Ram V’s approach to Batman in Detective comics was simply breathtaking. The series took the approach of a gothic opera, steeped in robust tragedy, and easily infused true depth and context into the Arkham family and their many ties to Gotham City.
This week, the creative team debuts Part 2 of “Gotham Nocturne: Act 1,” which heavily features Two-Face in a tale heavily focused on the concept of form. Specifically, there are several examples of symmetry, including the use of two artists and the mirroring of various layouts. With Ivan Reis and Rafael Albuquerque providing the art, the issue is complex and seems to be pushing the comic book art form in a very big way.
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To better understand Ram V’s approach, we discussed his approach extensively on the AIPT Comics podcast as well as in the written interview below. We dig up some fascinating stuff about what it means to “save” a city and even how morality evolves in the story, among other tidbits.
Some slight spoilers ahead for Detective comics #1068.
AIPT: Your work with Two-Face was built, no, overflowing into a central conflict. What made Two-Face the right character for your needs in this ongoing nighttime tale? Any further, Symbology for Tenclaw’s demons, Two-Face, and a surprise involving Batman can be seen in this issue. What about the duality and division of those things that you find fascinating in this story?
Aries V: I am fascinated by stories of “saving” cities. What does that mean. Its implications. Batman is still “saving” Gotham. And I think we’re at a time when it’s important to really look at what that means. For Batman, for Bruce Wayne, for us. I mean, if “saving” just 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 nostalgia? And safety is relative. Depending on what part of town you’re from, your ideas about security vary wildly. So one of the questions at the center of this story 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 by examining that idea, we can begin to understand the flaws in that statement. Excising part of someone’s personality is a pretty dubious way to “save” someone. Now think of Gotham in this context. Can a city be saved by removing its “bad” parts? Is it the same city? What does it mean for Batman when confronted with this notion? Is a “saved” Gotham still Gotham? Is a city more important than its inhabitants? The good and the bad? This question of Theseus’ ship finds a guideline 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 an artistic duality at work here, how did you approach the distribution of who draws what?
Aries V: It helps that they are both very good friends and so they made sure that their art was complementary to each other’s. I felt Rafa sometimes had a “slicker” aspect to his work and so we chose Rafa to work largely with Harvey’s dominant POV. If you look at Rafa’s pages, they largely begin with Harvey’s narration.
Ivan, on the other hand, has an almost brutal beauty to his inks. They’re gritty but thick and beautiful, bold, almost aggressive in some ways. I thought it matched “Scar-vey” pretty well. So you’ll see Ivan largely on this side of the story.
Then, of course, the theme of the story is mirroring and symmetry, so we made sure that each board had both artists working together. And because I didn’t want one artist constantly following another’s layout, we had each artist mirror their colleague’s page, then draw one for their colleague to mirror. Does that make sense? He does it on the page, anyway!
Massive credit here due to Jessica Chen, the book’s editor. She coordinated everything 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 faces, a villain and Batman, interwoven with red and white captions showing different voices and tones. How do you go about capturing the different voice tones/approaches in these subtitles?
Aries V: I guess that’s part of the familiarity that comes with spending time with these characters. I write with flair and thrive. I’m proud that my characters sometimes sound dramatic, poignant or poetic. Even so, I think Harvey speaks well, sometimes passive-aggressive and wistful to others. Scar-vey is a bully. Still smart, still charismatic, but a brute nonetheless. He doesn’t do poetry unless it’s the dirty kind.
Batman and his “other” (spoilers!) – have differences in the same way. Bat is concise, contained and expresses only what he needs. The other is dramatic, prophetic, archaic but also theatrical and poignant.
AIPT: And then, speaking of shape and formatting, is it liberating to approach the comic page with so much structure, or is it the opposite and more difficult?
Aries V: Oddly, it’s liberating in the usual places and stimulating in non-intuitive ways. It’s liberating since I already know that my panel accounts for at least half of the pages. So it’s settled. It’s also challenging in that I now have to find a way to fit the story into these panels so it doesn’t feel shoehorned.
I showed someone a first glimpse of this problem, the same way you saw it, and they thought the symmetry and mirroring, while clearly there, didn’t appeal to pay attention once you were engrossed in the story. And that’s exactly how it was planned. I hate being smart for smart’s sake. The question is smart. It’s a balancing act and a performance in so many ways by me, Rafa, Ivan, Dave, Arianna and everyone involved.
But if you look at the performance instead of engaging with the story, then we’ve all failed. So I’m glad that’s not the case for people who’ve had their first reads so far.
AIPT: Something interesting about Batman in general, and in your run, is how Gotham and its many colorful characters mess things up so nothing seems or easy to pin down. Do you find the mirrored storytelling and symmetry in the story a way to approach the unboxing of Gotham and its characters?
Aries V: The storytelling thing came later. The exploration of duality, the mirror and symmetrical perspective was encoded in the story long before we considered making it a formal part of this issue.
I don’t like to label characters as one thing. Good, Bad, Hero, Villain, True, False, Evil, Virtuous… these are all lazy tags if you are the one writing these characters. Of course, I know character complexity is pretty much a given at this point. It speaks of a maturity in storytelling and reading.
But there is a strange tendency in contemporary stories that seems to constantly reinforce the idea of what these characters “should” be. And while the short-term endorphins of bolstering a popular point of view get a lot of kudos, it creates bad drama in the stories.
We want the good guys to win. The bad guys to lose. We want nice people to find love. We want toxic relationships to cease to exist. But we engage in these stories because we don’t know any of these things as 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 reaffirm or challenge our beliefs. about people, life and more. In fact, many of the best stories do so in often uncomfortable ways. As if in reading resided the minor catharsis of a kind of self-discovery.
Gotham is a messy, elusive place because life is messy, elusive, and even in the case of costumed heroes and mustachioed villains, there has to be some semblance of that eternal truth.
AIPT: Harvey addresses themes of risk taking, fear and impulsive action. In the end, do you think Two-Face, Harvey or both are a good person?
Aries V: I think Harvey wants to be a good person. I think Two-Face lost their trust in the right people. So one half of Harvey doesn’t believe the other half can exist/survive without him. But also, Two-Face always flips a coin just because Harvey wants to be good. Otherwise why bother with chance?
So it’s this interesting tandem act. Two-Face exists to save Harvey from the realities of life. It is naïve to want to be good, according to him.
And Harvey exists to save us from Two-Face. ‘Cause if he can’t do that, how could he look himself in the eye?
I’m not very interested in defining the morality of Harvey’s condition. I’m more interested in what it says about us. That we look at this character and can sympathize with him but also find him obnoxious. What does this 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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