*note: this is supposed to be missionary-type article, and is not meant for you comics-literate types*
Back in the days when the Internet, mobile phones and digital video cameras were as sci-fi as Flash Gordon, when Indrajaal Comics were everywhere and Bahadur, Mandrake and Phantom ruled the hearts and minds of Indian kids, comics knew their role – like their Ovaltine-drinking readers, they were seen, but not heard. They were fun and exciting, their characters larger than life and worth eagerly waiting for, but the purest joy of comics lay in emotional associations – hoarding them, digging them out from trunks, speaking in Old Jungle Sayings, imagining yourself in the pages. But the stories themselves never really compared to the world of books – comics were lighthearted, quickworded, and soon over. Except Tintin and Asterix, which were clearly different in some way. Because they were wise, intelligent, witty, touching and utterly entertaining every time you read them. Because your parents giggled over them with as much childish enthusiasm as you did.
Reading comics as an adult in a new world in a new century is a completely different experience. Graphic novels, as these new grown-up comics are called by people who feel sheepish reading books with pictures in them, are the fastest growing phenomenon in global publishing, covering everything from biographies and literary novels on every possible theme to academic texts, historical fiction and non-fiction, from the Bible to The Hobbit.. Now comics are multi-layered, complex, incredibly well drawn, and often written better than ordinary books (text novels?).
What’s most amazing about new comics is the way text and image can lead you in different directions and yet complement one another, creating a multi-layered whole that’s then rendered even more beautifully complex by gutterspace, (the blank space between comic panels) which uses your imagination to make a completely cinematic transition between one panel and another. When you watch movie adaptations of your favourite books, the film usually never lives up to the one you saw in your head when you were reading. With graphic novels, you get to both watch the film and make it up while you’re reading.
Sadly, not too many graphic novels are available in India, but the medium’s popularity has grown tremendously over the last two years . The publication of Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor, the first Indian literary comic book in English, helped to bring graphic novels into the mainstream in India – since then, a lot of bookstores over the country have slowly been adding comics to their shelves. Now trickling sales have turned into a flow – the number of people informed about and interested in graphic novels greatly exceeds the books available, so titles fly off shelves. But graphic novels are expensive (the average slim volume costs around Rs 700) and sales will never be impressive in terms of figures unless Indian publishers can find some way to print the books locally and bring prices down over the next few years.
A few Delhi bookstores have recently acquired graphic novel collections. The best ones are at Midlands and The Book Shop though occasional gems can be found at Bahrisons as well. Om Bookstores has a decent comics collection, but these are mostly straightforward superhero comics that the adult non-fan might not want to get into. For the hardcore superhero comics fan, of course, manna has fallen from Krypton with Gotham Comics, who distribute DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Mad Magazine and Disney comics, among others, in India. Until very recently, Gotham used to produce special issues, superhero stories collected in graphic novel format, available for the princely price of Rs. 90.
There’s still a very long way to go before we get the same sort of access to comics that we do to mainstream work. Most of the comics we do get are from a few years ago – graphic novels are currently sharing the fate of other forms of writing perceived as genre work in India, so contemporary work is almost never available unless the book is a multi-million dollar product. And graphic novels very rarely have large international publicity campaigns behind them. The good news, though, is that more Indian comics are in the works, and given how fascinating the medium is, interest in comics can only grow – and market forces will take care of the rest. I just wish the process would take less time
Box: The best graphic novels currently available in Delhi
The Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman. Ten volumes of great literature by the most exacting standards. The story of the Endless, a family of immortals older than gods, anthropomorphic personifications of Destiny, Death, Dream (the protagonist), Destruction, Desire, ,Despair and Delirium (formerly Delight), who live in the shadows of stories and change worlds both visible and imagined. Asked to sum up the story in a sentence, Gaiman said, ‘The king of dreams learns one must change or die and then makes his decision.’ Written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by a crack team of artists, the story weaves through time, space, reality using literary classics, mythology ancient and modern, world folklore, religious texts and history in a manner unparalleled by any fiction work so far.
Maus by Art Spiegelman Pulitzer Prize-winning comic in two volumes. Maus is Art Spiegelman’s striking, moving and compelling journey into the life of his father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. Drawn in black and white with races depicted as cheery cartoon animals, this multi-layered masterpiece changed the way graphic novels were perceived by mainstream literary critics.
Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis tells the tale of the Iranian author’s childhood in the time of the Islamic revolution and afterwards, during the war between Iran and Iraq. Persepolis 2 is about her schooldays in Austria, and her return to Iran, marriage, divorce and migration. The books are a beautifully illustrated, artfully told political history of post-revolution Iran.
Sin City by Frank Miller. Blood, guts, guns, sex, drugs and death. Stark, brutal black-and-white images, primitive, fast-talking, fast-shooting characters, Ubermenschen and superbabes. Frank Miller’s iconic noir work is a series of interwoven stories set in Basin City, where no nice people live, and no one lives for very long. Available collected in seven volumes. Not for those with weak stomachs.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Not to be confused with the strange movie they made from it with Naseeruddin Shah doing spinning heel-kicks. Along with Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s Dark Knight books, the comics that redefined the superhero genre and its possibilities. The League books are set in 1898 and bring together characters from Victorian era literature. Allan Quatarmain, the Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Wilhelmina Harker and Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde take on Dr. Fu Manchu and Martian aliens from The War of the Worlds in two books full of wit and violence.
Palestine by Joe Sacco: Sacco is a Maltese comics artist and journalist who brought comics further into the limelight with his stunning Gulf War coverage – in comics. Palestine, his best known work, is a collection of stories from his travels around Palestine and dramatization of stories he was told by Palestinians and Israelis.