Ram Venkatesan, known widely by his pen name Ram V, has been writing his entire life. As a 13-year-old, he wrote an unpublished story that was over 40,000 words. And yet, while writing was his passion, he was encouraged to pursue a career as a chemical engineer. As any writer will tell you, chemical engineering is a lot steadier and lucrative work.
But the academic detour did not kill his literary ambition. While access to American comics in Mumbai was limited, he was still fascinated by the medium, and decided to write his own comic, which he called Aghori (Holy Cow). A sci-fi mystery, it sold well in India, and after moving to India, Ram kickstarted and self-published Black Mumba, which got the attention of editors and creatives alike.
He continued writing in London, then moved to Philadelphia for 10 years and returned to the UK, writing, creating and collaborating the entire time. But it’s his current work, Paradiso (Image), the first collected volume of which dropped this week, that really put him on the map. The hit comic has led to more work, like Ruin of Thieves: A Brigands Story (Action LAb).
He's also active in a group called the White Noise Collective. It is a group of London artists and writers including Ryan O’Sullivan (Dark Souls, The Evil Within/Titan) , Dan Watters and Caspar Wijngaard (Limbo/Image) and Alex Paknadel (KINO/Lion Forge; Arcadia/BOOM!) who are all known for both their indie and mainstream comic book contributions and are doing something rarely seen in the comics industry these days: supporting one another’s work. That support actually led to Vault comics signing all four members, including Ram V, to separate titles. And since San Diego Comic Con, it’s been announced that he will also be working with Jorge Fornés on the new Batman anthology Batman Secret Files #1, which is available now for pre-order.
Ram V is a very busy man. Once we got our timezones worked out, I got a chance to talk to him about his career and his writing style and the artists he’d love to work with someday.
Tell us a little bit about Black Mumba. This is the book that kind of put you on the map in Mumbai.
I started writing short stories and novellas when I was in Mumbai. I was still working as a chemical engineer at the time and they got published and did kind of, well, and one of my friends said, “You know, you never quite write anything that's very Indian and you keep writing these sci-fi stories that feel very American or European." And he was right. So I did a comic called Aghori back in India, that was kind of a John Constantine-meets-Indian mythology kind of deal. That did quite well and I found that very encouraging in terms of pursuing more comic work.
So when I moved to the UK in 2013, I moved to study creative writing at the City University of London. While there, I started working on a book called Black Mumba, which was basically short stories set in Mumbai. I felt like no one had done really crime noir-esque, black and white take on Mumbai yet. So, I did a sort of 1940s American crime noir mixed with the craziness of living in a city like Mumbai. So that's the book that kind of got me a lot of attention from retailers and editors and other creators and such. I always say Black Mumba was my first kind of departure outside of the sort of local Indian comic scene.
You were a chemical engineer before you took on comic books full time. So what did your friends and family think when you changed careers?
I don't think they quite knew how to react to that. I think my parents always knew that I was inclined towards writing. I've always had that commitment to, to write. So I guess they thought, I’d pursue this as a hobby and then when I realize that it's not going to work out, and come back [to engineering].
They thought you’d just get it out of your system or something.
Yeah, exactly. And then Aghori was a success and slowly they became convinced, because I was actually continuing to get work. I still will never convince my dad that this is something I do for a living. I went back to a convention in India a couple of years ago. And he was like, "How can you afford to fly down here and everything?" And I showed him my work and told him, "I’m selling my books!" He looked at it like it was the most inexplicable thing ever and says, “I don't understand this business.” And then he just walked off, which is very much my dad.
How did White Noise Collective come about?
I think the roots of White Noise go back to Thought Bubble 2015, which was one of the first major conventions that I had ever been to. I'd only been to conventions in India. So I was just walking around as a visitor. I had been in touch with a few people on creative forums online, so I knew Ryan O’Sullivan back then, and I knew he was going to be at the convention, so I met him there. He was friends with collaborators Dan Watters and Caspar Wijngaard. (Caspar is actually now doing Star Wars: The Last Jedi for Marvel while Dan is doing Lucifer at Vertigo). So it was sort of a meeting of relatively new creators at this convention.
Dan and Caspar had just put out Limbo at that time. When we met, we realized that we had similar influences. We kind of bonded over our love of literature and reading and writing outside of comics as well. We realized that we wanted to do similar kinds of things when it came to writing comics. So we stayed in touch and showed each other work that we were working on at that point in time. I met Alex as well at one of the London conventions when he was down and Dan and Alex knew each other really well and Alex seemed to be one of like one of us already.
So we were sitting in a pub at one point and saying, “You know, there has to be some way to get people to take notice of what we're trying to do." But we needed to make it a group thing, where we show each other's work and we help each other get better and help each other get noticed as well.
I remember I was reading Don DeLillo's White Noise at the time and I brought along the novel. It was just on the table. And so when we decided to sort of formalize a relationship, everybody just looked down at the novel on the table and said “White Noise.” It was kind of tongue in cheek because we try to stand out from a lot because there's just so much new comics content coming out all the time.
I heard that you were surprised because you didn't realize that your White Noise colleagues were already signed to Vault on different projects.
I knew they were pitching books because we sort of exchange pitches and go, “Hey, what do you think? Where can I improve?” Which is kind of why the collective exists. So I knew they were pitching, I just didn't know where. I think Alex was the first one to talk about having a book accepted. And then Dan was like, "Oh yeah, they accepted Deep Roots as well.: Then Ryan was like, “Yeah, I've got one too.” (Fearscape/Vault)
I had just sent Vault my pitch and that later that evening I got an email back from (Vault comics CCO and Editor-in-Chief) Adrian Wassel telling me that they’d accepted my pitch for These Savage Shores as well. So that means every one of us has a book at Vault. So when we talked about doing going to press, we decided to do an announcement together.
For those who are unfamiliar, please describe the premise of Paradiso.
Paradiso is a post apocalyptic science fiction adventure where we follow a group of adventurers on their journey through the last surviving city on the planet, with the twist that the city is itself alive and sentient. Our journey kind of begins when our protagonist comes to the border of the city with a device known as the pneumas, which is capable of bringing dead technologies to life.
In this world, about 300 years ago there was a cataclysmic event called “The Midnight” that happens, which kind of set civilization back by hundreds of years technologically. And so this is the story of humanity as it learns to deal with this new reality and a new normal and what it's like to live in a place which you've built, but which also now decides and controls your destiny because you live within it.
It seemed like society gave The Cloud sentience. Since the city it is made up of basically the the thoughts and realities of the people who created it, is Paradiso a metaphor for the human mind?
I don't know that it is a direct metaphor in that sense, but, I was talking about this with Alex, Paradiso lets me reflect on humanity from the point of view of something that is disconnected from humanity but wouldn't exist without understanding what humanity is. So there's no way for a city to exist without people coming together and deciding to live in one place and put up with each other's annoyances and take joy in each other's happinesses and occasionally have friction and fight each other. So without all of those things, the city wouldn't exist.
When you introduce yourself to people, you say, “I'm a Philadelphian” or “I'm a New Yorker” or “I’m a Londoner." People who have made a city begin to identify themselves as the persona of the city itself. So I find that to be a very interesting relationship because what would the things we make today think of us 200, 300 years from now when they have evolved to a point where they become these magnificent sentient creatures and they look back at us and we are potentially still dealing with the same differences and problems that we had when we were nascent.
That sounds like a scary Westworld scenario.
Absolutely. In fact, when I pitched the first arc, I described it as Mad Max meets Westworld.
It definitely fits that description. Who is the protagonist Jack and who are the Tinkermen?
Jack is only part tinkerman. He was an apprentice. Jack, is a very interesting character to begin this story with, because he's a blank slate. Not only do we not know much about his past, but as you read volume one Spoilers! You’ll discover that he doesn't know much about his own past either. So for me Jack is really a place where the reader can pour themselves in and sort of take part in the story by supplanting themselves in place of Jack. He doesn't know anything that happened to him and you as the reader are just dropped into this world with no context and no history as well. I found that very interesting.
When civilization collapsed, it is conceivable that there were still people who understood the technology at the time, but some technology would have still been so far out of reach. For example, printing presses, imagine in 2200 something happens in civilization collapses. There are so few printing presses around that it is conceivable that no one who survives that will remember what a printing press was like or how to construct one or how to make it work again.
There are probably very few people who know that now. In that future, every communication might literally be verbal or technical.
Right, so when a collapse like that happens, you are forced to reinvent the wheel, if you will, and so the tinkermen were this group of people who took part in that reinventing the wheel, so now they are worshiped by the survivors of this collapsed civilization because these are the only guys who know how to repair your motor, how to work the refrigeration system because they have figured it out. They've learned. And then because again, communication isn't quite what it used to be, they have to pass this knowledge down written and through lineage. So each tinkerman takes on an apprentice and passes the knowledge down to them.
Did you already have your artist in mind when you were developing this story?
So interestingly, this story was originally written as a bunch of short stories and prose, with a co-creator Rajiv Bhakat who is an architect and urban designer in India and he came up with the idea of writing a bunch of stories set inside an actual living city. So we wrote short stories for this and years later when I made the jump to writing comics, I started making friends with artists back in India and Devmalya Pramanik, who is the artist on Paradiso, is one of these people that I met when I was just starting out doing comics in India and he worked on Black Mumba.
So Dev and I kind of really hit it off in terms of our collaborative chemistry. And he did two stories in that book and they're both beautiful. So when we were done with that, I went to Dev and told him I was going to attend Thought Bubble, and that I’d have the opportunity to pitch to editors. So I asked him to try and pitch something with me. So we created these sort of eight or nine pages of Paradiso. It took us six months to create those pages and I’d just pass them around. I sort of emailed people, I didn't know how pitching was done back then. So I was just walking around conventions with like black and white copies of these pages showing them to creators. Some of the creators, specifically people like Iván Brandon and Kieron Gillen were there and they looked at these pages and told me “Man, you should pitch this to Image”.
Wow, that's huge.
Yeah, so that was really my first introduction to the idea of even pitching to Image. I knew that Eric Stephenson was going to be at Thought Bubble that year. So I walked up to him with a neat little folder and these eight or nine colored pages in hand and I told him about what we were trying to do. He told me to email him, and when I sent it to him by email, he took more interest and he said, “Okay, let me know when you guys have enough to solicit.” So that's kind of the history of how Paradiso got picked up.
What's your process? Do you write very detailed scripts for your artists or do you write just general paragraphs and then let them come back to you?
It depends on the project. I was just talking to an artist today. She's going to be working on my Thought Bubble anthology story, which is going to be really cool. But looking at her work, I know that it will suffer if I put in too many restrictions or too many details. So I would much rather just give her her general ideas of what's happening on the page and describe those things and let her figure out panels and layouts and all of that.
Whereas the book that I'm doing with Vault, I'm working on that with another Indian artist and a friend of mine, Sumit Kumar and told him that I really want that book to feel deliberately paced and really dense, even the action bits. And we decided to place the whole thing on a grid. So even if it's not nine panels, it's very much a grid page and so I have to make choices about how much I put in each panel. So really for me with these depends on the project then what kind of end result I'm trying to achieve with the project. Is this play to their strengths or does this play against their weaknesses?
As far as my [writing] process goes, I tend to outline things quite a lot in detail, and then I toss the outline because I the road map then lives in my head. I'm open to things changing as I script. I don't outline the endings of my stories either, because if you know exactly what your ending is going to be, everything you do is just working towards that. There's no room to sort of surprise yourself or your readers. Then once I sit down to script, I pretty much a follow a standard, full script format. They're not like Alan Moore's. They're not tomes.
That would mean it's going to be a very long time until the next Paradiso volume comes out.
Exactly. They're not massive like that. And that's interesting because I think we're almost finished with Volume 2 of Paradiso. Issue five just came out and I think I've put in less work into scripting that because now I feel like Dev knows me. Having spent like 120 something pages working on my scripts, we have developed sort of a shorthand working with each other. So I think that is really beneficial development, developing these long term relationships with artists. I mean, I bet when Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips sit down to do their next sort of book, it must be just like, "Yeah, just do this, you know what I'm saying?"
Are there any artists that you've dreamed of working with?
There are so many, it would be weird to sort of start making a list. So I'll leave out the, the really obvious ones I leave out like Bill Sienkiewicz and Dave McKean, because obviously. But in terms of contemporaries,Tomm Coker is someone that every time Black Monday Murders comes out, I was like, “Oh man, this guy is so amazing”. I'm a huge sucker for that kind of noir work. Jorge Fornés is another artist whose work I really like. And Sanya Anwar is another artist I've seen a lot of indie work from that I like. Also Celia Lowenthal, her colors are just amazing. I would work with her just so she could color pages the way she colors them.
That’s quite a list.
I’ve got a huge list. Actually, I should probably not say this because I'll sound creepy. I’ve got a huge text file in a folder that just says "Artists I Want to Work With". And there's just a list of names, websites and emails.
That's not creepy. That's research! One more question about Paradiso. When people are reading this graphic novel, what do you want them to take away from it?
I want people to toss aside their assumptions of what kind of society they believe they come from. Part of the reason and part of where Paradiso has gone, is a reaction against this preservationist ideology that we see. That need to hold on to or go back to the past. That feeling that everything is changing and is terrible. Things change. And it's how you adapt to those changes that defines who you are as a society and as a group of people. And really that's what we're examining in Paradiso.
Because I always have a love affair with cities. I love almost every city that I've lived in. discovering its secrets that only you can know, but these cities are immortal. They live multiple lifetimes. If you compare them to us and yet they are defined by us, you know, that is such a beautiful relationship.
It's a symbiotic relationship.
Yes, but beyond being symbiotic, it's mutually mutagenic. You see what I mean? Like maybe in 1990 there was a canal that went down the side of the city and then in 1998 something happened and that thing broke down and nobody's used it for awhile. Then in 2000 these skater kids come in and start skateboarding on the insides of the canals. By 2010, It's like a really popular skating joint. It's not a canal anymore. And where else can you watch that happen other than city? So I feel like modern day cities are living in that sense that they are changed by every action we take and that's kind of what I want people to take back.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of your upcoming projects?
The book that I'm doing with Vault is called a These Savage Shores and it is a book set in the 1770s in precolonial, India and it looks at the advent of colonialism while also looking at a conflict between vampires. So Vampires and colonialism in 1760s in India. It's also going to be written as an epistolary comic. So it's, it's essentially hearkening back to the way Bram Stoker's Dracula was written, So a lot of this comic is all journal entries and letters, I don’t think there are many of those out there.
I'm also doing a book called Grafity's Wall with artist Anand Radhakrishnan with a british book publisher called Unbound. It's a book about teenagers kind of growing up in rough neighborhoods in Mumbai, but it also looks at the modern street culture and art of Mumbai. and will launch at the Thought Bubble Convention this year.