I don’t much care for vampires. Hollywood long ago standardized them beyond interest, leaving a power fantasy of being refined, yet violent, that neither appeals nor feels foreign in a world where the posh and the wealthy do largely as they please. So I was not excited about These Savage Shores when I saw it conspicuously advertised at Vault’s San Diego Comic Con booth this year. The hype was good, but it didn’t move me. Even the promise of vampires in India didn’t sway me until I saw the creative team. In the end, vampires in colonial India written and drawn by Indian creators and attracting rave reviews broke me down. And I’m glad it did.
These Savage Shores #1 is an elegantly put together comic. Regardless of the quality writing and art, which we will discuss, you can feel the polish of it as you read. The story structure and layouts use simple tricks well, giving the impression that what you’re reading could be used in a class the same way as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. It could be easy to misunderstand ideas like having a nine panel grid that snakes so that the middle row is read from right to left as being flashy gimmicks, but there’s a firm and pervasive preference for substance and effect over concepts and self-congratulatory cleverness. I mean, a solid chunk of the issue depicts the writing of a letter! Nevertheless, the story doesn’t drag for a moment, thanks equally to an engaging flashback filled with just the proper amount of information and some fundamentals of Eisensteinian montage.
The debut issue introduces us to Lord Alain Pierrefont, a disgraced vampire, hunted, revealed, and now banished to that overgrown and untamed subcontinent that gives the series its name. Ram V is fully aware of and more than able to execute the tropes of the vampire subgenre, filling Pierrefont’s story with pride, potency, and interiority as he fights to regain his power in this unfamiliar land. It’s an engaging enough tale, but, in the context of colonialism, it truly comes to life.
The writing doesn’t lock us into one understanding, morphing and exploring as the issue goes on. Throughout this first issue we see vampirism as a metaphor for colonialism (the blood sucking imperialists feeding on Mother India) but also as the alienness of the British on the subcontinent (burned by the sun and obsessed with old traditions), as the chauvinism of English racial supremacy (paternalistic and dehumanizing towards their perceived inferiors) and returned to its unsympathetic origins as the very ferocity of India. Vampires bore me because I have no aspiration or expectation of their almost lusty desire to maim and seduce with the impunity of being born (or reborn) better. They are the very desire to be elite, sometimes wronged and misunderstood so that we can overlook their incredible privilege, and tiring because of it. But framed in the model of imperialists, it works perfectly. Suddenly Alain’s frustrations are at once sympathetic and satisfying. Every haughty assumption of superiority is no longer an eye-rolling trope, but a joke at his expense: ‘See the man who can’t even step outside in this country claim to own it! Watch this superior being pout in his room, as two-hundred-million people put on their big boy pants, live their lives, and produce every item he so desperately needs.’ Ram V does a fantastic job of throwing the narrative back in the colonizer’s face while still presenting an enjoyable and compelling story from their perspective, or at least it is at the start.
The story even includes a Prince Vikram, undoubtedly named for the main character in Vetala Panchavimshati, known in the west under the name of its Burtonian adaptation Vikram and the Vampire; Or Tales of Hindoo Devilry! Even this reclaims the story, made into an amusement for far away imperials, now taking hold of a British-led narrative.
These Savage Shores #1 clocks in at a sizable, if not enormous, twenty-eight pages. That gives it almost 40% more space to tell its story than the average comic. In spite of this luxury, or perhaps because of it, there is an abundance of empty space in this comic. Rather than take the opportunity to fill the issue to the brim, Ram shows restraint and lets things breathe. This can occasionally verge on the excessive. Some examples just feel like they’re luxuriating in having the space rather than really using it, but the fact is the book does have it and it does lend to the atmosphere.
Ram’s restrain doesn’t end there. The issue is full of mysteries, information slow dripped in a natural fashion so as to pique curiosity but not so little as to leave readers in the dark. The script plays extremely fairly, but the story uses its ambiguity and your own familiarity with the genre to make fairly obvious twists feel like huge swerves. The ending, in particular, isn’t hard to see coming if you look at the narrative objectively, but the creators play the gravity of other ideas in such a way that you very well might not. It’s a rich and fecund concept that’s just told well and written with weight.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the issue is simply that it’s so effective at creating a beautiful twenty-eight pages that readers don’t necessarily have much insight into what to expect going forward. It’s entirely possible that readers could pick up issue #2 and not miss much, so devoted is this introduction to telling its one story perfectly. But is that really so bad? This would be a beautiful comic were it finished here.
It doesn’t hurt that These Savage Shores is a beautiful book as well. Sumit Kumar starts from a clean and simple foundation, and adds minute but palpable detail to put flesh on the bones of his creations. With Vittorio Astone’s glowing colors fading into one another to complete the effect, These Savage Shores #1 has an aesthetic half way between British horror and Indian painting, just as it naturally should.
Both Vampires and India are known for their sensuality, the base and the tactile. It should not surprise then that this is one of the book’s most interesting visual strengths. Glances between lovers smolder and the touch of one’s fingers to their face carry supple resistance. Meanwhile the cold lights of London feel gaunt, crystalline, and platonic in their angled, unreal perfection. It is no small thing to capture the bustle of India or the instantaneous shift from confidence to awe that it can inspire.
The book follows in the footsteps of legends, dividing each page onto a nine-panel grid. Unlike many works of this sort, but shared with many of the best, These Savage Shores has no loyalty to the layout’s simplicity, frequently utilizing only certain matrices when that suits the story better. The tight control of the format helps to express the precise speed and scale of each moment as well as the themes of the story, as Calcutta threatens at every moment to break its bonds and be free of such simple narrative restraints.
The colors are undeniably forceful, but I wouldn’t call them bold. There’s a sallow, faded richness to the entire issue that almost recalls Mughal artwork. These less saturated colors give grit and particularity to the book’s palette without depriving it of vibrancy, even in its most subdued moments. The scenes in Britain are perhaps the least traditional, potentially even conjuring up some of Ben Templesmith’s palettes, but the harsh sun of India quickly takes control of the colors, defining the book with its withering yellow, fading golden hour orange, or a rich purple, depending on the time of day. Astone does not make his presence too known, despite the beauty of his work. Color is an undeniable part of the issue, but it blends into the writing and linework, leaving a beauty that is constantly present but never demands attention away from the story.
These Savage Shores #1 absolutely lives up to the hype as one of the best debut issues of the year. It flips tired tropes exactly when needed and never feels smug or provocative about it. Instead Ram V, Sumit Kumar, and their partners deliver an artful introduction possessed of definite grace and purpose. It feels truly crafted, each stroke and moment in its proper place. The affection for the setting(s) and confident telling in the face of a complicated colonial history make it nearly impossible to ignore. It plays its cards close to the chest, leaving readers unsure of exactly what to expect going forward, and that is a little disappointing, but the completeness and quality of the story leave little doubt as to whether this first issue is worth your money. If even a quality of this opening is present in subsequent issues, These Savage Shores will be a must read.
These Savage Shores #1 is currently available in comic shops from Vault Comics.