Political cartooning in India has long lost its sheen. Even editorial cartoons are rare. The void has been filled to an extent by cartoons that appear on social media and other websites. And when it comes to comics, political commentary and critique are rare too, even if not entirely invisible, although the subject of gender politics is an exception.

It is against this backdrop that Rashtrayana: Trouble in Paradesh by George Mathen, who writes comics under the name Appupen, must be read. The self-published 44-page comic is the first, one hopes, of a series that tells the story of Rashtraman, a hero of Halahala, the dystopian universe created by the Bengaluru-based cartoonist.

Rashtraman first appeared online in 2016 as part of the offerings, which included The Dystopian Times, featured on the site Brainded. Appupen used the figure to launch his no-holds-barred political critique of the India that we live in today. After building an online readership the strongman from Rashtria has now appeared in print.

Appupen’s imaginary Halahala – possibly a take on the name of a mythological poison that came out during the great churning of the ocean by gods and demons – is a world in decline inhabited by purveyors of doom. Rastraman’s entry into this cosmology is significant, and so is time of his appearance.

The current adventure is set in Rashtrapolis in the “Year of the Cow”, with the “Great Leader” of Rashtria calling in Rashtraman to bring back his “abducted” wife (remember the Ramayana) from Padostan.

The comic is studded with clever plays on words that have become a part of the vocabulary of a common Indian. There is Gau Raakshas, a demon cow with underworld links, a member of the marauding gang of Rashtraman who does everything in the name of the cow and Rashtria. Then there is Propagandhi, always ready to fire up nationalistic fervour with “fake” bulletins. These are all too familiar images that invade our lives daily and Appupen uses them to ridicule and mock at the regime that thought them up.

As a creative exercise, Appupen’s mode of critiquing is mostly successful in maintaining a stridently attacking while allowing the illustrations to play their part. These drawings are a treat, and sly references – such as those of the National Stadium and the Indian Parliament – appear as, for instance, as the teeth of the Rashtrabot on the cover of the book.

The use of lurid violet, yellow bordering on saffron and bluish-green add drama and help create a large-than-life imagery for apparently meaningless exercises. But one particular image of the Rashtraman logo that catches the eye is a play on the symbol for the rupee: ₹. Notwithstanding the odd panel of Rashtraman surrounded by scantily clad women, the Rashtria strongman is the grotesque manifestation of the power whose adrenalin rush is driven by the money whose symbol he proudly sports on his forehead.

The non-linear narrative holds together as a story, but some references to previous seasons (maybe forthcoming ones too) as footnotes is confusing. The simultaneity of events could have managed a bit better than using the word “meanwhile”.

The real force of the work lies on a page purporting to be an advertisement for Rashtria’s No. 1 drink, GO-MOO-TRA. With Rashtraman and Propagandhi featuring in the full-page propaganda blast on the “elixir of heroes and gods”, complete with “x-tra mootrients”, Rashtrayana: Trouble in Paradesh leaves no doubt in the readers’ mind about its targets.

This is a bold work from a cartoonist does not hold his punches. Appupen spoke to Scroll.in briefly about Rashtraman. Excerpts from the interview:

What prompted you to come up with Rashtraman?
I don’t like the idea of a superhero. Or of gods or god-men either. I don’t think we should have such larger than life figures controlling us. Patriotic heroes like Captain America and Superman not only glorify wars and manipulate history, but also work as influencers for a larger scheme.

Thus, Rashtraman embodies all that I hate about superheroes and power. Since 2014 we’ve had an atmosphere of control, surveillance and fear in India too. The Big Brother like image of the government did the rest.

I was also looking at creating something very Indian, with a nod to the great epics, which inspired the effort of the Halahala universe itself. The idea of a modern “itihaasa” was intriguing.

Was Rashtraman added to the Halahala universe as an afterthought?
Rashtraman is a new idea in Halahala. But Halahala is meant to serve as the world for many different stories and characters. That was my idea for Halahala, as a fantasy world – to serve any story that I think is worth telling. That’s why I’ve not gone into drawing a map of Halahala either, and I can play with time too.

I definitely hope there will be many more characters and realms added to Halahala over the years. Only then can I really call it a universe or dimension of stories. What I made in 2005 was only the shell, to keep me occupied as long as possible.

Do you plan to self-publish the entire series (I’m assuming this is the first book of the series)?
I’m doing this on a trial basis – I hope to learn from this. I’m quite attracted to the idea of self publishing, but there are many elements yet to fall into place. We have to find a way for the independent artist to survive and create more art – and I don’t mean it has to be from comics alone. So yes, I’m hoping to publish more in the series.

Is the entire series hand-painted?
Rashtraman season 1 and 2 which are up online and published on Brainded are fully hand-drawn on paper, with pen and brush, painted, scanned, and so on. The Rashtrayana book is entirely hand-drawn and finished on a tablet.

What has been the response to the printed book?
It’s too early to say [the book appeared only in October 2018], but I feel good about it. The attempt was to do something like the comics i remember reading as a kid – smart, entertaining and not costing the world. I feel graphic novels are prohibitively priced, and it’s not really the creator’s choice to price it that way. Comics were fun, irreverent and accessible. We need that back if our original comics are to survive and make an impact.

Rashtrayana: Trouble in Paradesh, Appupen, Brainded India/Appupen.