The medium of comics holds a sweet spot amongst the varied artistic mediums, as a messenger of both words and images. As a result, comics appeal both to reluctant readers, as well as to literature lovers. Many even advocate for its role in education – with the complex mental process inherent in reading visual compositions allegedly fostering ‘multimodal learning’. To celebrate this art of telling stories through comics, Comic Con was initiated internationally in 1970. Described as “a strange breed of part exhibition, part entertainment, part costume party”, by writer Mridu Khullar Relph, the annual gala first arrived in India back in 2011 and has now rapidly expanded to fan-bases across five cities.
Of late, it has been heartening to see Indian writers and artists availing this power of the medium of comics for social change. In 2014, a dark Indian femme fatale riding a tiger took social media by storm as she strove to beat the patriarchy to pulp. ‘Priya’s Shakti’ was a story about a rape victim, thought up by writer Ram Devineni post the Nirbhaya case. Gauging that comics and adventure stories are perhaps the most powerful mediums to reach teenage audiences, the former documentary filmmaker reached out to Dan Goldman to illustrate the story of Priya. “Every movement needs a symbol,” said Goldman on stage, explaining how the choice of a dark-skinned female riding a tiger was as much a comment on skin-colour biases, as it was an interpretation of the mythological figure of Durga. 500,000 downloads later, their second book ‘Priya’s Mirror’, launched this month, approaches the sensitive stories of acid attack victims. It’s the first comic book to have ever been funded by the World Bank – enabling the creators to hand out free copies for all.
The creators’ belief that comics can be used to hone solidarity and empathy was evident, while Goldman argued – in response to an audience query about the negative image perpetuated about India by such stories – that these are issues faced by women worldwide, not just in India. “There are more incidents of acid attacks in Colombia, and more incidents of rape every day in the US,” he said, emphasising the story’s universal relevance. To further spread the message of female empowerment, the creators have tapped into augmented reality, with wall murals portraying Priya appearing to come alive on the streets of Dharavi. Their third book, which is in the pipeline, is set to look at the situation of sex trafficking in Sonagachi, Kolkata.
Comics have always played a role in provoking social commentary – perhaps going as far back as the Tintin series created by Hergé in 1929. Vikas Singh, a certified ‘Tintinologist’ with a record collection of the series, has extensively studied the social messages contained in Hergé’s work, and was present at Comic Con to moderate a particular session on ‘Comics for Social Change’. Present for this were Abhijeet Kini, whose recent work ‘Sundarvan Adventures’ – aimed at children – is part of Dainik Bhaskar’s ‘Comics for Change’ movement that seeks to promote responsible use of food, water and electricity; and Savio Mascarenhas, art director with Tinkle, whose work often portrays the theme of animal rescues (he elaborated – “my favourite comic is one about a filmstar who hunts down a blackbuck!”).
Another comic artist with an eclectic mission is Saumin Suresh Patel, who believes that the stigma against Indian erotic art is highly misplaced. Ancient temple art – such as the carvings at Khajuraho and sculptures of shivlings – have historically always integrated erotic themes into society and religion. Today’s stigma, he argues, is morally detrimental as it instead generates “crass” depictions of sensuality and women that look to ape western society through pornography, item numbers and comic art like the Savita Bhabhi series. His project ‘Kaamotsav’ seeks to question this culture of crassness.
The use of comics to establish historical continuity with stories of the past is, likewise, a concern that many comic artists are picking up. After wading through a crowd that was as dense as the ones seen in the Mumbai locals during rush hour – though here, from time to time, one might bump into a menacing Joker or a blonde Daenerys – one found a little white book of Sumit Kumar’s riveting political history ‘Naxalbari’ published by Horizon books. Other books from the Campfire series, such as ones re-telling the narratives of the World Wars, are illustrated wonderfully by Lalit Kumar Sharma – with the series appearing to strive to make history, mythology and classics appealing for younger audiences by converting them into graphic novel format.
Though Comic Con India has turned into quite a chaotic merchandise market today, it remains a necessary platform to highlight young talent and to bring the genre of graphic novels more into the limelight. The diversity of artistic collaborations on display and their oft-seen rootedness in social purpose serves as an excellent reminder as to the power of such image-based mediums to cultivate empathy.
Photographs : Niharika Sanyal
Cover Graphic : Mihir Gajrawala
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