Cover art for “The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” owned by BOOM! Studios

Reimagining mythology for the modern age isn’t a novel idea: my peers and I are part of the generation that was raised on “Percy Jackson,” after all. However, the reimagined mythology of “The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” by Ram V. and illustrated by Filipe Andrade is an unexpected explosion of reflections on immortality in the modern age. The reader is immersed in Mumbai, where technology and Hindu mythology combine to create a backdrop that feels only slightly exaggerated to anyone who has ever lived in India (including myself). In an age where the trailer for Marvel’s “Across the Spider Verse (Part One)” is speculated to feature animation of Mumbattan (a portmanteau of Mumbai and Manhattan), the graphic novel “The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” offers an accessible deep-dive addition to the collective imagination of the omniscient city of Mumbai as well as its storied supernatural inhabitants.  

The five issues in the series — which re-released as a complete collection on February 1st — follow Laila Starr, the identity assumed by the goddess Death after she is banished from the heavenly pantheon (portrayed in the series as an efficient corporation where she works by removing souls from bodies). The story is based on Hindu lore, focusing on the interplay between the mortal and the divine; Death (implied visually to be Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, time and change) mingles with spirits, humans and Brahman alike. The initially vague reason for her expulsion is as follows: Darius Shah, the key to eternal life, is born, meaning that her position in the heavens is now rendered obsolete. She now must live amongst the mere mortals she considers liabilities at her 9-to-5 job. The omnipotent Laila follows Darius from a distance throughout his days, revealing herself at five stages of Darius’s life, from his birth to the mystery of his final days. Will Laila ever understand what it means to live and die, especially as a supernatural being untouched by the rules of a lifespan? Does death have a purpose? The book answers these questions more profoundly and succinctly than I can, but I can tell you this: “Laila Starr” is absolutely gorgeous in its musings on death. 

Laila’s nonchalant narration includes gems, such as “You must remember, very early on I was kissed by death, and that brings with it untold power,” and “Engrossed in the great rituals of youth. Writing their own dreams onto peeling walls. And negotiating vulnerabilities with the unspoken language of laughter, confessions and stolen cigarettes.” The graphic novel’s language exists in a comfortable, quiet rhythm that settles into a state of poetry (which is acknowledged in Issue #5, “Poetry”). Although self-serious, the novel ties together just the right amount of ideas, both old and new, to create a living, breathing world — one that seems like an entirely plausible version of Mumbai. 

“Laila Starr” builds on bodies of mythology, art and urbanity that have existed for decades, if not eons; mirrors of the mundane are included to ground the magical. To depict Hindu mythology in graphic formats is nothing new, as these tales have been featured in religious and cultural art for millennia. In recent decades, the beloved Amar Chitra Katha comics — which were a staple of my parents’ childhoods — often come to mind when reading “Laila Starr.” However, the Amar Chitra Katha books are known for their stillness and reverence (often to a fault) in their portraits, with a nostalgic art style that feels static with its thick black lines and pastel colors, depicting pale-skinned gods, saints and national heroes in pastoral settings with equal veneration. 

But this is not your mother’s Amar Chitra Katha copy; it’s edgier, punchier and more dynamic. If you need proof, look no further than Laila’s flowing hair (which is featured on almost every page) — the modern bangs mixed with traditional flowing locks, the intense shadows and highlights and the way it floats, suspended in mid-air with irreverence for the laws of physics, tells you everything you need to know about “Laila Starr”’s divergence from the canon. It invents a story that playfully remixes the tropes of a many-thousand-year-old religion with the modern culture of India’s cities and beyond.

Andrade impressively portrays the juxtaposition between tradition and modernity in the art style. Mortals and supernatural beings alike use shoeboxes from Vata, parodying Bata, the shoe retailer omnipresent at every clustering of stores in India. The poems of Akur Puri — an anagram of Rupi Kaur, a diasporic Punjabi-Canadian “instapoet” — lead the narrative of Issue #5 (Poetry) in a way that both acknowledges their over-the-top brevity and harnesses their often-mocked power. The more you look, the more you will find images that whisper familiarity to the viewer in the dramatically-shaded world which is, in my opinion, the mark of an exciting book. Andrade illustrates the setting of Mumbai deftly, with sketchy lines and brilliant warm tones of oranges, yellows and reds contrasted with neon blues and shadowy purples. Panels are drawn with dynamic, organic lines that make the foreground feel visually appealing, and the faded backgrounds feel like a blurrier vision on the brink of disappearing into smoke, giving the book a mystical feel. The characters are sexy without being exoticized, and the city of 22 million is portrayed in its hectic jumble of ideas and cultural influences. The architectural drawings of Mumbai are a treat in themselves, imbued with details of character while structurally impressive. It wouldn’t make sense for Ram V. to immerse his heroine in any other city in the world — because what could they teach Laila about vivacity that Mumbai couldn’t? 

“Laila Starr” is so many things at once that if you don’t read it in the right headspace or you rush through it, it becomes a little forgettable. Instead, take your time, and savor the art, the writing and, well, everything else — the graphic novel has a lot of things going on. However, “Laila Starr” is more than the sum of its parts; its sleeper diasporic cultural references, gorgeously fluid art and Hindu mythology-inspired storyline work to create something bigger. In teaching an immortal being what it means to die, the anomalous graphic novel series gives readers a new lens on living.

Books Beat Editor Meera Kumar can be reached at