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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

On good and bad comics

henever I speak with friends about the recent growth of commercial fiction in IWE (Indian Writing in English), one idea recurs: that our genre writing — especially crime, science fiction and fantasy — is at a stage roughly analogous to where such writing was in the US in the 1930s. Authors and editors are taking baby steps, unsure of what might catch the imagination of the marketplace, and standards haven't quite been established. There are very large variances: some books are imaginative and assured, with an original voice, while others are embarrassingly mediocre and derivative — and both types are marketed, published and bought with equal levels of enthusiasm.

This may be true of the Indian comics industry too. At Comic Con in Dilli Haat last month there was much on offer, and the discrepancies in quality were striking. The worst of the comics I saw were the ones where the artwork was treated as incidental — where a book was basically a short story (and not a particularly well-written one) with a forced pictorial element. As children's publishers already know, many parents look with suspicion upon books that contain too many drawings and too few words ("if they want value for their word-count, they should buy a newspaper," a friend once quipped), and something of that attitude may have filtered through to comics for younger readers. It's rare to find a really good comic — Manta Ray's Hush comes to mind — that is propelled mainly by drawings.

One series of books published by a small company named Cyberwit.Net and written by Anil C.S. Rao ("a writer-artist based in Andhra Pradesh") comprised Photoshopped pictures surrounded by a passable narrative. "I don't know much about drawing or painting," Rao told me candidly, though his profile claims that his artwork has been exhibited in galleries in America and Europe. A couple of his scenarios show promise: "The Indian Time Traveller" is about an attempt to prevent Gandhi's assassination (spelt "assinatation" on the back cover) and in "Shobha Mirza P.A." a part-time sex worker helps a betrothed couple get to know each other. But there is a sleazy, amateurish look to the pictures (which are grainy photos of Rao and others with the same set of expressions on their faces) and the writing runs on and on in unaesthetic chunks of text.

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Anyone who is really steeped in the comics world knows that reviewing a good graphic novel can be much tougher than reviewing even a highbrow literary novel.

At a higher level of achievement was the pleasingly titled "Widhwa Ma, Andhi Behen", which, as you might guess, is about the adventures of two women based on archetypes from melodramatic Hindi movies of the 70s and 80s. Nicely drawn by Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, this strip is a part-spoof, part-tribute to Old Bollywood, with "ma" and "behen" trying to stop the film industry from being dominated by new-age directors. (One way of doing this is to persuade Puneet Issar —"the most manly man known to man" — out of retirement!) The idea has potential and an obvious nostalgic appeal, but the writing wears thin after a while, and one senses that there was some behind-the-scenes trepidation: "the characters in this publication are fictional" goes a disclaimer, even though the strip explicitly mentions Abhay Deol, Anurag Kashyap and other real-life figures.

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Anyone who is really steeped in the comics world knows that reviewing a good graphic novel can be much tougher than reviewing even a highbrow literary novel. For instance, George Mathen's Moonward — a complex narrative about the history of a planet that resembles our own and yet doesn't — is one of the most brilliant graphic publications I've experienced in recent times, but writing about it is just as challenging as writing about a Jean-Luc Godard film where images, dialogue, background sound and even written text (in the form of inter-titles) combine in varied ways to create a narrative, an anti-narrative or a mood. The easy way out is to discuss the book purely in terms of "what happens" or in terms of its explicit or hidden "themes" — but that doesn't begin to do justice to the whole sensory experience.

Godard did say once that the best way to review a film was to make a film. Perhaps, as the Indian comics industry starts to produce more high-quality work, some of us critics will learn how to draw!

 
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