In a near-future Mumbai, humanity is on the verge of discovering the secret to eternal life. That means—among other things—the goddess of death is out of a job, forced to become mortal as she searches for a way to kill the humans’ future savior.
So begins The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, a comic as fun to read as it is to think about. Writer Ram V and artist Filipe Andrade do not waste a panel of this debut issue, which briskly careens from the streets of Mumbai to “a high place, far beyond mortal clouds.”
That’s where we meet Kali, the Hindu death goddess, whose six arms get put to immediate use as she rushes to put on makeup. V is tapping into the centuries-long tradition of treating gods as uniquely human in their everyday foibles, but his approach is even more perfect for our pandemic-era world.
The realm of the gods is no mountaintop paradise, but a drab corporate office. (Agni, a fire god who often serves in a messenger role in myth, is the office secretary.) The looming obsolescence of Death—a very cerebral concept—is made manifest in an all-too-relatable way as Death packs her things and seethes: “You can’t just fire me! I’m an absolute consequence. It’s in the job description.”
Left without a job for the first time in (as she notes) “an eternity,” Death devises a plan to win back her role. She will take the form of a human in Mumbai, close to the birth of the promised savior, and kill him herself. Or, as one character so artfully puts it: “You’re going to kill a baby because you got fired?”
This is a comic that will make you laugh, but it is not a funny story in the traditional sense. V is working in the tradition of magical realism, which turns jousts between the gods into the stuff of quotidian, corporate nightmares while scenes as regular as a college student sitting near a skyscraper window read as unnaturally poetic.
How Death’s journey intersects with the eponymous Laila Starr is the central conceit of the story, which I won’t spoil save to note that the word “many” is in the comic’s title for a reason.
Like a good myth, this comic has the air of a story being passed down again and again. The tone stems from V’s narration, which uses a passive framing straight out of myth: “And so it was that…”
Andrade’s effusive art, which defies the typical look of a mainstream superhero book, is key to setting the book’s tone as well. His figures are lightly-inked and sometimes colored in ways that signify an emotional resonance, if not a physical specificity. When Death takes her human host, the transformation is bathed in a purplish-red light. At other times, Death’s human limbs stretch outward in a cartoonish way.
My favorite coloring choice in the book—which received color assists from Inês Amaro—is the way Andrade presents a ghost with a near-transparent blue and purple hue. The ghost’s dialogue is given the same color as its eyes, a neat trick by letterer AndWorld Design, which also created a terrific sound effect across the full-width of a page in one of the comic’s most surprising scenes.
For a first issue, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr has the perfect combination of mystery and emotion—plus a generous helping of humor. I’m not sure I quite expected that from a comic with “many deaths” in the title.
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