Aaand we’re back with the second edition! If you missed the first entry, here it is!
Apologies on this one. I’d have returned last week if not for some computer troubles. Alas!
Finally, the bastard gets to comics. I know, I know. One whole entry until I even got to those dastardly picto-sequentials!
The Many Of Deaths Of Laila Starr has been one of my favorite comics period for the last little bit. I suspect I will eventually write on it properly when it’s finished, digging into why it hits me so hard, but I wanted to touch on it here because I’ve noticed something curious.
It’s very much a book almost everyone I’ve seen mentioning it agree is utterly incredible. But in my experience a great many seem to weirdly struggle with articulating as to why it is so potent?
I believe at least part of this has to do with the work drawing upon Hindu mythology, which to many Western readers, particularly White folks, is almost totally unknown, beyond maybe some trivia like how ‘Avatar’ comes from it. And given most myths and tales of old riffed on, typically, in American/Western comics are Greek/Roman or even Biblical details, largely by a White creative pool, the very visible act of an Indian writer drawing upon their background likely makes a lot of people feel as though they cannot speak on it, because they’re suddenly clueless on the realm they’re about to wade into. And likely, if they do, they feel the need to make mention of and note the presence of this thing, and comment on it in some capacity, for not doing so would feel wrong/off. And how you do that is something I think I’m seeing many struggle with?
And that makes sense, which is why so many pieces of writing I see are often operating in vague expressions or obsess over the unfamiliar and thus ‘fresh’ nature of the book and the mythos being drawn upon. But it strikes me as amusing, and I note it, because I think it’s a barrier that needs to be blown up, so people can properly appreciate/discuss and engage with why it moves them so. The struggle I’m trying to get at is one I identify as a lot of talking around the work, as opposed to about it. I wanna help change that, especially as the book comes to a close, and is set to be a trade soon. But also, more importantly, because it is a book not actually about those myths, despite its usage/invocation of them.
Note that Death is not given a name, while Brahma, The Creator, and Agni, The God Of Fire, are. The comic never actually, specifically, invokes any Indian god of Death. Death is simply ‘Death’. And it pulls out ‘Pranah’, The God Of Life, which I doubt almost any Indian reader will go ‘Ah yes, I know that! Pranah! My favorite god! Love him!’
‘Agni’ is ‘Fire’ in Indian tongues, it is the element itself, as well as the title of a god, and similarly ‘Pranah’ is ‘Life’, it is the word for life, and here it is used as the title of a god.
Which is to say, much like Death is Death, Life is Life. Ram V is not using or actively invoking any specific gods that people need to know or recognize, nor are there mythic references you need to catch to ‘get’ it. It’s not a Catch-The-Reference comic. It’s not at all about the myths. They’re fun little cameos and gags that pop up occassionally as background wallpaper. The usage of ‘Death’ over a specific Death God or even a word for Death is deliberate and meant to distance from this being any specific tale of myth, to mark it clearly as something much more openly universal. It’s a book that knows it is written to, by and large, an audience that will not be familiar with this stuff, so it’s not counting on you to get that.
It is, at its core, a universal story about the relationship between Life and Death, both made manifest in their godly forms, and with the very specific intersection of human life, as the book traces the development of one life from its birth to its ostensible death. #1 is Birth, with baby Darius Shah coming into existence, #2 is Childhood, #3 is Adolescence, #4 is Adulthood, and #5 will be Old Age, as the book soon comes to a close.
It’s a mini series entirely about how we change, how we interact and operate with death, across the many stages of our lives. How we deal with death (and how death deals with us!) and how our view of death changes, and what it truly means to live, for death has no meaning without Life. And Life cannot be experienced and known in its full scope and measure without death. Death contextualizes the meaning of life itself. It’s this dance of life and death, this endless cycle, that the book is all about. It’s a very universal, human story, albeit through a very specific Indian setting and lens, as it portrays images and scenes and rituals I’ve never seen put to page in sequential art, but have seen and known all my life.
I called the book a Post-Vertigo take on the “Yama Comes To Earth” tradition of Indian cinema, and I’d say that still holds, including being a delightful(ly touching) comedy about life and death, which is what every Yama Comes To Earth tale is really about, in the end.
That said, it DOES have some mythic components that I think are worth noting, which come not as obvious ‘references’ or what have you, but as baked in elements of construction.
Death arrives to Earth in the form of an avatar, the avatar namely being Laila Starr, and that, The Descent Of The Divine In Human Form, that has great potency and history in Indian myth, as many tales portray it, but none more so than the tales of The Avatar himself, Vishnu, who I also like to call The #1 Pedant Of The Cosmos.
Usually, the stories go something like this:
Some annoying demon or dipshit will meditate for like 300 years or whatever on some remote mountain or whatnot to some god, and then said god will show up and be like ‘Aiight, you’ve fulfilled my requirements, whatddya want? Ask away.’ and then the dude will ask for some ridiculous thing involving immortality or the closest thing, which makes him nigh-impossible to kill. Then the god will grant it and fuck off, after which the Empowered Asshole will rain terror and chaos on everyone under the sun.
After this, folks, divine or otherwise, will be like ‘Oh no!’ and Vishnu, The Preserver, The Avatar, will be like ‘Don’t worry, I got this, brah.’ and do his bullshit of ‘TECHNICALLY SPEAKING…’ pedantry.
Following this, he’ll incarnate himself into some form designed to specifically fuck with the principles that he’s targetting and exploit its loopholes to restore the grand balance of things, and illustrate some grand moral lesson.
I’ll use my favorite example and Avatar story to illustrate:
The Tale Of The 4th Avatar- Narasimha
‘Nara’ or ‘Narudu’ means “Man” “Human”, and ‘Simha’ or ‘Simham’ is “Lion”. So right there in the name, you have ManLion.
Now, this Avatar exists because, there was once a horrible Demon King of incredible power named Hiranyakaśipu who was basically Vishnu’s #1 Hater. He hated The Avatar so much, he punished and oppressed anyone who worshipped him. He made God his #1 Enemy.
And he could do that given he did the whole aforementioned ‘I meditated for X Time to Get Y God’s Gift’ scheme, as Brahma, The Creator, himself blessed him. And his blessing, the gift Hiranyakaśipu asked for?
It was that he could not be killed on The Inside or The Outside of any residence, nor during Day or Night, or even on The Earth or The Sky. That he may not be slain by any weapon, not any human or animal. He asked that he may not be slain by any creature, living or unliving, born in a womb, brought to life by Brahma. That he may never be slain by even any Demigod or Demon or snakes or entities from the lower realms.
Brahma granted it to him, and thus you have a dude who is empowered to be the biggest asshole about anything and everything, for he feels himself invincible.
But lo and behold, horror strikes, when fate has it that his very son, little Prahlada, ends up a devout worshipper of Vishnu, his father’s greatest enemy. Hiranyakaśipu is horrified by this, and desperately tries to get his son to quit it, but the little wee lad just will not. Finally sick of it, The Demon Dad decides his son must be put to death. But as he is, whether it’s being drowned, whether it’s being covered in venomous snakes, whether it’s being lit on fire, whatever is attempted to kill him…it just will not. The kid just starts singing and his god, The Preserver, protects him, and he’s impossible to kill.
Hiranyakaśipu, as you can understand, is very pissed off by this.
Having had enough, after an endless series of cartoonish attempts and plots to have his son killed, he just yells at him in their palace, as they stand in a grand chamber of pillars. He asks litle Prahlada, who believes his God is everywhere, ‘Oh, really? Is your god here too then? Will he protect you? Is he in this damn pillar then?’
And then fucking God comes breaking out of that damn pillar in the form of a ManLion and grabs the bastard.
You see, the stipulations of Hiraynyakaśipu’s protections state that he cannot be killed by a man or an animal, but Narasimha is neither, he is a hybrid! And he cannot be killed during the day or night, so Narasimha arrives just around Twilight time, the time-in between, and the dipshit can’t be killed on the inside or the outside, so Narasimha takes him and holds him right on the doorway, the in-between space of inside/outside, and given he cannot be slain in the sky or the earth, Narasimha places him on his own thighs, which are not the earth or the sky, they are the otherworldly thighs of the divine!!! And Narasimha is no demon or demigod, neither was he born of a womb or brought to life by Brahma. No, Narasimha was born from a pillar, in which no life ever is or can be. And his ‘weapon’ which isn’t a weapon? His immense Lion-claws, with which he slashes the stomach of this bastard at twilight.
Basically what I’m saying is…
Evil Villain: I cannot be killed during the Day or Night, Inside or Outside a home, neither in Sky nor on Land nor in Heaven or Hell, by any Weapon, any Man, God, Demon or Animal.
Fourth Avatar: I am going to end this man’s whole ass career.
Oh, and Narasimha looks like this!
Look at him go!
The point of the long tangent above being:
There is a great tradition of mythic tales of the divine incarnating in human form, arriving via avatar, specifically to slay, kill, or deal with someone, and it having to do with immortality/erasure of death. Darius Shah will supposedly go onto invent that which will abolish death, thus rendering mankind immortal, and that’s why Death is out to get him, and it’s this sort of very loose stuff that Laila Starr can be discussed in, when it comes to myth. It’s informed by an internalized understanding and grasp of these mythic things, to be sure, but it isn’t the story. They’re not a ‘Get it?’ game, but a reflection of its makers’ fundamental grasp of that which they’re drawing upon. You do end up reflecting your basic foundations of myth and existence in your work, and it’s a fun thing on top of everything as you look at the story construction, rather than The Thing.
All that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note my favorite scene from the whole damn thing:
It’s a hell of a moment and a gut-punch that hits hard. But above all, beyond that, it’s very clearly a moment about the mad mob of The Hindu right-wing. The incindiery speech, the temple-building, it’s not subtle. That said, it is not suuuper blatant either, which some of us would probably prefer. But regardless, I appreciated it greatly, because it rung so true, and it was one wherein the moment I read it, I was like ‘Oh gosh, Ram’s gonna get shit for this’. And it’s one wherein even reading it, I knew that in writing it, he had to have at least thought ‘Oh I’m gonna get shit for this’. Now, whether he did or not is a different issue, but it is very much one of those things wherein, if you’re close to the thing, you can’t not immediately think of the response it’ll generate in certain circles.
All that I mentioned about the Hindutva dipshits in the first entry is doubly true here, as our entire mythology, all our gods, demigods, and every thing we were raised with, all our stories, become weapons and tools for their monstrous crusades. So it becomes hard to separate, in a certain sense, as these things are very real things deployed for horrific purposes. The narratives, the myths, the stories are hard to reckon with without reckoning with the realities of them in the modern era, in the hands of these horrid people. So I did appreciate the touch, that acknowledgement, that touch of reality, in the book. It’s a thing that haunts us all, and its presence is necessary. But also, the inclusion of the incident, what it is and ends up doing hurts, and informs Darius in a very real way, especially on a personal character level, as it robbed him of his best friend. It’s made into the personal and used to serve character, which I dug. It’s there for more than the purpose of just being there, which you also don’t want, I think. It’s made meaningful on purely just a character and narrative-level, while having the extra meaning it does.
In any case, I supose I needn’t have worried about the backlash in the end, because the likelihood of Hindu rightwinger chuds reading Direct Market comics, particularly independent comics not based on any IP, is very very low. And besides, if they may have, I imagine they likely lost it already at this gorgeous Jeff Dekal cover:
All their insane raving-systems must have been trigged by this one already, so I imagine they wouldn’t stick around for all that comes after. Which, thank god, because I do not need to ever see Indian conservatives lose their mind or make a big deal about seeing Death kissing women.
In any case, what I’m trying to say is: Good comic! Go pick it up if you haven’t already!
I’ve now found that I have to cut out multiple sections from each one of these entries, as each individual section/topic balloons to become its own sprawling essay, and so as not to overwhelm folks, I think i’ll keep this approach. And who knows, I might just perhaps up the frequency at which this goes out at times, if need be. I hope that’s okay with you all.
I’ve had some rather lovely, wonderful, and incredibly encouraging responses to the first entry of this newsletter, some of which I hope to soon respond to discuss in some capacity here soon, as they brought up some really interesting thoughts and questions which are worth mulling over.
Now, until next time!
Next Time: The Engagement Of The Marginalized, The Cinema Of Kazuya Shiraishi, and This Bald Scot Named Grant Morrison.
[P.S- As ever, do let me know your thoughts! I’m always happy to hear back, even if late on replying back!!]