Prime Edition

Aspyrus

Appupen

HarperCollins India

Pages: 168 Rs. 599

The vulgar dreams of an ‘Aspyrational’ populace

Appupen’s third graphic novel sees him returning to Halahala, the mythical land of uber-capitalist agony. Aspyrus sees him raising his game as well as his ambition, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  23rd Jul 2014

A panel from Appupen’s Aspyrus

ream City grew beyond imagination. The dream made friends in high places. And travelled the world. Famous artists made tributes to the dream. Some even claimed to be its creator. The dreamer was shocked. But he couldn't believe what he heard next. They had found the real creator of the dream. With proof, the news said. The dreamer called the people of his city. It was his dream, he reminded them. They laughed at him and drove him out. Another mad dreamer, they said."

These 90-odd words, spread across half-a-dozen pages of Appupen's third and latest graphic novel Aspyrus, are about half of the book's total word-count. Aspyrus follows Legends of Halahala and Moonward, the first two installments of Appupen's ongoing Halahala series. The mythical land of Halahala feels like a cruel doppelganger of our planet, where humans sometimes coexist with anthropomorphised monsters, where just about everyone is a slave to the Pied Piper of consumerist excess.

Halahala is equal parts ecological satire and philosophical treatise on the nature of ambition, desire and corruption. Over the course of the last two books, we've seen downright creepy robotic cities grown out of magic seeds, the flip side of dystopian vigilantes, megalomaniacal godmen-turned-entrepreneurs (on second thoughts, are there any other kind of godmen?) and possibly the happiest tri-polar marriage in the Milky Way. As such, Aspyrus comes saddled with a challenging task: to improve upon its rollicking predecessor Legends of Halahala.

Thankfully, Aspyrus doesn't just improve upon this already remarkable series; it also marks new territory for Appupen. As the passage quoted at the beginning of this article indicates, Aspyrus is, quite simply, about how dangerous dreams can be. Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman's Sandman series might recall the numerous ingenious ways in which Morpheus, the "Endless" entity Dream himself, flexes a bit of muscle and uses the dream-realm to punish those who cross him. No wonder, then, that on the back cover of Aspyrus, amidst an array of playful fake blurbs, one spots a "Neel Gaiman" urging readers to "buy this now!"

As the name suggests, Aspyrus is the land where "aspirants" of every hue flock, in search of their respective dreams. Appupen draws these "aspirants" in the classic doped-on-an-idea style he had perfected in the earlier Halahala books. More importantly, every "aspirant" sees his or her dream in the form of a winged beast with a tail, a beast that appears benign from a distance, until the "aspirant" is completely fixated with catching hold of the beast, to the point of ignoring everything and everyone else in the world. As befits this social climber's paradise, Aspyrus is a vertical city, adept at using bureaucracy to keep the poor and the infirm outside the main gate. 

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Importantly, every “aspirant” sees his or her dream in the form of a winged beast with a tail, a beast that appears benign from a distance, until the “aspirant” is completely fixated with catching hold of the beast, to the point of ignoring everything and everyone else in the world.

n a hilarious segue from the main narrative, Appupen devotes seven pages to "Asp-art", a parody series that spoofs several famous paintings and conceptual artworks down the ages, including works by Picasso, Dali and Damien Hirst. The Hirst parody is a bejeweled skull (the skull, of course, is a monstrous, fanged one, indicating the "Aspyrated" nature of the corpse) labeled For the Love of Money, a nod towards For the Love of God, an 18th century skull that Hirst encrusted with 8,601 diamonds; it cost upwards of 10 million pounds to produce.

There are several unforgettable sequences in Aspyrus, but none more so than the one where a child, upon sighting the winged "dream-beast" for the first time, immediately runs from his parents who look on helplessly. The family appears to be a tribal one, and the child, in the course of a few deftly done panels, grows up even as he's chasing the dream. There are two very important points to be noted about this sequence: One, the obsessive gleam in the forest-dwelling child's eyes as he looks upon the vertical city of Aspyrus, and two, the fact that the child grows up in literally no time at all: Appupen seems to be saying, "There's nothing that ages people like monomaniacal ambition." The sequence culminates in a splendid full-page drawing of the man-child, now in full flight towards a goal that we, the readers, know he cannot possibly attain. The parents, meanwhile, are dead-eyed, devastated at the loss of another human soul to the Aspyrian fire.

Where does Appupen (a.k.a George Mathen) go from here? In my humble opinion, he ought to go greedy, although I fear the only greed here is mine. What I mean is that I would really, really like it if he took on something big (or to put it more accurately, something bigger, for dreams are indisputably a Big Theme) and very obviously ambitious, like Robert Crumb's illustrated Bible project or Craig Thompson's Habibi or closer home, Amruta Patil's Parva trilogy. What's more, the world of Halahala is so marvelously malleable that I'm pretty sure Appupen can talk about anything at all without having to leave its "mercurial terrain". Give us a 900-page period piece, George, or a whimsical biography of a person you made up. Oh, and if you can do it within Halahala, even better.

 
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