“The only thing they want is to put a price on its soul.”
Devastating. There’s no other way of putting it. That’s what this finale is. From the very beginning to the end, as each panel in this 9-panel grid, like a piece of a shackle, weighs on you, wrapping around you, making you feel the burden of what’s really occurring. Through the entire experience, the sense of loss clings to you desperately, ever present like the mists of the world of These Savage Shores. There’s a beautiful sense of flow and rhythm to the work here, as Ram V, Sumit Kumar, Vittorio Astone and Aditya Bidikar strike with such refined clarity of storytelling that it’s marvelous. Every beat, every moment lands and how it all flows is just seamless. And that’s what makes the impact so terribly powerful on the reader.
After the heartbreaking loss of the previous issues, this installment sees Bishan and Kori head to London to meet The Count, The Vampire, who awaits them. The meeting happens. Things don’t exactly go cleanly, as you’d expect. Meanwhile we learn of what’s happening in the homeland with intercut segments dealing with the Anglo-Mysore War and the treaty that is brokered. That’s the gist of the issue.
And what emerges from that is an utterly impressive issue of comics, one that really feels like every moment the book was away was really and truly worth it, because the final product is refined to the maximum. Right out the gate, it’s impossible to not be struck by and reminded all over again how stunning the artwork of Sumit Kumar and Vittorio Astone really is. If you’d perhaps forgotten in some fashion due to the schedule of the book, the issue is an experience of falling in love with the work all over again, marveling at the astonishing, lush color-work and expressive pencils which transport you away to a different time and place. There’s great detail, but a touching simplicity, a great elegance achieved through balance, as every splatter of water or wine pouring into a glass looks gorgeous on the page. Even the establishing shots of settings, which look over a setting are utterly atmospheric, as the book, which is so steeped in darkness and shadows, handles light masterfully. It’s painted glory with masterful texture work and it’s hard to overstate how truly beautiful the work is here and how vital Kumar and Astone’s sensibilities are for the book to work. They operate within the restrictive structure of the grid but achieve so much, with such memorable shots and scenes brimming with such visual power that putting words cheats them of their glory. The visual storytelling is so effective that a lot of the book operates in silence and that silence punctuating key beats becomes a huge strength.
But past the experience of embracing the artwork once more, one is reunited with the terrific combo of Ram V and Aditya Bidikar, who’re firing on all cylinders here. The gentle blue captions of Bishan are back, as expected, with Bidikar’s almost parchment paper-esque boxes with uneven shapes and cuts instantly setting the mood beyond alongside the visuals. Bidikar knows what this book is and about and he makes Ram V’s words work to their greatest effect with his work, bringing the entire comic together. There’s entirely panels full of text here, in cursive and while style and personality are emphasized, as is readability.
As the issue begins, the book immediately opens on a scar, a cut and that picks up right from the end of the last. That’s what we’re dealing with. A scar. And the idea of the scar is vital to the book here, which is so built on and operates off the premise of linking Vampirism to Colonialism as a means to examine cultural history. A scar on the neck, specifically, is central, as that’s what turned Kori and so opening on the image of one with Bishan is a smart choice that sums up the book effectively in three panels.
From there, the book begins to explore the idea of choice and agency. There’s callbacks to Bishan’s stories from #1 and Kori, who was once so curious about how he was ‘made’ counters with the idea here in this issue that he wasn’t ‘made’ at all. He had choice. He had agency. He made mistakes. He did bad things, but that’s just it, he did them. He wasn’t made to do them. He got to choose, he had that privilege as a man of the past. But Kori? She was the future, she had so much ahead of her. And she did not get to choose. She did not have that agency. She was ‘made’. The chance to simply be, to choose was eradicated from her, from the people of the future, whereas the men of the past like Bishan always got to. They did not face this foreign, oppressive threat, one that hid its face in grace and nobility, under the guise of civility, but was truly savage. Its intent not to destroy what it faces but to prey on it, to feast on it. To keep it living and dead at the same time, serving at the mercy and will of its needs, its fanciful whims.
And that idea, the idea that cultures, people must be allowed to choose, to make their own mistakes and find their path, is emphasized here more so than ever. And interspered through all this are letters, of course, from various individuals in various writings (Bidikar’s distinctive font choices never pull you out and express character rather nicely), from Bishan, from Vikram The Prince and Hyder Ali. It’s Ali’s words here, as a ruler whose time is at an end, that ring loudest. As he says, these are not people out to take our land or titles, they’re here to take our very souls, not out of any special reason other than greed. As he tells his son, there is no weighing the price of it. And that speaks perfectly to all the above ideas expressed by Kori.
Then from there we get to really dig in as The Count sits down for dinner with Bishan and Kori. Playing on the popular apocryphal quote by Gandhi, the book delivers a really amusing but also striking moment, where in The Count asks Brishan what he makes of western civilization, to which Bishan responds ‘I think it would be a noble idea’, mocking the notion that it is present or exists at all, that it is a notion that’s yet to materialize. From there on, Kori expresses the intent of the story more clearly than ever, addressing The Count.
You are a disease! An illness that feigns grace to hide its ugliness.
Thus, we then head to the big, inevitable conflict. The violence. The battle, the war of the monsters. The bloody showdown that must be. And this is where the art team gets to flex more than ever, as Astone gets to color key beats of action, one after another, switching from cold, oppressive purples, which are assigned to The Count to dull, foreboding pinks, signifying Bishan. The battle of the monsters, the exchange of blows, is also a clash of colors here, as Astone clarifies each beat with his choices, keeping the action’s pace going, never letting the flow cease. This is meant to be quick, fast and that’s achieved rather nicely. Meanwhile Bidikar’s SFX is as impressive as ever, as he pulls neat tricks such as ‘hiding’ it behind the foreground objects, when the character themselves is hidden behind it, to truly convey both their place and punctuate the beat properly.
But what’s even more thrilling is the overall usage of the 9-panel grid. Mostly, it’s used not with any grand purpose and it has to some extent become easy shorthand of sorts, utilized for what its attributed to and its popularity rather than its function and how it may best serve a story. These Savage Shores’ usage has constantly been with deliberate purpose, in a narrative about colonizers, control, of ‘making’, a narrative design that cannot be escaped by the characters anymore than we can escape our own tragic history. And so that understructure that accompanies all, within which all things takes place, where in manipulation exists, that’s vital. And in this big battle of monsters, the book unleashes some gorgeous, ethereal splashes of supernatural majesty and terror, as expected. But then it does the unexpected. It blows out into its first double-page spread and given the book has been so reserved and structured, it feels huge. It feels monumental and massive, it’s a key moment. And given that it arrives in a scene where in victory in war, in battle, is claimed in a big way, it feels like the characters breaking out, escaping, rebelling. But that’s just the it. That’s the thing. They’re not.
Even underneath that seemingly surface level escape, that freedom, the structure prevails. Extend out the lines like so and you see it’s still very much two pages in the 9 panel-grid. The design is intact. It cannot be stopped. The trap is still there. And that big moment above with the spread? How was it earned but through a price? And the price was the blood of Kori, the blood of the future, of what may have been. We spilled the blood of our own to gain this victory, in hopes that it would free us, but it was no victory, not really. And that’s where the parallels from earlier on in the issue play in, lining up this battle and ‘victory’ with that of the ‘victory’ of Mysore, underlining how truly empty both of them are. How they think they’re free, it’ll all be alright, perhaps. But it won’t. And there’s nothing any of them can do to change that or stop what’s coming. They’re caged in the bars of this grid, made by the design of others, one way or another.
And thus, through all that, we arrive at the ending, where we’re back in the homeland and we’re taking in this hollow victory. And the feeling of loss, which clings like tightly worn chain-mail, is impossible to get away from. Something was lost, truly, deeply. And that scar won’t go away. And as the book’s final captions hit at the end, reading ‘Nothing will ever be the same’, a line we’ve all heard all too many times in comics and big events, it feels true. You believe it. It feels real, because it is. We know the history and we know nothing will truly be the same and so those works land with a potency and weight that’s hard to come by. They’re real things. There’s a profound sadness, a painful melancoly that hangs about in the misty air of These Savage Shores and no where is it more evident than in here.
(Through all this, there’s a reference to the Andhaka myth, which poses some very interesting questions. It’s a neat choice with intriguing context, although it’s likely to fly over the heads of most readers.)
These Savage Shores #5 is a hell of a finale. It’s one that traps you in its narrative and forces you to experience, moment by moment, what its own characters are. And it’s a remarkable dive and exploration of big ideas, both in regards to the myths we hold up and the realities we’re trapped in. It’s about what we are, what we would be or could be and what we regrettably can be made to be. And reading this tale about people of color, told by people of color, about such a vital moment, is really, truly special.
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can browse AIPT ad-free, gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!