comic books

How comics are redrawing the way mythology, politics and movies are talked about

Edgy art, digital extensions, and new talent have transformed the traditional formats.

Far from the madding crowd of million-dollar Hollywood budgets and star studded panels, there thrives an Indian comics scene that has become, perhaps, more relevant today than it’s ever been before. Thanks to the Internet and the digital age, the old school comics that have been a staple for generations of readers, like Tinkle and the classis from Amar Chitra Katha, are reinventing themselves, keeping pace with younger readers and devices. The web-comics space has also opened up with a new and increasingly talented group of artists, who aim to post their work on cyberspace rather than in print.

Mythology and superheroes

Much like in the fiction market, myths and their varying adaptations seem to reign supreme. Besides the redoubtable Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), whose mythological comics have taught hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of readers all they know about India’s myths, a couple of other publishers, including Campfire and Graphic India, are playing in this space.

Campfire’s “Mythology” genre has a large number of titles, many of them following the story of one particular character. Their comics are not restricted to Indian mythology either – some of their comics, such as Zeus and the Rise of the Olympians and Genesis: From Creation to the Flood visit pantheons and belief systems from other parts of the world. It is the artwork of these titles that really sucks readers in – the gods and heroes are all angular and statuesque figures, the colours are spectacular, and the action moves quickly. The dialogue of these books is fairly traditional, with no attempts at modernisation. There are no dudes or babes.

Graphic India, on the other hand, uses myth in the same manner as its American counterparts DC and Marvel do: as a backdrop to modern superhero stories. Shekhar Kapur’s Devi, for instance, works much like Alan Moore’s Promethea series.

Similarly set in a futuristic, dystopic city, this series has a young woman (Tara Mehta) discovering herself to be the vessel of a greater power which she must use to save humanity from evil forces. She uses a divine capability, but she is not a god, and still retreats to her human form when the battle’s lost or won. Again, it’s the illustrative style that really stands out here. Mukesh Singh’s artwork is stunning, forcing readers to turn page after page and devour Devi’s adventures.

Graphic India also launched what I find to be their most compelling myth-retelling, the Ramayana 3392 AD series. As the title might indicate, this sequence retells the Ramayana in a futuristic setting, where advances in technology explain the strange settings and the powers of the heroes.

The Ram of the series is a quietly intense, pensive man, the dialogue is modern (not too futuristic for readers in the 21st century to grasp, however) and again, the artwork is stunning. Graphic India’s strengths seem to lie in their illustrators, and the imaginative daring of their storymakers. If you want a fresh take on Indian myth, and are tired of the overflowing novel market, these are the comics for you.

Digital reach

The comic industry seems way ahead of its more traditional counterpart when it comes to the digital scene. The bigger houses, such as ACK, are pulling out all stops to get their products onto different media. Though currently only available for tablets, the ACK app allows users to purchase and download comics directly onto their devices. Tinkle, one of the house’s more popular magazines, now has a video channel on YouTube (Suppandi & Friends), which marks what Creative Director Neel Debdutt Paul calls the company’s “first real foray into animation ».

What’s interesting is how Tinkle has married its print content to interactive, digital innovations. Besides the videos, there’s an interactive app, Blippar, which works when paired with a print edition of Tinkle – after downloading the app, you simply point the camera at a specific page of the magazine and voila! extra content pops up. “The entire page is a marker for Blippar,” Paul says.

The move to digital media has enabled a new generation of comics creators to take to the field as well, perhaps much more easily than they might have done just a few years ago. Sahil Rizwan’s The Vigil Idiot, a web-comic that reviewed Bollywood movies with the most stark of illustrative styles (stick figures) has achieved phenomenal success, and has now been published as a book.

Bangalore-based illustrator and comics creator Kaveri Gopalakrishnan sees many reasons for the success of webcomics. Along with being extremely accessible, she believes that web-comics have something to say. “As a reader, I’m not excited by DC and Marvel stuff online, because I’ve seen it already but many web comics have content which is really relatable,” she adds.

The range available to those who want to read in this format is truly astounding. From Rohan Chakravarty’s Green Humour which highlights conservation and environmental issues, to Aarthi Parthasarathy’s Royal Existentials, which, in the creator’s words, “uses Indian vintage art and imagery to tell stories of historical (and contemporary) angst”, Indian web-comics creators are sailing into uncharted seas.

The contemporary language, the delivery of entertainment in a five-panel strip, which can be read in all of two minutes, is an irresistible pull, promising immediate gratification for the smartphone generation. There’s no need to invest heavily, time or money-wise, to be entertained by a comic strip anymore, and the frequent updates guarantee freshness.

Words as weapons

While comics have always relied on both words and images to make their point, some genres place a greater emphasis on witty observation than others. Unlike the mythological comics, which can rely on visuals to tell the story, political comics use gentle – and sometimes, not so gentle – prods to make their point.

Take for instance, Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land, a web-comic that uses stock characters, usually delivering monologues, to make political observations. The creators usually leave the stinger for the last panel, leaving their readers with something to think about. The posts are topical, witty and sometimes even bleak.

This is not an optimistic strip and seems to reflect a darkening sociopolitical atmosphere. This is effected by often simulating the viewpoint of those in power, delivering justification for various events and opinions. The pairing of this holier-than-thou sentiment with less than conventionally appealing imagery sets a strange, dystopic tone, setting in motion the kind of reflection that a conventionally told graphic narrative might not have. No wonder Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land has also just been published as a book.

It’s true that comics have had a long history in India, well before Marvel and DC arrived on the scene. It also seems like they’ll continue to thrive here, thanks to the efforts of creative people and the love shown to them by dedicated readers. Of course, there are still questions about what kind of comics will thrive. But writers, artists and the comics industry as a whole is showing that it does have an interesting and alternative way of depicting the world.

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