Monthly Archives: May 2011

Scritches and Hitches

If you ask me, there are too many details about my life that I find fascinating, right on the verge of wanting to write thinly-guised autobiographical stories. I don’t however, either because of self-loathing (PhD level), or the realization that I wouldn’t want to read a story about everyone who thinks they are special. Anything autobiographical needs to be handled with supreme caution and delicacy.

I did get attracted to a recent autobiographical comic-book in the market. The lion’s share of the credit for that must go to its whimsical title, “The Itch You Can’t Scratch”. But, alas, the title was the first, best and last really good thing about the book.

Author Sumit Kumar was one of the core team that organized the ComicCon recently at Delhi, and his greatest claim-to-fame is that he has served as a writer for the Savita Bhabhi series. This gold nugget was cashed in on at the workshop he conducted leading up to the ComicCon, as well as on the back cover for this book. For something so tantalizing, this episode of his life is glaringly absent from the actual contents of this autobiographical book. What gives?

But, this was confirmed only after I finished the book, while during it I also learnt something about Sumit Kumar. He has indeed had a colourful life so far (he’s 23, I think). He has struggled in the classic “birth vs destiny”, “nature vs essence” manner. And through it all he has displayed a will to overcome, and to change the present. That’s Sumit Kumar the person.

Sumit Kumar the comics creator is a different set of realisations. He has definitely gone autobiographical too early. He hasn’t been able to make his character relatable or likable. And his drawing, which appeared personalized at first, quickly became stilted and very limited.

According to me, autobiographies, in any form, should only be written for one of the following reasons:

  • You are famous and people want to know your life
  • You are not famous, but you have participated in something famous
  • Your life carries an important message for everyone

If these are missing from an autobiography/biography, then chances are that the story is too personal to be a published book. Kumar even includes an entire appendix devoted to his uncle, who was a sociopath. Please don’t take this as a personal dig, it isn’t. This is exactly what is presented. It goes to illustrate the risk one runs when the story presents no guidance. Personal life becomes fair game when you put it out there, and you must be a very strong individual to present an interesting character, and to take the reception it gets. When we talk about ourselves to strangers it must serve a purpose, or else it can even become doleful for the listener.

The great experiment that Kumar undertook, and which I think is a brave one, is of using a mix of Hindi and English. He said somewhere that he wanted to use spoken language, which in India is almost always a mix of two or more. Unfortunately, the result was unexpected. This approach fails because of the difference between spoken and textual – we may speak in two languages, but we usually never write or read in two, not in a sustained manner. So while the conversation might sound perfectly natural in a play or a movie, in a book it is difficult to get used to. And moreover, it was visibly difficult for Kumar at places to choose when to switch between languages and it inhibited his flow of thoughts.

Kumar has enough opinions and sentiments to make a compelling character, but his story will be worth visiting only much later. A big question to think over is what would I like to tell a stranger about myself that would hold his interest? And the answer to this has to be reader-opiented, because he/she is the one paying to read about your life. That’s an honour and privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly. 178 pages need to be much better utilized, or cut short.

‘The Itch You Can’t Scratch’

Sumit Kumar (writer-artist)

Published by Pop Culture Publishing, 2011

Rs 350

In Defence of Criticism

JustcomiX has been around for just over a year now, and it feels like a good time to give some thought to the raison d’etre of a site devoted to comics criticism.

“Critics are waiting like vultures to tear you apart for mistakes” said someone to me recently. My first reaction was of mild outrage since it vilifies the role of the critic, turning it into something that is mindless and bloodthirsty. I find the simile very potent here, as a vulture indeed scavenges and eats on others’ kills, but is also a silent guardian to a community’s health. But its ill-repute has pushed it to the margins of society, and indeed maybe to extinction.

Yet, one cannot defend the fact that many critics do pass unfair judgment, often basing their verdict on tertiaries, instead of the primary text. I think it is a critic’s duty to assess a text in its entirety, without disregarding effort and hard work. Many, I am sure, fall asunder of these moral obligations and are predatory and opportunistic.

But to disregard the function of criticism is too much a sleight of hand. One should not confuse a part for the whole, or in more poetic terms, borrowed, one should not miss the woods for the trees.

To me the duty of the critic is three-fold:

  1. A critic is a defender of the rights of the audience. He/she must think of what is best for the audience (in this case, reader), and this includes voicing expectations, calling to attention poor craftsmanship in content or production, and encouraging creators who in the longer run will be safe bets to entertain readers. By corollary, a critic is not the creator’s friend, unless the creator is good for the audience.
  2. A critic has to be an aggregated audience. He/she cannot be a layperson and just project his/her expectations as the general opinion. It has to be nuanced by serious study and a multi-dimensional approach to the text. One has to be able to be elected to the role of a critic if such is called for. Again, by corollary, a tempered approach can at times mean the critic’s opinion is at odds with general opinion. So be it.
  3. By dint of the above, a critic should attempt to contribute a body of studies of the chosen art. He/she should try and catalogue processes, and/or record history, and/or point to future directions the art might take. A critic should have an interest in catalysing the growth of the medium, not just  passively observing and exuding opinions.

I can speak for myself and say I have come down harshly on texts, and create strong opinions against books that might even have withstood initial tests of reception. I am impatient with words and patient with intentions. But, by this I also put myself in the dock, open to the same cross-questioning as I have subjected upon others. But that’s the risk of criticism. An opinion for an opinion is fair, as long as it isn’t an eye for an eye. One can always critique a critic, if it is in defence of ideology, and not just of ego.

I honestly feel that arguments and defences are like vitamins and anti-bodies for the cultural corpus, it builds inner strength. It is absolutely valid to express doubts over the relevance to criticism to a reader, because often puerile and sophistic statements can be miles removed from a reader’s likes. And yet I would hold that criticism is not always directly assessable. We may not see its effects, but shouldn’t condemn it to ignominy either. Criticism has a greater probability of educating the creators, and this in turn benefits the audience. Like admonishments from teachers and elders in days of our youth, criticism can often return to us years later a gentle guidance to our actions. A right time and place for everything.

Criticism is almost a foul word to us now, because critics have often been foul. We become resistant to opinion when it is offensive or unjust, and a critic must avoid both deathly. A spirit of questioning, a repartee, disagreement and defence, these are what keep the fire at the heart of the arts alive.

‘The Critic’ by Tihanyi Lajos (1916)