Choice, Morality, Masks and Monsters in These Savage Shores

First things first, we're going to be discussing some serious, MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire series in this piece, so make sure you're all caught up on These Savage Shores before venturing any further. We'll wait.

Obviously, masks are going to be an important theme if one is featured on the cover of the trade, right?
Obviously, masks are going to be an important theme if one is featured on the cover of the trade, right?

All right, you good? Good. Let's talk about "These Savage Shores."



INTRODUCTION


There are several themes central to "These Savage Shores," but the one that clawed at my subconscious the most is the role choice and morality play in the story.


Questions of our true nature recur throughout the comic. There's a lot of discussion about those who rise above those animalistic instincts and selfish desires vs those who give into them. There's also a good amount of time given to the concepts of choice, and of what is right and what is monstrous. At first glance, it seems like they're all separate themes. But as the story unfolds, we begin to see how they're all tied together.


There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg dilemma when it comes to choice and morality in "These Savage Shores." It could be that our idea of moral and immoral characters comes from their decision whether or not to give into their more primal, animal instincts based around hunger or violence. It's a very classic Judeo-Christian, almost good-and-evil viewpoint, but in a way, it's true. There's certainly evidence to make that argument in the text. But I also think that, in "These Savage Shores," choice could also be viewed as an illusion for the characters. It could be that the moral or immoral parts come first, and that who they are influences each character's decisions, showing that there's really no choice at all.


Either option raises up its own problems, however. Is being morally good as simple as not killing people? If who we are influences all of our decisions, are we responsible for our actions? How we define things like "morality" or "monsters" varies tremendously under these differing viewpoints. And where does life experience come in to color our actions, the choices we make, and how we perceive the world?


As you'll see, the creators of "These Savage Shores" present a spectrum of interpretations, but ultimately leave it up to you to decide for yourself. At its heart, though, it's a story about hard choices, and how the motivations behind them and the repercussions that stem from them define each character – what makes them monsters and what makes them men at their cores, under all the masks and posturing.


Let's dig in.



ISSUE 1


The inciting incident always seems smaller than all the ruin that comes after. A vampire, Alain Pierrefont, seems unable to stop himself from draining a woman of her blood one night. It's something that doesn't seem too out of place for a vampire tale, but Pierrefont writes about his guilt, which is centered less around extinguishing a life and more toward how it led the vampire hunter, Zachariah Sturn, to target him.

Pierrefont gives into his monstrous side, killing a woman.
Pierrefont gives into his monstrous side, killing a woman.

Count Grano, the elder vampire in charge of the family of vampires Pierrefont is from, discusses it with other trusted vampires. They decide they must send Pierrefont away for his safety and the safety of the rest of his vampire family. Otherwise, Sturn will come after all of them next, in search of Pierrefont. They have no choice but to take the first opportunity that presents itself: putting Pierrefont on a boat to India.


It's a series of events evocative of stories of abuse, even in our modern world. The abuser "can't help himself," abusing others again and again, imposing himself and his will on the object of his desire. Even when he's caught, those in power protect him rather than hold him accountable for his actions. Even when relocated, he chooses to give into those monstrous desires rather than learn from the consequences of his actions. And the cycle of abuse begins again.

Because so many people saw Pierrefont, the vampires must send him away or risk being discovered.
Because so many people saw Pierrefont, the vampires must send him away or risk being discovered.

Prince Vikram of the Zamorin agrees to host Pierrefont, likely the result of a deal between both lands’ noble representatives. It’s probably dumb luck that this places two vampires in close quarters unknowingly. But it makes sense, since their kind are often drawn toward power.

Rather than a machination based on choice (or the lack thereof), this is the rare plot point seemingly based on luck.
Rather than a machination based on choice (or the lack thereof), this is the rare plot point seemingly based on luck.

Next, we meet Bishan and Kori. Bishan tells Kori the story of how he was made – a soft lead-in to the revelation that Bishan is a supernatural creature (and Kori is human). A key point of the story is that he did what he thought was right. It solidifies him as a good man, our hero. One that's morally sound, and a counterweight to Pierrefont, who is motivated by his desires.

Bishan is an ancient creature who always does the right thing, even if it costs him.
Bishan is an ancient creature who always does the right thing, even if it costs him.

It’s now the first evening after Pierrefont’s arrival. Hungry for the hunt, bending once again to his animal instincts (his guilt seemingly gone, or he's just more willing to take risks here on "these savage shores"), he finds the most beautiful woman around, Kori, and targets her for his feast. It seems almost like an addiction to Pierrefont – something he's compelled to do. For anyone who has dealt with addiction in the past, you can almost empathize with Pierrefont. It's so easy to give into those base desires rather than rising above and doing the "right thing." Sure, there's a choice there, but it may not feel like it at the time. Granted, smoking a cigarette is a bit different from exsanguinating a human being.


To defend the woman he loves, Bishan puts down Pierrefont like he's a rabid animal. Now, I want to pause to emphasize and unpack this point, because it's not one to just dismiss and move on. For one, it has serious repercussions for the rest of the book. But it's also as meaningful as it is jarring when you first read it. Alain Pierrefont has been our central character through this first issue. We've spent the most time following him, so when he's killed, we almost have to recalibrate our interpretation of the text.


Bishan "putting down Pierrefont like he's a rabid animal" is completely intentional. For one, it further defines Alain Pierrefont as someone who has given himself entirely to his beastly nature and, as we'll later find out, "beasts" are synonymous with "monsters" in "These Savage Shores." It also positions Bishan as much more powerful than Pierrefont, gives a nuanced definition of Bishan's character as both a monster and a morally good character (or at least one capable of love), and shows the lengths he's willing to go to protect those he loves. Whether he truly had to kill Pierrefont to stop him from killing Kori might not have even entered his mind when choosing his course of action in the scene below. Is this the sign of a good man doing the right thing? Or is the jump to murder more indicative of a monster? It's certainly presented as the former, but it's a decision that will come under more scrutiny later.

Bishan has no choice but to kill Pierrefont. It's the only way to ensure Kori's safety...right?
Bishan has no choice but to kill Pierrefont. It's the only way to ensure Kori's safety...right?


ISSUE 2


Zachariah Sturn opens the second issue with a letter to his brother. He is going to India to hunt down Pierrefont. His nature is one of a monster hunter, and he compares himself to a hound. He couldn’t be the peaceful man of God his brother and father were, but he can still do what he thinks is right. It’s like he doesn’t even have a choice in the matter.


Some skeptical readers might pause here and ask, "Well, sure Sturn has a choice. Who seriously has to be a monster hunter?" But to that, I have to ask: if we could all be exactly what we wanted to be...wouldn't we all be making a lot more money than we are? Or working jobs that feel more fulfilling? As we'll come to see more of, Sturn is a character colored by his experience. Part of that experience is how he was raised – in a family steeped in piety. But he's also a man who has seen a great deal of violence, and that (and possibly who he is in the core of his personality) has defined him and his rationale for his actions to the point where he feels like there is no choice. There is only the hunt.


But vampires hunt, too. So what makes Zachariah Sturn different from them? Are Sturn's actions noble or moral because they protect people? Does Sturn choose to hunt monsters because he wants to protect others, or because he needs an outlet for his more violent, animal instincts and feels his actions are just because they only hurt "monsters"? Is one more morally acceptable than the other?

Sturn cannot help but track and kill monsters. He tried to rise above it and failed. It's his nature.
Sturn cannot help but track and kill monsters. He tried to rise above it and failed. It's his nature.

Upon discovering he’s come all this way only to hear of Pierrefont’s demise, Sturn decides to stay in India. There is news of other monsters that prowl the night, and it’s only logical that he hunt them. They’re unsafe and nearby — how could he simply turn around and head home with that knowledge?

Even with Pierrefont gone, Sturn has to rid the world of monsters.
Even with Pierrefont gone, Sturn has to rid the world of monsters.

Meanwhile, we meet the Khan of Mysore, Hyder Ali. He has recently met with some British military officers, one who we saw earlier, telling Pierrefont Britain's intent to create a trade route through the region. In a different way from the more savage and violent base instincts we see throughout the story, Britain follows its own greed. Rather than leave the land alone, they plan to create a trade route – one that would mean profits for the country. And, as we'll later see, they're willing to create said route by any means necessary.

From issue #1, Britain follows its own selfish desires in the form of a trade route.
From issue #1, Britain follows its own selfish desires in the form of a trade route.

The Khan turns down the Brits’ deal — he knows what would happen to him and his land if he took it. Britain would rule the land, but wouldn't care for it or its people, and Ali and India's other rules would be puppets...if they were left alive at all. But Hyder Ali's refusal forces the Brits to make other arrangements. As they leave, they comment on how Ali claims his nature is to seek conflict, something that we'll also revisit later. But the Khan isn't making this choice out of a desire for conflict – he does it because working with the British would be bad for him, his people and the land he rules over. There's really no choice there, at all.


A smart tactical move by Hyder Ali, as well as some character development. We find out the Khan admits he is a man of conflict, yet we see he is shrewd, making the right choice as ruler and protecting himself, his land and his people.
A smart tactical move by Hyder Ali, as well as some character development. We find out the Khan admits he is a man of conflict, yet we see he is shrewd, making the right choice as ruler and protecting himself, his land and his people.

Back at the palace, a hunt for a local leopard begins. It's a convenient story to hide the true reason for Pierrefont's death, one that it seems the locals have been talking about already, if Sturn has heard the rumor (as he mentions talk of something prowling the night, shown in the panels referenced earlier). As a warrior close to the prince and in a twist of irony, Bishan must join in the hunt. And a woman in her position, Kori is also supposed to join, to cook and wash clothing. It's a choice made for them, but one so small, they have no reason not to agree with it. But it's their presence that will change the course of events for the rest of the story.


In the panels below, we also get a direct reference to Bishan's mask. Masks, both physical and metaphorical, play a large role in "These Savage Shores," Bishan masks who he really is, putting the onus of responsibility for Pierrefont's death on the leopard. But this exchange is something we won't truly understand until the end of the series.

Small ripples, leading to a much larger wave.
Small ripples, leading to a much larger wave.

Sturn stalks the hunting party, thinking Prince Vikram is the vampire. It's a comedy of errors often right at home in a tragedy like this one: the leopard is being hunted for something it didn't do while Sturn hunts Prince Vikram for crimes he didn't commit, either.


Sturn writes to his brother about how he couldn’t help but investigate the prince with his current suspicions. It’s just in his nature, like the leopard the men hunt. And like the leopard, he also thinks he is the hunter, but will come to find out that he is outmatched.

That realization probably hits after he’s fired an arrow at Prince Vikram, only to have it stopped by the giant, otherworldly paw of Bishan, turned raakshas. Bishan attacks Sturn, defending his prince. He could easily kill him, but instead defends Kori from the leopard. He probably could have done both, quickly dispatching Sturn before stopping the leopard, or even simply killing Sturn and not worrying over the life of a mortal like Kori. It’s what Pierrefont would have done. Maybe this choice is what defines Bishan as a good man. Or, maybe Bishan is a good man, and so there was really no choice at all.


It's interesting to contrast Bishan's actions here against those he took with Pierrefont, earlier. Did Bishan judge the character of both Pierrefont and Sturn quickly enough to decide who to stun and who to kill? Does he place a higher value on Kori's life than the prince's, and so he paid less attention to Sturn than to those who endangered Kori? Or was it just blind luck that Sturn survived while Pierrefont died? Conversely, the way Bishan kills the leopard is so similar to the way he executed Alain – both were beasts just following their natures, their hunger causing them to attack Kori.

Sturn is incapacitated while Bishan saves Kori, choosing to do the right and good thing. At least, as Bishan defines it.
Sturn is incapacitated while Bishan saves Kori, choosing to do the right and good thing. At least, as Bishan defines it.

Back in London, word of Pierrefont’s death reaches Count Grano. Grano cared deeply for Pierrefont. In the panels shown earlier, he says Alain was like a brother and a son to him. He can't sit idly by, knowing Alain's murderer is free. And so he plans to travel to India, find out who killed Pierrefont, and get his revenge. That’s just what is done.

Count Grano is uninterested in what Pierrefont did that would make someone want to kill him. He simply goes to seek revenge. It's a decision justified by Grano later in a surprisingly human way for someone who seems so monstrous: he truly cared for Pierrefont. At least, that's what he claims as the excuse for his violent actions later.
Count Grano is uninterested in what Pierrefont did that would make someone want to kill him. He simply goes to seek revenge. It's a decision justified by Grano later in a surprisingly human way for someone who seems so monstrous: he truly cared for Pierrefont. At least, that's what he claims as the excuse for his violent actions later.


ISSUE 3


Hyder Ali of Mysore has invited Prince Vikram to meet in neutral territory. Madras, nearby, gathers soldiers. Many of them are men lent by England. They have interests in establishing a trade route, and Pierrefont’s death gave them an excuse to declare war on the region. Rather than a physical mask, like Bishan's, Britain masks their greedy intentions with their own decree of revenge.


In his letter to the prince, Hyder Ali states, "I come with soldiers ten but as always unguarded." When they later meet, he makes a great show of removing his kingly attire and appealing to Vikram and Bishan as a simple man rather than a ruler. It's meant to be interpreted as a sign of humility, a removal of a mask so he can address them as a man in need of aid.

And we all know England's choices are not based in what is good or right.
And we all know England's choices are not based in what is good or right.

But war with Hyder Ali was the reason the prince’s father is dead in the first place. Under other circumstances, these two would not meet except under opposing banners on a battlefield. And now, they instead discuss pooling their soldiers together to fight Madras and its forces. There’s no other way they would be able to survive separately, and so they do what they must for their people. This necessity is underscored and used against Bishan when he and the prince meet Hyder Ali. The Khan doesn’t know Bishan, but he knows enough to manipulate him into allying with him. A shrewd leader and strategist and an excellent judge of character, he knows Bishan will do the right thing, especially if it helps keep Prince Vikram safe. And he's right – Bishan agrees to aid the fight, promising to return to Prince Vikram after the war is over.

A man who always does the right thing is easy to anticipate and easier to manipulate.
A man who always does the right thing is easy to anticipate and easier to manipulate.

Ever-loyal Bishan promises to return to the prince.
Ever-loyal Bishan promises to return to the prince.

Before moving on, we're treated to a flashback through the lens of a present-day letter. While it gives us some backstory, defining Bishan's history with Kori, it also serves to reinforce that Bishan is a good man. Or, at the very least that he’s motivated by the desire to be good and do the right thing. But is it our actions or the motivations behind them what makes us good and moral?


It’s important for Ram V and the creative team to remind us of this. Why? It’s fairly obvious by now that he’s our hero — we don’t need to be told that. But what it does is introduce a hard choice that seems like it's the right one, which makes the sting of the tragedy later that much more painful.


We see how the characters get to the points they do – we feel like we would have done the same in their positions, because what other choice could they have made? And yet, we’re conditioned to believe that doing the right thing will lead to good, positive results. But we must remember that in this story, the ones who rise above their selfishness and base instincts are cursed to be ground-dwellers, and those who give into their more animalistic natures are rewarded. There’s an injustice in tragedy, and we’re being set up for a series of injustices to come.

Kori makes Bishan feel like he's a good man. Bishan attempts to rise above what he sees as his true nature by choosing to do the right thing in the present.
Kori makes Bishan feel like he's a good man. Bishan attempts to rise above what he sees as his true nature by choosing to do the right thing in the present.

Unfortunately, Hyder’s forces abandon Bishan and his Zamorin soldiers on the battlefield, leaving them to die. The Khan simply used them so he and his soldiers could survive another day.

Hyder Ali did what he thought was right, but at the expense of Bishan and his Zamorin soldiers.
Hyder Ali did what he thought was right, but at the expense of Bishan and his Zamorin soldiers.

But that’s only the beginning of the misfortune about to befall our characters.



ISSUE 4


It’s impossible for Bishan (or anyone else) to have foreseen it, but Count Grano has come to India in search of Alain Pierrefont’s murderer. With him are other vampires, and the imminent danger has forced Prince Vikram, Kori and some others into a sort of quarantine inside the palace. Though he was trying to do the right thing, Bishan has left those he cares for most vulnerable, and at the worst possible time.

The situation escalates as Count Grano and his vampires enter the scene. Conflict seems unavoidable, though based on a series of misunderstandings.
The situation escalates as Count Grano and his vampires enter the scene. Conflict seems unavoidable, though based on a series of misunderstandings.

Sturn's got part of the picture based on his own life experiences. But when you're a monster hunter, everyone's a monster. But how can a monster hunter define good and evil, right and wrong, if everyone is a monster?
Sturn's got part of the picture based on his own life experiences. But when you're a monster hunter, everyone's a monster. But how can a monster hunter define good and evil, right and wrong, if everyone is a monster?

Because he tried to kill the prince, incorrectly thinking him a vampire, Zachariah Sturn is in the palace dungeon below. Luckily, the man is born to hunt monsters like the ones outside the palace, but on the negative side, the only reason Count Grano and his vampires are here is because they think Sturn killed Pierrefont. And, when accused, Sturn doesn’t deny it, nor does he lie and confirm Grano’s suspicions. It's a mask of omission rather than an outright lie.


But what he says next cuts to the heart of the book. The simple concepts of good and evil don’t work for him with everything he’s seen. His experiences lead him to believe everyone, living or undead, is a monster, motivated by conflict and thirst and hunger, blood and dust. (I’m paraphrasing here, but you can reference the image for the direct quote.) It makes sense for a man raised in a religious home to believe in "original sin," the concept that we are all sinful, ever since Adam and Eve consumed the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It's merely a tiny leap from "sinful" to "monstrous."


It’s a conclusion that seems hasty and incomplete, and his use of “does it matter” and “perhaps” doesn’t help him sell it. Sturn is a man seemingly resigned to his fate, almost like he realizes his view of the world, of morality and humanity, is as yet incomplete. And the danger he's currently facing will prevent it from ever being so. It's also a reminder for the reader that each character's views on morality aren't concrete. They're subject to change – something we'll be reminded of soon.


One interesting item from the battle here: Count Grano reveals his wings – a feature Bishan doesn't have, though he is also a creature likely as old as Count Grano. Those who remember some of the stories of how Bishan was made may remember him describing the two sides: there are those who always want more, and there are those who stay loyal, and end up "cursed" for their trouble. These two are ancient enemies. Grano and his vampires have enjoyed the spoils of their aspirations, while Bishan is seemingly the only one of his kind around, and doesn't have that same level of privilege.


Elsewhere, Bishan confronts Hyder Ali for his betrayal, and we get a really quick, yet powerful exchange that brings back the theme of “monsters” while also discussing choice, motivation behind those choices, and the unintentional outcomes of those choices.


It’s a lot, and it moves so fast, you might miss all the good stuff here. Hyder Ali says he had no choice but to abandon Bishan and his men on the battlefield, an opinion which was confirmed earlier by Ghazi (whose head is seen rolling in the top panel). Tactically, it allegedly made the army more likely to succeed in future battles, so Bishan and the Zamorin was a necessary sacrifice. Using a “The ends justify the means” mindset, he could make a case for it, though it comes across as flimsy, and this choice led to the deaths of many Zamorin.


But Hyder Ali claims Bishan is guilty of the same thing. In an effort to rise above his nature and avoid becoming his monstrous self, he "selfishly" sacrificed his own men (those are scare quotes, not quoting directly from the text, because your own personal ethics and moral compass may color your belief on who is right and why in this exchange). It’s a decision based in personal ethics. It’s almost Biblical, very “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) Hyder Ali’s decision feels more like one made out of convenience, while Bishan's feels made from a desire to be more than a creature who will do anything and sacrifice anyone to survive, but the line is still blurry. If the Khan is telling the truth, and he'd do whatever it takes to save the land and people he's charged with watching over, he and Bishan aren't so different, at all.


Personally, I believe that Ali is telling the truth. As you can see in the page below, a barely clothed Bishan confronts the Khan in his nightclothes – a state even more humble than he presented himself before. Knowing the concept of "masks" is such a major theme in "These Savage Shores," we're being presented with two characters stripped of their masks. All the lies and posturing are gone, here, and there is only truth. Cold, hard truth.

Choice, morality, and consequence. Is Bishan a good man? Or is he just as monstrous as The Khan or any other character in the book, justifying his actions to himself the same way they do?
Choice, morality, and consequence. Is Bishan a good man? Or is he just as monstrous as The Khan or any other character in the book, justifying his actions to himself the same way they do?

After weeks of being a feral murder machine, Bishan was ready to kill Hyder Ali for his treachery. We see that bestial intent in Bishan's ragged appearance, aligned closer to those primal urges than the more civilized version of himself we saw earlier. But when the Khan’s son begs for his father’s life, Bishan shows mercy. Because he is good – it's the solid rock that makes up his character's foundation. He didn't have to kill Ali or his son – it wouldn't have helped anything except to further a cycle of violence. Bishan values life and morality, even when he could easily snuff it out.

Bishan's angry red eyes turn a softer color as he decides to show mercy. He knows what would happen if he made the wrong choice. He said it before, in one of the panels above: "It never ends. Blood against blood." His vengeance would only lead to more violence.
Bishan's angry red eyes turn a softer color as he decides to show mercy. He knows what would happen if he made the wrong choice. He said it before, in one of the panels above: "It never ends. Blood against blood." His vengeance would only lead to more violence.

Even as Bishan succumbs to his animalistic instincts, he does it to keep a promise. He takes lives, claiming not to be remorseful, but he is. If he didn’t feel badly, he wouldn’t be telling Kori. If he weren’t a good man, he wouldn’t care about the promises he kept. He does whatever it takes to survive and make his way back to the people he is loyal to.

Even at his self-defined most monstrous, Bishan limits his damage to others, killing only to survive. Because his only other choice is dying, and breaking the promises he made. This monologue is almost like a mask he needs to wear to justify his actions to himself. Bishan is good in his core – his beastly or monstrous side is something he wears like a mask only to protect himself or others.
Even at his self-defined most monstrous, Bishan limits his damage to others, killing only to survive. Because his only other choice is dying, and breaking the promises he made. This monologue is almost like a mask he needs to wear to justify his actions to himself. Bishan is good in his core – his beastly or monstrous side is something he wears like a mask only to protect himself or others.

Zachariah compared himself to a hound earlier, and Bishan describes himself similarly here. The idea of monsters in These Savage Shores goes hand-in-hand with the “beasts” and “instinctual” extended metaphors throughout the story. It’s the idea that no matter how hard we try, we’re always warring against our base desires. Our monstrous selves. Some of us embrace them. Some of us endeavor to rise above them. But no matter what, consequences follow either path. Sure, it's more pronounced in "These Savage Shores" than it is in our everyday, modern lives. But if you stripped away the comfort and settings of those lives and gave people a good reason to justify removing their masks of civilization and selflessness, would you feel safe or secure?

Here, again, Bishan claims to have been reduced to a beast, but he remains loyal – one of the main differences between his kind and the others he fought so long ago.
Here, again, Bishan claims to have been reduced to a beast, but he remains loyal – one of the main differences between his kind and the others he fought so long ago.

The other side of that coin is this: that core of ourselves that everything is reduced to is either good or evil. When all is said and done, maybe we don’t have a choice but to follow our instincts. But for some of us, those instincts are to do the right thing. To help people. To keep our promises. To defend those who can’t defend themselves. Others act out of their own self-interest. Sure, it looks like everyone has a choice on paper, but who we are at our core dictates that decision before we even know we’ve made it. An illusion we all wear like a mask, because if we admitted it to ourselves, it would drive us mad. We couldn't hold people accountable for their desire to hunt and kill anymore than we could a wild animal. And would concepts like "good" or "evil" or "morality" even matter in a world where the concept of choice isn't real? Where our actions are only dictated by who we were born to be?