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?

Indian Comics – Vision 2020

A question frequently on the minds of those of us who have been exposed to the larger world of international comics is – Can India produce writers like we see working in the field in the West? I think it is prudent to limit the question to writers of comics for now, and not to illustrators, for there are very good graphic artists in India, without doubt.

So what can I say with precision on this? Obviously nothing, but I can try and read the signs to see where things are headed for now. The answer is no, we cannot produce a Neil Gaiman, in the near future. But, yes, a decade or so later probably.

The thing to note here (like with so many other aspects of human civilization) is that there is a curve of learning and development in every field – economics, science and the arts. It is a classic bell curve – like this …

So we have initial periods where things are apprehensive, we have people trying out something new and seeing if others laugh or laud. That’s where are now. When things pick up steam the curve starts to rise, practitioners are appreciated. This gives them the chance to react to their own instincts rather than to public opinion. This gives us experiments with flashes of brilliance. The downfall happens when popularity breaks all boundaries of requisite talent and everybody plunges into the same pool, squeezing out all the water.

Now, this curve happens in the short term as well as in a longer term. Thanks to today’s connected world, influences are picked up overnight from across the globe and changes happen very quickly. So we have seen Indian writing in English go through sea changes in just 30 years. And we can expect the same in a shorter time from Indian comics.

Today’s comics are more in the ‘graphic novel’ genre and are trying to achieve a new standard of respectability. Therefore they are sticking to themes of conflict, both inner and outer, human psyche and social inequities. Just like what Indians refer to as ‘art films’ we now have ‘art comics’. They are not very different from what Indian writers in English are trying to do.

But now we see an essential next step approaching in writing – more and more people are trying their luck with English novels and we have the good and bad all vying for space. The great thing about art is that it finds worth in even the pedantic. Just as it is famously said that humans use every bit of a coconut tree, from its bark to leaves to the fruit to its husk and so on, art uses everything it is given. The writers we tend to value highly in popular art are people who digest everything. So Neil Gaiman, or Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, can take Greek and Egyptian mythology, modern politics, superheroes, supernaturals, Freud, androids, liberation armies, zombie armies, multiple narratives, non-narratives …and…and…whew…they take everything and add dashes to their story. Samuel Beckett won a Nobel prize by utilizing vaudevillian antics.

Neil Gaiman (Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy)

Indian comics had been following a certain trajectory till the new millennium – we had the Pran comics, Raj comics, Tinkle magazine and Amar Chitra Katha all doing their own thing. But that thing had become very tiresome after two score years. Heights of comics excellence had been achieved, but soon forgotten. The current trend has completely recast the mould, gone from school keds to Converse canvas shoes. People looked good before, but now they are trying something very new, starting from scratch. But until everyone has had a chance to try out these shoes, seen it on others, wanted to find their fit, we will not see those limited designer keds that some pay a fortune to wear.

And remember, white keds aren’t bad. There is no point in comparing colours and trying to find the best one, similarly we shouldn’t compare Indian comics writers with western ones since influences are different. Why compare people who are trying to achieve different things? See if what they have achieved stands scrutiny and see if their effort was honest. Those are the most reliable yardsticks.

V for Vendetta (Alan Moore, David Lloyd)

The Basics of Comics – Part 2 of 2

Understanding their structural development

The second part of this post is about the various distinguishing characteristics of comics as a medium of expression. They are very sophisticated processes, though they might not appear to be. They have been used in many imaginative ways that have pushed the boundaries of the medium. These have grown from generation to generation with each adding something new.

The first and most important one is the Panel.

Little Sammy Sneeze - Winsor McCay (1906)

Comics are usually characterized by having the page broken up into smaller rectangles called panels, each furthering the narration. Now it may be presumed that each is like a photograph, a moment frozen in time. Yet, it is not as simple as it appears. Panels are not simply like the borders of 35mm film. Given the limitless powers of the illustrator to bend the medium, the panel becomes an expression, as vivid as colours, as important as the look on a character’s face.

The Spirit - Will Eisner (1949)

And though they are frozen to our eyes, their contents are not frozen at all. There can be a whole conversation in a flash, and we don’t even notice the passage of time. But time has certainly passed. In fact time, is twisted into a very different progression than in the real world. It is slowed down and sped up at will by the creators.

Cookalein - Will Eisner (1978)

Unlike in novels, where whole paragraphs can go towards describing a perfect moment, and time might be kept frozen while we construct imagery in our minds, here text and image are presented simultaneously to the reader. We instantly absorb the image and absorb the communication it holds, while the text takes time to be read. As a result of the immediate impact of the visual element not much need is there of descriptive text. Instead the focus is almost wholly on speech and thought.

It is to carry speech and thought that there was the birth of the speech balloon – the second most important element of comics. These balloons are the descendants of speech scrolls found in ancient and medieval art of various cultures. They are the carriers of direct thoughts and words and also point out the speaker with their tails.

Barefoot Gen - Keiji Nakazawa (1973)

Comics, like other visual arts, is heavily performative. Hence it relies on both speech and gesture. While gesture is well represented by the image, text also starts to take on a performative aspect. It is not merely words we see, but words with specific intonations, emotions, and even sounds. Indeed, sounds are also a very intimate part of the whole comic-book reading experience. Words can become an entirely different sensory trigger.

Barefoot Gen - Keiji Nakazawa (1973)

In fact, though we read them, and we attribute meaning to them, to me they seem more real than any other medium. And one of the most fascinating aspects of comics is just this – what people have called the reader’s participation, inhabitation, or closure. We include our faculties in the act of reading comics, much more than in reading text or viewing paintings. We attribute meaning and qualities to them. How else can a paltry sum of words, and pictures that are not the most realistic, take us through a journey that is as encapsulating and vivid in mere hours, that others take much longer to do?

The most important application of this is in the transition between panels. As mentioned earlier, there is more to the panel than meets the eye. In fact, even between panels there is much going on.

24 Hours – Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (1989)

We consistently invest the images and text with our senses and add motion, sound, maybe even smell, everything that doesn’t exist on the paper, into it. Different speaking voices come up, and we find ourselves as breathless for our heroes as they would be. Yes, many of these reactions can be seen when one is reading or watching cinema as well, but the power of the reader to assign values is much greater here. The blank spaces in what is offered to us and left upto us are much more.

Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1987)

Books have many times more words, movies have many times more images, and yet at no stage can a sensitive reader say that the impact of comics is far lesser than these. We construct all the action between panels in our head, we can make it all seamless, what we extract is actually far greater than the sum of the parts that we are given.

One of the ways in which comics allow us to get under the skin of characters is by allowing identification. Comics creator and theorist Scott McCloud, someone from whose work a comics enthusiast can learn a lot, says that because of the basic facial structures found in comics, we actually find it easier to associate as well as inhabit the characters.

The Adventures of Tintin - Herge

It is clearly on the plane of universals that we see the characters. We might not be able to see ourselves, or someone we know, in a realistic portrayal, because the details will overwhelmingly exclude us, but in comics we can easily ‘empathise’ with the character, as well as ‘be’ him or her.

On a personal note, I have felt that reading comics can be a very intimate experience. Firstly, in practice it is one of the most physically close visual mediums, there is hardly any space between the reader and the book, and hence there are no mediations or distractions. Secondly, the characters are not putting on a performance, they are not actors, they are real. Hence we are not spectators, we are willing participants or voyeurs. We are exactly like the Common Man in RK Laxman’s cartoons, flies on the wall. Both of these together have the combined effect of making the reader step through a door and into another world.

You Said It - RK Laxman

With that I end my 2-part post. Comics studies is a wide open field with a lot of new discoveries to be made. There are many more practitioners now than ever before, and forms and platforms are ever evolving, yet our understanding of the depths of the medium are highly inadequate. The people who create them have mastered techniques more complex than we can imagine and are pure genius in a so-called juvenile art form.

The Basics of Comics – Part 1 of 2

Understanding their historical development

That comics are a big phenomenon is not news to anyone, at least not in these days and times. As globally connected consumers most of us have been introduced to the exciting new field of Graphic Novels.

However, one observes that in many instances this statement by way of introduction is grossly incomplete. Because the facts are that – neither is it a new field, nor is the field called Graphic Novels (which is just one of the many players).

To understand this phenomenon better it is of utmost importance to present some dry straw to chew on before moving on to greener pastures:

Definitions.

‘Comics’ is a term that has never really needed definition because one immediately perceives what is being spoken about.

Creator Unknown

Yet, I have personally never come across a more difficult, more controversial term to define than this one. An amalgamation of a very long-winded discussion on definitions is given by Scott McCloud where he says –

“Comics are juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”

This is as neutral as he could be, and yet it is far from perfect – primarily in that it excludes single panel images from the ambit of comics.

Somewhere in the late 20th century people realized that comics needn’t just be for children, they could be very serious and mature. So to differentiate the child’s play from the grown-up’s angst we had the birth of the term Graphic Novel.

The Alcoholic – Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

This was okay at first, but unfortunately there came about a mis-association – that of the word with the mood and not with the genre. All ‘serious’ comics received the moniker of the Graphic Novel, irrespective of the form. Very simply, to be a graphic novel, the comic should have the features of a novel – length, fictional narrative, depth etc. However, this term should not be applied indiscriminately. And, surely humourous can also be a quality of graphic novels.

There is also a muddled tendency to consider comics themselves as a sort of genre of literature, which they most certainly are not. They are not a genre, just like cinema is not a genre. Comics are a medium.

I myself stick to the term ‘Comics’ for 2 simple reasons:

I don’t want to be an apologist for something I love by re-naming it, just because it sounds juvenile or non-serious.

I have found it to be the least problematic term, the path of least resistance.

In fact, it is even said that the term Graphic Novel was coined by Will Eisner who had written a sobre, long format comic which he felt the publisher would reject, hence he jazzed it up by calling it a Graphic Novel. And following that clever turn of marketing wit, publishers nowadays love to call almost all comics Graphic Novels, and bookshops follow suit by marking their shelves likewise.

Now, having stirred the hornet’s nest of definition, I proceed to the history of comics, to what many consider to be proto-comics – early examples of art similar to modern comics.

We have Egyptian wall paintings, probably the oldest examples of this form. This is from a Tomb, 14th century BC, and it isn’t merely decorative, as one might think, since it depicts agricultural methods from Harvesting to Taxation.

Menna's Tomb - Egypt

Ajanta Caves of Maharashtra, 2nd century BC, has paintings such as these which cover the walls and tell stories from the Jatakas. Characters are repeated here, and their setting and aspects change, implying it is a story unfolding.

Ajanta Caves - Maharashtra, India

Trajan’s Column of the 2nd century AD, relief carvings on a stone column 98 feet high, shows us Roman Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian Wars. It is read bottom up, along the spiral.

Trajan's Column - Rome, Italy

The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century AD, is 1.5 feet by 224 feet of embroidered cloth depicting the Norman conquest of England.

Bayeux Tapestry - Normandy, France

Arguably these have long been valued as absolutely magnificent works of art and have been in the artistic imagination for centuries, yet they are usually not thought of as sharing an ethos with today’s comics. In fact, many would consider it blasphemous to even suggest this. But what is important to mark is not the birth of a popular art form here, but the evidence of a human urge to ‘show’ a story, and the ability to ‘read’ these stories. Just as a caveman knocking two pieces of stone doesn’t necessarily see himself as a percussionist, he is yet a precursor to the man’s search for rhythm.

Triptych of Virtue of Patience – Bernard van Orley (1521)

This manner of showing stories, rather than telling them, never disappeared but didn’t firm up for a long time either. Sporadic tendencies to show stories even cropped up in Renaissance art such as in the use of triptychs or 3-part paintings.

The penultimate stage in the development of comics is seen in the engravings of William Hogarth of the 18th century. His works were not comics in the modern sense, but were undoubtedly good examples of Sequential Art, a definition that is often applied to comics.

A Harlot’s Progress, Plate 5 – William Hogarth (1732)

An example is his most famous work – ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. Through 6 plates he tells the story of a woman who takes to the life of a harlot, or a prostitute. We see the obvious absence of speech, yet mind-boggling richness of the pictorial details communicates a lot through the plates.

Interestingly, it was with Hogarth that we also see the start of comics as a mass-distribution art form. These plates were engravings and could be reproduced mechanically, and Hogarth’s works became very popular products, just like comics today.

The real fountainhead of comics, though, was a Swiss gentleman called Rudolphe Töpffer, of the 19th century. He was a writer, caricaturist and teacher. He used to draw caricatures for the enjoyment of his students. I would like to think that illustrations also came in use when he had to teach, by way of demonstration. Through some serendipitous confluence of these strains he created the world’s first comic book.

It was called ‘Histoire de Monsieur Vieux Bois’, published in 1837, and translated and published in the United States in 1842 as ‘The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck‘.

The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck – Rodolphe Töpffer (1842)

For the first time we see some very familiar elements of the modern comic used together – the iconic protagonist, the use of panels to divide depictions, a direct narrative link between panels, exaggerated physiognomy, relation between background and foreground, presentation of dreams and so on. Every page is a historic one for us. And all this created 183 years ago. And also worth mentioning is the name of one of his admirers – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German writer.

Comics continued to grow and mature with some subsequent artists. In the second half of the 19th century, we also see the growing influence of the newspapers and periodicals in popularizing comics, or more specifically in this case – Cartoons. These were single panel works we spoke of earlier – satires of the world’s contemporary politics and very widely read.

Art Historian EH Gombrich was one of the first people to see the potential and novelty of these cartoons for communicating on the sphere of ideas by visualizing metaphors, which is a feature of limitless visual energy in the hands of the creator. This cartoon from 1857 shows the British perception of India’s First Battle of Independence, where rebel Indian soldiers rose against their British commanders, but eventually were crushed in retaliation. Britain (the lion) attacks the murderous Indian rebels (the tiger) who was just about to maul and kill the innocent British (the maiden).

The British Lion’s Vengeance – John Tenniel (1857)

The newspaper also gave a fillip to cartoonists by introducing the daily comic strip which were usually 3 panels long (longer on Sundays) and were independent episodes involving recurring characters, or even segments of a longer-running story. The enormous distribution of these, thanks to newspaper subscriptions, was critical in taking this form into homes every day. There were times when rival newspapers engaged in all out ‘wars’ to win the race for carrying the best comics. These races also led to the start of colour supplements in newspapers designed to be more eye-catching than the next.

Hogan’s Alley – Richard F. Outcault (1896)

The natural off-shoot of these newspaper comic sections was the magazine wholly dedicated to comics, such as Action Comics and Pep Comics. The most popular characters featured in these further went on to have their own series altogether. Thus we have the modern comic books truly coming into the spotlight.

Action Comics No 1 – Joe Shuster and Jack Adler (1938)

Everything after this stage is a blur of activity with so many possibilities opening up that there are parallel underground and mainstream activities, and crossovers. Everything from chemistry and history lessons to superheroes meeting real Presidents becomes part of the comics creators’ imagination.

Tonight's Feature Presentation is …

What is it that makes for poor screen adaptations of books, in general, and comic books, in particular?

I have watched bits and pieces of some comic book based movies over the last few days, and though this sentiment arose in me, yet the answer wasn’t as immediate. The films that formed a part of this survey were ‘Watchmen’, ‘The Spirit’, ‘The Hulk II’ and ‘The Fantastic Four II’.

The first was good, but missing something. The second was just an aberration of the original into the director’s schema. The third and forth were simply Hollywood money-spinners. But none of them appealed to me and I was left with a feeling that somewhere the original cartoons were several notches higher. Another two such cases are ‘Transformers’ and the soon to arrive ‘GI Joe’. Let me admit, that I am keeping a very flexible line between comics and cartoons, it’s like how movies have a director of photography.

Apart from the plain fact that most movie directors cannot share the writer’s vision of the comic/cartoon (and honestly, book adaptations of movies are as weak) there was another realization that was more critical.

Adaptations of characters that are too ‘unreal’ or ‘cartoony’ are doomed to fail. Ta dah!

Compare what works and what doesn’t – Batman, and the Hulk. Batman has always been rooted in the human world, and the recent movies have gone all out to promote that fact, and have the audiences hooked. But the Hulk is now a total CGI disaster, and that just doesn’t click. Even the Bat’s nemesis the Joker has been given a reality check, with runny makeup instead of para-natural pallor and verdant hues. He’s like some manic-depressive John Dillinger. But the Silver Surfer looks like a shop window mannequin and Galactus seems a joke. And it is not that the CGI was bad, or the make up was poor. Like idioms of one language are often untranslatable into another, such is with the comics/cartoons medium and films.

Another obvious reason, and one that is linked with this, is that the differing reality concepts of the two worlds means that even actors often cannot convincingly portray their roles. So within the first ten minutes of the Watchmen movie you have the Comedian being pound to a pulp, pausing to utter: “It’s a joke. It’s all just a joke.” And in those circumstances, I couldn’t agree more.

But this is fatalistic, is it not. Does this mean that no comic/cartoon can ever be made into a movie? Are the twain never to meet? No, not at all. There are so many examples of movies that have done exceedingly well, not just at the box office but also as faithful adaptations. ‘Spiderman’. ‘Sin City’. ‘300’. ‘X-Men’. But, what makes these click? Honestly, if I knew, I’d be a rich man. But to the best of my knowledge these are movies that reconcile themselves with some notions of reality as we know it, and this in turn makes the portrayal more convincing and acceptable. Somewhere the directors have understood the original, with respect, and have spun a story that uses the powers of both media. Some changes have been made for the better, like the story of Spiderman’s origin in the movie, and of his web slinging ability (the former is made more plausible and the latter less so). But somehow the changes lock into place with little clicking sounds and the machine rolls.

But, one thing’s for damn sure, directors and producers, please go easy on the unnecessary CGI.

Enter Sandman

Speaking of brothers and sisters (on today’s day), I though it would be nice to take a look at a recent family of brothers and sisters that has permeated into the collective comics consciousness like a tour de force. Although they aren’t very widely known here yet, but many might still have heard of the series in which they appear.

Sandman.

I was introduced to this comic by friends who were lucky enough to study a short course on comics, and the unanimously accepted importance of this series was enough reason to plunge in. And I saw its face, and I am a believer.

Written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by many excellent artists, it is a series that has won more awards than any other, and has elevated the potential of the medium several notches. It mixes mythology with horror, thrills with philosophy, and innocent belief with the greatest questions about life and death. And it’s a page-turner.

The central character is, of course, Morpheus, the Lord of the Dreaming, or the Sandman in popular legend. He is one of the seven Endless ones (mythology) who are beyond time, beyond fate, greater even than Gods. And I love the alliterative names – Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, Delirium (in reducing order of age), and they are represented as brothers and sisters, each with a beautiful personality.

That this is a series that needs to be carefully peeled, patiently uncovered and thoughtfully understood is a given. Its total length far exceeds any novel and its scope in vast. It originally begun as a monthly magazine running from 1989 to 1996, and has been compiled into a 10 volume set by Vertigo. It is available in India, but at great cost. Initially it was more of a horror generic, like the Tales from the Crypt. But in the writer’s mind it started to grow into an epic. Individual stories started to interlink, characters started to repeat, stories began to be revisited. In a way it is fortunate to find the compiled editions, because it would otherwise not have been possible for one to follow through all of it.

One wonders how to tackle such a vast story as the Sandman’s. It is bigger than even 10 posts, surely. But as and when I discover something I must share, I will. But until then suggestions on what to write about are invited.

A Funny Thing Happened To Me On The Way Here …

Humour and absurdity, both leading to laughter, are often used by writers to disrobe many of the human race’s inmost prejudices and zones of discomfort. It happens all around us, where even in our conversations we resort to a joke or witticism to covertly refer to something that either we are uncomfortable with, or that we feel the other will take offence to. Usually it is more the latter.

So it is in writing that writers like Johnathan Swift (or John Dryden, or Samuel Beckett or G.V. Desani) use humour to outline man’s tendency to often take light things too seriously, or conversely, serious things too lightly. Some writers eventually hit upon the comics medium as one of the most potent forms of expression for non-mainstream views and expressions.

Over the past half-century, comic books have become more mature and more hard-hitting than anything we’ve ever seen. The medium has picked up issues like the Holocaust and Iran’s cultural revolution, teenage drug-abuse and military occupation. In India, extremism and unrest in Kashmir has become a ‘hot’ topic.

There seems to be something about a medium, that is visually piercing and stereotypically perceived as juvenile, that plays a double whammy of sorts for writer-artists with a vision to express something atypical. It seems to find a middle ground between taking something seriously or lightly, that is just to see it as a personal vision.

The only way to understand why a children’s medium suddenly takes on the terrifying aspect of the ‘graphic novel’ is that somehow the child-like way of telling a story is intense and cuts out all the subtexts, notes, strings, orientation, and left-right and gets to the heart of the matter which is surprising and informative, like stories of ghosts whispered into each others ears when we were five.

The first ‘graphic novel’ that plunged me into a world of such abnormalities was a terrific work by Art Speigelman, ‘Maus’. It is a memoir of the Second World War as told by the author’s father and is made fantastical by the use of animal imagery, like if it were an epic fairy tale. A must read. Another discovery was the enchanting ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi who’s blunt and bare tale of growing up during a great cultural shift in her native Iran is something no one may have bothered to read in word form, for it is the story of a million anonymous others, but here told differently and glaringly.

The trend has such momentum that a giant comics publishing house like DC has it’s own imprint called Vertigo that encourages what would formerly have been underground comics, to make a mark in the mainstream, because the mainstream in comics is much more inclusive that any other medium right now.

That last point alone should be reason enough for the comics blitzkrieg to be given due notice as a medium that has come-of-age. And it is also for readers to note, that while they may never have noticed it, but even familiar comics like Tintin are actually formed by contemporary events from around the world as much as by the need to entertain children.

For, children are smarter than they may seem.

That was bound to happen …

There is something from one of my two previous posts that raised some skepticism. Can there be a sacred bond between the reader of a comic book and the comic book hero? Isn’t that carrying it just a little bit into the “Yeah, right” zone?

I completely agree.

But then again we aren’t dealing with a regular Joe kind of life here are we? We are talking about life-and-death situations around every corner, about choosing between which loved one will live and which has to die, between which girl to date and which girl to be best friends with. These are choices that we’d normally have to make once in our life, at the most. 

So when you get transported into the comic book world (and you do, you see it all happening in motion, not as single panels) you become part of an adrenalin-rushing, deciding-on-the-spot kind of world where your hero is getting into kinds of trouble you would never want to on your own. But by being in this world, reading this comic book, you are in a way right alongside him/her as all the adventure unfolds. You are an invisible presence in their world. Taking one of my favourite action heroes, Spiderman, let me explain how it works, at least in my mind.

In the books, or in the 2nd movie, he is reviled by many, including his own aunt, as a menace. Many people hate him, don’t know who he is or why he indulges in such wanton, paranormal activity. Peter Parker (the boy behind the mask) is limp with helplessness faced with detractors who he cannot defy, loved ones he cannot confide in and an identity that he cannot bear to keep or afford to disown.

But guess what?

I know that. I have been there with him through his every trouble, when the spider bit him, when his uncle died, when his aunt maligned him and so on. And each time I have suffered for him for I see his pain and understand it. I am privy to it all, something that his aunt, best friend, girlfriend are not. And I want to catch him each time he falls or to reassure him each time he fights alone.

I know that that sounds unbelievably corny, but that’s how I feel when I am reading the books. Of course I am spelling it out here, where it may just take a second to go through all these feelings. But that’s just the way the bond works. For when I am a reader, I am in their world and not the other way around.

It is a similar situation with all other comics, and that certainly is the purpose of all good art as well. You must be able, if you allow yourself, to get lost in it. There is a sense of sharing a great outdoors scene with Vincent van Gogh when you see his ‘Starry Night’ just as there is a sigh of relief when you see Archie choose to spend an evening with Betty rather than Veronica.

What is of the essence is that you believe, in your mind, that it’s you and him/her against the world. And that is a special bond.