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Deep Dive: 'Blue In Green' and the price of art

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Deep Dive: ‘Blue In Green’ and the price of art

Ram V, Anand RK, and Aditya Bidikar sit down to mull over their latest, and the process behind it with comics critic Ritesh.

Deep Dive is a closer look at some of the more interesting works in the comics realm, and what it is exactly they’re doing. Today, Ritesh returns to look at the upcoming Image Comics work, the Original Graphic Novel: Blue In Green, by Ram V, Anand RK, Aditya Bidikar, John J. Pearson, Tom Muller, with Ryan Brewer. The book centers on a man named Erik Deiter, who is a musician, and is a tale of jazz and horror.

Deep Dive: 'Blue In Green' and the price of art

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I must confess, I find this book to be quite mad.

For, what sort of madman writes a whole book as masterful as this akin to jazz? How on Earth do you pull this off without a plan, just going by the seat of your pants, page after page, without alteration? By which I referencing this little nugget at the heart of the work’s creation:

 It was literally us getting together each morning, going, “Okay, this is the previous page. I have looked at it. And now I think this is what the next page needs to be.” So every ensuing page is in reaction to whatever Anand drew on the previous page.
No, no, there was no going back to pages, because I mean, you can’t go back when you’re improvising in music either. So if you’re playing and you hit a sequence of notes, that’s it, it’s there and you can’t go back. – Ram V

I am filled with a deep mix of anger, awe and envy at those words. That’s one hell of a commitment, to write a work about jazz akin to jazz. To just perform, let it spill from the soul, and to not go back. To have the trust and faith that you can make it all work, that you can actually land the thing. And that it does, and that it does so well, is what gets me.

Absolutely bloody mad, I tell you.

That said, let’s talk about this fascinating thing that the team has crafted together, because it yearns to be talked about, while also giving away absolutely nothing about it. I can’t tell you what Blue In Green is any more than I can tell you how a piece of music sounds. I could describe lines within it, moments encased its its magnificent structure, the nature of the story it puts forth, but none of that, for me, truly captures what it is. And neither does it dilute it. It’s not an experience that one can really “spoil”, I don’t think.

In the end, like any great piece of art, it must be experienced to truly be known. You’ve gotta hear it, know its rhythm, its sensation, its beating intangible heart, the soul that is clearly there even if it cannot be pointed to.

More than anything though, what fascinates me is just how much this book feels like a natural path forward from the previous collaboration of the team.

Blue in Green

Image Comics

What you’re seeing above is a scene from the first true collaboration of Ram V, Anand RK, and Aditya Bidikar. It’s a scene you likely have never seen before, given it’s a short, self-published 6-page comic titled Miracle Men. It’s the kind you probably won’t truly see collected until some other day far off in the future. But it is important. It’s the first time you’re seeing the emergence of the unique creative voice, the spliced offspring, the melody that emerges when these three work together. And while not all voices truly coalesce to form one that truly clicks, as some just don’t quite sync up with the rest, I think this is a case where they do.

Miracle Men is a 6-page sci-fi comic with Big Ideas. It’s about the fate of humanity, what it’s done and made of itself, and the price of that. It’s also Anand RK’s first ever comic. So what you have is a wild, untethered explosion of “well, why not?” creativity. It reads like a test run; like a pilot never quite aired to the wider public, the original performance seen by maybe a select few, before the band blew up. The kind of thing that’s scrounged around retroactively, after the successes of the group, to provide greater context, so that richer understanding can be attained. Some inner curiosity to be sated.

Those familiar with Anand’s work will see a clear glimmer of his second comic, and collaboration with Ram V and Aditya Bidikar, Grafity’s Wall, in the panel above. Amidst all the painted work that flows across the page in an explosive mass of cover, incorporating even photographic elements, and touches of blurs, there’s the clearly recognizable style of loose, sketchy penciling that would become central to Grafity.

Blue in Green

Image Comics

The loose, sketchy style, which curves and bends in lovely ways, the scratchy sensibility wherein you can see every line, every dot, all the twirling and roughness of the artist’s instrument, that’s what I associate with the book. It’s one wherein you can see all the “mistakes”, too — every choice made is laid bare, as no attempt is made to “clean it up” or wipe it away. It’s all put before you in all its loosely human glory. This is life. This is truth. This is reality, it seems to say. And certainly, that fits with the vision and purpose of a book like Grafity. It’s all about showcasing the reality of things, and specifically, the reality of a city like Mumbai. It’s all of it, in all its messy, broken glory, from its steaming food to its dilapidating homes. It’s a book about standing in the broken, crushing remnants of your artistic dreams. It’s about the seemingly massive divides between dreams and reality, and the human drive and desire to cross them.

It’s a book about artists: A wannabe rapper. A wannabe graffiti artist. A wannabe actress. A wannabe writer. A whole lot of wannabes. All of them dreamers, in pursuit of greatness, regardless of the horribly painful realities that seek to stop them. It’s about what it’s like to grow up in a world that feels like it might swallow you whole, if you let it, and never let you go. And it’s about how we live in reality, while carrying those hopes and dreams. I called it my favorite work by the team, for its sheer, raw potency.

And at that end of that book, specifically if you picked up the recent Dark Horse expanded edition, you get pages of Anand’s sketchbooks, which are full of artwork that looks nothing like the work in Grafity’s Wall. It’s just a few pages, but the kind of work that gives away the fact that this is someone from a proper illustration and painting background. This is someone still figuring out comics, and hasn’t really settled on a style yet. A wellspring of possibility, able to go any which way, for this is just the beginning. That was exciting to me, at the time. I had no sense or clue of what this man’s artwork would, or could, look like in the future. It was still evolving, still growing, changing. This was just the foundation, the spark of inspiration that would quickly grow into a bright flame.

Blue in Green

Image Comics

What I see in Blue In Green is both a return and an evolution from Anand. A return to the flowing painterly aspects, with tinges of those photo elements, seen in Miracle Men, merged with the more classical illustration approach seen in his personal sketchbooks at the end of Grafity. It’s both of those things, put through the lens of the kinds of comics school of storytelling that Bill Sienkiewicz, Dave McKean, and John J. Muth come from. These wonderfully versatile artists, who push for the surreal and the strange, whose vision on the page casts doubt on reality itself. And yet, while all of that’s there, including Old Anand, the final end results also look completely their own. I couldn’t mistake this work for anyone else’s except Anand’s.

The coloring process, with the ever-fantastic John Pearson, is vital here. Pearson does a good amount of the work, after Anand’s had a crack and is content with the pages. Then Anand comes back to the pages and does final touches to decide on the colors and the final look, whether it be adding shadows, changing up the lighting and just tweaking the page until it’s right. It’s a proper, true collaboration. And in the end, that level of involvement helps. I cannot look at the lighting, the shading, all the little touches put on the page and see anyone but Anand.

Blue in Green

Image Comics

The same is true for Aditya Bidikar here. Having slaved away to hand letter this entire book, much like he did Grafity’s Wall before it, Bidikar is the glue of this book. He’s the one that makes it work. This is the team’s third collaboration, and there is a measure of comfort one can sense in the work here, because Bidikar pushes hard in ways I don’t know that I’ve seen him push in the prior two projects. His lettering and style are fundamentally essential to the book, given it’s about music, it’s about rhythm, it’s about beats. Reading his well-placed and kerned text, I was once again reminded how much space defines pace and silence in the comic form. A word balloon placed too close to another that came before it implies a certain pace at which the words are being spoken, while separation, the distance between them implies a greater silence, a proper gap. The way that reads and plays in your head is different.

Beyond that though, Blue In Green, for its wild surrealist imagery and spirit, feels vitally physical to me. With its cover displaying an old vinyl, as well as the scratches on it, music made tangible, touchable, something to be felt, both figuratively and literally, it pretty much sets the stage.

Deep Dive: 'Blue In Green' and the price of art

It’s a book about obsession, about art, and about being haunted. It’s a book, much like Grafity, about a dreamer, an artist, and his struggle to be great, not good. His ambitions for “greatness” and the price of that is what the book is dealing with. It’s a book defined more so by its absences, the things in between the gaps, the things that aren’t said, that aren’t done, the intangibles you can’t point to, but whose infinite price and extraordinary weight is constantly felt. It’s about the yearning in the heart of every creative person, the desire that is held in precious glass of every youthful heart, spun into a journey of horror.

So it’s an intimate tale, it’s a personal tale, scratching at the interior of the hero, displaying not the objective reality, but the subjective reality. Reality as felt, as experienced, with the supernatural drawn into that heightened realm of sensation. It’s not a book that ever tries to look “clean” or “clear”. It’s a book of feeling, where people will pass through panels like ghosts, where nothing can be boxed up in them. It’s all free-wheeling and impossible and massive, because that’s how the human experience really feels. For all that it shows the impossible, reality is what I see and walk away with, albeit in a totally different way to Grafity.

And that’s precisely why the above physical quality matters. Again, akin to Grafity, there’s a sense of you being able to see a lot of what’s on the page. You can see how it looks like the panels were drawn with a ruler, you can see the extended panel lines that never got erased, you can see the spilled and dried ink, as the texture is right there. You’re shown the surf while cleaning happens in intense clarity, as RK and Pearson manage to capture it with crystal clarity. Textures, that’s the big thing here. There’s such a wide range of them, and they’re all stitched together into this collage of reality, but reality as felt, touched and experienced.

This is a work wherein when the lead describes touching a key, I instinctively find himself tracing my thumb across my finger, searching for a key that’s not there, but imagining its sensation, as I see the key in my mind’s eye. That’s my response to this book. There is a tangible sensation to it that reaches out and grabs you. The book’s hand lettering, which feels as though it were writing in a journal, works precisely because it was done by an actual person’s hand. There’s a tangible, real quality to it that can be hard to get from the typical standardized digital approach. The letters reflect the sensation, breaking down, turning, twisting, shrinking, exploding, constantly expressing whatever it is our lead, Erik Deiter, is going through. You’re right there.

Blue in Green

Image Comics

Suffice to say, even I, the Grafity’s Wall lover who proclaimed I preferred it to be my favorite above the more beloved These Savage Shores, must finally relent. I give in. I give up. You’ve broken me. No longer is that my favorite Ram V book, and no longer is it my favorite collaboration by them, even if its cultural specificity will forever touch my soul. This is this team’s magnum opus to date. It’s their strongest work. It’s their most formally interesting and daring work. It’s work that not only builds on all they’ve touched upon and done before this, but pushes them forward into new spaces, with new acquired influences, ideas and techniques.

It’s a love letter to artists that asks us to be more careful and considered in how we view and think about art and artists.

It’s why I was delighted when I had a chance to sit down with the three collaborators who’re on bit of a hattrick to mull over this book, as well as their journey up to this point. We talk about everything, from the music that was playing, the actual craft and process, to what being an artist at this moment in time feels like.

Now, without further delay, I give you, my friends, the team of Blue In Green:

Thank you for doing this! First off, I want to congratulate you folks on the book. It’s haunting, and exceedingly good. What I want to start off with is this: This is your third proper collaboration together, following the short but fascinating Miracle Men, and the recently recollected Grafity’s Wall

Both of those are such different books, the former this more abstract science-fiction work, with some photo-reference work put in, while the latter is this loose vision of a grimy, real Mumbai, wherein you can see every little line. Coming off such different, and strong works, there are clearly a lot of paths forward, so I suppose to put it simply: Why Blue In Green? How did this come together for you guys? You’re working in an OGN format here, and I’m curious how it all sort of clicked together for you. What’s story behind the conception of Blue In Green?

Ram V: For me, I’d always been interested in jazz and I think all of my earliest inclinations in making comics have been at the intersection of music and visual art. So Blue in Green, when it happened, felt like a thing that had always been there in the periphery somewhere.

There are bits and pieces that felt like sparks. Angelheart and Whiplash were massive influences. A random conversation with a bassist at a Jazz performance in a Seattle bar. A short story I’d read. Lynch. Gaiman.

I find this is true with all of my ideas. They hang around and keep gathering more substance and shape and weight until there is some kind of critical mass and I can see a story there.

Having worked with Anand on Miracle Men, I knew there was something there with being able to utilize his more painted style. We just needed the right story and vehicle for it. We decided to take that jump with Blue in Green. Aditya, as always, talked himself into hand lettering it. And just like that, a book was born.

We took it to Image — got the nod, pretty much straight away. It was in discussions there that we decided that the OGN was the right format for this. 

Anand RK: Right after Grafity’s Wall, our next project being another book to do with music was not surprising at all. Somehow our collaborations tend to gravitate in that direction; in fact, our next project together is another one with music as one of its central themes.

Another reason why BinG appealed to me as an idea when Ram first spoke about it is the idea of artistic struggle. The pursuit of excellence, knowing full well the futility of the act and what a shifting goalpost excellence really is. I saw a lot of myself in the protagonist that Ram wrote and couldn’t help but go along with it.

Aditya, there’s the great story of you deciding to pain-stakingly hand-letter Grafity’s Wall after a late night at the bar, and it’s certainly a difficult, tricky thing to pull off. What made you want to hand-letter Blue In Green as well? And how did you approach the work this time, especially having done Grafity and worked with Ram and Anand a bunch by this point? And Ram, Anand, what is it like to see a man commit to such trying tasks over and over?

Anand: It’s an absolute treat to see someone as masterful as Aditya adapt to the tone of a project. One of my favorite things to do is to open up a PDF of recently lettered pages Bidi has uploaded and discover what design choices he has made. 

Aditya Bidikar: I decided to hand-letter this one entirely sober, so I suppose madness and masochism is a potent combination – one I clearly can’t get enough of.

At first, I did try to work digitally for this. I did a couple of pages with comics fonts, but it just didn’t look right. Every book has its spirit, and I think that if you don’t dial into it, or if you try to give less than it needs, you can sap the energy from the final thing. Frankly, I felt the need to put in this much work because I see how much work Ram and Anand put in.

My biggest learning from Grafity’s Wall was that I needed to add some flexibility, so this time around, instead of pen-and-paper, my methods were more modern. I did all the lettering on an iPad Pro, and integrated it with the pages and drew the balloons in Photoshop.

For one thing, this meant that we could try a few more lettering styles before we landed on one, but also, Ram saw that we had more control over the lettering this time, and threw in a bunch of interesting lettering ideas that were a delight to execute.

It’s an endeavour, for sure, but as Ram often says (probably when he senses my enthusiasm for writing out 120 pages of dialogue flagging), some books are meant to look crafted rather than produced. Sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty.

Ram: I’ve found that the people that I collaborate with and love working with beyond a professional level, tend to have a common trait. The one where they’ll go to exceptional lengths to create a thing without anyone else having to ask them. Without weighing the tangible “cost” v/s “reward” of doing things a certain way. To me, more than anything, it shows creative innocence. Where you do a thing because it brings you joy to do it that way, regardless of the pain and the effort it takes. Aditya has that in oodles and I love working with him because of it. Apt for Blue in Green, no?

Blue In Green is about a number of things, but at its heart, it’s rooted in jazz, the history of jazz, and a love and passion for music. So I have to ask, what is your relationship with jazz? What is jazz for each of you? 

Ram: My relationship with music and jazz started quite early. I used to have this ritual with my dad. He owned an eclectic collection of audio cassettes and on the weekends, at night, after dinner, we’d sit in the living room with all the lights turned off and he’d play music. Sometimes blues, sometimes carnatic, sometimes hindustani classical and sometimes jazz. I remember listening to Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole.

The thing with that ritual was we were not just listening to the music. My dad would explain to me why it was art. How it worked. How it defied expectations. How there was a joy in trying to mentally keep up with the musician.

Later when I moved to Philadelphia to study engineering at UPenn, I ended up playing blues in an old Philly bar on occasion. I frequented jazz venues that have now closed. I took jazz classes in the Uni. Music continues to be an important part of my artistic reservoir. I play guitar, Veena, Tabla and when I’m truly desperate, I sing. I think jazz will always be a part of that language for me.

Anand: I arrived to jazz quite late, when I was in college I think, 19-20 years old, way after exploring some heavy metal and rap. It was a mellowing down and I just loved the spirit of the genre, the  mood of it. In particular I really enjoyed the harmonica legends Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. In fact it was around the same time I was quite a bit into Indian classical too and the two went quite well together. For a short while I even tried my hand at the Indian bamboo flute (Hindustani classical) but failed miserably and quit eventually. Would love to pick it back up at some point!

I think jazz is reminiscent of a time when things were rapidly changing while still maintaining a sense of constancy. There was a lot of overlap with the Indian scene too at the time.

Aditya: I’m very new to jazz compared to the rest of the team. I like a lot of experimental music, but there was something about the seemingly freeform nature of jazz that I couldn’t understand. In fact, this book was where I engaged with jazz with any seriousness for the first time. I figured if a genre could inspire this kind of passion, it was worth the engagement. I listened to some of the greats, and Ram would talk to me about the intricacies of jazz and of his favourite pieces. I’m still green, you might even say, but I’m definitely much more of a mind to explore jazz after working on this.

Given it is a work about music, I’m really curious as to what music you all had on your respective playlists, or kept coming back to, as you worked on it. What did you find you gravitated to the most during the project?

My Blue in Green Playlist:

  • Blue in Green (of course) – Miles Davis
  • ‘Round Midnight – Miles Davis
  • In A Sentimental Mood – Duke Ellington
  • Lullaby of The Leaves – Gerry Mulligan
  • My Foolish Heart – Bill Evans trip
  • Stolen Moments – Oliver Nelson
  • Invitation – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
  • Green Bird – Sebastian Wolff (Cowboy Bebop OST)
  • Yesterdays – Wynton Marsalis
  • Passion Flower – Johnny Hodges and his orchestra.
  • Romain – Bill Evans, Jim Hall
  • Haupe – Duke Ellington
  • In Your Own Sweet Way – Wes Montgomery
  • Naima – John Coltrane
  • God Bless The Child – Sonny Rollins
  • The Peacocks – Till Bronner
  • When Your Lover Has Gone – Ben Webster, Ray BRown, Oscar Peterson, Ed Thigpen

Anand: Strangely, I didn’t listen to a lot of music while working on BinG. Except of course where there were pages that we designed to specific pieces of music for which I had them on loop. Mostly I was on Roth and Auster on audiobook.

Aditya: Towards the end of the book, as I really got into the groove of it, I listened to Ram’s secret Blue in Green playlist as I lettered. But before that, it was audiobooks for me too, most recently the Sandman audio and Lovecraft Country.

There’s a fascinating process at here play here for the book, as you go from Anand’s pages, which start the first stage of coloring, then get sent to John to be colored, then return and get tweaked by Anand all over, to create the final artwork. The palette of the book is fascinating, straight out of that sort of McKeanian and Sienkiewicz school of surrealist work. It’s astonishing to me that this is still only Anand’s third comic to date. How has this approach and process been for you, Anand? You come from an illustrating background, and in this book, more than any other, it shows. What aspects of that became crucial as you decided to do the project the way you have?

Anand: I do come from an applied art and illustration background and one of the things that I learnt early on even as a student is adaptability and being able to adjust to the content and tone of a project. Having said this though, I do tend to anchor myself to an abstract idea of what my own work looks like using my sketchbook as a yardstick. Simply because that is the only place I draw just for the sake of drawing and without some sort of brief. Once I know where this anchor is set, I can shift from that point and adjust myself for any given project and return to it before readjusting. This now has become an important part of my career and tends to get quite introspective.

The process for this book has been fairly organic. We didn’t have a traditional inking stage and much of the book is painted. There are two dynamically different styles used here too and I hope you can see the anchoring point that I spoke of and I feel like that contributes to making the book look cohesive. Luckily for us John was extremely considerate and open to suggestions and an absolute pleasure to work with.

I’m fascinated by the range of styles you’ve managed to pull off across the three works you’ve done, Anand. Each is so wildly different and distinct, there’s almost a brilliant chameleon-like quality to how you’re able to do a wide number of things. So a question that keeps nagging at me is: Do you plan to continue that? Or do you reckon you’d like to, at some point, settle into a sort of more firm ‘Anand’ style, one you’d like to keep to, akin to some other artists? Where do you see your artwork headed at this point?

Anand: One of the things that excites me most about the work of artists I like is this certain sense of irreverence towards their own work. Their art doesn’t seem contrived to ‘fit’ a style. This idea of developing a personal style and guarding it with what you have is one that doesn’t appeal to me. At the same time, while I work on commercial projects, I am also working on personal projects and I do tend to draw a certain way while I am drawing just for myself and I suppose that is what you would call my style. I think I will know more about it over the next decade or so.

There’s a sort of progression here that’s quite interesting to me, in that Grafity’s Wall is a work so much about dreams, and the reality they’re forced to reckon with. The cast has all these great dreams, but not all of them come to life, they must keep going, and do the best they can. And certainly, Erik feels like a character cut from that cloth. A man who dreams of being great, but hasn’t yet made it there. But also, the sort of uplifting, beautiful power of dreams in Grafity is contrasted here with the haunting nature of them, manifesting as something of a horror story. The artistic endeavor is clearly a subject that means a great deal to you, could you talk about that? What is the trickiest thing for each of you, personally, as a working artist, especially now, in these strange times?

Ram: This is a pretty broad question and if I endeavor to answer it in that way I think we’ll be here forever. So I will answer it in the context of Blue in Green. I think with this book, given its proximity to jazz, I wanted to really let go of my own need for safety with storytelling and evoke something  complex, nebulous, the malleable parts of human emotion. To me, that is the thing that interests me most about artistic endeavor, especially with more personal projects like this. How can I give shape to and convey a thing for which concise words are not enough? The thing that cannot be articulated and yet can be conveyed through the experience of fiction? This is what I’m trying to reach for. And to do so, I think you have to reach within. Look beyond the simple emotions, dig deeper into the more complex parts of your own self, your thoughts.

In that I think there is something that juxtaposes interestingly with the time we live in. The world feels like a place of distillation and messaging. Not a place of conversation or contemplation. Opinions have taken precedence over questions. What you say has become more important than what you know, which in turn has become more important than what you don’t know. I find that difficult to deal with.

Artistic endeavor lies in the place of reaching for what you don’t know or understand. The complexity that is hard to untangle. I wish people spent more time in that place. We’d live in better times. Like trying to appreciate jazz with someone who won’t shut up and listen for a while.

Anand: What I find daunting is that there is no real handbook on how to go about your career as an artist and I constantly question myself on decisions and choices I make. The self doubt of course leads to more doubt and we all know what a spiral that is. The good thing is that I think I am finally learning to use all this introspection and doubt and channel it into creating new content. Use it as fuel to move forward. 

There’s a quite relatable terror in the work for me, personally, namely the idea of one’s own individual voice. At what point does one know or realize one is more than the sum of one’s predecessors and influences, possessing a distinct voice? When does that moment of realization arrive for an artist, if at all, do you think? Is it just the eternal nagging terror that speaks at the back of one’s mind forever, or does there come a time when one moves past it?

Ram: I think again, this relates to the answer above. When you start you emulate. This is invariably true of all artists. But then, at some point, what you already know becomes boring, unexciting and you necessarily gravitate toward the edges and the cliffs of knowing. Then you take a leap. You must. Otherwise you find a comfortable niche to produce work and the artistic endeavour is falling away. When you take that leap, sometimes you fall, sometimes you find something you didn’t know. A new thing that becomes part of your voice. Then you get bored with that and move on. Eventually, influence, while it shapes you, is no longer the thing that defines you.

There is terror and fear in reaching for things you don’t know, of course. But the dread of boredom is worse for me. I’d rather take risks and experience occasional failure, than sit in complacence and let a different kind of failure seep into everything I do.

Anand: I feel like personally I am in the middle of this nagging terror speaking at the back of my mind and some sort of resolution but then maybe this in-between state is more a constant than the resolution itself. I might be stuck here for a long time and honestly I don’t particularly mind that.

Blue In Green releases on October 28th digitally, and is available for pre-order right now!

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