'? What are their motivations?” If I can figure out, if I have a story to tell, then I usually say yes, but I should also say that I'm relatively new to all of this. I only wrote my first self-published comic in 2016. These past few years have also been a process of finding out where my creative interests really lie.
I hate this idea that I need to have some sort of prerequisite or that I need to have some kind of emotional attachment [to a property], so I have been in a phase where I've said, “Yeah, bring it on. I will tell any kind of story with any kind of character and try to make it interesting.” The downside to working like that is that once you've set your foot into that challenge, then the challenge only sustains itself for so long. During the pandemic, I've been reviewing the amount of work that I'm doing and the kind of work that I'm doing. Hopefully going forward, I’ll have a better sense of whether I'm better off doing something that genuinely excites me—not on a challenge level, but on a truly creative personal level.
I read an interview where you said that you were writing seven books at the time, but that you thought four books was the “sweet spot.”
Four is what I should be doing if I was sane and still working at my limit. My ideal sweet spot is to do one or two comic projects a year and spend some time with prose. I think writing is also like going to the gym and doing your exercise; if you ignore your legs for too long, then you're not going to be able to lift. Writing comics flexes certain muscles, but then writing prose or television flexes others. I want to make sure I'm doing different kinds of projects every year. I’m working on a prose thing that is likely to see itself finished 2-3 years from now. I'm working on some TV, I've had a couple of my books taken up for adaptation, and I'm also kind of dipping my toes into animation—all to be announced in due course.
A recurring theme in your work is the usurous toll that fate extracts from individuals—how people negotiate their agency against a world that may appear deterministically rallied against them. Levi Kamei in Swamp Thing, and Laila Starr in The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, encounter these kinds of existential quandaries. Do you work out the symbolic potential of stories beforehand? Would you say that your work has its basis in articulating familiar mythic struggles rooted in popular consciousness, but in unfamiliar ways that break new ground?
You're not wrong, but I think there's a more fundamental underlying obsession there, which is to tell stories that look at characters whose lives are affected by the wheels of some greater machine—not necessarily fate, not necessarily this consequence of cosmic determinism as you put it. In These Savage Shores, it was really the story of a love between two characters being affected by the machine of war, trade, and greater economies in the world. Blue in Green was about a jazz musician affected by family history and the expectation that society has about creatives, and whether they have suffered for their art. But even so, I don't necessarily approach work theme-first; I tend to approach work character-first. There's this very exciting part of the process where if you're instinctively a writer who looks for patterns and themes, there might come a moment where you find that everything connects in a way that perhaps you intended subconsciously, but didn't really work into the structure; I think that moment—not of serendipity, but maybe realization—is when you step back from this thing you've been sculpting, and although you think you’ve been sculpting noses and toes, you realize that you’ve been actually sculpting a beautiful figure. That can be very exciting. That's kind of why I do this as an art form, but I would hate to put that before every other consideration.
The creation of Levi Kamei in your and Mike Perkins’s run on Swamp Thing engaged with how individuals connect to religion and mysticism in an era of unprecedented technological mediation and ecological collapse. To what degree do you believe that the most powerful stories are those that are topical and engage with importunate social issues facing humanity?
I think all stories on some level are talking about a societal issue. If they aren't, then maybe they [creators] should have pushed a little bit further. It is possible to tell a story that is entirely isolated in its own preoccupations, but even that—whether it's someone from the '80s or someone from 2022—has entirely distinct and different social connotations for the reader. It's very difficult to divorce a story from its preoccupations and from current societal issues. Without attributing that kind of specificity to it—religion and mysticism versus technology—I would like to think that Swamp Thing asks questions of “Why do these things—religion, mysticism, mythology—have such great staying power? Why is it only now being threatened by technology? What does that mean? How are we changing?” If anything, Swamp Thing has been an exploration of how to contend with change.
You collaborate often with Anand RK, having worked on Grafity’s Wall, Blue in Green and Radio Apocalypse [Vault Comics, 2021-]. What is it about this partnership that is so creatively fulfilling? Are you planning on working together again in the future?
I've worked with several creators that way. My most recurring collaborator would have to be Aditya Bidikar, my letterer. I've worked with Anand, but I’ve also worked with Sumit Kumar on These Savage Shores and Justice League Dark and soon on a new creator-owned book. People love seeing certain writer-artist pairings, and I think it's the same reason people love certain bands. The ideal scenario for me when I'm listening to a band is when I think I'm just listening to the song—I forget that it's a collection of musicians. I think the reason that I love working with these people is because we achieve this kind of collaborative flow where it's not a writer and an artist working together—it's just two people coming together and making something cool. I push on the art, I push on the design, and their choices in the art equally influence and push back on the story. When you achieve that kind of flow, you realize how rare it is to have that kind of collaborative equation with someone. I've also known Anand and Sumit for a really long time, so it's nice to have that equation with them. I also want to mention Evan Cagle, who I'm working on a creator-owned book and Detective Comics with, and Mike Perkins on Swamp Thing. I think over the course of my work and my collaborations with them, I’ve built a similar understanding where there are no collaborative boundaries that you have to worry about. I imagine I will be collaborating with all of these people in the future.
Have you developed a kind of shorthand with these artists where the divisions of labor start to blend?
With Mike, sometimes I'll have a very specific idea of the design for a page. I'm really happy that he’s the kind of person who will say, “Yes, send me a thumbnail.” If it's a ridiculous thing, then he will absolutely ignore it for good reason. I also love the idea that if it is something that he thinks is exciting, he will take ownership of the idea. I’ll recount a particularly entertaining tale of how a story was influenced by Mike when we were working on Future State: Swamp Thing [part of the 2021 Future State line-wide event at DC].
There was a character that showed up inside this tank in the frozen world. It was supposed to be Mr. Freeze or Captain Cold that we were using. We were told by editorial that because there was going to be another event which had winter and freezing and cold villains, that we couldn’t use those characters. I had written about three quarters of the story at that point, and so I felt that I might as well change the whole script. The editor said that we were already squeezed on time, and all the solutions were just inelegant. All of a sudden, Mike, who is this kind of walking human encyclopedia of DC history, goes: “There's this one character who has this one power set that is precisely what we need. We could just switch the character out.” That changed the entire context of that story. It was Alan Scott’s [the original Green Lantern] son that we used: Todd Rice/Obsidian. We were asked to pivot and Todd Rice was an excellent idea because it did the same thing that winter does, but it does it by blocking out the sun—he embodies all-engulfing darkness. I can completely understand why editorial was a bit flummoxed, because you don't want to have two books that have the same end-of-the-world scenarios.
In publishing, I think that there is this view that editorial holds a lot of the power in terms of gatekeeping or dictating what kind of stories get to be told. Do you think that an editor's strength is in recognizing the current marketability of an idea, or in anticipating what will become relevant down the line?
You're probably better off asking this question to an editor, but from my point of view, good editing has done neither of these things. I don't really view them as gatekeepers. I understand that part of their job involves transmitting corporate direction—”We can't use this character, they’re going to be in a film”—which of course, is understandable. I don't mind those kinds of constraints at all because I think they are easy pillars to build your structure around. If this is a “no-go zone,” then my story will have to go the other way up.
I think the really useful thing that editors do within the creative process is when they are able to see what you're doing from a distance and point out things that aren't immediately apparent to you. To go back to the sculpting analogy, a good editor is the person who sits behind you twelve feet away on a chair watching what you’re doing, who then says “That nose is not in the right place.” There are editors who know how to do that really well, and I'm very lucky to have worked with them.
There are marketing and sales departments at all these companies that are completely free of editorial influence that have marketability covered. I think that the greatest editors, who have been at these companies for years and have seen these characters’ successes and failures, do have an ability to say, “I think this will work even if nobody else can see it.” The downside to that is when you also have an idea that is completely out of left field, sometimes there can be inertia. Swamp Thing was not expected to be as successful as it was, for example. My expectations were tempered as we were putting out the first issue, but it went far beyond those expectations. That's part of the joy of being a creator in this industry—you don't create by what is already popular. If you do, you're only ever going to be creating paler versions of things that already exist. You create what you think is cool. When marketing and sales decisions in this industry are built up on what is cool though, that can be a very risky proposition.
To go back to the sculpting reference, do you think an editor’s role then is to bring the best version of a story into existence, maybe even at the expense of all of the creatives involved? To what degree do you think that editors should maintain an environment where collaboration is honored and respected?
I think there's an inherent contradiction when you say “best story”—who defines “best”?
I imagine that it would be editorial—if you were hired to tell your story or not.
I don't think that's the case. I've worked with very good editors where there's been trust built up and they know what to expect from a story that you're going to tell, so even though this pitch sounds completely ridiculous, they trust that you have a way of delivering a good story from it. I think that kind of trust is invaluable because that's why freelance creators find their way to becoming successful—they're doing something that is not reproducible by anyone else working at the same time.
If you look at the truly formative voices in the industry—someone like Neil Gaiman or Frank Miller, or on the art side, Jim Lee or Mike Mignola—the reason they changed the industry and the reason they garnered this kind of trust is not because they did something well; it's because they did something that nobody else was doing and they did it well. I think this quality of “nobody else is doing this now” comes only from a creative point of view. Don’t get me wrong, editors can absolutely have creative points of views, and there are editors like Dave Wielgosz at DC who are also fantastic writers; but I think it is impossible to be both editorially objective and creative at the same time. I think there is a necessary friction between those two things.
In the late '90s/early 2000s, when Marvel Comics was facing insolvency and not really seeing any real dividends from their mushrooming movie division, they were publishing some radical, boundary-pushing stories; there’s this idea that something like the adult MAX imprint could only have existed in that environment when the chips were more or less still down and there was nothing left to lose. The market seems to be in a better place than the post-'90s boom and bust era, but we are also seeing a proliferation and materiality of experimental perspectives again. Do you think that a medium's ability to take creative risk is a sign of its health or decline?
I think it's the other way around. I don't think risk is a sign or a product of health or ill health in the industry. I think risk-taking engenders the health or ill health of an industry. What I mean is, if as an industry you don't have the ability to take risk, then you are becoming outdated every moment that you're not taking that risk. This is true of all industries, not just the creative ones; this is true of science, this is true of medicine. If some part of your endeavor is not directed towards pushing boundaries, 10 years from now you're going to find yourself obsolete. To go back to the mythology versus religion analogy, it's part of the reason that if you look at the great religions of the world, there have been moments of great following and then moments where there's been a crisis and not enough people coming to them. Then look at what religions do—they change their points of view. Books that were handed down from God suddenly become, “Maybe we can ignore this bit because it's not really cool anymore.” I think that's fascinating and interesting.
You mean like a “broken telephone” theory of relevance?
That's how stories work! Stories change and mutate each time someone tells them, because the person telling them is telling them for success in their time and they're taking risks by changing things from something that already works. So if you look at Hollywood or if you want to look at Marvel, Vertigo or DC, I think those were all times when companies took risks and ended up doing something cool. Obviously, that also means there will be times where companies take risks and they don't end up doing something cool. My dream is to see comics have imprints that are intended to be risk-takers and loss-leaders in that their entire reason to exist is to find new ways of doing this thing that we do. You siphon off a part of your very successful, “big-machine-rolls-on” budget, and you give that tiny budget to this risk-taker and go, “All I want you to do is find people who are doing stuff that we're not already doing here.” I think that's when you start seeing really interesting things come out. Look at A24, look at Fox Searchlight when it existed, look at Marvel’s MAX imprint.
You sometimes speak to creative writing students in a teaching capacity about the structural components of plotting, developing your voice, and other writerly considerations, but I'm curious if you also touch on the business reality of being a freelancer. Do you discuss the need for professionalism, of maintaining editorial relationships, or the niceties of contract negotiations?
Not very much, to be honest. I think because we live in an era where we've had so much of people giving out advice about being good professionals and good creators, the voices that talk about pushing yourself to create something interesting have dwindled away. I want to pull things back across another direction. People keep floating this line that “finished is better than good.” It gets the job done, but is finished really better than good? Are we saying that every finished church around the corner is better than the Sagrada Família in Barcelona because Gaudí didn't finish his work? I think we've gone too far in the wrong direction in that we're creating professionals who perhaps aren't paying as much attention to being unique and having voices that are distinct.
With students and creators, they’ll “figure it out.” If you're good, you'll get someone coming to you saying “I'll look at contract negotiation for you because your work is good and garners enough attention to the point where somebody else sees it as being financially viable for them to be your advisor.” I have someone who looks at contracts for me, I have an agent, I have a manager. I trust them enough to hand that off to them, and I don't have to worry about it, which is a great place to be in, but it also makes me giving people advice on contracting advice a moot point. In terms of maintaining good relationships, that part is simple. That part anyone can give you advice on: “Don't be an ass. Be a good person. Try to deliver things on time.” These are basic things that any profession should involve.
I keep hearing stories about how Neil Gaiman would fax over two or three pages of script in a week and people at DC offices would be waiting by the fax machine to then send it off to the artist so things could be done on time. That makes Neil sound like a bad professional by today’s standards, but that's not true. He created interesting work. Sometimes interesting work takes time because you're pushing yourself to do things that take time, and you just have to think about 10 words that you’ve put down on paper and you want to think about it three more times. I think the best patrons, enablers, industries, corporations, editors, etc., are the ones who know that when you see something special, you make room for it—you bend rules for it. I think people as creators should see the value in that as well. Yeah, you want to send something in on time, but if you're at the crux of an idea that is really cool, maybe you pick up a phone, call your editor and say, “Hey, I'm gonna need two more days to get this done, but I promise it will be worth it.”
That’s an opinion that I’ve heard expressed a hundred different ways among the creatives I’ve spoken to, which is essentially that once it’s down on a page, it's there forever, and you need to be able to live with yourself 10, 20 years down the line.
Twenty years down the line, what do you want to say? “I turned every script in on time,” or “I made something that people still read 20 years from now”?
Why is it that pedagogy and assisting emerging writers is so important to your career, and maybe even to your process?
I never had that. Part of it is probably my upbringing and my journey to the profession. I grew up with a very orthodox family in India, but I always had an interest in storytelling. I used to get in trouble as a kid in school for telling lies, but they wouldn't be lies about my dog eating my homework; it would always be about how “On the way to school, I met an alien in the park who took me on this wonderful journey!” My teachers would just ask themselves “What is wrong with this kid?” No one was around me at the time to say “You should pursue that.” It was really only after coming to the United States at UPenn, where the university had this phenomenal idea that you could learn and read and pursue all forms of knowledge regardless of what your specialization was, that I learned that if you can do something, it's not a magical, romantic thing at the horizon that you dream about. You can do tangible things to make it come true. If I'm in a position now to tell other people that, then I think I can be that someone who should say that.
For a long time, there has, in a sense, been two readerships in the consumption of comics: there is the direct market readership, who is deeply invested in the material on a weekly basis, and then there are readers who are relating to the material maybe more casually. The battleground for the past few decades has been about aligning this consumer base and bringing the casual reader into the center, if you will. Is this the central economic problem that the industry must address—which is ultimately a question of social relevance that hasn’t been observed since the heyday of the pulps—or should comics accept that crossover appeal has its limits, and maximize its niche potential?
I'm afraid I’m not going to give you concrete answers here because a lot of this is beyond my interest; but you said a few things that I'm very much obsessed with and I'll expand on those. Firstly, I think the two readerships aren't direct market and casual. Direct market is a very specific industry term describing individual issue retailers who are almost specialty bookshops that order comics. They don't order other books and they order through the Diamond [distribution] system. The other side of that would be people who walk into a bookshop and say “I want to pick up a comic book,” or people who walk into a comic shop and say “No, I don't want to collect issues, I just want to pick up a trade and be done with it.” I don't necessarily think those are casual readers either, because there are entire countries where the direct market doesn't exist, and yet they have tremendous comic sales. People in France read lots of comics, for example, and even if France is a miniscule size compared to the American direct market, I still think we should be careful about making those distinctions.
The second thing I want to say is I think comics need to preserve their niche aesthetic. That doesn't mean it needs to be a niche industry. Punk rock exists today as an aesthetic, but it doesn't exist really as a way of life, which is probably true of a lot of artistic mediums. Comics is a way of life, sure—of people stapling pages together and then xeroxing and putting them out; but aesthetic is invaluable, especially as someone who works out of the UK. If you look at the aesthetics of the UK indie comics scene, that's the reason why you have Neil Gaimans, Grant Morrisons, Alan Moores, Garth Ennises and Warren Ellises coming out of this comics industry. It's because of the way the indie comics scene continues to preserve its punk rock aesthetic and its transgressive roots—I think those are all important things.
Then lastly, you mentioned that comics was most successful in the era of the pulps and I think part of the reason why we’re even having this discussion—and this is just a theory that could be entirely wrong, because I'm not a retailer or an industry person—is because pulp only exists now as an aesthetic. It does not exist as an industry per se anymore. What pulp really meant was you were producing cheap forms of entertainment that people were reading and throwing away—it would go straight into pulp. Today, when you can watch 400 shows on Netflix for $7.99 a month, which is probably the price of two comic book single issues, how comic book single issues continue to be “pulp” is beyond me, right?
It's not sustainable to make those issues for one dollar a month either, because then I wouldn't be writing them. People need to earn a living. I think the industry and readers need to understand that comics are no longer a pulp industry; maybe it’s closer to a collectibles industry, maybe it's closer to a monthly service as a subscription industry. But when you start thinking about it in those terms, then your systems and the structures that you design around how to be successful in that industry change. Part of the economic difficulties in comics is because it stopped being a pulp industry a long time ago, but it continues to be structured like one.
An ongoing discussion I’ve had with retailers and comic enthusiasts is this suggestion that increased foot traffic or engagement in comic books has not in any meaningful way been a corollary of the dominance of superhero films at the box office and on streaming platforms. I’m interested in what ideas you might have as a creator about the preservation, sustainability, and renewal of the medium.
I think availability is a huge thing. If you look at prose books as an industry, when the television show came out, suddenly Game of Thrones books were outselling everything out there. Why did that happen? Because you could pretty much walk into any bookshop and find a Game of Thrones paperback. You don't even need to walk into a bookstore; you could walk into a supermarket and buy them. I think that’s part of the reason why the comics industry is finding itself in this kind of quandary. People watching a comic book film don't necessarily know that there are specialty comic book shops or that comics are sold as these 22-page floppies that you consume every month or every week. I think that’s the change of thinking that you need.
Can I just walk into a book shop and buy Avengers: Endgame as a book? No, you can’t, because it’s an agglomeration of so many runs and issues that came together. Whereas if I wanted to walk into a book shop and buy season one of Game of Thrones? “Here’s Book 1, here’s Book 2.” There is that kind of barrier to entry or a learning curve with comics, and I think a lot of people sort of fall away at that point. Maybe the real question to ask is “How do you make comic books super-accessible to absolutely everyone?”
There is also a cultural barrier to entry [for creators]. I still see this idea that if you want to make films, you shouldn't be making comics or if you want to be making films, you shouldn't bother reading comics. It doesn't matter! Nobody cares! Nobody cares that somebody who started out as a translator probably became one of the most important novelists of his generation. Nobody said you can’t use translation as a way to get into prose. It's a bizarre, purist attitude that you must forgo all other ambitions to work in comics. I think comics will be better as a medium and as an industry if it tried to build bridges to other mediums and other industries. There are phenomenally successful creators in other mediums who I imagine would be just as successful in comics if only they knew how to make money [in it].
Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges were both obsessed with comics, and yet we don't have a comic by these titans of prose who have influenced generations. Calvino wrote what was essentially a play as a sequence of still images, and you realize “Oh, this is a comic book script.” Bjarke Ingels of BIG—the European architectural firm—was intent on becoming a comic book creator until the age of 15, and then was forced into architecture by his parents who told him, “You’re never going to get anywhere making comics.” I think comics needs to open itself up both in terms of end user availability and in terms of inviting creators and readers into the medium.