In his most political graphic novel yet, Appupen weaves a story of hope in a debris-laden bleak landscape of his imagined earth-like planet of Halahala, which is now in the throes of destruction. George Mathen, who writes and draws with the name Appupen, began his Halahala journey with the novel Moonward. In The Snake and the Lotus, his fourth in the series, the graphic novelist from Kerala hits a high note both in storytelling and illustration.
Appupen touches on several subjects, ranging from dictatorship, censorship, and homogeneity of thought to AI-regulated life, in order to alert the reader about the challenges that lie ahead of human civilisation on earth. The political narrative is nuanced, and, other than the lotus symbolism, the identities of the sides are never apparent. The Green in the novel is screaming for help, and effluent pipes that look like turrets of WWI German A7V tanks are constantly spewing toxic sludge to stamp out remaining life on Halahala. Stockpiles of barrels of crude oil on an undulating barren land serves s a reminder of the violence inflicted by humans on the environment.
The exaggerated depiction of gloom and doom is beautifully laid out in black and white woodcut-like illustrations. Appupen has said that The Snake and the Lotus is a tribute of sorts to the US master woodcut storyteller Lynd Ward. Though not actually using woodcuts, this is one of the best tributes to the American visual narrator.
The panels, one on each of the 260-and-odd pages, are packed with several small elements telling their own stories. For instance, in one panel an Olmec head in ruins (a hat tip to Hergé?) and destroyed Greek columns mirroring the death of past civilisations share space with a clenched fist rising skywards, signalling a revolution. Appupen works with a complex set of visuals that makes the story engaging; the reader is made to go back to a panel to discover a clue that leads the story forward.
The narrative structure of The Snake and the Lotus is rather complex, working as a dystopian tale of nature in ruins at one level. But Appupen only uses this a springboard to jump into other themes, such as master-slave relationships, using lotus-milk to control the masses, the lifelessness of synthetic life (fairly obvious), and more. He laments over progress without a sustainable survival plan, asking whether the human being is smart enough to avoid the doom it has created.
In the novel, Halahala humans have lost their control over structured language. Appupen uses this idea to take a savage swipe at the idiom of text messaging and social media lingo. The slow and gradual submission of humans to machines is highlighted in this loss of language. As the Green shrieks in acute pain, humans don’t realise they have lost the ability to comprehend, let alone decode, the message. Is the artist hinting at the regimentation of mind and destruction of natural language processing that is commonplace in the world we live in?
Appupen does not leave enough clues for a definite answer. But the use of a pictogram-inspired script, with its readability deliberately tinkered with, and the “white noise” that constantly buzzes in the ears of the human Grayfolks subjugated by Godlings hints at this.
All dictators from Hitler to Idi Amin had tried to create a regimented race with a homogeneous thought process. In The Snake and the Lotus, Appupen explores the dictatorship of machines. But is it really only machines that he is talking about? In his novel society is divided into masters and slaves, with the latter drinking only lotus-milk and obeying their masters, the Godlings. This may remind the reader of Karl Marx’s observation that religion is the opium of the masses.
This kind of here-and-now messaging makes the novel shed its standard dystopian sci-fi garb and turns it into a no-holds-barred commentary on contemporary India. There are several other visual cues – the ornate temple, priests with headgear that looks like lotus buds, and symbols associated with worship only reinforce the political message.
In fact, Appupen does not stop here. The panels on sexual violence at White Towers and the expression on the faces of the priests enjoying the disrobing and the final act of dishonour of the heroine are messages that go beyond a simple tale of nature in distress. The way several issues that affect us today have been brought into the book makes it one of the best political graphic novels of our times.
There have been many machine-human conflicts in graphic novels – DC and Marvel are past masters of this kind of tale, and Moebius elevated it further. But rarely have any of these placed a woman at the centre of the revolution against machines.
Appupen not only has a woman spearhead the challenge against a regimented, machine-intelligence augmented, ruthless regime, but also makes her the human who brings sense back to humans and protects nature. The “hero” Godling who breaks ranks and helps her pales next to the diminutive woman with fierce, determined eyes, winning an impossible battle. This twist to The Snake and the Lotus gives it a new dimension. Mother Nature needs her women soldiers to take the battle to the machines and AI-serfs. After all, no regime is strong enough to stand up to the might of women, as history has shown.
The Snake and the Lotus, Appupen, Context.