“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
Before arriving as one of the most exciting, new voices in the industry, Ram V’s life was full of plot twists that took him from India to the U.S. to the U.K., from a chemical engineering job to Image Comics and beyond. His story is one of an aspiring professional writer deciding to go all-in on pursuit of his dream; talent, along with the right support at the right time, made all the difference.
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer and occasional doodler
Your home base: Originally from India, now living in London
Current project title(s):
Justice League Dark [DC]
These Savage Shores [Vault]
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: We’ll start off with the overarching question: Why comics? What attracts you to the comics form specifically both as a reader and writer?
Ram V: It begins from a very young age. I was always interested in both storytelling and illustration, though I didn’t see myself making or writing comics until I decided to try one day. I wrote my first serious piece of any length when I was 12 — I think it was something like 40,000 words — and it’s always been a passion. In 2013 or 2014 I decided to switch to writing as a profession. I’d had a few prose things published, and then one of my cousins in India read some of my work and said, “You write in such a visual style and you have an interest in comics. Have you ever tried writing one?” That was really what sparked my brain.
Shortly after that, I went to an Indian convention, met up with a publisher, and offered to write a series for them. It didn’t pay very well, but over the years the book became one of the most successful comics in India and really paved the way for me to consider writing comics on a regular basis.
I really enjoy the design aspect of comics, that you can pretty much engineer narratives in so many layers — through text, through the visuals, through juxtaposing text and visuals. It’s a very layered medium.
KS: Talk a little about that first book that set everything else in motion.
RV: It was called Aghori, through Holy Cow Entertainment. It was me trying to write my version of Hellblazer, set in Mumbai and using Indian mythology and Indian ghost stories. I was quite surprised by the positive reaction it got; it came out at a time when comics in India were still just a burgeoning subculture — now they have six different comic cons.
KS: What were some of the formative comics of your younger reading years? What types of stories and characters drew you in initially?
RV: The earliest example is Lee Falk’s Phantom comics, which showed up in the newspaper in India. (We didn’t have access to a lot of Marvel or DC.) The next big step for me was reading Asterix and Tintin. I moved to the U.S. when I was about 20 to study chemical engineering; I was dating someone at the time, and for my birthday she gave me the first volume of Sandman. It blew my mind as far as what you could aspire to do in comics. From there, I discovered the Brit wave writers: Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis… first reading Hellblazer was when I realized I wanted to be one of those guys, to have my name in that roster.
KS: As mentioned, you originally had a very potential career path. Looking back, was there an “aha” moment when you pivoted or was it more of a gradual transformation?
RV: By 2012, I’d had a few things published. That was a hard year — I’d traveled a lot for work and was putting in a lot of hours into my chemical engineering job. It got to a point where I realized I didn’t want to be 55 or 60, looking back at my life and wishing I’d done that thing that brought me joy.
KS: Would 20-year-old Ram be surprised at where you ended up?
RV: Maybe not the 20-year-old, but the 18-year-old version would be. Until I moved to the U.S., I’d always grown up thinking I had to be a chemical engineer. Everything else was a hobby — it’s the way a lot of people in India are brought up. When I went to University of Pennsylvania, I was encouraged to think more broadly, so I took a film course, a jazz appreciation course… and by the end of that, the seed of discontent had been sowed.
KS: You’ve now done work with a variety of comics publishers. What was your first pro gig and how did that come about?
RV: It was around 2014, and I’d moved to the U.K. to study creative writing. I decided to make a graphic novel, so I got in touch with a bunch of artists and we made this surrealist, existential crime noir book called Black Mumba. I pitched it around to publishers and got great feedback, but it was really Chris Staros [at Top Shelf] who suggested I crowdfund it. I think we raised close to £10,000, which I was shocked by and which paid the artists, paid me, and got it stocked in London bookstores.
As far as a more traditionally published book, that would be Paradiso. I showed Black Mumba to [Image publisher] Eric Stephenson at one of the U.K. conventions; some other creators had been very supportive of the book and encouraged me to show it to Eric. From there, I pitched him Paradiso.
KS: Did you have any sense of “making it” during that time, when you saw your comics as real things in the world?
RV: To be honest, doing your first Image book and a crowdfunded graphic novel isn’t going to give you a career as a professional writer. There just isn’t enough money in it. But it did give me a sense of where I was placed in that world — I had pull quotes from John Arcudi and Ivan Brandon, I’d sent the book to Jamie Rich, who’s now my editor at DC.
I still don’t think I’ve made it. I want to write a novel, I want to write short stories and films and plays. I’m not the kind of person who will ever think I’ve made it.
KS: Can you recall a moment of real professional joy from that time?
RV: I walked up to a gentleman at one of the London conventions — I had no idea who many of these people were — because his table looked a little less crowded than some of the others. He read through the opening pages of Black Mumba and said to me, “This is quite good. You certainly have a writer in you and you should stick with it.” I went back home to look up the convention guest list to see who that person was — it turned out to be Paul Levitz. That was pretty cool. I’ve not met him since, but I still hope to run into him and ask him if he remembers that day.
KS: Is there something you’ve learned about making comics since then that you maybe didn’t know or didn’t fully grasp when looking in from the outside?
RV: I’ve learned that your scripts don’t need to describe nearly as much as you think they do. I used to write scripts that were just tomes; I’ve learned since that there’s more benefit to leaving room for your collaborators to bring what they can bring to the story, as well.
KS: Do you have a set writing routine these days?
RV: I’ll safely admit I’m not a morning person. I have a three- or four-hour session in the afternoon, which will tide me over to 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening. Then, I have a break to spend some time reading, watching films, taking in other kinds of art. Evenings are also set aside for spending time with my wife. I’ll sit down again around 10:30 or 11 and work until about 2:00 a.m.
KS: And are you a “word count” writer or a “time count” writer?
RV: On average, I try to hit four or five finished pages every day. I try to finish a 22-page script in three or four days. Even on the days when it’s not very productive, it’s important to sit at your desk and spend the time struggling with it, so you can get to the point when you’re not struggling with it.
KS: What’s one word that sums up an important trait for being successful in comics?
RV: Original. It’s important to be original in comics, especially now with so many number 1s coming out each week. I want a person who has their distinctive own voice and has something uniquely their own to say.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration?
RV: I’m going to pick creator-owned projects, because that’s where you get to really see someone’s inner voice. Coffin Bound by Dan Waters; Dan’s a very evocative writer whose work goes to interesting, weird, dark places. Friendo, which demonstrates what [writer] Alex Paknadel does best, taking a societal concept and placing it in a new context to reflect on what that says about us as human beings. Fearscape by Ryan O’Sullivan plays with your perceptions of what a comic book should be; it’s as much a commentary on making comics as it is a story itself.
Apart from them, I really enjoy Infidel, Gideon Falls, and whatever Brian Azzarello comes up with.
KS: Finally, talk little about what you’ve been working on.
RV: These Savage Shores is now collected. Grafity’s Wall sees an expanded edition coming out from Dark Horse in March. Following that, I’ll have at least three creator-owned titles in 2020.
[Author’s Note: After our conversation, news broke that Ram will be writing Justice League Dark beginning with February’s issue #20.]