To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re shining the spotlight on a few of the talented AAPI writers and artists working for DC today. First up, we get to know Ram V, the writer of Catwoman, Justice League Dark and The Swamp Thing.
If you had told Ram V that he’d be writing comics for DC when he was a child, his response probably would have been something like, “Writing comics for…who?”
Born and raised in India, Ram grew up reading plenty of comics, but very few of them featured the Dark Knight or Man of Steel. At the time, American superhero comics published by either of the Big Two just weren’t being sold in India, or at least not in the parts of the country where Ram grew up. However, an opportunity to study abroad proved to be both life and career changing for Ram when he was introduced to The Sandman and fell in love with the sophisticated mature-readers storytelling of DC’s Vertigo imprint. Dabbling in self-publishing initially, Ram eventually transitioned to writing books like Catwoman and The Swamp Thing alongside artists like Mike Perkins, Fernando Blanco and Joëlle Jones.
With three different DC comics currently on the stands, plus a story in this month’s DC Festival of Heroes AAPI anthology, it seemed like a perfect time to get to know Ram a bit better, who is the first Indian writer to work on characters like Selina Kyle, John Constantine and Wonder Woman. Now living in the UK, Ram opened up about what first drew him to comics, how traveling has shaped the stories he writes and what excites him the most about seeing more AAPI creators entering the field.
Art by Joelle Jones
You grew up in India. Is that where you first discovered comics?
Yes, I did. India’s actually had a long history of both locally published comics and reprints of American and European material. DC comics were still pretty hard to get when I was a kid, so largely I grew up reading European comics like Asterix as well as local Indian stuff. On occasion when one of my relatives went to visit the United States they would bring back these digests of DC stories which I would read.
At what age did you become interested in writing comics? Did you ever see it as a possible career?
I didn’t particularly see writing comics as my career, but I’d always had an interest in writing ever since I was a kid. I moved to Philadelphia to study chemical engineering—I think I was around 19 or 20 at the time—and a friend of mine gifted me the first volume of The Sandman, which was the first time I read something that made me want to write comics. I wanted to write stories like that. I was wowed by the visual side of things as well.
I fell down something of a Vertigo hole after that. I read everything Neil Gaiman had done with DC, along with everything Alan Moore had done, and Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis. It was around that time that I started considering the fact that maybe I could write stories and maybe they could be comics.
Art by Mike Perkins
When was that? And when did you first start doing work for DC?
I only started writing comics in 2016 and my first contact with DC was meeting editor Jamie S. Rich at Thought Bubble. I had self-published a book called Black Mumba, which was a collection of weird, existential crime noir stories set in Mumbai and Jamie really enjoyed that. He reached out to me and said, “Hey, do you want to try to create this book at Vertigo and do another volume or a sequel?”
While we were talking, he moved from the Vertigo office to the Bat office, so while volume 2 of that series fell by the wayside, he eventually asked me if I wanted to write a Batman story and that’s how I got started at DC.
You’ve become known for your work on characters like Swamp Thing and the Justice League Dark. Do you have a particular interest in supernatural characters?
I think culturally they’re closer to the kind of story that I come from. I grew up in India. My grandmom told me stories of magical beings and gods, so those stories are more intimately familiar to me than, say, science fiction or war stories.
I come from that side of storytelling, although as I’ve grown up I’ve read pretty widely and I also write Catwoman for DC, so I’d like to think I’m fairly happy writing in other genres as well.
From DC Festival of Heroes, art by Audrey Mok
You’ve lived in a few different countries throughout your life. Do you feel that experiencing different cultures and ways of life firsthand has helped you as a writer?
Yeah, it’s probably had the biggest influence on my writing, to be honest. I worked as a chemical engineer for a while and I traveled a lot as a part of that job, so I’ve been through most of Europe along with the Middle East and parts of Asia. I wrote when I was traveling—on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I think the biggest realization I took away from that was that the world is an infinitely fascinating place with such great history and such great stories, and yet, somehow, even though you meet people who are from different places and cultures, there’s still a universality to the things that people care about, the things that people are afraid of and the things that people take joy in. That realization truly informs my writing. I’d like to think that I look at the world with the same kind of innocence and awe that I look at places when I travel.
Have you found your experience as a chemical engineer to be helpful in writing? Does it help you with some of the weird science that you tend to see in comic books?
Yeah, I’ve studied and worked as a researcher for a while. I’ve worked at power plants and fertilizer plants. I think it gives me an educated perspective on science fiction, so when I read something, I go, “Okay, this is plausible.” Other times, I’ll read something and I’ll just go, “Yeah, this is mumbo jumbo science.”
From DC Festival of Heroes, art by Audrey Mok
I think that’s important. I think suspension of belief is only possible when you hinge your lies with some measure of plausibility when you’re writing. That has certainly been informed by my education in chemical engineering. But also, more importantly, I think when I studied to be a chemical engineer, I realized that I could be good at something just by working hard at it and by applying myself. I think that knowledge is very useful when you’re trying to be a professional writer because there are parts of writing that are tedious and aren’t particularly fun to do, but you still have to do them. Like when you’re editing the third round of a draft!
Your story in DC Festival of Heroes, “Masks,” focuses on a character you created for Catwoman. Were you hoping you’d get a chance to explore Shoes’ backstory a bit more?
For people who don’t know, Shoes is a kid who hangs out with Catwoman in Alleytown in the Catwoman comic. The character is a combination of Cheshire and Catwoman, if you will, so she’s called Cheshire Cat. What I wanted to do with the DC Festival of Heroes story is to give a look into the backstory of Cheshire Cat and show people how she’s connected to the original Cheshire character, Jade Nguyen.
Obviously, Jade is an Asian character. Is Shoes as well?
Yes. She’s an Asian character who’s grown up in America. She doesn’t know who her parents are and if I told you anything more than that, I would be spoiling the story!
From DC Festival of Heroes, art by Audrey Mok
We still have a ways to go when it comes to representation in comics, but what does it mean to you personally to see so many Asian creators writing and drawing comics right now? And would you like to see more South Asian creators?
Absolutely. On a personal note, I think representation is very important because I remembered going through an experience where I was trying to write stories, and I realized that all of my characters were called “Tom” or “James” or other common American or European names. And a friend of mine asked me, “Why do you never write stories with Indian protagonists?”
I realized it was because I grew up reading stories that never had any Indian protagonists. This had a profound effect on me. I’m thirty-plus and I still can’t think of a protagonist who’s got an Indian name in any of these stories, so I’ve started making an effort to really write Asian and Indian protagonists. I hope that these stories will be read by a new generation of readers, writers and fans who will be able to see themselves and people like them in these stories, and so will aspire to tell stories like them, to learn from them and to be like them. I think that’s very important.
And yes, I think South Asian creators are starting to make inroads. The great part of seeing so much growing representation in the industry is that we’re also going to get different kinds of stories. Not just different kinds of characters and creators, but culturally, different kinds of stories. To me, that’s the most exciting part of it. I think South Asians in particular have such a rich history that spawned the world’s great mythologies, and yet, we’ve only largely seen Norse or Greco-Roman mythologies represented in comics. It’s very rare for us to see South Asian mythology represented, so I think there’s going to be a great font of stories, ideas and concepts that come from there eventually.
Be sure to drop by DCComics.com all throughout May for more AAPI creator interviews. And don’t forget to check out Ram V’s story, “Masks,” in this month’s DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration.