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Comics, graphic novels and Indian speculative fiction

Speculative fiction and comics have gone hand in hand from the very
beginning; even today, apart from the mainstream superhero comicbooks,
which are essentially spec-fic, the greatest and best-known comic
writers in the world, like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, are wildly
popular for SF and fantasy creations which use the comic-book medium’s
ability to tell compelling stories and create a sense of scale and
wonder to rival the very best speculative fiction text-only books,
bringing the strengths of both text and art to create a truly
wonderful compound. And in India, the enduring popularity of Asterix,
Tintin, and the home-grown Amar Chitra Katha series serve to underline
the fact the fact that the comic book is a medium the speculative
fiction writer cannot afford not to take seriously.

With the publication of Sarnath Banerjee‘s Corridor two years ago, the
setting up of comics publisher Phantomville and the arrival in India
of Virgin Comics and Animation, graphic novels have been in the Indian
news fairly consistently for a while.

The term graphic novel is, of course, a controversial one at every
level – attributed to Will Eisners ground-breaking A Contract with
God (1978)
, though it’s the term had been around since 1964. The
phrase was created as a term to help sell comicbooks to serious
literary publishers, to distinguish serious, literary comics from more
pulp fare, building a serious artistic movement aiming, as per Eddie
Campbell’s 2004 manisfesto
, “to take the form of the comic book, which
has become an embarrassment, and raise it to a more ambitious and
meaningful level.”

The next decade should be an extremely exciting time for the comicbook
medium in India – on the one hand, literary graphic novels, and on the
other, high-flying spec-fic comics that revisit myth, history and the
future, should make their presence felt in a very significant way both
among Indian readers and worldwide with Indian themes and settings.

Gotham Chopra, Chief Creative Officer, Virgin Comics and Animation:

“I am proud to be a part of what we think is a creative
renaissance in India. I think India in of itself will become the
dominant market for publishing and other forms of entertainment and
servicing that is certainly our goal. But there is also a richness to
our heritage and stories that we think the world will really fall for
if its package the right way with great quality.”

“As with any new business, there are a thousand new challenges every
day! I think the toughest is identifying the best and most real
opportunities amongst the million that come at us every day and
staying focused on them. Also, of course is building the right team.
I have no doubt that the right mix of creative and managerial talent
exists in India but finding them is not the easiest thing in the
world. We also only want to work with dreamers – those who share our
vision and want to be a part of something truly innovative and bold.”

“I am a sucker for mythology and have always been a history buff as
well. Of course re-inventing our great myths – the Ramayan and
Mahabharat – is a no-brainer and something we are exploring. But I’d
rather take our rich mythology and our Asian thinking and integrate
it into contemporary stories and dramas. I think we have a type of
story-telling that will increasingly find a global audience, a
richness to our characters and their backstories that roots them in a
greater sense than just themselves and propels good narratives.
In terms of things to dodge, I think super heroes in the classic
mold. The days of tights and capes seem to be passing in terms of teh
emergence if new heroes. I definitely think there is room in the
pantheon for new and dynamic characters that have powers as part of
their arsenal but I generally look away from the classic caped
crusaders as we develop new stories.”

Others are more guardedly optimistic, at least about the future of
well-done comics in India.

Sarnath Banerjee, comics writer/artist and co-founder of Phantomville:
“Historically comics reading population was quite narrow-minded,
people could make an acute demographic profile of an average comic
book reader. However that profile has changed already, at least in the
west. It has become a cultural phenomenon since the last ten years, a
lucky number of absolutely brilliant graphic novelists and a vacuumed
in the reading market created this. Pundits says it is here to say,
that is why the top three publishers in the world have developed their
own graphic line, I am talking of Penguin, Random house and Gallimard.
Other powerful words-only publishing houses have joined the band
wagon. Corporations are putting money. The comics form is crossing
over to Cinema and advertising. In short these are exciting times for
comics.”

“Unfortunately, I feel we have to wait till it gets filtered down from
the western, particularly the American market. As Phantomville, we are
trying several approaches to sell a larger number of books without
resorting to violence- multiple distributors, presentations in
Universities, word of mouth, keeping the price of book embarrassingly
low etc. yet the progress is very slow. In France the first print run
of comics is 10,000 copies even for a beginner, in India 5,000 copies
is the magic number, it means you are a bestseller.”

“This embodies the whole phenomenon of the book trade. India is an
emerging power with a vast middle class, a growing consumer economy,
but not for books. Whether comics or otherwise. However I am told that
self-help and management books are doing well.”

“One Corridor is not going to change the outlook to comics. To build a
comics culture in the country a lot of investments have to be made.
Capital has to be spent on training and shaping comics illustrators,
which is a specialised art. As you are aware that although there is
no dearth of good writers is the country comics illustrators are
almost insignificant. I know many talented writers including you,
given an opportunity will want to do and have the capacity to do
brilliant comics, but somehow are crippled by lack of visionary
illustrators”

“In a royalty-oriented publishing house this is almost impossible to
achieve, because the charges of a good illustrator is almost
astronomical, and they tend to charge by panels. Under no
circumstances would the book recover the money spent on creating it.
These are the problems faced by my peers such as Rajesh Devraj, who
conceived this idea of converting the Tamil cowboy, Quickgun Murugan,
into comics, but couldn’t justify the capital to be paid to the
illustrators. I feel your trilogy has great possibility to crossover
into comics, but who will support a project of that scale? These are
questions that bother us. Where will the money come from? Which
marketing department will accept a proposal like that?”

“Although, clearly it can’t be avoided but speculatively there should
be a five-year ban on any thing on Hanuman, for the sake of Hanuman.
And while you are at it Mahabharata and Jatakas, only for five years.
Let us explore some other stories. I feel these tales have done what
cricket has done to hockey and what Bollywood has done to other
cultural forms that could have come out of India.”

Which leads us to the question: But do ‘real’ writers, even
non-literary genre types, write for comics? Yes, of course, they do
that stuff abroad, but comicbooks are still seen as children’s fare in
India, and doesn’t SFF get enough flak even in book form? The easy
answer to this is that comicbooks for grownups have only just started
being widely available in Indian bookstores, and it’s difficult for
Indian readers to become supremely well-versed in the arts and
sciences of good new comics unless they have access to them. As more
comics are created for and by Indians, a readership seems bound to
follow, because comics do hold immense appeal for the most high-nosed
of readers.

Sarnath Banerjee elaborates:
“Comics can fit in a lot of complex ideas in a single page, they can
create atmosphere and psychological states, a theme can be explored in
all its facets and point of views. This is particularly relevant in
discussing history, sociology, anthropology, natural sciences and
emerging technologies, reproductive or otherwise.”
” Informed minds have to come together and collaborate creatively to
get to this phase. “Let’s do comics because it has simple funny
pictures that will instruct simple people on simple principles of
watershed management” is merely one way of looking at things.”

The Indian comics industry as it stands today is extremely
underdeveloped, and relies heavily on the unrelenting retelling of
classic Indian myths, the unabashed regurgitation of American
superheroes and some original comics that are funny, pacy and work for
children at an entertainment level and for adults, both in India and
among the diaspora, as memorabilia, but don’t approach in any sense
the production or stylistic qualities of contemporary international
work. One major reason for this, of course, is a lack of money in the
industry as far as creators, both writers and artists, are concerned;
this needs to change before any indigenous quality comics become
available all over the country, because the production of comics
always has been a laborious, time-consuming and difficult process. But
given the intrinsic appeal of the medium, the kind of devotion that
Indian comics, whatever their defects, inspire in their readers across
ages and countries, and the kind of attention comics have been getting
in the mainstream media, it’s not unreasonable at all to be optimistic
about the future of Indian comics.

For speculative fiction writers, this is actually more of an
opportunity than it is for writers of mainstream literary fiction, at
least in terms of finding readers – spec-fic comics are tried and
tested, drive markets in the US and in Japan, the two largest
producers of comics, and are much more likely to sell (and, thus,
attract publishers) even in India, where comics have been selling in
large quantities for about 50 years. The arrival of more comics
publishers in India, if and when it happens, should see even more
opportunities for people who can spin a good spec-fic yarn, but can’t
draw to save their lives, to see their work in visual form and
actually make that spectacular movie that runs in their head while
they’re writing with their Indian leads that Hollywood would have
rejected, and with the kind of visual effects that Bollywood couldn’t
have afforded.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

Discussion

One thought on “Comics, graphic novels and Indian speculative fiction

  1. Jeff Smith discusses ‘BONE – Out from Boneville’
    at Crossword Kemps Corner

    Join us for a discussion & reading on ‘BONE – Out from Boneville’ by noted graphic novelist Jeff Smith.

    Date & Time: Wednesday, 19th November 08 at 7:00 pm

    Venue: CROSSWORD Kemps Corner

    About the book:

    ‘BONE’ is the adventure story of three cousins – Fone bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone who are driven out of their homeland into a strange land where dragons control your dreams, locusts wreak havoc and monsters bay for blood. ‘BONE’ is a nine book graphic novel series – of which 8 have release in the US and Book 9 will release in early 2009. It’s been rated as the one of the top ten graphic novels of all time by The Time Magazine.

    About the Author:

    Jeff Smith was born and raised in the American Midwest and learned about cartooning from comic strips, comic books, and TV animation. He launched the comic book ‘BONE’ in 1991. It took Jeff Smith eleven years to create the series of 1300 pages in all. He is a huge fan of Ramayana and Bone is all about traditional cartoon characters presented in an epic format. Both Jeff Smith and ‘Bone’ have won 44 awards including 10 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey awards for creative excellence in cartoon books which is the highest in the history of comic books.

    We look forward to seeing you at the store.

    RSVP: Virat Chandhok – 9820833086

    Posted by ganeiza | November 18, 2008, 5:35 pm

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