‘Graphic novelists are influential in an arena where nobody cares about influence.’
– Sarnath Banerjee, in conversation
The graphic novel in India is a bastard child with many snarling parents. The anxiety related to its influences, to borrow the literary critic Harold Bloom’s hoary phrase, are both vicious and various. How is one to trace this heritage? A casual empiricist would say that the story of the graphic novel begins with Will Eisner and R Crumb in the 1960s, or perhaps with the Superman comics of the 1930s. A purist would head back to the 19th century, to credit Rodolphe Töpffer with founder-status. Scott McCloud, the ultimate comics nerd, would take you all the way to Sumerian cuneiform.
To trace the history of the genre in the Subcontinent, we can turn to Alok Sharma, an encyclopaedia of lost cities and forgotten heroes, and the director of the documentary Chitrakatha: Indian comics beyond balloons and panels, soon to be released. From pioneer Indrajal Comics during the 1960s to the chart-busting Raj Comics of the early 1990s, Sharma unveils something of a hidden history of the genre. Indrajal Comics, Anant Pai’s maiden venture, introduced figures such as Phantom and Mandrake alongside indigenous characters, beginning the region’s long tango with the Western tradition of comic art. Uncle Pai continued this tradition of inter-mixture in Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), early editions of which were illustrated Western fairytales. The Story of Krishna made its debut as ACK #11 and sparked off a boom in Indian comics. Its influence eventually became so wide-ranging that it inspired a graphic novel in turn, Rogan Gosh, by the British duo Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. The science-fiction legend Roger Zelazny is said to have kept a stack of ACKs by his bed during the writing of his well-regarded Lord of Light.
The transformation of the medium from daily strips to weekly or monthly serials was a crucial one in the early history of the graphic novel, and in the Subcontinent that void was filled by Uncle Pai. The ‘pulp comics’ magazine, inspired by the success of Indrajal and ACK, soon became a vibrant vernacular sub-culture. In North India alone, there was the MAD magazine-inspired Deewana, Chacha Chaudhary, Fighter Toads (borrowed from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise) and Madhu Muskans, the latter set in the fictional city of Mayapuri. Meanwhile, newspaper cartoonists made headway in other markets and regions. The English-language dailies were the fiefdom of the sardonic R K Laxman, while artists such as G Aravindan and V T Thomas (‘Toms’) became institutions in Kerala. The latter was so popular that his comic strip became the subject of copyright litigation in 1989, one of the few instances at the time of an artist suing for authorship rights. The Supreme Court awarded Toms full rights to his characters, as against the claims of Malayala Manorama, the publishers of the strip.
Simultaneously, these magazines and others like them across the country peddled a steady influx of Asterix and Tintin. By the late 1980s, the superhero motif of kitschy Golden Age comics was well entrenched, with Super Commando Dhruv and the ever-popular Nagaraj, Stealthy Snake-Lord. With the 1990s and liberalisation arrived the universe of DC and Marvel comics, with their expanded stable of superheroes, mutants and swamp things.
Could the graphic novel, portentous and pompous, be far off? In 1994, inspired by Narmada Valley activism, Delhi artist Orijit Sen wrote River of Stories, conventionally considered as India’s first graphic novel. It was around this time that Japanese manga began to make significant impact on the Indian scene. Manga, with its emphasis on long-running properties (series run by the artist/writer, not by the publisher), helmed by a core team, exposed the growing Indian industry to a new way of organising itself. Thus far, it had followed the Western ‘big house’ tradition, retaining visible properties with invisible authorship. Now, against the backdrop of Toms’s court case and the raging influence of manga, comic books became imprinted with their author’s personality. This was a shift in emphasis that had revolutionised the Western scene during the previous decade, and it marked the most important transition between ‘comic books’ and ‘graphic novels’ in the Subcontinent.
As with the Bengali novel during the 19th century, the Indian graphic novel is a product of both time and place. It is the product, most of all, of an ethos. Graphic novels are best appreciated by people with a pedantic eye for detail, significant patience and a need for self-identification. In India, the genre owes its existence to several cultures talking at each other, often from different vantages and starting points. It draws from a flood of aesthetic styles and literary formats.
This is a malady of post-industrial times, when anyone with Internet access is exposed to graphic traditions from Billy Bunter to Ivan Brunetti. Married with the Subcontinent’s own rich culture of visual arts in storytelling, the books that result are often as beautiful as they are unique. It is fair to argue that the richly illustrated books from indie publishers across India – Tara, Tulika, Blaft, Navayana – are among the most eloquent narrative art that the region has produced. A lot of the best fusion art remains in children’s fiction, from publishers such as Tulika and Karadi Tales (an ACK imprint). By and large, mass comics have confined themselves to two arenas: illustrated books for children and pulp magazines. The graphic novel, then, is a bridge between these worlds. In the new millennium, graphic novels and web-based comics are proliferating within the Indian market. The question has become: Will quality outpace quantity?
For an answer I turned to Sarnath Banerjee, perhaps India’s most vocal exponent of mixed media and graphic narrative. His books wander between memoir (Corridor), novel (The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers) and commentary (The Harappa Files, as reviewed in this issue). He co-founded the now defunct Phantomville, one of the earliest independent publishers of graphic novels in India, and is a member of the highbrow Pao Collective of likeminded artists. All of this makes him well placed to survey the genre, which he did with surprising gloom. ‘Everywhere you see adaptation,’ he said recently, ‘but there is little interpretation.’ Still, he conceded that there was great talent out there, much innovation and a few visionary editors.
International houses such as Virgin Comics have also attempted to set up shop in India in recent years, though with less success. It was chiefly at them that Banerjee’s ire was directed: ‘They sell comics written only for fundamentalist NRIs,’ he said, referring to non-resident Indians. Though Virgin India roped in some well-known names for its stable, the enterprise appears to have been doomed by its concept. It was a collaboration between two infamous purveyors of Indian exotica – Shekhar Kapoor and Deepak Chopra – and the British magnate Richard Branson, so one could perhaps be glad that it tanked. In 2008, it was relaunched as Liquid Comics – though this too is unfortunately repeating its predecessor’s penchant for obsolescence.
Smut and conscience
Like all cultures, comics has its avant-garde. In keeping with the old maxim of ‘When faith fails, head for the fringe’, many of its best artists and writers are to be found online. There is a thriving web-comic culture that rejuvenates the jaded daily comic; the most popular of these strips – such as Questionable Content and xkcd – now have global followings. It is a unique skill, to keep the reader engaged in the same characters and settings across millions of panels, and one we are lucky to see preserved by the Internet. The kitschy and gloriously smutty Savita Bhabhi is India’s most famous experiment in this regard, but dozens of other homegrown web-comics exist for the aficionado.
There is also an array of online magazines promoting Indian comics. Comix.India, the most innovative of these, follows a print-on-demand policy and has clear themes for each issue. They have published four issues to date, all of which combine a variety of literary and aesthetic styles. In the works, besides, is a more conventional magazine – Comix Verite – which will focus on ‘reportage and essay’ and tap into the huge influence authors like Joe Sacco and Marjane Satrapi have had upon Indian graphic novelists. A sneak peek of what this magazine might look like can be found in their recent compilation ‘The Real Stuff’.
Meanwhile, graphic journalism exerts a peculiar hold upon the Indian audience. River of Stories, for instance, is equal parts myth and reportage, and much of the genre is heavily influenced by news media and ‘current affairs’. All of Phantomville’s publications, for instance, share this earnest focus upon the Current Indian Condition. Sharad Sharma went so far, indeed, as to establish ‘Development Comics’ in order to bring together the disparate fields of grassroots reportage and graphic storytelling, and now runs comics workshops in Kashmir and Assam. His latest offering – Parallel Lines – features stories based on everything from BT-cotton to the Commonwealth games. Another ambitious project is the Hyderabad Graphic Novel Project, an online collaboration that claims city-lore as inspiration and calls itself an attempt to record a ‘city in argument with itself’.
It is unclear why non-fiction is emerging as an important mode in graphic narrative storytelling in India. It would be unkind to dismiss this as a fad, given that it permeates every level of comics culture. From HarperCollins publishing an Indian edition of Nicholas Wild’s Kabul Disco to the bilingual Development Comics, consumers seem to prefer their news in graphic panels rather than in prose. Or it could simply be that the form is well-suited to the visceral nature of sensationalist popular culture – why read about a dismembered body or a howling mob when you can simply see it?
It could also be, though, that the equation works the other way. Graphics journalism is one way to harness the popularity and potential of comic books and sell small doses of conscience. It is the ancient argument that literature is a window into alternate humanities, that the stories we read shape the people we become. Comics are a potent way to package unpleasant realities into easily-digestible figments, and the hope is that they will disseminate so widely within mass culture that people will begin to question received wisdom about the realities they represent. It might be a naive hope, even a foolhardy one. For all that, it is the kind of hope that deserves our respect, our encouragement, and our money.
~ Nandini Ramachandran is a lawyer, editor and writer in Bangalore. More at chaosbogey.wordpress.com.