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

5 thoughts on “A Comic Among Epics, about a Prince Among Men

  1. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very short for newbies. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

  2. You cannot appreciate this novel completely until you have read the novels. Banker has a lot of complexity and detail going into the narrative and it spans over 6 books. The graphic novel is mostly a follow up to the written series. It’s a step further from written word to pictorial representation for those who like being transported to the world/times of Ramayan. Banker also gives explanations for using anachronistic terms throughout the series. When you read the books you realize that Banker’s series is as detailed and compelling as the original Valmiki version. It has all the qualities of the original viz. the scope, the morality, the slight amibiguity as to right and wrong, the feel of epic of all things.

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