Holding up a similar view, artist Eddie Campbell, responding to the “NYTimes Mag Article” thread on the comics journal message board had formulated a “revised graphic novel manifesto” defining the “graphic novel” as “a movement and not a form” whose goal was to “ forge a whole new art which will not be bound by the arbitrary rules of an old one . . . and also take the form of the comic book, which has become an embarrassment and raise it to a more ambitious and meaningful level.”
However in the West, 30-odd years since it was first used, the term is considered to be a misnomer by the new comics narrators and fans who regard it a newfangled name for “the good old comic book” perpetuated by the commercial concerns of the major players like DC and Marvel who have hijacked and appropriated the term to sell collected back issues of superhero comics.
In India, the useful aesthetic distinction had remained more or less intact during the first few years, marked by Banerjee’s second book The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, Amruta Patil’s Kari and two eminently forgettable attempts: The Believers and Kashmir Pending; both published by the now defunct Phantomville. While The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin, 2007) did nothing to further Banerjee’s reputation as a graphic novelist, Patil’s Kari (Harper Collins, 2008), appreciated for its honest voice and nuanced visual imagery, managed to win positive reviews across national newspapers, and has even been translated into French and Italian.
Among the later graphic novels in India, Parismita Singh’s multilayered, profoundly Indian tale The Hotel at the End of the World published by Penguin in 2009 stands out for its raw, earthy lines and a delightful non-linear narrative structure. This book perhaps is the closest a graphic novel in India has come to be called an “Indian graphic novel” in its truest sense.
E P Unny, chief political cartoonist at The Indian Express and himself an unacknowledged graphic narrative pioneer in India—he has been doing graphic shorts in Malayalam literary journals as early as the 1990s—while admitting that the graphic novel has arrived in India, says he is still waiting for that “Indian graphic novel”. Uneasy with the convenient urban or exotic thematic subsets that are over-eager to cross over, Unny locates the creative challenge for the Indian graphic novel in “learning and unlearning Western formats and getting down to confront the here and now robustly”, something, he feels, “might begin to happen in regional languages as Aravindan had surprised us way back in the 1960s”.
However, right now, nothing seems to be beeping on the regional language radar. One could blame it on the lack of a comics reading culture or non-existence of publishing outlets outside urban India, but the graphic novel in India displays a great reluctance to move beyond the familiar to tread uncharted territories.
This does not mean that the field is devoid of thematic and stylistic diversity. The last couple of years have seen works as diverse as Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s revisiting of the Emergency years to Navayana’s Bhimayana, a graphic novel biography of Dr Ambedkar rendered in Gond art style by tribal artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam.
While the creators of these books deserve credit for choosing such different and engaging themes, the works themselves hardly push the boundaries of graphic narrative in India. Ghosh’s Delhi Calm is a mere allegorical take on the worst phase of Indian democracy, presenting the reader with no new insights, while Bhimayana hardly ever rises above the level of an illustrated text, short-selling the immense possibilities of the medium as well as the original genius of tribal art in the process.
To put it bluntly, Bhimayana and Tara Books’ I See the Promised Land, a biography of Martin Luther King illustrated by Patua artists of Bengal, are perfect examples of how marrying traditional Indian art style to a post-industrial art form like comics doesn’t necessarily deliver quality graphic narratives.
If at one end of the graphic novel spectrum in India are the mainstream publishers who are more or less content with a set of established names, and superficial thematic and stylistic “innovations” the other end is populated by a group of independent smaller comics publishers who have gleefully dropped anchor at the superhero-mythology genre bay.
Vimanika, Level 10, Holy Cow Entertainment and Liquid comics seem to locate their core audience in an expanding fanboy base, whereas Campfire—in spite of their graphic novel tag—routinely churn out comic book versions of classics and mythological fables for the young adult, except for a few recent original titles.
The only exception amongst the indie publishers appears to be the Bangalorebased Manta Ray, who with their hard hitting, silent, 24-page mini-comic explored the dark areas of child abuse. Not a safe choice for a first book, Prateek Thomas of Manta Ray admits, but says,“Hush was never about the money we would make as a publisher. For us, it was our ‘calling card’—we wanted to show that comics can be different; tell a realistic, believable story, be told differently (with no words) and produced well. We wanted to show that comics can tell good stories.”
It was similar ideals that prompted Coimbatore-based Bharath Murthy to start the alternative, self-published Comix India anthologies. Published on demand through Pothi, Comix India is four volumes old, with the fifth in the final stages of production. While the first anthology, Random Selections, as the name suggests, was devoid of any thematic unity, the next three anthologies had stories woven around a central theme.
The contributors, most of whom were publishing a comic for the first time, were drawn from across the country through an open call for submissions on the Comix India website. The marginal profits generated were divided equally amongst the contributors.
Murthy, who is currently working on a comic travelogue titled The Vanishing Path, [excerpted on pages 38-52] believes that Comix India democratised the area of comics publishing in India by demonstrating that artists and authors existed outside the urban centres. Unfortunately, the financial model on which the Comix India experiment is based appears to be unsustainable in the medium term.
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