Warning: Spoilers below!
“Let me tell you how I was made.”
Disbelief. Excitement. Joy. Gratitude. A lot of words come up when considering These Savage Shores. It’s rare that one finds a title in the industry that tackles Indian myth, culture and history in some form. It’s rarer still that it’s made by a creative team comprised of almost entirely Indian talent. And it’s even rarer that this special book ends up being one of the best books on the market. When you rarely see yourself or your people in fiction — and the only times you do, it’s often in stereotypical fashion — put through a certain lens, you tend to not expect much. And so something like this even existing is not only shocking, but genuinely mind-blowing on some level. There’s a sense of “Wait, things like this can exist?!” and it’s the sort of feeling that makes me want to transport this book to a young, teenage version of myself. If only he had this, what would that have been like? It’s a feeling that likely won’t go away for some time, as the impact of the book still remains massive. So by all accounts, Vault Comics’ These Savage Shores is a unique title.Set in the 1700s India, the book deals with vampires, and as you might imagine, colonialism. But how it approaches those ideas, intertwines them together and weaves one larger whole with the notions it hopes to illuminate and explore, that’s what is utterly fascinating about the book. On one hand, you have the English Vampires, who make their way to these lands they’ve never known. On the other, you have Bishan, who is a Raakshas, a type of supernatural monster or demon. Both concepts have some similarities, although the latter is far more ancient and predates the other by quite some time. Immortal monsters? Yes. But the differences are quite fun. And it’s in these two concepts, which are so culture specific, that the book touches on some of its key ideas.
Vampires are cold, callous monsters who take great pride in their immortality and power. They enjoy what they have and in fact revel in it. They see their ability to “cheat death” as a gift, something that they deserve, it’s a view point emergent of privilege. They’re gleeful hunters and hopeless narcissistic and they, quite literally, suck away all a person has akin to a parasite, for their own undeserved, horrific benefit. They see no harm in the loss, they feel no remorse, they are arrogant men who feel they are owed and expect the world to bow before their whims. And the moment it or any one doesn’t, they get angry. They consider themselves far superior to all other people and the second that is even questioned, they strike mercilessly. They are predators, they are monsters and they exist only to commit and perpetuate more oppressive savagery. Every moment with them is cold, claustrophobic and all they are is self-serving beasts.
Bishan, on the other hand, who is a Raakshas, is a loyal protector and guardian. He serves others before himself. He, too, is an immortal, but yearns for the small joys of mortal life, in stark contrast to the Vampires’ disdain for it. He also cares and loves. He’s a nurturer, teacher, storyteller, adviser and a guardian. He is many things and despite the potential for savagery in him, despite his true monstrous visage, he is not a cold or cruel beast. It’s why the book bathes him and his lover Kori, in warm colors to contrast the colder and harsh colors of the Vampires. There’s a general warmth and kindness to Bishan and his dreams and aspirations are that of simple mortal things, the things of men, rather than anything monstrous. He may be immortal, but he does not hold himself above his fellow people. Bishan does not and cannot have what he truly wants, but doesn’t lash out because of it, he accepts it on some level and does his best by aiding those around him. There’s no narcissism with the Raakshas, just duty and protection of others, with a healthy dose of hope.
These are all intentional choices here, as Ram V, Sumit Kumar, Aditya Bidikar and Vittorio Astone tell this tale of colonialism. The decision to go with a protagonist who is a literal monster fits, given the absurd and awful justifications of colonizers, i.e. the people they assert control over are “savage” and “monstrous.” And so we have a “monster” who is a great many things monsters are not, in almost a response to the tired old fictions and stereotypes we crafted so often. And to contrast this monster, we have Vampires, who reveal the real, true nature of the colonizer. The Vampire might blend in, might seem and pretend to be cultured, but at the end of the day, the only culture it lives by is its own cruel infliction of power and dominance over others. Taking all they have and all they are, simply because they can. Doing so because they believe they are inherently better than all others, that their kin are the supreme. The myths of monsters, these savage, less-than-human beings, serve as a useful tool here for the creatives.
Issue #4 builds really effectively on a lot of these core ideas, pulling out all the stops, setting up the stage for the big finale. Bishan fell at the end of the previous issue, signifying his fall and ‘death’ as a man. With the foreign forces ruthlessly killing his peers and beating on him in the hopes of his death, he snaps. All he’d ever wanted was to not be this creature, especially not for cruel war. He wished to be the storyteller, the lover, the guardian, the adviser and the keeper of memory. Yet in the face of these British forces, which have shot down him and his allies, he’s forced to be. The man is made into the monster by force, by cruelty, by carnage, via the foreign power. He is reduced to a base state, one of pure survival, at the loss of all else. And the forces? They fight not for a cause or a true reason, but because they can — because it yields profit and that is their mission.Confronting his own traitor, Hyder Ali, he’s stung by the words that one of them had to be reduced to this, a monster, for the sake of survival against this new enemy. Filled with rage and reason to slay Ali, Bishan’s hand is stayed by the arrival of Ari’s son, Tipu. Looking upon the young man, the future, Bishan spares Ali, asking Tipu to be better than him. Even at his lowest point, the Raakshas is capable of mercy and kindness. Something The Vampire isn’t, as the book will go onto illustrate even further. Upon his arrival, Bishan witnesses a post-Vampire attack Vikrampura. The Vampire Hunter is slain, held up as a bag of bones so that none may forget. The young prince lays ill in his bed, as uncertainty lingers. And Kori? The young dancer, so full of life, love of culture and the arts, a passion for stories? She’s now a Vampire.
It’s a heartbreaking conclusion and it makes sense that this installment wraps up with it as the stinger, because it’s something meant to be lingered upon, something meant to be thought about, so it can truly sink in. Devastating is the only way to describe this horrifying outcome, as Bishan comes upon their meeting spot, the ancient tree spanning centuries and witnesses it has fallen. Gone is this great thing with history, replaced with only that which was done to it by an external force. Not out of any specific reason, but in meaningless tragedy. It happened simply because it could, which is what makes it truly saddening. The Vampires (in contrast to Bishan and his mercy), these cold parasitic beings, sucked away the life from Kori and turned her into one of them. All this life, this fire of existence, was put out. This young woman, who grew up with and cares so deeply for stories now only one has one story left to tell: the one they left her, they one they gave her, of what they did. The only tale becomes one of the one who oppressed, as it becomes all consuming. This lover of the arts, culture, history, this individual with a whole life ahead of her, this person with a future, is robbed of all that they are, until she’s made into one of them. Until she is only one of them. No longer is she the dancer, but the cold individual who hides in the woods. All she was, is and would have been has been taken from her. It was stolen and quite literally sucked away from her. Sucked away until only a hollow shell with their imprint (on her neck), with their same cruel, monstrous hunger is left and naught else. This is no ordinary loss, this is a loss of something deeper, something that can never be absolved or made right.
Bishan is the ancient, the living artifact and document of his people’s culture of history. He is the living memory and so the past falls on its knees and sobs, because the pain is devastating. What has been taken isn’t just something material, it’s something deeper than that. What’s been taken is people’s very identity, their very souls, their potential for the future. It’s the most terrifying, awful and damaging thing that could be inflicted upon anyone and The Vampire did it so easily, so callously, simply because he could, while he would mask it with justifications that really don’t hold up to the slightest thought.
Ram V’s voice for the characters and clear vision, brought to life by Sumit Kumar’s gorgeous artwork, is a terrifying one. The book is built on the 9-panel grid and while that’s very much in vogue right now, the choice to use it here is really thoughtful. The story’s a tragedy in the making, with escape from what’s been set in motion. And so these individuals are trapped in this cold, unforgiving, unflinching cage, out of which meaning must be derived. We’re right there with these characters, witnessing in perfect rhythm as the haunting events occur. But on the other hand, it’s also about control. Control is a key element in a story about colonization, especially coming from a creative team entirely made up of Indian talent.
The grid can be restrictive to artists, as it’s very much a tool that aids the writer much more, granting them greater control, but Kumar excels within its limitations and structure. His visual storytelling, from the pauses to the performances and expressions delivered by characters is stellar, so it’s a treat when his work looks as astonishingly good as it does. Astone’s colors are a key element here, as he bathes Kumar’s rich world and characters in misty greens, striking purples and all-consuming blacks, giving the book a distinct color palette and look that stands out, accentuating the best parts of Kumar’s work. Bidikar, meanwhile, letters the 9-panel book with great care, ensuring the best placements and flow of storytelling, considering how limiting the space can in the grid. Mess up and you no longer have the space for that caption, or balloon you desperately need, so he and the rest of the team really manage to make it work in this regard. Even his little choices, like the gentle pink for the young prince, so full of life, to the colder blue for Bishan, upon his return, add and tell the story in their own way, while his setting captions remain a consistent highlight of the lettering.
These Savage Shores continues to be one of the most engrossing and thrilling reads on the stands, telling an important story about an important time the way only comics can: through ancient vampires and mythic monsters.