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With 'Detective Comics,' Ram V is the industry's most thoughtful maestro

Comic Books

With ‘Detective Comics,’ Ram V is the industry’s most thoughtful maestro

A new arc in issue #1,076 extends the writer’s specific interests and ideas.

Ram V is aware of the, let’s call it, pushback surrounding his ongoing Detective Comics run. Since debuting with issue #1,062 in July 2022, he’s framed the ongoing story of Batman against the mysterious Orgham Family as its own grandiose opera, complete with acts like “Nocturne.” Let’s just say not every fan is so open-minded and/or cultured.

“When people talk about it, there’s always this sense of, ‘Man, this feels epic, this feels grand, this feels huge,” Ram V said during a recent Zoom call. “And then I’ve had a history of this in all of my books. There’s always people who are suspicious of any change.”

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But just as he’s done in those other instances, Ram V has eventually won over even the most ardent of doubters.

“So when we started out on Swamp Thing, I know there was a very vocal group of people who said, ‘This is not Alec Holland; this is not my Swamp Thing.,'” he said. “So it was wondrous to see them change over 16 issues. They were like, ‘Actually, this is pretty good.’ And so I’m at that point in the Detective Comics journey…where I’m starting to see people come around.”

So much of that stems from this notion that, despite a seemingly contentious engagement with readers, Ram V ultimately does what he does to present new ideas and perspectives.

“I love that [feedback], because that means I’m pushing people out of their comfort zone,” he said. “I’m not providing content; I’m providing story, and story is meant to evoke strong responses. And so if I get strong responses, that’s great. There’s a certain joy in telling the story and telling it well.”

It’s not just about providing something novel, though. His work on titles like Swamp Thing and Detective Comics stems from a deeper tendency developed in another life.

“I’m also an ex-chemical engineer who loves pulling things apart and putting them back together again,” he said. “There’s a part of me that is obsessed with form and structure rather than function. And so I’m also trying to see how can I play with form in comics. How can I play with the format?”

With 'Detective Comics,' Ram V is the industry's most thoughtful maestro

Courtesy of DC Comics.

He added, “And that has actually been something that has hopefully presented itself across my work. Whether it was going back to do the abstract, full-page splash pages in Swamp Thing — I don’t think that’s been done since [Alan] Moore did the alien idea back in his run.. Whether that’s the Two-Face issue in this run, or coming to my personal work, the recipes in Rare Flavours. I’ve always been someone who enjoyed pushing form but in service to the narrative.”

Still, it’s not like he’s transformed Batman into a robot ninja, or made him afraid of the dark. Instead, the work of Ram V (and various artists across this Detective Comics run, including Rafael Albuquerque, Ivan Reis, and Stefano Raffaele) has been rather direct but decidedly more important in the grander canon of the Bat.

“At the very beginning when I talked to Jessica Chen — who was the commissioning editor on the project at the time — I said I wanted to do something that was different from this kind of broad perception of what a Batman story needs to be that we had at the time,” he said. “In my understanding, in most media, Batman was portrayed as either this superhero undertaking street-level crime and detective stories, or this kind of immensely powerful, gadget-ed, technology-driven almost super soldier.”

He added, “And while I appreciate the stories in that vein, the stories that I really responded to as a reader, and as a viewer of the animated show, were stories in which Batman was fallible. He was human. He was a tragic character driven by a need to be more than he could possibly be. And I wanted to bring that aesthetic back to Batman stories, if you will.”

And while Ram V is clearly trying to break new ground, he’s still operating in some decidedly familiar territory.

“We’ve had some of [that] in a lot of the Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb [stories] that came out,” he said. “The Denny O’Neil Batman was a bit of a tragic character. And we’ve seen glimpses and pieces of it in Arkham Asylum in Year One. So I was drawing from those influences. And the thing that I wanted to add to that was my love of the theatricality and of the grand Gothic undertones of Batman, which had only ever been undertones. I wanted to bring that to the fore a little bit. So in all of those senses, I feel like the story so far has been very successful in doing that.”

With 'Detective Comics,' Ram V is the industry's most thoughtful maestro

Issue #1,074 cover by Evan Cagle. Courtesy of DC Comics.

Because, as Ram V explained, these heroes don’t become iconic without this kind of enthusiastic but efficient exploration of what makes them proper heroes.

“I think part of the reason these characters have such longevity in popular culture is because they’re icons; they’re iconic characters,” he said. “And the very nature of longevity means these things have to be interrogated and questioned and they must evolve with societies and with people over time. And as a writer, your job, successful or not, is to push and prod and pull at these iconic characters, if you will. I wanted to do a story that was pushing and prodding at the choice of being Batman.”

Because, as part of that whole iconic status, characters like Batman must never be stagnant as they speak to increasingly new and different generations.

“What being Batman in the ’60s was very different from being Batman in the ’80s was very different from Batman in the ’90s,” said Ram V. “I suppose my question is like, ‘OK, what’s Batman in 2023? Who is Batman in 2023 or 2024? And I think people forget, when I say I love Batman as a character, I’m not talking about Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman or the Adam West Batman. Maybe I’m talking about Tim Burton’s Batman. I’m talking certainly about Year One‘s Batman and Darwin Cook’s Batman and Tim Sale’s Batman. And so those are my iconic takes on that character.”

Ram V also asked if “someone who’s going to read this 20 years down the line, will the character speak to them the way Year One or Long Halloween spoke to me? And so I feel like every writer’s job is to push and prod and strip down and interrogate the icon in some interesting way.”

Ultimately, Ram V had an interesting enough observation, and one that perhaps speaks to the core of Batman, our continued interest, and the character’s role in this latest Detective Comics run.

“This ties into my theory on why Batman and Superman have evolved to be outside of the circumstantial stuff,” he said. “Like, why have they evolved to be these kind of great philosophical pillars of the DCU?”

He added, “I feel like if you distill the argument down to its bones, I feel like Superman is an alien, not a human, whose greatest desire and his superpower is rooted in the idea that he wants so badly to fit in and be human. And on that note, if you then look at Batman as a mirror to that, Batman is a character who is merely human, and yet his entire life following that incident with his parents has been devoted to the idea of ‘I can do more and I can be more; I can exist beyond the bounds of being an ordinary human.’ What toll does that take on you? What does that drive you to become as a character? Those are the broader questions that we’re dealing with here.”

DC Preview: Detective Comics #1076

Main cover to #1,076 by Evan Cagle. Courtesy of DC Comics.

And there’ll be even more questions as we head into this week’s issue #1,076, which kicks off the five-part, biweekly “Outlaw.” And in keeping with the operatic “gimmick,” as it were, Ram V has dubbed this new arc an “intermezzo.”

“I love the idea that in an opera when you have an intermission, it serves two functions,” he said. “You’re allowed to let the gravity of the first and the second act sink in. But also because the ‘Nocturne’ run in particular is so character-focused, we’ve not had a chance to interrogate things like, ‘What does this effect have on everyone around this iconic character?”

And following the events of issue #1,075, there’s lots of rather heavy things Batman is still sorting out.

“In ‘Outlaw’ — and I’m not spoiling too much — Batman is still under the effects of this demon and is about to be hanged by the Orghams,” said Ram V. “And so it makes sense to then not do an entire issue with a person stuck in a cell…and [instead] how the rest of the city, his friends and his enemies, might react.”

And so just like other operas, “Outlaw” covers two key functions. The first, as mentioned above, is to give people some space to sort it all out.

“And I feel like “Outlaw’ is the perfect place to do that,” said Ram V. “It lets people take a breath. It’s not all tragedy and tears and melancholy, though it would seem that way when you read the issues. And so there is certainly that tonal shift. Operas of old used to have jesters as characters who would come out and tell jokes during the intermission. So even in the most tragic operas, you would have someone making jokes in the middle. And that says something about what an intermission arc is supposed to do. It’s supposed to cleanse your palate, revitalize your interest, and reconfigure your understanding of what everyone’s status quo is.”

The other function, then, is that it’s all about opening up the story and bringing some fresh faces to the stage.

With 'Detective Comics,' Ram V is the industry's most thoughtful maestro

Courtesy of DC Comics.

“The other thing that the ‘Outlaw’ arc does, I think, is that it lets me pull in characters who haven’t been in the run so far,” he said. “Very early on when I pitched this, I had said, ‘Hey, I want to involve the Rogues Gallery into the narrative in a way that they haven’t been involved before.’ But because when you do smaller arcs, you’re jumping from villain of the arc to villain of the arc.”

He added, “But I wanted to do a narrative that makes you question who are the villains? Who are the heroes in some cases? Then, have them all have this kind of cumulative effect on the story. So I think ‘Outlaw’ lets me pull in a lot of characters, some from the Bat Family and some not from the Bat Family. And some villains and some not-so villains. But they will all have roles going forward as well. This arc is a place for us to step away a little bit from Batman’s internality, which we have really focused on especially over this past arc.”

Issue #1,076 wastes little time in getting those new players onto the board. That includes a rather obvious but nonetheless compelling choice: Catwoman, a series which Ram V wrote from 2019 to 2021 (and deserves a revisit if you’re so inclined).

“I thought that made sense,” he said of choosing Catwoman. “I thought there was a lot of history there. And there’s also a lot of ongoing chemistry between those two characters in the main run as well. And although Detective Comics and the Batman story are running parallel and adjacent to each other, there is that sort of cohesion where we’re taking, ‘OK, we’re going to take what’s happening in the other book and thematically use that — emotionally use that in this one.”

But it’s not just about revisiting an old fave; Catwoman’s entire role in this story allows Ram V to explore another story element that he holds near and dear.

“I wanted to do a heist story again, which if you were reading my Catwoman series, pretty much every arc was another heist story,” he said. “If you asked me to write Oceans 14, 15, 16, or 17, I’d say, ‘Give them all to me.’ I love that sort of big twist and reveal. Usually the climax is like, ‘Oh, no, but we already knew this twist and reveal and that there’s another one hidden underneath.’ I love that mechanism. It absolutely tickles me.”

DC Preview: Detective Comics #1076

Courtesy of DC Comics.

And since all of those ideas and moving parts weren’t enough, there’s yet another vital wrinkle to “Outlaw” as a whole.

“When we talked about ‘Outlaw’ at the very beginning, I said it was a very Sergio Leone-inspired arc,” said Ram V. “A lot of people assume that meant Batman would be wearing cowboy hats and spurred boots, but I don’t think it’s quite that. My quintessential western is The Magnificent Seven, which was obviously a take on Seven Samurai. I wanted to do that concept of a group of ne’er-do-wells coming together to accomplish an impossible task. That was the simple premise — obviously transposing that over the Gothic tragedy that we’ve been telling through Detective Comics. So it made sense then that if you wanted to try and rescue Batman from an impossible situation, you would call on Catwoman — who better to break out of a prison?”

But if you think westerns and operas don’t have nearly enough in common, you couldn’t be more wrong.

“I think Westerns are absolutely operatic storytelling,” said Ram V. “I think they’re fundamentally obsessed with tragic characters. All of the great Westerns have heroes who don’t end up well, and who don’t get to participate in the rewards of their endeavor. And so that kind of tragedy — ‘The good life isn’t for me, but I will fight the good fight if you need me to’ — has always been part of the great Westerns for me.”

He added, “Certainly the Spaghetti Westerns, which have more of a European bent to them, and which also take very heavily from [Akira] Kurosawa’s stories have also constantly been obsessed with the personal tragedy of their heroes, whether that’s your Yojimbo or Seven Samurai. And so I think there is a lineage to that operatic tragedy, which you can trace almost back to Greek tragedies if you wanted to.”

You may feel like, given the sheer weight of ideas and concepts within the arc, that “Outlaw” may be more important than the “intermission” label it was assigned. And that’s very much true: this is still must-read stuff.

“It might be a palate cleanser, but it’s very much still an integral part of the arc, even as we’re moving away from Batman and into kind of the greater world,” said Ram V. “If you skip the intermezzo in an actual opera, I think most people would struggle to work through act three.”

DC Preview: Detective Comics #1076

Courtesy of DC Comics.

He added, “I would say three or four extremely pivotal things happen in ‘Outlaw’ — certainly with the involvement of some new characters. We get glimpses at some characters that might show up in the future. And two, maybe three really pivotal things happen in terms of Batman’s future in the story. What is he going to do? Where is he going to go? Does he die? Is he hanged? Who comes back? Is someone else being Batman? Questions will be answered.”

The rub, then, is you may not see just how important everything is until you view it in the grand context of its entirety. And that idea speaks to something important about Ram V’s work and his tendency in confronting readers with massive ideas. He’s not interested in being totally beloved if he can bring people along, sometimes kicking and screaming, to new ideas and understandings.

“The story is engaging, and the narrative is engaging in its own installments, but you don’t necessarily see the big picture until you get to that point where you go, ‘Oh, that’s what this is all about,'” he said. “I often say that if everyone universally loves your work, you’re maybe not trying hard enough. And I shamelessly steal that quote from Brian Azzarello, who said it to me once when he was down in London. So I’m very much a prescriber to that idea: make people uncomfortable, and make them deal with change.”

Issue #1,076 of Detective Comics — from writer Ram V, artist Jason Shawn Alexander, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Arian Maher — arrives today, Tuesday, October 31.

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