Death as a mortal is nothing new to comics. But a nasty, resentful Death plotting against humankind to reclaim her throne in the immortal world? That is a concept that acclaimed comics creator Ram V (Grafity’s Wall, Black Mumba) and artist Filipe Andrade (Fantastic Four: Road Trip) pull off to delightful success in their new BOOM! Studios series, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr.
When humans stumble upon the secret to immortality, Death suddenly finds herself out of luck and out of a job. Sentenced to life as a mortal, Death is reincarnated in Laila Starr, a recently deceased orphan whose final resting place happens to be in the same hospital as humanity’s new savior. Death is desperate to snuff out this threat; but standing in her way is the smooth-operating Life, who she will have to circumvent to get what she wants.
Just as in Ram V’s graphic novel with Anand Radhakrishnan, Grafity’s Wall, Mumbai stands as the backdrop to this vibrant story of magical realism. I caught up with Ram and Filipe to talk about why Hinduism and Indian mythology are the perfect vehicles in which to explore the thin line between life and death in The Many Deaths of Laila Starr.
Nancy Powell: How did you come up with this concept of life and death for the series?
Ram V: A lot of it has to do with me as a younger amateur writer trying to write stories that featured death in some way and going like, ‘clearly I don’t have the life experience or something with this kind of gravity to be able to really write about it.’ Now as a near-40-year-old, I look at it and feel like, okay, I can see how death was an ever-present part of my childhood, even though somehow children seemed to be untouched by it, almost immortal in that sense. And so that kind of spurred on this idea to write about Death having to experience mortality, if you will. There’s also been a long tradition of stories that feature the god of death coming down to the mortal realm in Indian stories. So, I felt like that was a nice thing to draw from as well.
Powell: Have you read Neil Gaiman’s Death: The High Cost of Living?
V: Yes! So, Neil Gaiman is one of my absolute favorite authors. When we first started this story, I had to first sit here and wonder, ‘like, come on, Gaiman’s done that.’ What else do I have to say about it? I think the realization is that death means very different things to different people, depending on where you come from. The way Americans and Europeans and Christians, I imagine, think about death is very different from the way Indian Hindus think about death is very different from the way Indian Buddhists think about death.
And so, death is a very uniquely social, cultural, religious artifact that we all contend with in very different ways. So, I felt like I had something to say about this in context of where I come from, who I am and how I perceive death to be. And so, the story kind of started there. And I imagine, by the end of it, people will take away an idea of death that hopefully is very different from anything you’ve read before.
Powell: Is Death based on a particular Hindu God?
V: No, I mean, there are multiple gods of death in mythology. Yama is considered by some to be a god of death, Kali is considered by some to be a goddess of death. But no, I don’t think we’re specifically sort of pointing at any one god or the other, but rather the concept of this being who looks upon mortals with this power to decide when their time on Earth is done and when they are to leave, to make that concept suddenly powerless and have to earn its place among humanity. It’s always an interesting concept.
Powell: In one of your previous graphic novels, Grafity’s Wall, you write that the main characters are “pushed aside by the churning current of Mumbai,” and I feel Death as Laila is similar in that vein. What is it about Mumbai and its marginalized figures that fascinates you so much?
V: Well, I come from Mumbai. I lived in Mumbai ever since I was a kid. I feel like there’s a way to write a story where individuals and their lives are pushed around by the greater forces that surround us. But in doing so, I think we often don’t look at the inversion, and I think I’m doing the inversion of that, where I’m looking at this great force of death that we all know and hear and have a relationship with, and how it feels for Death to suddenly become powerless and be pushed around by this immense force that humanity is.
And I think Filipe will also attest to the fact that Mumbai in this story feels like an external giant force of humanity, that is inescapable in some ways for our protagonist, Laila Starr.
Powell: So, Filipe, have you been to Mumbai?
Filipe Andrade: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Powell: Was it pretty easy to visualize what Ram had in mind for the story?
Andrade: Yeah, I mean, you see, maybe ‘easy’ is not the word, but it was visually appealing to me, so in that way it was easy to fall in love. But Mumbai is a difficult city to try to draw because it has so many layers. It’s like Ram said, the energies and the amount of people, and it’s beautiful and ugly. It’s all these contrasts, so it’s a really interesting city as a set-up.
Powell: Did you find yourself having to study up on Hinduism or any of the iconography in order to draw the comic?
Andrade: A little bit, yeah, but not too deep because it’s huge. It’s impossible. I didn’t take that risk.
Powell: So which gods or goddesses in Indian culture most interest either of you? And will they make appearances in The Many Deaths of Laila Starr?
V: All the gods interest me, to be honest. I don’t particularly have an interest in one particular god or the other, but I like looking at Indian and Hindu gods as these overly-dramatic, often prone to making terrible mistakes, and unintentionally hilarious beings of extreme power and significance and importance. I like thinking of gods in those terms.
I think one of the great travesties that I feel about Indian mythology is that, because it’s so close to religion, it has become conflated with that. And I feel like we edify and we ossify the stories that relate to Indian mythology. So part of my endeavor here is to remind people that these are just stories, you know? Gods are allowed to be funny. Gods are allowed to be stupid. Sometimes gods are allowed to fail. Gods are allowed to struggle. And so I think part of part of my endeavor in writing this story has been to convey that sense of that emotion.
As for the rest of the series, I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that Issue Two is not what you’re expecting, and Issue Three is even more so.
Powell: And how about you, Filipe?
Andrade: Yeah, I mean, it’s difficult for me to talk about India and the geography of religion. So I will say that pictorially it’s so interesting. It’s so dramatic. Like if you compare it to The Iliad from Europe or something like that, it feels even more old, it’s even more, let’s say, ritualistic. I don’t know if this is the word. But it feels like everything has meaning. When I was looking through some references of Kali, for example, it’s so diverse in the way that she was represented, but always so graphically intense. In Christianity there are always these pictures of suffering or dramatics. In this way, Indian art is more appealing.
Powell: At the end of Issue One of The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, do I detect a current of romantic tension between Death and Life?
V: Of course. I mean, Life is eternally in love with Death, and Death doesn’t care at all. So, yes, there’s clearly this romantic tension between Life and Death.
Powell: And can Life change Death’s perception of being mortal going forward, or is that too much of a spoiler?
V: Well, I also feel like, should Life want to change everything about Death? He absolutely loves her as she is. I think he loves her because of who she is. So I don’t think he would ever dream of changing anything about her. I think he would much rather sit on the sidelines and watch her go through her own stuff and be there for her whenever she needs him to be, whether she wants him to be there for her or not.
Powell: And going back to the inspirations for The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, was there a particular movie or book besides Gaiman’s Death that proved pivotal to developing the storyline?
V: I mean, I draw from a lot of different places. Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s Daytripper was certainly an influence for me. And there is there’s oodles of novels, I think. Filipe, I don’t know if you know José Saramago, but José Saramago’s novels are a massive influence in terms of the stories that I’m writing. Yeah, I take bits and pieces from all kinds of media, but those are probably the most noteworthy things of influence. Over to you, Filipe.
Andrade: Yeah, do you know that Saramago lived in Lanzarote, in one really, really small island.
V: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrade: If you ever seen the movie about them, Saramago and Josette? And so you’re going to fall in love, and actually, now you’re saying this, it’s kinda lightened me up. I’m so sorry about what to say. I totally lost the question.
Powell: Oh no problem. Is there a particular movie or book that inspired how you visualized or how you drew the comic?
Andrade: Not in particular. I mean, I always like to mix a lot of things that actually are not connected, like even some sticker I see in the street or someone I meet in the street or something that I see like in a background of a movie. But some actions were like, for example, Brahma, I picture him a little bit, like he was acting like The Big Lebowski.
Powell: That is so funny. I can see that. Anyhow, I really loved The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, and it’s beautiful. I can’t wait to read more about it.
V: Thank you.
Andrade: Thank you so much.
Published by BOOM! Studios, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr #1 is in stores now. The second issue of the five-issue series is due in stores and digitally tomorrow.