Ram V’s approach to Batman in Detective Comics has been nothing short of breathtaking. The series has taken the approach of a gothic opera, steeped in robust tragedy, and readily infused true depth and context to the Arkham family and its many ties to Gotham City.
This week, the creative team launches part two of “Gotham Nocturne: Act 1,” which features Two-Face heavily across a tale that’s strongly about the concept of form. More specifically, there are multiple instances of symmetry, including the use of two artists and mirroring various layouts. With Ivan Reis and Rafael Albuquerque providing the art, the issue is complex and seems to push the comics art form in some really important ways.
To better understand Ram V’s approach, we discussed his approach at length on the AIPT Comics podcast as well as in the written interview below. We dig into some fascinating stuff about what it means to “save” a city and even evolving morality in narrative, among other tidbits.
AIPT: Your work with Two-Face has been building, nay, boiling over toward a central conflict. What made Two-Face the right character for your needs in this ongoing Nocturne narrative? Further, One can see the symbology of demons of Tenclaw, of Two-Face, and of a surprise involving Batman in this issue. What is it about duality and the division of these things you find fascinating in this story?
Ram V: I’m fascinated by narratives of “saving” cities. What that means. Its implications. Batman is always “saving” Gotham. And I think we’re at a time where it is important to really look at what that means. For Batman, for Bruce Wayne, for us. I mean, if “saving” simply means a return to innocence, to a time when little boys and their parents could safely walk the streets of the city, isn’t that just nostalgia? And safety is relative. Depending on what part of the city you come from, your ideas of safety vary wildly. So, one of the questions at the center of this narrative is what it means to save Gotham.
Why am I giving you this spiel when you asked me about Two-Face? Well, because Two-Face was “Saved”, and in examining that idea, we can begin to understand the flaws in that statement. Excising a part of someone’s personality is a pretty dubious way of “saving” someone. Now think about Gotham in that context. Can we save a city by excising its “bad” parts? Is it the same city? What does it mean for Batman when he is confronted with this notion? Is a Gotham that is “Saved” still Gotham? Is a city more important than its people? The good ones and the bad? This Ship of Theseus question finds a through line in Gotham: Nocturne and its many dualities. Harvey/Two-Face just makes for the most obvious poster-boy.
AIPT: Working with Ivan Reis and Rafael Albuquerque, you literally have a duality of artistry at work here, how did you approach divvying up who draws what?
Ram V: It helps that they’re both very good friends and so they made sure their art complements each other’s. I felt like Rafa had a “smoother” look to his work at times and so we went for Rafa to largely work with Harvey’s POV dominant. If you look at Rafa’s pages they start off being largely Harvey narrating.
Ivan, on the other hand, has a almost brutal beauty to his inks. They’re gritty but thick and beautiful, bold, almost aggressive in some ways. I thought that fit “Scar-vey” quite well. So you’ll see Ivan largely on that side of the narrative.
Then of course the theme of the story is mirroring and symmetry, so we made sure each spread has both artists working with each other. And because I didn’t want one artist constantly following another’s layout, we arranged it so that each artist mirrors his colleague’s page and then draws one for his colleague to mirror. Does that make sense? It does on the page, in any case!
Massive credit due here to Jessica Chen, the editor on the book. She coordinated the whole thing to make sure everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to do.
AIPT: In a key two-page scene, we see the duality of two-face, a villain and Batman, intermixed with red and white captions showing different voices and tones. How do you approach capturing the different tones/approaches in voice in these captions?
Ram V: I suppose that’s part of the familiarity that comes with spending time with these characters. I write with flair and flourish. I pride in my characters sounding dramatic, poignant or poetic at times. Even so, I think Harvey is well-spoken, passive-aggressive at times, and melancholy at others. Scar-vey is a brute. Still intelligent, still charismatic, but a brute nonetheless. He doesn’t do poetry unless it is the filthy kind.
Batman and his “other” (spoilers!) – have differences in the same way. Bat is concise, contained and expresses only as much as he needs to. The other is dramatic, prophetic, archaic but also theatrical and poignant.
AIPT: And then, speaking of form and formatting, is it freeing to approach the comics page with so much structure, or is it the opposite and more difficult?
Ram V: Oddly it is freeing in the usual places and challenging in non-intuitive ways. It’s freeing in that I already know my panel count for at least half the pages. So that’s settled. It is also challenging in that I now have to find a way to fit the story into those panels so that it doesn’t feel shoehorned.
I showed someone an early peek at this issue, much in the same way as you’ve seen it, and they mused that the symmetry and mirroring, while clearly there, wasn’t grabbing attention once you were engrossed in the story. And that is exactly how it was intended. I hate being clever for cleverness’s sake. The issue is clever. It is a balancing act and a performance in many ways by me, Rafa, Ivan, Dave, Arianna and everyone involved.
But if you’re looking at the performance instead of engaging with the story, then we have all failed. So I am glad that is not the case with people who’ve had their early reads so far.
AIPT: Something interesting about Batman in general, and in your run, is how Gotham and its many colorful characters muck things up so nothing is at it seems or easy to pin down. Do you find mirror storytelling, and finding symmetry in the story, a way to approach unpacking Gotham and its characters?
Ram V: The storytelling gimmick came later. Exploring duality, mirroring, and symmetrical perspective was encoded into the story long before we considered making it a formal part of this issue.
I dislike labeling characters as one thing. Good, bad, hero, villain, right, wrong, evil, righteous…they’re all lazy labels if you’re the one writing these characters. Sure, I know, character complexity is pretty much a given at this point. That speaks of a maturity in storytelling and reading.
But there is an odd trend in contemporary stories that seems to want to constantly reinforce the idea of what these characters “should” be. And while the short-term endorphins from reinforcing a popular point of view gets a lot of kudos, it makes for bad drama in stories.
We want good guys to win. Bad guys to lose. We want nice people to find love. We want toxic relationships to cease to exist. But we engage with these stories because we don’t know any of these things to be certainties. We want and desire these things, but we love stories not because they reinforce our wants and desires—we love them because even when they don’t give us what we want, stories either reaffirm or challenge our beliefs about people, life and more. In fact, a lot of the best stories do this in often uncomfortable ways. As if in reading lies the minor catharsis of some sort of self-discovery.
Gotham is a messy, ungraspable place because life is messy, ungraspable, and even in the case of costumed heroes and moustache-twirling villains, there must be some semblance of that eternal truth.
AIPT: Harvey speaks towards themes of risk-taking, fear, and acting on impulses. At the end of the day, do you think Two-Face, Harvey, or both is a good person?
Ram V: I think Harvey wants to be a good person. I think Two-Face lost his belief in good people. So, one half of Harvey doesn’t believe the other half can exist/survive without him. But equally, Two-Face still flips a coin only because Harvey wants to be good. Otherwise why bother with chance?
So, it is this interesting tandem act. Two-Face exists to save Harvey from the realities of life. It is naïve to want to be good, in his view.
And Harvey exists to save the rest of us from Two-Face. Because if he can’t do that, how could he look himself in the eye?
I am not very interested in defining the moralities of Harvey’s condition. Rather I am interested in what that says about us. That we view this character and can sympathize with him but also find him abhorrent. What does that say about the idea of fairness and providence? Chance is amoral. Fairness is an inherently moralistic idea.
So, it’s complex, but entirely in the best way.
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