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PARADISO: The Living, Breathing City [Feature]

feature by Henry Barajas, originally published in IMAGE+

The Midnight Event took everything we knew to be true and destroyed it forever. The world is different now. It’s worse in many ways, but humanity endures. Jack Kryznan arrives in the city of Paradiso with a mysterious device that lets him interact with technology in ways unseen since before the Midnight Event and a brain full of fragmented memories. In PARADISO, series creators Ram V & Dev Pramanik are out to tell a story about our relationship with technology, the lengths we’ll go to in order to survive, and what it takes to save someone’s life when a sentient city’s support systems marks them as an enemy.

HENRY BARAJAS: The collaboration on PARADISO definitely feels like a fruitful one. How did you end up together?

RAM V: PARADISO began as an exercise in daydreaming long before I knew Dev. Before I’d even started making comics, I had begun to conceive of PARADISO with my good friend, the architect and urban designer Rajiv Bhakat. We began with the idea of setting a story inside a living metropolis. But back then, it was a large and unwieldy idea, unfurled with enthusiasm but without much discipline. So, we set it aside and I began working on smaller comics, short stories and such. I wrote an ongoing series called Aghori, in India, and had a few short stories published with magazines. It was around then that I met Dev. I knew of him through the Indian comics industry, and I’d seen his work before. In 2015, I’d begun working on Black Mumba, the book that would go on to become my first graphic novel. Dev’s style was a perfect fit, so we began working on a couple of the stories.

After a successful Kickstarter in 2016, Black Mumba was published, and it garnered some attention and opened doors for us. Dev and I had started talking about working on something longer. I talked to him about PARADISO, and we began to build on the material that Rajiv and I had compiled. We took a while to get going, but even back then, I could tell that Dev and I were on the same page with how we wanted the series to look and feel. Dev’s early character designs were pretty much spot-on, and that’s when PARADISO went from being an idea to something more focused and real.

Incidentally, Aditya, the utterly brilliant letterer on the project, also worked with me on Black Mumba, and we’ve been working together ever since. The search for a colorist was an interesting one. Dev’s art is so textured and has a great sense of solidity. Coloring it needed a deft touch. Initially Alex and then Dearbhla really nailed it the first time they did pages for us. The colors have gone on to become an integral part of the visual language for this series.

DEV PRAMANIK: Ram and I were working on the last Black Mumba vignette when he told me about the idea for this story with a sentient city. Very rarely does a concept catch hold of me the way that PARADISO did. I started dreaming up ideas for a post-apocalyptic world that had nose-dived off the pinnacle of technological heights and was plunged into darkness. The kind of world where you get glimpses of sci-fi imagery, but only as ruins of a civilization lost. The ideas were very vivid in my head, and I started working on images of the city and the different scenarios that I could play with. We started working on it together, just as a pitch at first, and everything just fell into place. By the time I had completed the pitch, I was already invested in the book. I knew we were going to make this book, because I had faith in Ram’s script, and I knew I could do it justice. 

HENRY: When it came time to sit down and begin creating the story, what was the most important thing you wanted to get onto the page? Did you have a really stark image in your head of a scene from the series? Or were you focused on a more emotional beat?

DEV: The imagining process for this book was challenging. While the look of the city and the way I wanted to frame it were clear to me, some of the characters needed time. It took me a while to fully realize the lack of technology in the world and how everyone was scavenging and piecing together things from whatever was available. So, it became important for me to depict that through the character design. And then there were the Guardians themselves, which were pretty weird but really fun. They went through a lot of changes before we finally hit the right design.

The emotional beat of it was an important aspect for me to capture. I have always loved desolate landscapes, especially those in abandoned cities. So, I tried to mesh my love for those into the concept along with weird architecture. The images that I had in mind were very close to Gunkanjima in South Japan—buildings almost intact but weathered with age and disuse. It ended up looking just as Ram and I planned. Emotions in a comic are not just in the facial expressions, but also in how a scene evokes memories and dreams that the reader had forgotten they’d had. That’s the feel I’ve tried to capture with the art.

RAM: For me, the process started much earlier, really. Back when Rajiv and I were coming up with concepts, we wrote short stories and prose pieces—just to establish the minute details of the place, to define a tone and an atmosphere. This was before we had characters or we even knew what we were doing with the stories. Once we had that pool of content, I went away and started working on a plot, characters, and outline. I think, in general, that’s an effective way of developing a story. Play with it at first. Just create, find your way in the dark, and then go back and look at it with structure, narrative flow and such.

HENRY: The story takes place after the Midnight Event. What can you tell us about the effect the Midnight Event had on the world?

RAM: I want to be careful not to give too much away here. I prefer to present readers with a jigsaw that they can put together. So, I’ll say this: the Midnight Event occurred thanks to an effort that was meant to be the pinnacle of human advancement—of technology, communication, and understanding.

But there were unforeseen implications, and the events that followed devastated the world. Imagine everything that we had built and manufactured turned on us, all at once, in a single incendiary moment. Our story is set in this world, centuries after that event. Our understanding of technology has gone backward. Survival and necessity drive invention rather than ease, profit, or efficacy. The circumstances have changed, and the wheel must be reinvented to reflect our new reality. 

But even in every moment of destruction, amidst the devastation and chaos, there is potential for creating something new. So, Paradiso’s existence as a sentient city is inextricably linked to the Midnight Event.

HENRY: Every post-apocalypse is different, and the one present in PARADISO feels technophobic, to an extent. What do you gain as storytellers by removing one of the most common comforts humanity has made for itself?

RAM: Stories are fundamentally about human concerns. They might have dragons and spaceships and multiple dimensions, but they all must address or reflect on something intrinsically human. So, everything I write and everything I enjoy tends to examine people under some form of duress. It could be a dragon breathing fire on your characters or a "Dear John" letter, waiting, tucked into the frame of a mirror in a lonely house. 

In PARADISO, the world is not technophobic as much as it is techno-incompetent. Sure, rudimentary things are being scavenged and reworked, like cars and motors, guns and pumps. But the more complex forms of technology have become incomprehensible to most people. And the ones who do comprehend them are treated with reverence and awe.

These circumstances put characters and society under duress. What’s it like when you grow up believing that your refrigerator is a work of god? Or that there are souls trapped inside television monitors? More importantly, what happens when you’re living in a city that is still crammed with tech that people no longer understand? And what if that tech had a life of its own? It makes for interesting circumstances in which to examine the things that make us human.

HENRY: Post-apocalypses also often have their roots in the fears and mores of the current day. What is it about today that inspired your vision in PARADISO?

RAM: Really, what spurred on PARADISO was the idea of writing a story set in a place that’s alive. Not a city populated by a sentient artificial intelligence, but a literal "living city." The kind of place that moves and changes daily. A place whose whims and fancies aren’t necessarily concerned with the people dwelling within her. But also, a place that recognizes that she needs the people. They are part of who she is. How do we relate to the spaces we live in?

The post-apocalyptic scenario is something we dropped in to highlight that gap between the people and the city. Here’s a city, so filled with advanced tech that she is alive, making choices, and driving the story. And here’s a society of people who don’t understand any of that. So, to them, everything feels magical and insurmountable.

In doing that, I suppose we’re reflecting on how much we take for granted now, how much we think we know, while the truth is far from it. If the structures that we’ve built our life around were to collapse, I wager we’d find that the average person today knows less about the world and the tech around them than those in the past did. Sure, we exchange far more information than we did before, and we do so at incredible speeds. But how much of that is really making us smarter? How much of that are we using for anything other than gratification and self-affirmation?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The post-apocalyptic scenario in PARADISO isn’t meant to be entirely bleak. It is neither good nor bad. It is simply the new normal. In this first arc, there are elements of a Mad Max-esque world but also the beauty and depth of something like Westworld. 

HENRY: Who are Mr. Dandy and Mr. Honeybad? The way they call each other "Mister" is creepy and pretty unlike the way the rest of the characters speak. What do they do in the city?

RAM: Again, without giving away too much, I think it would suffice to say that not all the denizens of Paradiso are human. They speak the way they do because they lack the same sense of identity that we have. So, to them, Dandy and Honeybad are only designations—things they call themselves. And as for what they’re doing in the city: they’re there to maintain the precarious balance of the ecosystem that is Paradiso. People who live in Paradiso have grown to call them Guardians, and perhaps Dandy and Honeybad fit that description somewhat. But, there are more Guardians that we’ll encounter throughout the story, and not all of them are on our side. But they are, all of them, very freaky.

HENRY: Jack is running from his demons in hope of a better life, but that doesn't seem possible in this world. Noira holds the past true and shares the history like a bard. What keeps these characters going in a world that doesn't have any way for them to live long enough to see tomorrow?

RAM: Jack is haunted by the events of his childhood. And while he has tried to run away from the implications of that, it is also his obsession with those events that brings him to Paradiso. In a world that is deteriorating, Paradiso seems to be the only place still sustaining life and society. So even if he chose to run away, as he has so often in his past, where would be run to? I think everyone can relate to that. The idea that you can never really run away from the things that define you. On some level, everyone’s still overcoming their childhoods.

Noira romanticizes Paradiso. As do many people who never make it into the city. To them, Paradiso is that unattainable goal. That promised land where hope and magic still run through the vents and cobbles. The truth, of course, is that Paradiso is as dangerous a place as any, perhaps even more so, and Paradiso is notoriously picky about who she lets in.

Jack keeps himself going because he must find meaning in his past. Noira keeps herself going because she's forever been told that beyond Paradiso’s borders lies salvation. As for the world around them that is unforgiving and dangerous—is that not when people most tend to hang on to the scraps that give them hope?

DEV: The way I see it, PARADISO is a tale of survival followed by rebirth. You can’t have a better life unless you survive your circumstances first. That’s what keeps everyone going at the lowest points in their lives: the will to survive, to make it across to something better. All my favorite stories are really about that fight.

HENRY: I really appreciate the fashion and feel of the world. Can you tell us about some of your goals when designing the world and the characters, how you wanted them to look and feel?

DEV: As I said earlier, I had to basically downgrade the characters. This is a functional world where the need for survival drives choices. So, everyone is going to be dressed in only what they need, nothing more, maybe less, because there’s scarcity or you risk having things stolen. But the idea was to make everything crude and hand-woven or welded. Belts have stitches and cloth folds holding them together. Jackets are patchworked. Gloves and buckles are a rarity, and so people must use whatever they can to get the job done. Vehicles are made from scavenged parts and badly put together. The defining principle for us was to imagine society pre-industrial revolution but with the ability to scavenge things that are available to our world now. That’s how the look of the world came about. My goal was to make the people look rundown and weather beaten, much like the world they live in.

RAM: Yeah, definitely what Dev said. But I want to add that a key element of PARADISO for us was to have a sense of the unpredictable. We’ve all seen post-apocalyptic worlds. We know what to expect, but the first time you see the Paradiso skyline, you realize a couple of the buildings are just floating in mid-air. There are suspension bridges that go nowhere. Those brief moments of "Wait, is that right?"—I think that’s part of the feel we were going for. A familiar world but skewed in ways that you wouldn’t expect to see. Visually straddling that border between sci-fi and fantasy.

HENRY: Tell us about the title. PARADISO brings to mind the third part of Dante's Divine Comedy. Is there an inferno in store for the cast?

RAM: There’s definitely an inferno in store. If my characters don’t utterly hate me by the time we get to the end, I’m doing something wrong. The need for survival is a great motivator, and a lousy integrator, and so always a great engine for drama.

But it’s interesting to talk about Dante’s Paradiso and its structure. Dante journeys through the tiers of heaven with Beatrice before creation itself is revealed to him at the very end, and at each tier, there is a new encounter and a new revelation. I like that format, and it is interesting to use that as a sort of framework to look at further arcs of PARADISO as the characters go deeper down an increasingly weird rabbit hole and there are new revelations at the end of each. So, maybe there are parallels there. We’ve only begun to peel back the first layer of what is an ambitious story with a new kind of "creation" revealed to us, at the end.

PARADISO #1 debuts 12/6 and is available for preorder now.

Originally from the Old Pueblo, Henry Barajas works for Top Cow Productions and sells doughnuts in Hollywood. He writes comics, writes about comics, and collects comics. IMAGE+ is an award-winning monthly comics magazine that's packed with interviews, essays, and features about all your favorite Image comics and your first look at upcoming releases.