Friday, May 16, 2008

Graphic Novels: A Personal History

An edited version of this appeared in TOI Chennai today.

It was the summer of 1988. I, safely perched atop my father's knees, was doing a dramatised reading of Chacha Chaudhary Aur Raka. By muscling my way through multiple polysyllabic Hindi words I was adding to the joy and pride of my parents.

Years passed, Chaudhary got replaced by hordes from the DC and Marvel universe. In between was a sporadic sprinkling of Amar Chitra Katha and Raj Comics followed by regular heavy doses of Tintin and Asterix. And then there was a summer spent in college reading manga (Japanese comic books) back-to-front and right-to-left.

With age, my fascination with sequential art remained undeterred and I felt myself gravitating towards stories of a higher literary calibre, told with an economy of words and deftness of brush strokes. These were stories that painted a broad canvas of human emotions in a way that I found very different from the more conventional text-only prose.

Definitions abound (a quick search on the internet will show you that), and are often confusing and contradicting. The Americans started calling this medium Graphic Novels and the Japanese Gekiga to differentiate it from comics and manga. It covers fiction as well as non-fiction, but is clearly meant for a mature audience. It's all encompassing when it comes to genres. And its impact on pop-culture cannot be ignored.

Since most graphic novels are printed and published abroad they can leave a sizeable hole in your pocket. Though popular titles are now easily available in bookshops, it is advisable to do some scouting based on your prior tastes and preferences. There are also a handful of Indian graphic novelists out there - Amruta Patil's Kari and Sarnath Banerjee's Corridor would be my recommendations.

But if you are like me, and on a monthly basis spend a large chunk of your hard earned money on books, then give a holler next time you are in a bookshop. I'll most likely be in the graphic novel section ogling at Volume 1 and 2 of Absolute Sandman.

Sandman sits on the thin line separating comic books and graphic novels and is still the only comic book to ever be on the New York Times Bestseller List. Written by master story teller Neil Gaiman it was originally published in 75 issues that were later released in ten volumes. It is now being re-released in four Absolute volumes. The story revolves around Dream of The Endless and weaves characters from mythology, literature and history in genre-bending ways.

One of the most anticipated films in theatres this year is Watchmen, an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name created by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator). Included by Time Magazine in its list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present" don't let the fact that this is a story about caped crusaders fool you into thinking that this is another comic book meant for children.

Fans of Tarantino and Rodriguez would love to read Lone Wolf and Cub - a staggering epic created by writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima in the seventies. These 28 volumes of manga (a total of 8700+ pages) are set in Tokugawa era Japan and tell the tale of a master swordsman and his young son. This masterpiece has served as an inspiration for some of the most brilliant moments in world cinema over the last 30 years.

Based on Paul Auster's story City of Glass (from his acclaimed The New York Trilogy), City of Glass: The Graphic Novel serves as a successful example of an adaptation carried out by independent artists of a previously published piece of prose. David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik's artwork takes the story to a dimension the original author could have never imagined possible.

And then there is A Contract with God by Will Eisner, the book that cemented the term Graphic Novel into modern lexicon. It is a collection of short stories set in a Depression-era-affected Jewish community of the 1930s.

Other interesting titles for collectors - Blankets by Craig Thompson, Bone by Jeff Smith, The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman.