Earlier this month, the much-awaited Maithili and the Minotaur: Forest of Forgotten Fears was released. This is the second book in the series, and I had waited a whole year for it. In preparation, I re-read the first book, Maithili and the Minotaur: Web of Woe, and revisited all the side characters (there are quite a few) with due diligence. Why was I so excited? Maithili and the Minotaur may just be the first English language graphic novel series for children India has ever seen.

When I read the first book Maithili and the Minotaur: Web of Woe, I was utterly and hopelessly hooked to a story about a seemingly normal human girl who lives in a world inhabited by monsters and outlandish creatures. Maithili is feared by her classmates – monsters, ghouls, and zombies – for being different. The story was riveting, the illustrations, entrancing and the complex layers of humour and detail in the book forced me to return to it again and again.

The second book in the series, Forest of Forgotten Fears, doesn’t disappoint either. This time around, the story is richly inspired by local folklore and legends. Author CG Salamander takes the legend of Mathikettan Solai near Kodaikanal and sends Maithili and her friends deep into the forest, giving us
glimpses into their carefully guarded past. Illustrator Rajiv Eipe expertly brings the madness of the
forest on paper using colour and patterns that makes the reader feel like they are part of the story.
The characters and story are underlined by a strong sense of humour and visual satire, typical of Salamander and Eipe’s work. This book thrilled as a few of my favourite side characters from the
previous book got more plot-space and came into their own.

Why are children’s graphic novels ignored?

As I handed the book over to my children to read, I couldn’t help but make a passing comment about
how my parents wouldn’t have approved of me reading this graphic novel series, way back when I
was their age.

It was the early 2000s and there was talk of a must-read book in various book club circles around
college. As a student of English literature, you had to be part of at least three book clubs if you were to be taken seriously, and all my clubs were abuzz with the arrival of this one book. A classmate had scored this book during her summer travel and she had agreed to lend it to anyone who wanted to read it, because it had “changed her life” and she wanted that awakening for her friends too.

The book was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and it was my first introduction to a graphic novel. Persepolis, an autobiographical graphic novel, is about the author growing up in Austria and Iran during the Islamic revolution. Told through powerful black and white panels, we see how the author’s childhood is entwined with the history of the country. This revolutionary book was for us –
girls studying English literature – our first taste of new-age literature.

But not everybody was on board. After years of nodding disapprovingly at Archie and Marvel comics,
parents during the late 1990s and early 2000s didn’t exactly welcome the transition from reading comic books to graphic novels. Amar Chitra Katha was still tolerated because of its content but other comic books and graphic novels were looked down upon as frivolous, timepass reading. So, why do Indian parents love to hate graphic novels?

Authors answer the question

CG Salamander, author of the Maithili and the Minotaur series agrees there is a bias. “Reading comics or graphic novels is considered by many as a leisurely activity as opposed to something a child reads to gain knowledge.”

Apart from encouraging their children to read books to gain knowledge, most parents look at buying books as an investment. When children read comic books or graphic novels from end to end in less than an hour, that investment doesn’t seem like money well spent. Parents aren’t big fans of the casual, colloquial language, and funny plotlines either.

On the contrary, says Salamander, “The truth of the matter is that there is a lot to be learnt from the comic medium because it shows you how to be more alert while consuming content in a different medium. With films you are bombarded with all these images and you don’t really have time to think about these images and the words together. But with comics or graphic novels, you have the ability to really soak it in. If you are a child, then to read and take it at your own pace. The thing that sold it for me, is the participatory element of a graphic novel – you read it, at your own pace, you imagine certain actions in between the margins, the gutters.”

In the past year, Indian children’s literature has seen the release of the Maithili and the Minotaur
series and The People of the Indus. In their own way, they entertain, engage, and enlighten. Both
have been created with years of research and insert a certain fascination into simply how much can
be conveyed through text and pictures.

Nikhil Gulati, author and illustrator of The People of the Indus – a graphic novel tracing the Indus valley civilisation says, “A lot of people are visual thinkers and for them comics communicate in a much more natural manner than just words alone. Just saying a brontosaurus is 50 feet tall means nothing, but if I show you a brontosaurus beside a tree and tell you the dinosaur is taller than the tree, you will immediately get it.”

Salamander admits when he thought up the story of Maithili and the Minotaur, he pictured it only as a graphic novel. It fit neatly into a gap that existed in Indian children’s literature too as the only graphic novel for middle grade readers. Though it would seem like a natural transition for kids to move from picture books to graphic novels, they aren’t one and the same.

Rajiv Eipe, illustrator of the Mathili series who has also illustrated award-winning picture books says,
“There is a difference between illustrating for picture books and graphic novels or comics. With a picture book you are trying to contain a lot of storytelling within a single image whereas in a comic you have the luxury or liberty to tell the story over a series of panels. We think of stories sequentially and a comic book is the perfect setting to explain it. A series of events happens and then there is a panel which forces readers to stop and think. This is very important to the way we tell stories.”

But as all other formats and genres will tell you – graphic novels have an enviable superpower. They draw reluctant readers in with their glossy, colourful pictures. They hook the most discerning reader with their conversational tone and engaging story. They bestow a feeling of accomplishment when the reader finishes the book from cover to cover in one sitting and they manage to lure the reader time and again to pick up another book just like them because no one can read just one (graphic novel). Maybe, it is time to give graphic novels the credit they deserve?