This is the first commentary on JustcomiX that is not about a comic book. It is not a non-fiction study of comics (I’ve writer about Jules Feiffer before), and it isn’t even illustrated.
What gives is that a few months ago I came across a novel that I originally mistook for a comic book but turned out to be a gift in a different package instead. It is called “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, by Michael Chabon. Now, there is a superhero – The Escapist. There are villains. And it is even part of the Golden Age of American comics – late 1930’s and 1940’s. Aye, that it all has, but in text only.
The story is a beautiful one about Sam Klayman, a Jewish boy in Brooklyn, who gets a roommate in Josef Kavalier, his cousin recently escaped from Nazi-overrun Czechoslovakia. Sam has a toe in the comics industry, Joe is a trained artist, come together they create a hugely successful comics franchise for their employers and rake in the money, all the while letting go of their intellectual property.
The other, and larger part of the novel, is Joe’s constant attempts at reestablishing contact with his family back in Czechoslovakia and especially his obsession with getting a safe passage for his younger brother to New York.
It is an enourmous work – over 600 pages of teeny print, and possibly the largest novel I will ever read. And a word of warning is that don’t go into it expecting lots of exposes on comics, or insights or even humour. The book contains all of these, but scant more than a few dozen pages. More light is shed on the tricks of the professional escape artist than on comics. Take it as a book on 2 people who happen to make comics, as much as “Kane and Abel” is about hotel management.
Yet, for those of you who are as seriously devoted to this medium as I am, a story that includes comics is a big event. This novel was even awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A reading of this book is recommended not as a tribute to comics, but as a tribute to comics creators – dogged and talented individuals, adding on the art of the deal to the art of the comics, fighting accusations of subversion while also fighting personal demons in some cases.
A comics creator is not more special than other artists. But, let it be acknowledged that they are no less special either.
Synopsis – ‘Berlin – City of Smoke’ is the collected first 8 issues of Jason Lutes’ Berlin series (1996- 2000). It is set in 1928-29, in Berlin, at a time when the currents of global politics were clashing – Communism, Nazism, conservatism. Against this backdrop we follow characters who are all trying to find their place in the City, but cannot define the world in monochrome like many others do.
Three categories of good books – deserve to be re-read, need to be re-read, deserve and need to be re-read. The last one is where “Berlin – City of Stones” belongs. It is a book with breathtaking expanse, delightful details, and a story that is excavated upon events of such significance that we would be naïve to feel we’ve understood it in one go. Or I would be, at least.
A return to this book made such joyous reading, tasting all that I had missed while gulping it down earlier. Jason Lutes, writer and illustrator, has told such a touching story, alighting on so many characters, all the while maintaining a narrative unity.
Am I gushing, or is it just that good?
It is very rare that I encounter a lengthy work of art and feel that nothing was overdone, nothing could have been cut, nothing could have be elaborated. It feels like the baby bear’s bed. Just right.
Lutes’ is the story of two protagonists – Marthe Muller and Kurt Severing. They are worlds apart, coming together by a chance encounter. Muller comes to Berlin to change the way she has been living – to learn and experience everything that life in a big city offers. Severing is an old hand here, and as a journalist he is an observer, not a doer, and records change instead of living it.
“But, are they the protagonists?” I ask myself. Are we more moved by them or by Gudrun, the communist mother? Or even by many of the lesser characters? Interestingly, Lutes has offered us many people with independent life-stories, instead of minor characters whose only role is to bolster the protagonist’s story. So, in as many ways there are as many protagonists in this comic book.
An epic story, such as this, is served by turning the smallest of people into the most important presence on the page/frame, at that time. “There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth” said one who knew epic scale very well. This is why Lutes manages to make “Berlin” stay with the reader for long, and makes the reader stay long as well. We are not just reading about Muller and Severing, but are seeing the whole city speak, through its people, though its streets. It isn’t mere whimsy when suddenly we hear (or see) the thoughts of random walk-through characters such as a ticket-checker, or a traffic constable. We are being shown a glimpse of the gigantic buzz of the hive that is the modern metropolis. We are suddenly empowered with ears that hear thoughts.
Lutes himself indicates that the central nerve of the story is that of the city – Berlin. Berlin is changing and changes her people. Berlin is where people are coming for opportunity. Berlin is what is being chronicled. And Berlin is where people are fighting and dying on the streets. The million-window-eyed city is what is always heaving and breathing in almost every frame.
And Lutes is not being easy with his readers by providing a history lesson. He chooses to let the events unfold dramatically and with full fury, which to a sensitive reader is a signal to go and take a fresher course in relevant German history. We read that this is Weimar Germany, but are not told not what the Weimar Republic is. We see the Nationalist Socialists, but not their more famous avatar, and thus we are not allowed the more obvious familiarity. And most hauntingly we are introduced, posthumously, to Rosa Luxemburg, an alluring and mysterious character, who is a revolution’s figurehead, and also a lonely boy’s refuge. Luxemburg brings masses of hundreds into the streets, and inhabits the dreams of anonymous people, and yet we don’t know enough about her to be part of these masses. We are outsiders in this world, we are not cosy friends. This is not “Maus”.
One matter of consternation, however, is the way in which the faces of characters are quite indistinct from each other. It is disorienting when one cannot always distinguish between Marthe and Gudrun, or a policeman and a communist. One tries to grasp little nuances of the hair, or clothing, to anchor the characters, but to no great avail. So I found myself unable to be certain how someone’s story began or ended. Alas.
Some of the best moments of “Berlin” are not actually part of the currents of the story, but as asides. Here the characters, stories and faces stop mattering. Severing, as journalist-observer, holds up an interesting mirror to society:
“Berlin” is intended to be a trilogy, but only 2 have been released. When I re-read the second one I will discuss it here. As a parting shot I can say this about “Berlin” (meaning it complimentarily), that if ever the term “graphic novel” was to be used aptly, it would be for this book.
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:
‘Comics’ is a term that has never really needed definition because one immediately perceives what is being spoken about.
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.
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.
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.
The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century AD, is 1.5 feet by 224 feet of embroidered cloth depicting the Norman conquest of England.
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.
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.
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.
The beginning-middle-end structure has often been disregarded in fiction to explore events in a more unfettered and unpredictable manner. Like life, fiction has developed 20-20 hindsight, where events can be understood clearly only once they have occurred.
I’m not making myself clear am I? Let’s go to the beginning (note the point I just made).
I was watching a movie recently that showed the origin of one of the most famous comic book heroes of all time. This got me thinking about the crucial comic book trope of the back-story, or the story of how it all began, how our man became how he is today, what drives him, what makes him so different? It may sound like it is driven by an irrestible curiosity, but in my experience as a long-time reader of comic books I feel it is more about familiarity, an emotional bond between the reader and the character that makes us want to know more and more about him/her (more on this bond in a later post).
Few of us have taken to comic books at a late stage in our lives, and most of us have grown up with our comic book heroes. As children we have read the slim, periodical magazines with rapt attention, devouring with our eyes all the stories about Batman, Donald Duck, Superman and Archie. This bond is almost sacred, though we may not realize it as such, and such must have been the reaction in audiences even half a century ago when the ‘golden era’ of comic books introduced audiences to crimefighters whose entire identity was wrapped in mystery. There was an eagerness to get closer to the hero they worshipped, meaning that writers had to take readers back to the very origins of the men behind the masks like a peepshow.
Oh, and did we love it when they did.
It was lapped hungrily. The back story brought us closer to our heroes than ever before. We became like childhood friends and nothing beats that feeling. These origins became crucial to the point that they have been rehashed many times over, ad infinitum, often ad nauseum. Yet it is those characters that managed a strong back-story, thanks to some unabashedly genius writer, that have sustained themselves in public memory more than others. In a sense they have grown into a life of their own and writers-illustrators just feed the growing ego of the character.
So you have Spiderman, whose quandary of wanting a normal teenage life versus fighting his holy crusade against crime keeps taking us back to the story of Uncle Ben and his dictum that “With great power must come great responsibility”.
Superman is the last son of Krypton, both the unshakable force and immovable power and he too is a man compelled by his childhood as the last remaining survivor of one race who will always fight to defend the other that adopted him.
Wolverine too has his origin, something that is slightly different in the latest movie, as compared the version that I knew. In the world of mutants, Wolverine was actually not a mutant by birth, but a scientific military experiment. A soldier he was, not a mutant and cannot also find himself at ease with the mutants whom he has to now familiarize himself with. This conflict brands him as the unknown soldier, mysterious at the best of times and always haunted by nightmares even he cannot understand.
A task well begun is half done they say, and one can add that it is never too late to be ‘well begun’. The origins of Wolverine, Spiderman, Superman and scores of others are like the first day of the rest of their lives as one keeps revisiting those to understand motivations better, and allows for endless combinations of dilemmas and conflicts.
It is very often that I find myself a perpetrator of a curious habit; once a month, to be precise. You see, every month I visit a magazine stall and buy the new issue of Tinkle magazine, a comic magazine that all of us are familiar with but that’s relegated to recycle bins once we cross the age of 16. My dilemma is that I’m 25, and I still buy and immediately devour my Tinkle magazine.
I always fear condemnation by my peers, but at the same time I am proud of being honest about my love for comic books, something that I feel is natural to people of all ages.
Born out of this is a love for comic books of all shapes and sizes, genres and periods, a greater understanding of the medium and a thirst for more works that that will blow my mind. After all, all comic books, as indeed also all cartoons, have been the creations of mature, healthy and otherwise mentally balanced adults. Why not?
All too often the final result is brushed aside as a frivolous run at something entertaining, sometimes wholesome and sometimes vulgar. No self-respecting, evolved individual should waste time on such pursuits. Absolutely juvenile.
But then this is the same criticism that has come to plague all art forms for decades. It is something that seems to me to be a plight of our modern times that we question everything that is without obvious benefits even as we try to evaluate our result-driven lives. It was the twentieth century that elicited the proclamation that art could, and should, be just for art’s sake. In a qualified manner I tend to agree with this.
We question such things as unbeneficial and overlook the tremendous developments made in this form over the last century and the immense level of maturity it has achieved. It is necessary therefore to open one’s eyes to the finer details of the comic book medium without prejudice. I do not say that all must read comic books, just as all needn’t own artworks. But a visit to the museum once in a while is nice to see what greatness lies even on two dimensional canvases on walls, though they don’t cure cancer or make glossier lip colour.
All those interested may follow me, and to all others a good day.
Sometimes the most unmemorable of events can leave a lasting impression on popular culture. This thought comes from something I read recently that boggled my mind, and is exactly the kind of thing that makes me a lover of Comics History. For this insight I am thankful to the late Jules Feiffer, and his book ‘The Great Comic Book Heroes’.
In 1938 was born one of the most iconic comics characters, the man of steel, Superman. Probably the most enduring character created, the longest running, and which has never been out of print since its inception. He is the savior of our race, belonging to another planet, an alien, but not a foreigner, human yet superhuman, everything a child or flighty adult could want. And he did what comics need to do, sell lots and lots of copies (incidentally, a copy of Superman issue 1 recently sold for USD 1.5 million)
This success spawned dozens of imitators, all of whom sought to replicate the formula of success that they thought was embodied in the character. So we had more and more, more-than-human heroes with awesome powers – Captain Marvel, The Shield, Captain America and so on. But not many know how many of the unique characterizations of these characters were a result of courtrooms and lawsuits, and not just vivid imaginations.
The success of Superman necessitated the protection his identity from copycats. When the protector of the masses needs protection, he gets together with his lawyer. So legally competitors were prohibited from imitating the most obvious features. The mighty man who felt the pinch of this was Captain Marvel. A long legal battle, with judgments and appeals galore, was fought between National Comics Publications and Fawcett Publications over copyright infringement, and eventually National Comics Publications and Superman won sending Captain Marvel spiraling out of print for a long time.
Significant repercussions included the fact that publishers henceforth had the understanding not to dress their new characters with capes, not to import them from faraway planets. The next wave of comics for years thereafter resorted to twisted science labs and radioactive gamma rays to explain the germination of superheroes like Spiderman and the Marvel Comics family.
Normally lawyers embody the spirit of killjoys, but here let us give them credit for making comics more outrageous and more enjoyable for kids of all ages.
I wanted to share an interesting story that I read about the invention of the term ‘Graphic Novel’. Well, it is more of a blurb than a story, but invention is the most apt word, invention born of necessity.
Will Eisner is one of the, if not the, greatest comics artist ever. He has 3 great contributions to the field of comics that come to mind – one, the creation of ‘The Spirit’, two, the creation of instructional books taking close looks at the art and science of the medium, and three, making serious comics a possibility. One of the top industry awards for comics makers is called the ‘Eisner’.
Now a career so illustrious that every future practitioner owes a debt to you should mean that you reach a stage in your life when anything you do is welcomed with respect and given validity. But here comes the story I mentioned.
In 1978, Eisner had readied a collection of stories by the name of ‘A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories’, which were not action or humour or horror stories, but stories of the private lives of residents of a building, the side that no one ever sees of them, not even their own families. These stories were full of pathos, an ingredient which was not the staple of the industry that fed children and teenagers.
After an almost four decades long career, after firmly establishing himself as a marketable artist with landmark works, he was yet not sure that he would be able to sell his new collection to a publisher. His concept seemed just what would be rejected for its unsupportable content. So in a pre-emptive move, the following incident occurred, in Eisner’s own words:
“I called the president of Bantam Books in New York, who I knew had seen my work with The Spirit. Now, this was a very busy guy who didn’t have much time to speak to you. So I called him and said, ‘There’s something I want to show you, something I think is very interesting.’
He said, ‘Yeah, well, what is it?’
A little man in my head popped up and said, ‘For Christ’s sake, stupid, don’t tell him it’s a comic. He’ll hang up on you.’ So, I said, ‘It’s a graphic novel.’
He said, ‘Wow! That sounds interesting. Come on up.’
“Well, I did bring it up and he looked at it and looked at me through his reading glasses and said, ‘This is a comic book, bring it to a smaller publisher,’ which I did. . . . At the time, I thought I had invented the term, but I discovered later that some guy thought about it a few years before I used the term.”
Another list comes to mind now, this one with two items, not three – first, not even Will Eisner knew how to define comics and thought he’d come up with something cleverer than it really was, and two, even a master like him was struggling to redefine something, which shouldn’t have needed such effort.
Is it futile to ask why the definition becomes a limitation too often? And even now we are trying so hard to find a definition, that maybe if we ever find the perfect one we might just loose all ability to redefine.
I don’t know much about Orijit Sen, and I assume you don’t either. The little I do know of him is – part graphic designer, part part of People Tree, and part comic book maker.
The last part is what made me sit up and do a double take, for I know him through common friends, though I have never really met him (except for one time I got a lift from the railway station from him).
The discovery was by pure chance when I was idly googling on Indian comics online. His book ‘The River of Stories’ notched mentions as being one of India’s first graphic novels, composed back in 1994. It is the story of the Narmada Bachao Andolan as seen through the journey of a fledgling reporter on assignment. It is almost impossible to find a copy of this anywhere, and the best I could do is a photocopied version. Thankfully, it would seem that the book is originally in black-and-white and so there isn’t much lost.
The book is a joint venture between an NGO and a government ministry and is more like a pamphlet about the issue (definitely, not to trivialize it), but far more attractive than a pamphlet. The story mixes modern reportage with the folk lore of the river to present a scientific and spiritual denouncement of the river project. The politics of it might not sit easy with everyone, but the value of it as a pioneering work of the serious comics form in India is what is important.
So such as it is, it throws up some very important questions about the nature of the medium – why present such a serious issue through such a lightly perceived medium? Why make a comics-documentary and not just a comics fiction story? And whom does this experiment aim to serve – children or adults? The answers to this I would want to seek from the writer-illustrator himself someday, and all of you will get to see his responses when I do succeed.
The only bit of insight I got from the biography at the back is that Sen is a fan of the Tintin series, and I was struck by one image which serves as a chapter opening, which reminds me of pages from such Tintin adventures as Red Rackham’s Treasure and The Broken Ear, I hope I am not too off.
Meanwhile if anybody is interested then maybe contact the same shop where I got my photocopy copy and see if they have any more.