cartoon world

Tagore and the other inspirations behind world’s most popular webcomics

Often born of personal struggles with careers, parenting and depression, these cartoons have struck a chord with millions online.

Indians share a paradoxical relationship with comic strips. Even as we smile at the intelligent simplicity of RK Laxman’s Common Man and giggle at the irreverent insight of Mario Miranda’s comics, our newspapers are largely populated with cartoon strips imported from foreign publications.

We might enjoy the specifically Indian, but we have a learned propensity for the resolutely global. The rise of the webcomic has further encouraged our penchant for imported cartoon strips. Buoyed by the reach of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, a new generation of international cartoonists are deftly sketching a place for themselves in the hearts of Indian audiences.

1. The Happy Page

California-based artists Ralph Lazar and Lisa Swerling shot to fame in 2013 with their Happiness is… sketches, which are sweet, simple and relatable illustrations of small, everyday moments of happiness.

“It was just a casual conversation that started it,” Lazar said. “Lisa came up with the concept of a page on which we illustrate user-submitted ideas of happiness. Submissions initially trickled in, but within a month it had gone viral.”

Happiness is… is now a global brand with over 3 million followers on Facebook and has been translated into 16 languages. Lazar’s sketches are stylistically distinct but minimalist. He said the aesthetics of the comic are driven by the volume of work they produce – Lazar illustrates about 10-20 ideas out of the hundreds, sometimes thousands of suggestions they receive every day. “We need to do them quickly and in a way that is clutter-free,” he explained. “We often need to communicate subtle emotions or feelings and the less ‘noise’ in an image the better.”

After the publication of four paperback compilations of their work in the last few years, the artists are looking forward to several more book releases in 2017, including compilations of illustrations based on mothers in March and fathers in May. “Our licensee in India, H&P Textiles, is also bringing out a bunch of great new bedding and bath products,” said Lazar. A range of Happiness is … homeware and ceramics is also set to release in India.

2. Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes by Inspirational Folks

Unlike inspirational quotes which appear plastered on top of picturesque but random photographs, Gavin Aung Than’s illustrations of motivational quotes are dense with engaging narratives and evocative visuals. Than interprets quotes by famous personalities and translates them into comics, supplementing them with a short biography. His comics have been put together in two paperback volumes – Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes From Inspirational People and Zen Pencils Volume 2: Dream The Impossible Dream.

Than has acquired a large global following and accepts suggestions for quotes from his fans. Consequently, his comics are extremely diverse, based on quotes by famous people of varied professions and nationalities. Than has illustrated quotes by several famous Indian personalities, including philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and Yogi T Krishnamacharya.

“Quite a few Indian readers suggested Rabindranath Tagore and Dr APJ Kalam, so that led me to do some research on them,” said Than. “That’s what I love about the site – discovering new and inspiring people through my readers.”

Although Zen Pencils is widely successful now, it is the product of personal struggle. “I’d had a number of failed attempts at trying to get a webcomic off the ground and was kind of having an existential crisis,” Than recalled. “I was miserable at work and had been reading biographies and following the journeys of lots of creative heroes.” Eventually, he decided to combine these quotes with his talent for cartooning to create Zen Pencils.

Than is currently working on a series of web comics based on the quotes of people who can be counted among history’s greatest thinkers. His comics are also in the process of being translated into many languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Kannada.

3. Fowl Language

Parenting is a difficult task and it doesn’t get any easier when parents are compared to saints or gods. Brian Gordon’s webcomic humanises parents, addressing their fallibilities and frustrations with refreshing lightheartedness and sensitivity.

Before starting Fowl Language in 2013, Gordon worked for the American greeting card company Hallmark, where he created a webcomic about “two young, single, childless characters who were obsessed with pop culture”. But when he had kids, he found it hard to relate with his creations.

“I was also disillusioned with doing a strip that a corporation completely owned the rights to,” said Gordon. “So I started another strip with all new characters that more closely resembled my current life.” Consequently, Fowl Language is semi-autobiographical, translating personal experiences with parenthood into charmingly honest and gently moving illustrations.

In 2016, his comics were compiled into the paperback Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting.

The webcomic features a family of duck characters consisting of a father and his two children. Their mother, however, is conspicuously absent. When Gordon began working on the strip, he wrote primarily from a father’s point of view. But when he realised that most of his regular readers were women, he attempted to craft his work from a genderless perspective, hoping that “people would be able to see themselves in the work, despite their gender or race. Having the duck appear alone for the most part is the easiest way to portray this”.

4. Lunarbaboon

Parenthood was also the inspiration for Toronto-based artist Christopher Grady, whose webcomic features the daily experiences of the titular Lunar Baboon, a “half man, half moon-monkey” living with his child and wife. Lunarbaboon’s illustrations often deconstruct complicated themes such as mental illness and body awareness with disarming simplicity.

The webcomic began four years ago, when Grady’s focus on his work was affected by a phase of depression. “So I decided to start making little daily comics to help focus my spinning thoughts and to find the humour in all the things that were making me feel down,” he said.

Lunarbaboon is stylistically simple, constructed with clean, bold lines and rarely any colour. “I kept the simple style because I liked it and because with a full-time job and two kids I just didn’t have time to create anything with detail,” the artist explained. Grady’s book Lunarbaboon: The Daily Life of Parenthood is slated to release in April 2017.

Even as social media has helped these artists expand their reach and cultivate a global fan base, it has altered the aesthetics of their work. For instance, Grady is conscious of how his comics will fit on his various social media pages. “I have learned that a smaller comic usually has a better chance of being shared so I try to keep my comics to 4 to 6 panels,” he said.

These webcomics, and many others like them, including The Awkward Yeti and Sarah’s Scribbles, enjoy a large following on social media because they transcend cultural differences to portray shared human experiences which resonate across diverse audiences.

“I want people to know there are tons of people just like them,” said Grady. “People who love their families, go to work, have similar problems, and are just trying to get through the day. So we should strive to be kinder to the people we meet each day.”

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.