Eighteen stories with added contributions from the editors makes Longform 2022: A Collection of Graphic Narratives a volume that is deceptive for the reviewer. Four short pieces by the editors introduce how open the anthology is with its approach to comics. This diversity leads readers towards the politics of showcasing stories of historical, generational, religious, gender, and sexual difference in the nation. But it also demands that we look beyond narratives to the medium itself for how these stories are told.
Debjyoti Saha’s fastidiously panelled entry “Murder” begins the volume formally. The brilliance of its rhythms and tight layouts dawn on the reader at the precise moments when they are gloriously broken as the young boy comes to terms with the birds plaguing his childhood. It also inaugurates the loose coming-of-age theme that unites many of the stories in the volume.
Balaram J’s “Drriing Trriing” echoes this simplicity, telling the story of young Lala who re-engineers his hard-earned bicycle into a wheelchair for his disabled grandfather. The economy of cartooning itself factors into his sacrifice, as the clutter and noise of indecision give way to clarity and silent emotion. These generational transactions become fodder for an irresistible nostalgia in “Oye Tubu” where changing times fail to mar the relationship of Partha Mahanta’s titular character with his grandmother, and the slices of her life that remain around him long after her death.
“Bittersweet” by Ekta Bharati is a reckoning with what happens when a relationship refuses to grow with age, choosing to wither away in violence instead. A fever dream of desire and its failings, Bharati’s panels fade in and out of existence, disappearing from the pages altogether at times, leaving the art and text to shoulder the burden of being a comic narrative without dwindling into mere illustration.
This same audacity recurs in Sudhanya Dasgupta’s and Manisha Naskar’s “Patient no. 259”, a harrowing account that pushes the boundaries of autobiographical and diary-based comics into illustrated memoir and comic book history. The trauma and resilience of Dasgupta’s mother’s life and history infects the medium itself here, making it more than a mere testimonial of partition or an artefact for that strange new genre – graphic medicine.
Gayatri Menon stages her encounter with female spaces and ancestry through another tale that begins with a medical emergency. The loss of her unborn foetus sends the protagonist into an exploration of her family tree and all the ancestors her child could have been reborn as. Lalon’s muted colours follow the unobtrusive lettering in “It Was Just Another Day”, letting the art embody her musings.
This sense of belonging takes on the picture of a community in Anirban Ghosh’s “Polaroids of Pride” which uses the catalogue format to curate vignettes of queer lives inspired from both life and fiction. Straddling the line between The Nib-like comics journalism and the Instagram photostory, these single-panel, lushly illustrated narratives are both history and its celebration.
Alendev Vishnu’s and Jerry Anthony’s approaches to growth are decidedly more…monstrous. Vishnu’s “The Tail” proceeds by gradually cutting up the page into richly painted sequences, as a boy born with extra fingers on his hands mysteriously loses them one day and has to convince everyone that becoming normal is where his problem lies.
This lack of credulity bleeds into Anthony’s “Fledged”, where a large Totoro-esque rabbit awash in blue dares a young child to believe that it can fly. Fantasy has to make a case for itself here, forcing the child to take a leap of faith from the page, leaving both panel and gutter behind.
Faith underlines Pavan Rujurkar’s isolation of colour in “Noor”, a meandering narrative that uses a single brick-red box to trace the life of a young Muslim boy who loses his family to flames, and himself, over time, to the oblivion of addiction. One is reminded of the duotone flashbacks in Alan Moore’s and Brian Bolland’s “The Killing Joke”, but this is no supervillain origin story.
Srijita’s and Oz’s “Chimera” too riffs on addiction with fluid lines and pop colours that bring a cyberpunk world to life, but here style overcomes substance, leaving behind a tale that feels like it is just the beginning of one.
The social spaces that religions create become a cause of celebration in Rai’s “Pushkar” and Shaaz Ahmed’s “Meaning of the Word”. The latter is an anthology in itself: divided into six instalments that both spell out and explicate the Urdu word and creed, “akhlaq”. The drawn figures inhabit backgrounds culled into panels from photographs, giving these innocent parables a sense of immediacy.
“Pushkar” tries to imagine a heartland experience of Holi that is concerned with how all sense of bodies, boundaries, and even agency is negotiable in the spirit of the street festival. But caste – and the smug reality of how often Rai’s pages resemble a faceless, raging mob instead of the party it is meant to conjure – often comes in the way of such jubilance. The lettering ebbs and flows, often losing sight of speaker, volume, and direction within the crowd. Even at its most innocent, this powerful story reeks of the violence towards women and minorities that such gatherings often morph into.
This polarisation finds its expression in two wordless pieces: Milad Thaha’s “Kallan” (Thief) and Suman Choudhury’s “Storm over a Teacup”. Thaha uses the form to chart an urban setting through the eyes of a pickpocket, micromanaging the pace of the narrative through layouts that shapeshift and disappear on occasion. The apathy of the onlooker in daily life erupts in rage at the moment the thief is caught. There is no dialogue, perhaps because such violence grows beyond verbal language.
The silence in Choudhury’s piece, however, is one that is indistinguishable from the cacophony of voices that now characterise public spaces. His caricatures all have senses that are exaggerated at the expense of others, with the only person in possession of them all sitting in silence.
Arghya Manna brings these threads together, pitting faith against rationality in an uneasy confrontation with history in “Bose versus Bose”. The scientist JC Bose’s explorations into the relationship between living and non-living are compromised by his spiritualist leanings to the extent that his rational self splinters off into a double that condemns this betrayal. Manna’s panels and layouts display masterful use of colour as they oscillate between the geometry of atomic and cellular structures. The analytical man of science keeps slipping into religious fervour as these visions progress, looking to the Vedas to justify and situate his work.
The hand-drawn panels splutter in places, unable to contain this collapse of a scientist and his accomplishments into the hubris of a self-styled guru. This rude awakening is belated but nonetheless an important chapter in reclaiming the history of science’s saffronisation from the popular histories that did not care enough for it.
The relative failure of the anthology form to set up a comics ecosystem in India akin to those that propped up around US publisher Fantagraphics’s magazines (BLAB!, MOME, Zero Zero) is a limitation that Longform is also acutely aware of addressing in its second outing. The international artists invited to contribute to the volume are curated accordingly.
Noah van Sciver’s rebellious trip of adolescence frames his “Holly Hill”, creating a link to both the vibrant “autobio” genre in American indie comics and a sense of history that the editors are clearly looking to reference, emulate, and recreate through this series. An excerpt from the French master Tanitoc’s long-running eponymous SF series bookends this desire. “Earthbound” is a biting satire that ends more abruptly than it began, leaving a gap that benefits both the artists and Longform, whose project feels far from done. The fine draughtsmanship in both pieces also puts the relative lack of finesse and editorial consideration for lettering in the Indian comics scene into sharp relief.
Longform Volume 1’s (2018) cover depicted a boy running across an idyllic landscape, mirroring the anthology’s efforts to find a space for itself in the unforgiving categories of Indian publishing. That defiant run now feels like a confident stride as Longform approaches its next outing, introducing both readers and artists to the wonders of comics.
Longform 2022: A Collection of Graphic Stories, Edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee, and Pinaki De, Penguin Books.