Monthly Archives: January 2011

High Art meets Low Lit

 

 

Synopsis – ‘Hush’ is the story of a school-girl who is tormented by someone close to her, and has to take swift action one day. The whole story is told only through pictures, no speech, something that the publishers are calling Quiet Stories. This is the debut offering from Manta Ray Comics.

 

Thank heavens for small mercies – this book has no speech. That’s so much clemency on the part of the creators of Hush that I almost feel bad that I think so poorly of their book.

You see, the story of Hush is so facile that it comes off as barely more than the first thought that popped into a person’s head who wanted a story that appeared – bold, no-holds-barred, tragic, and blatantly shocking! What you have is a story that is more like a dramatic reading of a newspaper report. The subject is very grave, but the depiction here comes off as frivolous.

Maybe if there were more than 17 pages to the whole story, as a reader I might have been able to get into the story and care about it at all. But it isn’t, and I don’t.

Oh hush up.

That’s 17 pages of actual comic story in a 40-page book, including front and back covers, excluding 2 artwork posters. That makes it one of the most expensive rates per page I have ever paid for any book. And I wasn’t even happy about it.

This is the first book by a new comics publishing house Manta Ray. It is always good to have new sponsors in the creative arts, because people have to put in money based just on the belief of a value. It is not a safe investment, and each team that decides to put their hard-earned money into representing talent, is worth lauding for that act of humanity. But it makes me sad to see that such a poor story made it across the bar of acceptability for Manta Ray. Maybe this can be treated as a faltering first step, but only if we get to see a strong second one.

But, having ripped apart the story let me praise the real hero of this book – Rajiv Eipe, the artist. Single-handedly he has managed to keep this ship from sinking and has managed to impress by his beautiful artwork. He says that he works in the animation industry, but I hope that someday the comics industry will be able to afford him full-time. The story is told, as I said, without words, and this is the opportunity that every artist probably waits for, complete attention. And under that attention every panel literally blossoms with astute flicks of emotive expressions. Past and present times are indicated by black and white backgrounds, words can be lip-read, time pauses and resumes, all without words. Outstanding!

Sample this panel of the protagonist and fill in the story yourself, you can tell what it is all about even on first glimpse.

Artwork – Rajiv Eipe

I’ll tell you what you noticed – the defiant eyes, the determination in the forehead, the grim mouth sealed tightly, even the steady shoulders as she walks. This is when the artist becomes master of the story, taking back-seat to no one.

Eipe uses monochrome with dexterity and versatility, pulling out different drawing styles to colour his scenes.

Artwork – Rajiv Eipe
Artwork – Rajiv Eipe

From sharp lines and a water-colour effect to depict present time, he switches to a more rough sketchy effect, upping the contrast by using darker lead, all when time rolls back. I would guess he switches from pen and brush to pencil here, but I’m no artist.

I’ll also mention what I had said in an earlier post, that the ways in which a panel can be used are as dynamic as the illustrations that it contains. A sharp present-time panel gives way to a blurry one that is drawn out of past-memory. Doesn’t it just fit?

So I applaud the drawings, and the sagacity of leaving them unhindered. The words in this book come before and after the story, in the introduction and profiles. Most of what is said there is so wishy-washy that the silent story is a treat. The vision statement by the publishers states that “Our aim is to bring out comics and graphic novels that will surprise you. That will delight or disturb you. Coax you onto serene floating clouds or throw you against the wall. Books that will do something” (emphasis theirs). See what I mean? The last lines are prescient: “… we believe that a good story is all that matters. Everything else is just noise.”

JustcomiX Rating:

Story 3/10 Underdeveloped and clichéd
Illustrations 8/10 Great, manages extremely well without words
Production Quality 8/10 Large format, good binding and paper
Overall 5/10 Too expensive for such a short read, only for collectors and commentators

‘Hush’

Pratheek Thomas (writer)

Rajiv Eipe (artist)

Published by Manta Ray Comics, 2010

A Comic Among Epics, about a Prince Among Men

Synopsis – ‘Prince of Ayodhya’ is a graphic adaptation of Ashok Banker’s novel of the same name. It is a re-telling of the Indian epic Ramayan (the Valmiki version) in 8 volumes, starting with this one. Here we are introduced to the primary characters and shown the emerging crisis – the unchallenged rise of the demon lord Ravan. Ram, a divine incarnation and the hero, and his brother Lakshman are recruited by the venerable sage Vishwamitra to be trained in order to be able to face the mighty Ravan.


I wonder if a book about a divine hero can assemble a divine intervention for those involved in it.  This may well have happened to Ashok Banker, whose novel has just come into the market as a comic book adaptation. According to his introduction, he serendipitously found a willing illustrator in the person of an Argentinian fan of his novels, Enrique Alcatena, who helped bring to fruition Banker’s childhood dream to produce a comic book.

Congratulations, Mr Banker, for that itself.

Clockwise from Right: Cover page, Enrique Alcatena, Ashok Banker

I must say that I had come across this book more than once in book stores before finally deciding to pick it up. Why my initial hesitation? Well, because I don’t think quite highly of adaptations. They are dumbed down versions of the original, meant to draw in an unwitting, and often witless, new audience. But, there was where I was wrong.

I was conflating book-to-book adaptations with book-to-new medium adaptations. Let me explain. When a long novel is adapted to a shorter form it usually loses its richness and complexity. It suits a new audience, but often in a stilted manner, and particularly when the book wasn’t meant for all audiences. I say, always look for the ‘Complete and Unabridged’ or nothing at all.

But this shouldn’t be the case here, should it? Here the entire form is changing. We are moving from purely worded to image + word. And maybe that is what I should have been mindful of. After all a cinematic adaptation of a book is not dismissed, and can even be better than the book. Plus, Banker’s work itself is an adaptation of an epic, is it not? And I haven’t read his books, so even better. This is a brand new work as far as I am concerned as a reader.

This is the first of eight proposed volumes (going by the novels) and it is highly readable.  It is action packed and moves well. It doesn’t fall victim to dropping everything to go into dramatic monologues every few pages. The look of the characters is also well thought out, and not in the usual mould of benign physiognomy – half-closed eyes and drooping wrists. It is a Ramayana of action, and Dharma.

Naturally, a great amount of credit goes to Alcatena, who worked remotely on this, based only on Banker’s novels, and almost certainly by looking up generic pictures of India on the internet. He has tried to create a fact-based fantasy Ayodhya and palaces that look accurately ancient. I will dock him, however for getting things wrong occasionally, like the thinly-disguised Qutb Minar in Ayodhya, which is almost blasphemic to some. But, it is an Ayodhya with a spirit, with towers and tall shadows, and I appreciate that. It is worthy of its Kshatriya kings.

And in another panel, where we see a flower vase, it contains lotuses. Very nicely noted, Mr Alcatena.

I wasn’t sure what it was, but something about the illustrations also seemed South American to me. That is certainly a damning thing to say, but that was a gut feeling. So I thought about it, and tried reading up on the net (nothing there). So here is my take on why that feeling kept coming to me – the jungle.

The foliage and denseness of all nature gives the sense of a hiding, and not an Arden. It is foreboding, and grungy hunters and meat-eating demons come out of it. It is a very interesting take on the many perils contained in the Ramayana, because a lot of danger does stalk in Valmiki’s forests, though the darkness doesn’t always impress upon us. South American comics have grappled intensely with depictions of the lives of guerrillas and combatants. The forest becomes the space of revolution – here it is a divine revolution.

It is very interesting to see how leaves are drawn. They are more black than green, and don’t allow any light to shine through. Depending on which side one is on they can be threatening or life-saving. And the panel that really confirmed why everything looked so South American was this,

Compare with this cover art set in South America, by someone more famous,

I suppose, the greatest advantage this comic version of Ramayana will have over others (like the famous Ramayana 3392 AD (Virgin Comics)) will be the strength of its writing. Good writing needs real writers, even in comics. Just look at the Asterix comics written after the death of writer René Goscinny, and compare them to the earlier ones. Banker certainly knows his stuff much better than most – because he is a writer.

Some complaints I do have with the book. There are some pages where the reading order suddenly expands across the full two-page spread. It suddenly goes from one order to a new order, without warning.

So, I found myself reading out of sequence, until the change became altogether too glaring. Could this not have been avoided?

A few phrases should have been translated where needed – Spasas, Arghya Saptarishis, Yakshis, to name a few, some because they are difficult, some because they need a deeper explanation. The comic book audience is not the same as the audience for a lecture, which is not the same as the audience for a movie. Also some of the words seem anachronistic, like adalat, which are almost certainly Arabic/Urdu.

And pray tell why the abbreviation PF, and how can it expand to Purana Wafadars? The word Wafadar, too, is anachronistic.  Is this an oversight or an attempt to contemporise it?

Banker fears that there is no market for Indian graphic novels in India, but let’s hope that’s not true. I would also like to point out that if there is ever a stable market in Indian comics it is for mythology. And comics have altogether been popular enough here for comics creators not to worry about that, but only on content. It is not that the market is shaky, but that graphic novels in India are usually neither here nor there when it comes to theme or story. Trying to market comics at high prices is a bigger impediment than the scope of the market.

And also, let’s not call this a graphic novel, it’s hard to think of the Ramayana as a novel. Any suggestions for a better term in this case?


JustcomiX Rating:

Story 6/10 Should have been a little more complex where the situation demands it
Illustrations 7/10 Fresh, active lines and imagery
Production Quality 7/10 Nicely bound. Should have been larger
Overall 7/10 Good book, but didn’t leave me thoughtful. It is just plot narration, not like the original epic

‘Prince of Ayodhya’

Ashok Banker (writer)

Enrique Alcatena (artist)

Published by Penguin Books India, 2010

Ligne Claire – the Tintin way of drawing

Re-reading some old comics feels nostalgic, like playing football in the mud (not that I ever did that). And so it happened when I picked up a Tintin comic recently. But what was it that felt so comfortable about returning to Tintin that I had been missing in the wider world of comics?

Why, Ligne Claire of course!

I was equally puzzled by the term when I first chanced upon it. But I think that’s what I had been missing.

Ligne Claire, French for Clear Line is a school of comics illustrating that believes that

  • lines must be distinct and uniform, giving everything shape and boundaries
  • everything within the panel must be shown crystal clearly

If you imagine the pages within a child’s colouring book you will know what this mean. A sharp image, drawn using clear lines, just waiting to be carefully coloured in. no ambivalent brush strokes or light effects.

This style, as it turns out, was pioneered by Hergé, the creator of Tintin. It went on to take Europe by storm during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. The term itself, however, was coined much later in 1977 by another artist Joost Swarte. We in India had been well exposed to Tintin comics quite early on, and that is the reason behind the familiarity we feel for images drawn in this manner.

But really analyzing the effect of the style Hergé epitomizes can throw up startling insights. The lines are uniform, with no shading or highlighting. This implies the supremacy of form over all else. And the fact that there is no shading to offer the illusion of depth also means that the background is allowed to draw itself closer into our view. Compare the two images below to understand the difference that Clear Line holds.

Herge was fortunate to gain complete editorial control over this works, thanks to their incredible popularity. He started the Studios Hergé, a team of collaborators who helped him produce comics, and taught his protégés there his style. This developed into the ‘Brussels School’ of Ligne Claire.

The style’s popularity has risen and fallen, and occasional works adopt this method even now. Among the most popular recent works in this style was Jason Lutes’ Berlin volumes published since 1996.

Another very promising discovery for me is Peter van Dongen.

What attracted me through each of my readings, from childhood till now, are probably the details within the panels. It seemed to show me everything I wanted to know and more. Like the best of adventure stories it could be crowded with overflowing treasure chests, and intricate machines, all while the plot was advancing in the foreground. It was a cosy read, like pulling all of your toys together while playing with just one.

On a parting note, I just read how the makers of the upcoming Tintin feature film expressed the difficulty of recreating a faithful look for the film based on the comics. Technology has only now come to their rescue. How’s that for the power of the medium?