graphic novels

Five biographies in graphic novel form that you must read

Each of these books is a remarkable blend of history, character study and creative art.

Growing up in the 1990s, a significant chunk of my time as a child was devoted to Amar Chitra Katha comics, especially their biographical series. I now realise that these beloved childhood relics were, in some cases, hagiographies. In others, they were representative of the Hindutva brand of politics. But at the time, they were simply hours and hours of binge-reading.

ACK, with its talented pool of artists, whittled a story down to its essence, capturing historical moments with admirable ease. Comics are, without doubt, an extremely efficient way of summarising a lifetime. Here are five biographical comics that are well worth your time and money, in no particular order of preference (for the purposes of this article, autobiographies are not included).

Louis Riel (2003), Chester Brown



This book should be required reading for comics practitioners as well as fans, simply for the way it balances scholarly precision (it’s a rare graphic novel that boasts of a full bibliography, appendices and extensive endnotes) and cinematic verve. Chester Brown is a Canadian artist whose work (most recently, the incendiary memoir Paying for It) takes some time to warm up to: his style isn’t extravagant and doesn’t really leap off the page.

But persist for a dozen pages or so and you’ll realise the subtlety of his art; his exceptional paneling sense in particular. Riel, the subject of this book, was a 19th century separatist leader of the Métis people (native to the Canadian prairies) who was eventually executed by the newly formed Canadian government in 1885.

Houdini: The Handcuff King (2007), Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi (illustrator)



It’s difficult to imagine a more fascinating biographical subject than Harry Houdini, the most famous escape artist of all time. Houdini’s story has already inspired several films, songs and books, most notably the Pulitzer-winning novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

This graphic novel  does well to cover all the major checkpoints: the young Houdini’s struggles with immigration and anti-Semitism, the first, hesitant shows with handcuffs, the confident later-career skewering of fake mediums and clairvoyants and of course, the final, tragic chapter of his life. The book is written by Lutes, one of the modern-day comics greats, known for his epic ongoing series Berlin. But surprisingly, he did not contribute to the art here: that job went to Nick Bertozzi, who maintains a nice balance between showboating caricature and gritty realism.

Logicomix (2009), Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos (illustrator) and Annie Di Donna (illustrator)



Logicomix may very well be the most unique comics collaboration of all time: it took a writer (Doxiadis), an illustrator (Papadatos), an animator (Di Donna) and a computer science professor (Papadimitriou) to pull off this singular storytelling feat. Papadimitriou was brought on board because the story being told was that of philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell and his monomaniacal quest to formulate a logically airtight “foundation” theorem that would unify all of mathematics.

Russell worked like a fiend and had eccentricities by the dozen; the book presents a faithful picture of what this did to his personal life. The story also boasts of a dazzling support cast, chock-full of geniuses whom Russell sought out during the course of his work: Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Kurt Gödel and of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian prodigy whom Russell took under his wing.

Trotsky: A Graphic Biography (2009), Rick Geary



Leon Trotsky, one of the seven members of the original Bolshevik Politburo, was one of the most influential men of the 20th century. His ideas on Marxism were a direct rebuttal to Stalin’s policies and ultimately, Stalin decided that he was too dangerous to live and had him assassinated by Soviet agent Ramon Mercader.

Trotsky’s eventful life, which included a brief, tempestuous affair with iconic artist Frida Kahlo (the companion of his once-comrade Diego Rivera), has been captured beautifully by artist Rick Geary. This book is part of a very enjoyable series of graphic biographies: you would be well-advised to pick up the other titles on the roster as well; Abraham Lincoln, J. Edgar Hoover, Amelia Earhart and many others.

Gandhi (2013), Jason Quinn and Sachin Nagar (illustrator)



The only Indian title on this list, Gandhi is a throwback of sorts: its colour scheme and illustration style reminds you of NBT (Nehru Book Trust) children’s books of the 1990s, with their dreamy watercolours and their sharp, clean outlines. For me, the most impressive achievement of Gandhi is the way it handles the Mahatma’s childhood: his failures, his immaturity and his sometimes over-the-top piousness are shown for what they are. And yet, the book remains deeply reverential of the man and also throws in some wry humour for good measure: an encounter with King George V is especially well done.

Gandhi may not have as many memorable one-liners as some of the other books on this list, but its quiet, understated style grows on you. The fact that it is gorgeously produced and priced competitively (Rs 399 is not a lot by graphic novel standards) doesn’t hurt either.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.