Monthly Archives: March 2011

A Ton of Tintin Tidbits

Sometimes the turn around the corner takes you completely by surprise. Usually it might be not so great, like if you step in something. But sometimes you see “The Tintin Shop”. Guess which one makes news here.

During one last souvenir-shopping trip with a friend, here in Singapore, I travelled to Chinatown. I expected some bargains and some nice red lanterns, but not a store dedicated to the intrepid Belgian reporter. But, by some happy twist I saw this store, which is only a few months old. And I was told it is only the 7th “The Tintin Shop” in the world.

Souvenirs be damned, I jumped in here with utmost glee. And what a lovely shop it is. I am glad they kept the interiors bright, cheery and uncluttered, not like a dungeon (as merchandise shops are prone to be). They have all the titles, of course, and also a lot of groovy merchandise, like small models of the characters and the famous vehicles featured in various stories (a footlong shark submarine from “Red Rackham’s Treasure” with Tintin and Snowy inside). A brief collection of books on Tintin are also available, though unfortunately for me a lot of them were in French only. There’s also stationery, t-shirts and the other usuals. Staff is great, never stopped smiling.

But you have to go prepared with cash, the stuff isn’t cheap, not for people like me, anyway. Medium-sized models will be about S$ 20-30, going up to S$ 400-500. My guess is you should have S$ 100 in hand to leave happy (some small models, a book or two, and a few pieces of stationery).

Now having gushed about my exciting discovery, I will also share a despair I have. It is a feeling I have that Tintin is very, very dear to readers in India. I have seen the “7 to 77” age group (a tag used to describe Tintin readership) lap it up. My father borrowed my brother’s copies and shared Thomson-Thompson jokes with his friends. I’ve heard Satyajit Ray was a huge fan. One of my biggest achievements in my otherwise below-average list of accomplishments was having read all the Tintins by my early teens. So why not have something like this in India? I know there’re market forces that determine these things, but that’s also there. I’m sure we deserve this in India. Especially after the Maharaja of Gaipajama showed such hospitality!

Sure, India is not a very mature comics market compared to many others, but the loyalty shown here for Tintin cannot be short-changed. I hope someday there will be such a store here, and I will buy a small set of models after saving for months. After all, I’ve travelled a lot with him.

The Tintin Shop

56 Pagoda Street

Singapore 059215

(Chinatown MRT – Exit Pagoda Street)

Ph: +65 81832210

Cover Lover

Can one really judge a book by its cover? Maybe not, but I love covers anyway. One can judge covers by covers.

Yes, that’s right. I said cover 4 times in the last paragraph. Moving on.

I listened, with relish, to a talk on creating cover art given by Vivek Goel at Comic Con India. It was one of the best things I did there, since it was brand new insight for me. I love learning about the technique and philosophy of comics, and a for-beginners introduction to cover art was delicious.

Cover art is not easy (and here I am not just talking about comics). They have to encapsulate as much of the story contained inside as possible. But how in the world do you do that? It is tough enough writing summaries and précises in 200 words, how do you reduce 200 panels into 1 cover, while retaining the right flavor and consistency? Well, often enough it doesn’t work, hence the old maxim about a book and its cover.

Comics covers are tougher in many ways because it is a part of what it represents. A written novel can have a photograph on its cover, or one illustration. But a comic cover art not only tell you the content of the succeeding pages, but is very much a bite of the comic itself. That way it will also tell you about the quality of the art to be expected inside.

John Berger wrote a book once, which you started reading from the cover itself. It was meant to show how communication began from the moment you have the book within eyesight, how we started perceiving signals right from the start.

So with comics this process feels amplified. Sample an example by one of my favourite comics artists, Will Eisner,

I haven’t read this book but the cover tells me it’s about The Spirit, and he faces non-human enemies. He’ll probably be trapped in a maze-like sewage system, and trying to battle his way out, outnumbered by the gremlin-likes on their home turf. And even if I am all wrong, the cover is still a story I’ve read.

A neat categorization was offered by Goel – three primary types of covers, being Mid-action Cover, Idea Cover and a Pose Cover. He further helped me out by letting me put his own work as samples of this division. So here are Vivek Goel’s 3 types of cover art, with his own works.

A Mid-action Cover is the most direct communication about the contents of the book – it picks a moment that best represents the story about to unfold. It is picked right from the action, and amplified.

The next is the Idea Cover which doesn’t represent the action, but the crux of the story inside. It won’t be an actual event, but will be like a metaphor.

And lastly the Pose Cover is one which is like a portfolio shot of the main character(s). It doesn’t represent any action, and instead is meant to attract us to the character. This works for the best superheroes as well as the deepest graphic novels.

Like with other categorisations, these three are also open to inter-mixing resulting in combinations. Take for instance Pose+Idea covers, like the last one. And maybe, if we try we can also come up with more than three categories other than these three. I’m sure it will be merrier.

And if you want to know more about Vivek’s work, he’s available here. He’s one of the most talented artists I’ve seen (and art is exploding in India, so that’s a great achievement for anyone), and what’s more, he a terrific person.

Cross connected?

I had dismissed this when I first read it, as something where my mind was making connections where none were. Looking at both these articles recently made me think twice. Is there any connection? Please have a look at the review of a comic book on my blog and then read another review that came out a month later in a magazine and post your responses. I am trying to not lead your opinion by what I say, hence I am being vague. Based on your responses I can think of what next to do.

Fan Clans

It’s nice to have categories. It feels safe because it appears as if there is nothing unknown beyond. It is naïve to actually believe this, but comfort is always running the risk of naivety. So we sometimes call ourselves ‘Post-modern’, sometimes ‘Socialists’, ‘Pacifists’ and ‘Occidentals’, ‘Dusky’ and ‘Introverts’. Sometimes ‘all of these’, and sometimes ‘none of these’.

Recently, a categorization of kinds of comics followers I came across helped me understand how different people might approach comics, and where a person might place himself/herself. It helps one prioritise and objectivise, and in turn hunt for elusive aspects of the medium. Here are the four broad generalisations, in the artist’s own hand.

Can you guess whose this is? It’s the person whose name is probably first on anyone’s mind when you think Comics Theory – Scott McCloud. He discusses comics culture in his 2006 book ‘Making Comics’ and he places this as a graphic essay at the end of the book.

The 4 approaches can be defined as follows:

  • Classicist – People who uphold the craft and its principles above all else
  • Animist – People who uphold the content and its connect above all else
  • Formalist – People who look to possibilities and breaking boundaries in the form
  • Iconoclast – People who look for honesty and subversion through the art

Some examples of these approaches are the following,

It goes without saying that none of these are water-tight, and overlapping of categories is natural and desirable. A multi-disciplinary, multi-influential approach to anything is good. A rapturous animist can be heavily classical, a bare-knuckles iconoclast can be a whirling formalist, and so on. What’s more, McCloud says that it is probably natural for one person to move along many of these classifications in their lifetime. For instance he takes the example of Osamu Tezuka, the revered manga creator, who dabbled in as many different styles as the number of stories he wrote, which is a helluva lot. Take this sampling,

So, really, the richest of comics work comes from the most varied approach that one can take. Even the formally straightforward, uncomplicated results (like ‘Maus’) can come out of a looong journey of making dozens and dozens of almost anything (see Spiegelman’s older work).

I find myself, at this point in time, to be a formalist. That’s probably a mix of scholarliness and wide-eyed-amazement. Maybe someday I can aspire to be an Animist, and even later an Iconoclast. I doubt, though, that I can be a Classicist, because I just don’t have the discipline. (And, please, this is not an order of difficulty, just the order of my difficulties.)

Categories, as long as we don’t swear by them, are really the building blocks of culture.

agnaM revo gnippilF

I learnt to read all over again this past week. It wasn’t easy. I cannot say that I have scored more than 80%. The first lessons were a lot more simple to get used to, but the finer points I still haven’t mastered.

I don’t want to irritate you further so I will get to the point – I read Manga in almost its original form (it was an English translation, so almost). I have decided to use my Singapore jaunt to look for Manga books that might be tougher to get in India. So I picked up a horror title called ‘Uzumaki’ and read it at a stretch.

It couldn’t have been a more apt title to apply myself to, since it translates as ‘spiral’. I had to turn my world by 180° to follow the narration. This is because Japanese (the source culture of Manga) uses a script that reads (from top to bottom, and then) right to left, and hence is backwards for people used to left-right scripts like English. It also follows the reverse order of page-flipping, that is to say the back cover for an English books is the front cover for a Japanese book. Urdu speakers/readers will also identify with this.

To illustrate here is an image from Scott McCloud’s ‘Making Comics’ where he shows the reading order of the left-right type mentioned (his * clarifies that it’s right-left in some cultures), and another from the publishers of ‘Uzumaki’ offering a warning for readers.

Here the image on the left is the way English language readers follow the narrative on the page, and the image on the right is how a Japanese language reader will follow theirs. You can view the images in whichever order you want.

Now a page from the comic itself to help you see it for yourself. It’s almost like a game of hand-eye-coordination.

Did you do a good job of following the story? If you did you would have noticed that it is not just a flipping over of the panels, intended to be read from right to left, but also within the panel the speech balloons are in a right-left orientation, adding a further step of complication to our act of reading.

It is remarkable how we have become used to a certain way of reading. This is the creator-reader contract that McCloud and others have spoken about, where we understand that a comic is meant to be read in a certain fashion and we become trained to follow this. I am reminded of the closing credits of the movie ‘Se7en’ (even the title here starts a little Uzumaki in my brain). There instead of rolling the names from the bottom of the screen to the top, it reversed it. There itself it brought a huge sense of jarring to the viewer. How fragile the sense of order is.

Of course, here that isn’t intended at all. Here the norm is followed by the writer which the reader is new to. But it wonderfully unsettles the act of reading. Without trying it teaches us how even the most basic fixedness can be done differently. What I am saying will be obvious to all of those who have been reading Manga for  much longer than I have, but for me it brings a child-like joy whenever I mess up and slip into left-right. It’s like somebody sneaking up from the right when I’m looking left.