Graphic novels are finally looking beyond superheroes and the supernatural

Graphic novels are finally looking beyond superheroes and the supernatural. They’re tackling politics, gender issues and contemporary crises.
UPDATED ON MAY 24, 2016 06:14 PM IST

In April 2014, 15 women, mostly in their twenties and early thirties, gathered at a workshop called Drawing Attention. It was led by comic-book artist and editor Priya Kuriyan and German illustrators Ludmilla Bartscht and Larissa Bertonasco. “The idea was to get more women into the comic-making space and introduce them to a medium that can be such a powerful communication tool,” says Kuriyan.

Anita Roy, senior editor at Zubaan, a Delhi-based publishing house, recalls, “We wanted the women to draw on their personal experiences and talk about what it is like being a woman in contemporary India,” she says. “Part of the impulse came from the reactions in the wake of the terrible rape of December 2012.”

What came out were stories as varied and unique as the women themselves. Each had a different tone and feel, but every story spoke about sexual harassment and the challenges arising from having to live with or negotiate gender roles and expectations. These short sketches by amateur artists were compiled into an anthology and published as Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back in 2015.

Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet In Vikaspuri features Delhi’s water wars.
Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet In Vikaspuri features Delhi’s water wars.

It was just one of many graphic novels released that year. Malik Sajad released Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, a story of a young boy growing up in a militarised and militant state. Sumit Kumar came out with Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari, which chronicles the history of India’s Maoist uprising, tracing its origins to the village of Naxalbari. These were followed by Sarnath Banerjee’s All Quiet in Vikaspuri, published this January. Banerjee’s dystopian novel depicts, in black and white, the ever-so-real water wars of today’s Delhi.

The new slew of graphic novels looks squarely at the issues facing contemporary India. “Comics have the potential to reach out to a large audience,” says Kuriyan, adding that its unique text and image format lets storytellers weave scenes in a way that makes their tale more meaningful and poignant. “The impact visuals have can be much more visceral and direct as compared to prose; not to forget they also have great recall value.”

How it all began

India’s love affair with comics started in 1967 when Amar Chitra Katha was launched. Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, and other homegrown publishers followed. But while Indian comics remained dominated by mythological figures and superheroes even through the 1980s, on the other side of the globe, change was afoot. Artists like Art Spiegelman, and later Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi started using comics to tell some very poignant and grown-up stories. These were the graphic novels (although the term was coined way back in 1964 and Will Eisner made it popular).

Back home, Orijit Sen was the first to tap into the potential of this new format to raise awareness about the issues surrounding the Narmada Dam Project. In 1994, River of Stories was published. But it took another decade for a second graphic novel to emerge. This time it was Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004). Set in Lutyen’s Delhi, it dealt with urban youngsters at odds with a changing India.

Our superheroes and four-colour gods didn’t quite welcome the change. They invaded the newly popular graphic novel space almost annihilating the realists. “Mythology and folklore are classic comics topics,” says Banerjee, explaining their popularity. “They have neat ideas of good and bad, and have morals. They are not messy or complicated like real life. The same goes for superhero books. Maybe we like clear-cut.”

So most of the graphic novels that came out of India over the 2000s looked basically like stylised versions of Amar Chitra Katha. Hindu gods and goddesses were mercilessly moulded into Captain America-like superheroes. Graphic novels seemed to suffer from the Bollywood syndrome – occupied with creating a world twice removed from reality to offer an escape from real-life problems, or to provide fantastical solutions.

It wasn’t that Indian readers were not ready for stark tales, argues Kuriyan. “In the case of graphic novels, many people who began experimenting with the form took up mythology as they wanted to work with stories people are already familiar with,” she says. In a nation full of fantastical tales, magic and other-worldly powers, it was an easy leap.

The real picture

Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is a story of a young boy growing up in a volatile state
Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir is a story of a young boy growing up in a volatile state

But artists and writers were aware that graphic novels could tell a certain kind of tale better than prose. Sajad, whose bildungsroman raises multiple questions on the Kashmir issue, found the format perfect for his story. “When you talk about Kashmir, the discourse is hinged on the geographical disputes, apolitically correct but fundamentally lazy theories, and the baggage of Partition,” he points out. The rest of India however doesn’t see the real story. “They echo the noise of the media that amplifies the comedy. I thought the graphic novel format would help me tell my story more effectively,” he says.

Sajad finds that the graphic novel format helps develop familiarity with the subject and makes a story more personal. “There are things that can’t be communicated through just words. Visuals illustrate our subconscious labyrinth while the words lead the plot,” he says.

But can four books deeply rooted in reality, all published within a year, point to the start of a trend? Is the Indian graphic novel getting serious?

Kumar believes even if it is, it shouldn’t. “Serious is often boring,” he reminds us. According to him the graphic novel should be conversely growing younger in its approach. Instead it’s already growing too dark and cliche. “I see gender neutral, hyper sensitive, black frames. Kuch serious conflict type issue + grayscale + in English + thoda samajh nahi aaya = a great graphic novel? This perception is getting tiring.”

Kumar finds it’s necessary for a story to be funny, especially when dealing with serious issues. His own book covers the Naxalbari movement, but it is laced with light humour, the panels are dipped in colour, and the dialogues are peppered with references to pop culture. “Why can’t I draw about class conflict using fruits who talk like us?” he asks.

Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari, Tomar Bari: Naxalbari, covers the history of India’s Maoist uprising
Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari, Tomar Bari: Naxalbari, covers the history of India’s Maoist uprising

The Predecessors

Of course, we have seen a few strikingly bold works in the past. While Abdul Sultan PP and Partha Sengupta’s The Believers (2006) set in present-day Kerala was about religious tolerance, Naseer Ahmed’s Kashmir Pending (2007), depicts Kashmir seen through the eyes of a reformed militant and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm (2011) was a graphic representation of the Emergency-era Delhi. And then there was Amruta Patil’s Kari (2008) – a wry tale about a lesbian woman dealing with loneliness, death and a ruthless city. But such instances were few and far between.

Winds of change

Certainly, the graphic novel scene in India is slowly expanding to include more political commentary, especially with web comics like Royal Existentialists and Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land, and now, Rashtraman. Many newspapers have begun to carry short graphic-novel-style strips within their pages, the latest being the revival of Manjula Padmanabhan’s Suki – the strip that pioneered feminist comics in India. But Kuriyan seems to think that it is still too early to herald a renaissance. One reason for this is the lack of an organised industry of colourists within India. Graphic novelists working on non-fiction and contemporary issues have no choice but to operate as single entities. This can be a double-edged sword. “It is what makes their work stand apart, but it is also what makes it more difficult to keep up with the organised industry that produces comics on mythology on such a large scale,” Kuriyan says.

Also, while graphic novels are slowly pushing the boundaries, they have a long way to go before the panels produce profit. “Graphic novels – both fantasy and literary – have a small but very involved readership” says Ajitha GS, senior commissioning editor at HarperCollins India. She adds that although people are experimenting with newer content as well as styles, the size of the graphic novels market in India is still minuscule. Unlike the US, France, the UK and Japan, the country is yet to have a stand-alone graphic novel industry. Printing graphic novels are more complex than just all-text ones. Even paperbacks start at `1,000. “We are selling an expensive product in a price-sensitive market,” she adds. “This limits the reach.”

But it seems there might be a change round the corner. Banerjee says there is a rich body of work coming out of India. “It is our insecurities that make us often look to the West. I find that many Indian graphic novelists are often more original than their Western contemporaries and the stories they tell are more relevant to us,” he says, pointing out that many graduates, fresh out of universities and design schools, are taking to this form in a huge way. “They are developing a sophisticated language to portray their interior worlds and are discussing their most deeply felt thoughts. Usually, these are original voices untainted by the forces of mainstream media,” he says optimistically.

Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter

From HT Brunch, May 22, 2016

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