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The Colour of Fantasy: A brief history of Graphic Novels in India

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(The Image above courtesy Moonward)
The relationship between the text and the visual is perhaps most intimate in a graphic novel. Each complements the other to hold the novel together. But, there are often times when the page or the frame is devoid of text. However, the narrative remains uninterrupted. The reader then has the liberty to assume control of the space and interpret the visual to give it a language that is exclusively his own. Undoubtedly, all this is complex and gripping.

Yes, these are exciting times for both the graphic novelists and the reader in India. Hardly five years in the Indian market, the graphic novel is on the threshold of a new phase. It is alluring more and more writers to the craft and interesting experiments in the structure of the novel are underway. The genre has grown by leaps and bounds and more than half a dozen graphic novels (by Indians) are expected to hit the stores in 2010.

What is it all about? The term ‘graphic novel’ conjures up images of a rebellious comic book, all grown up, adequately armed with literary devices that takes on the snobbish, condescending world of adults. The behaviour of this genre, too, is much more mature—serious and darker than the regular comic books. Not that there are no fun elements in these novels—plenty of it—Terry Pratchett’s ‘The Discworld’ series weave a fantasy world sequined with parodies and psychedelic images. However, ask the graphic novelist to explain the term and he becomes flippant and ambiguous—and that does not help the genre’s identity one bit.

Says Sarnath Banerjee, the author of ‘Corridor’, India’s first commercially successful graphic novel in English, “I think it is a waste of time to figure out what is a graphic novel and what is a comic book. I often interchange the term.” Novelist Appupen aka George Mathen says with a laugh, “I think it is cool to call it a graphic novel, so I stick to the term. It is a serious storyline in graphic format.”
Though this form of ‘serious-literary’ sequential art has been around for a while, it was the American graphic novelist Will Eisner who is believed to have given it that semantic distinction—he hit upon the term ‘graphic novel’ on the spur of a desperate moment to sell his work ‘A Contract with God’ to an editor. The pop-myth goes that the editor loved the idea.

Even if the west had their regular diet of this genre for more than half a century, it was only in the mid-nineties that these imported novels found space in the Indian bookstores. Films like ‘Sin City’ (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller) further fuelled the consumption of this form of storytelling. In 2004, with the publishing of Sarnath Banerjee’s ‘Corridor’, the Indian novelscape changed forever; the author then had to literally cry in the wilderness, to herald the coming of this genre. Says Banerjee, “That time, 2004, doing a graphic novel required vision from the editor and the marketing people of the publishing house. The whole book launch had to be innovative, not just the usual readings and in-conversations. Images had to be brought in, sometimes performances. The bookshops and distributors had to be pushed with this new, weird looking book.”

It was a boost for the publishers that Iranian Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Persepolis, The Story of a Childhood’ (now a film) had been received well in India at about the same time. Since then, things have looked up and in the last few years, the interest for the genre has increased rapidly—today Landmark bookstore alone boasts of over 3,000 (mostly imported) titles and Crossword around 300 to 400 titles—whole sections in bookshops are religiously devoted to the graphic novel. With the film based on the iconic graphic novel ‘Watchmen’ by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore, the younger readers are gravitating to the genre.

Following Banerjee’s ‘Corridor’ and ‘The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers’ (2007), Amruta Patil made her debut with Kari and Tejas Modak too joined the gang in 2008. (We are only talking about mainstream Indian English graphic novelists here.) This year the brand new entrants are Parismita Singh’s The Hotel at the End of the World, Appupen’s Moonward (published by Blaft) and Anindya Roy’s When Kulbhushan met Stockli. That’s not all. HarperCollins is working on five new graphic novels that will be out soon.

Says David Davidar, CEO Penguin International, “If you publish the right author or book you're bound to make an impact. In this respect, graphic novels are no different from other literary novels (I must make clear that I'm discussing the graphic novel equivalents of literary novels and not books belonging to genres like manga). Graphic novels are still rather thin on the ground in India but I expect a lot more will be published in the future especially with graphic novelists like Sarnath Banerjee leading the charge.”

It is also challenging for book editors, too, who for the large part of their work have only dealt with all-text, wordy novels. VK Karthika, publisher and chief editor of HarperCollins India, says that it is very different to edit a graphic novel. “These novelists function at many levels—they see the image and the text together whereas an editor sees two separate forms. The editor’s intervention is basically textual—to see if there is continuity and to ensure that the image is stronger. As an editor this form of expression really shakes you out of your comfort zone when you approach a blank space. You don’t know what will come next. When you read a regular novel, you exclaim: ‘sparkling phrase’ or ‘clever line’. But with a graphic novel, the effect is much more with many layers—it is more sophisticated. And each time you unpack, you see the image and text have been subtly altered like in ‘The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers’. It is very rewarding and hugely satisfying.”
Diya Kar Hazra, editorial director and rights director, Penguin India, points out that these novels require greater attention to detail than the regular novels. “Text and visual have to come together perfectly, so it goes through several more rounds of editing. And text needs to complement the visuals to make the narrative complete. Apart from myths, legends and literary fiction there are many subjects that lend themselves to the form—non-fiction themes in particular.”

Often a very familiar picture stares back at you and you marvel at the casual use of it in a very different setting—Amruta Patil has interestingly used The Last Supper painting as a base for a frame. “Certain stories,” says Tejas Modak, “have a visual potential that demands the use of art in tandem with text for their expression. “My first book—‘Private-eye Anonymous: The Art Gallery Case’-was one such story. I always wanted to make a humorous detective character and visually depict his setting—the dramatic light and shadows of noir—with my drawings.” While Appupen’s fantasy land called Halahala and the people who inhabit it, cannot be imagined except as visual art—his thinking is so visual. This one-time adman sold his novel through Facebook and his website (georgemathen.com). He says, “The text is simple, it is more accessible and for some parts there is no text at all. Though it is a fantasy world, my stories are rooted in reality. My idea is to strike a chord with the reader.” That he has done undoubtedly.

Interview/ Parismita Singh
The Hotel at the End of the World, in stark black and white, diligently details stories, folklores and myths. The novel is not tethered to any particular time or to a specific geographical setting, it traverses with ease the world of cellphones and the era when the Great Wall of China was made. The protagonists Kona and Kuja in search of the floating island with the hidden treasure find themselves in the hotel at the end of the world with its regular customers. And soon each of them begins to unravel a story. The author in a brief interivew:

Why did you choose to tell your story in the graphic format?I am comfortable with the medium and I accentually draw as well as write. I chose to do it in black and white to create the effect.

Your novel is not set in a specific time or place?It was intended that way, but I have left regional clues and markers embedded in the novel for people to discover. The nicest thing is that different people react differently to the novel.

Most of your characters have some physical deformity. Why?
I did not consciously do that but yes, each of these characters was meant to tell a story.

You have woven myths, folklore from different parts of the world.
Yes, I have used folklore, myths and even disguised some stories as folklore.

You have connected the cellphone era with the making of the Great Wall of China.
Oh no, it was not meant to be the Great Wall of China. But it is interesting how you’ve interpreted it.

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