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.
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.