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On Comics: City Limits

*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.


About Samit Basu

Novelist. Best known for fantasy and science fiction work. Most recently, The City Inside (Tordotcom)/Chosen Spirits (Simon and Schuster)


11 thoughts on “On Comics: City Limits

  1. amazing review!
    maybe you could lend me some of the titles you mentioned if you drop by to kolkata sometime 🙂

    Posted by Someone Somewhere | October 20, 2005, 2:23 pm
  2. A very nice piece Samit. I sent it to my sister, who is forever trying to introduce me to Graphic Novels, and who was born after the Phantom days. I loved the way you did that ‘old jungle saying’ thing.

    Posted by Prerona | October 20, 2005, 3:22 pm
  3. nicely done, Samit.

    btw, isnt Watchmen available in India?? If it is, you should add it your list sharpish!!

    Posted by Abhimanyu | October 20, 2005, 4:58 pm
  4. A very good piece about a very interesting subject. Pune, unfortunately, isn’t as lucky in this matter (the availability of GNs), and my friends often attempt to ridicule me for reading them. But I just narrate an episode from Moore and Gaiman’s Miracleman and they shut up.

    Graphic novels were, by and large, a very good influence, but these days, each series of comics puts out a graphic novel a month, and the better ones get obscured. And the grimness that GNs brought to comics was ultimately a bad influence, because each superhero became a ‘tortured soul’, and comics weren’t as fun as they used to be. My favourite comment on this is the one Moore made in Supreme (a very post-modern Superhero yarn), where an eighties Superhero moll says to another, “He’ll pay you more attention once you’re raped, crucified and hooked on heroin, so he can avenge you …” Things have improved since.

    And I can’t believe you missed out on Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World (if it is available in Delhi, of course). Presented in traditional style, yet endlessly innovative, it is more-or-less representative of modern-day literary comics. The general topic is that of Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien – teenage angst. It was made into a (supposedly) very good movie with Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannsen.

    PS: Sorry for writing such a long comment – I’m contemplating a post on this topic myself, and it came spilling out. Thanks for indulging. 🙂

    PPS: Neil Gaiman himself doesn’t like the phrase ‘Graphic Novel’. He calls them comics, and says that if ‘movies’ can mean anything from Jackass to Ran, then comics can mean anything from V for Vendetta to Grizzlyman #3546. I agree.

    Posted by Aditya Bidikar | October 20, 2005, 5:36 pm
  5. I would like to chime in and say that Ghost World is, indeed, an utterly sublime, subtle and beautiful movie. With jawdropping performances by both female leads and the always brilliant Steve Buscemi.

    Posted by Abhimanyu | October 20, 2005, 6:17 pm
  6. rohan :): watchmen is available, but i thought it would be difficult to explain in two sentences. so picked lxg as alan moore work of note. also more likely to appeal to non-superhero types.

    adityaL ive read and loved ghost world, but ive never seen it in delhi. also, yeah, theyre comics all right, but like i said this piece is not for openminded comics fans, but for people who need to be converted, and graphic novel is a better conversion tag.

    rohan again: yes, the movie was wonderful, and steve buscemi too. my favourite buscemi character will always be him in the big lebowski, though.

    Posted by samit | October 20, 2005, 8:50 pm
  7. someone somewhere: im terrible when it comes to loaning, so…

    prerona: thanks.

    Posted by samit | October 20, 2005, 8:51 pm
  8. hehehe. he has NO FRAME OF REFERENCE!

    My favourite Buscemi performance has to be Mr Pink from Reservoir Dogs closely followed by his Fargo turn. Amazing.

    Have you seen American Splendour?

    I see your point on Watchmen but any list not including it always makes me feel vaguely uneasy 🙂

    Posted by Abhimanyu | October 20, 2005, 9:26 pm
  9. Hi, excellent post on GN, Samit. It feels good to know so much GN fans lie here right in the heart of literature-land. Now, for my question, has anyone heard of this GN “The Bloody Streets of Paris” by Jacques Tardi? I have been eyeing a rather mutilated version at my neighbourhood bookstore. 🙂

    Posted by Accidental Fame Junkie | October 21, 2005, 5:09 am
  10. Is Sin City as gory as Sandman?

    ( Asuming that the term ‘graphic novel’ applies to all comics) And wherever i go, why oh why doesn’t anyone ever compliment on manga?Is it because of the lack of availability in India?

    P.S, on a personal note, would read a hundred volumes of manga anyday over Sandman and LXG.Not that they aren’t good….
    And besides, manga is free if you know which sight to go to…..

    Posted by Pip Squeak | October 24, 2005, 8:53 pm
  11. OOPS, typing mistake…again! i meant ‘site’

    Posted by Pip Squeak | October 24, 2005, 8:54 pm

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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
October 2005


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