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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The quirks and perks of travelling with your hard to impress mom

We must admit that the jar of pickle always comes in handy.

A year ago, Priyanka, a 26-year-old banking professional, was packing her light-weight duffel bag for an upcoming international trip. Keen to explore the place, she wanted to travel light and fuss free. It was not meant to be. For Priyanka was travelling with her mother, and that meant carrying at least two extra suitcases packed with odds and ends for any eventuality just short of a nuclear war.

Bothered by the extra suitcases that she had to lug around full of snacks and back-up woollens, Priyanka grew frustrated with her mother. However, one day, while out for some sight-seeing Priyanka and her family were famished but there were no decent restaurants in sight. That’s when her mum’s ‘food bag’ came to the rescue. Full of juice boxes, biscuits and sandwiches, her mother had remembered to pack snacks from the hotel for their day out. Towards the end of the trip, Priyanka was grateful to her mother for all her arrangements, especially the extra bag she carried for Priyanka’s shopping.

Priyanka’s story isn’t an isolated one. We spoke to many people about their mother’s travel quirks and habits and weren’t surprised at some of the themes that were consistent across all the travel memoirs.

Indian mothers are always prepared

“My mom keeps the packed suitcases in the hallway one day before our flight date. She will carry multiple print-outs of the flight tickets because she doesn’t trust smartphone batteries. She also never forgets to carry a medical kit for all sorts of illnesses and allergies”, says Shruti, a 27-year-old professional. When asked if the medical kit was helpful during the trip, she answered “All the time”, in a tone that marvelled at her mother’s clairvoyance.

Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

Indian mothers love to feel at home, and create the same experience for their family, wherever they are

“My mother has a very strange idea of the kind of food you get in foreign lands, so she always packs multiple packets of khakra and poha for our trips. She also has a habit of carrying her favourite teabags to last the entire trip”, relates Kanchan, a marketing professional who is a frequent international flier often accompanied by her mother. Kanchan’s mother, who is very choosy about her tea, was therefore delighted when she was served a hot cup of garam chai on her recent flight to Frankfurt. She is just like many Indian mothers who love to be reminded of home wherever they are and often strive to organise their hotel rooms to give them the coziness of a home.

Most importantly, Indian mothers are tough, especially when it comes to food

Take for instance, the case of Piyush, who recalls, “We went to this fine dining restaurant and my mother kept quizzing the waiter about the ingredients and the method of preparation of a dish. She believed that once she understood the technique, she would be able to make a better version of the dish just so she could pamper me!”

Indian mothers are extremely particular about food – from the way its cooked, to the way it smells and tastes. Foreign delicacies are only allowed to be consumed if they fulfil all the criteria set by Mom i.e. is it good enough for my children to consume?

An approval from an Indian mother is a testament to great quality and great taste. In recognition of the discerning nature of an Indian mum and as a part of their ‘More Indian Than You Think’ commitment, Lufthansa has tailored their in-flight experiences to surpass even her exacting standards. Greeted with a namaste and served by an Indian crew, the passengers feel right at home as they relish the authentic Indian meals and unwind with a cup of garam chai, the perfect accompaniment to go with a variety of Indian entertainment available in the flight. As Lufthansa’s in-flight offerings show, a big part of the brand is inherently Indian because of its relationship with the country spanning over decades.

To see how Lufthansa has internalised the Indian spirit and become the airline of choice for flyers looking for a great Indian experience, watch the video below.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.