The new online avatar of today’s comics

“You’ve been Anti-Nationalisted!” says Rashtraman, graphic novelist Appupen’s masked hero of Halahala who recently appeared online. He flies off in pursuit of “radical rascals” who dare create a ruckus by demanding justice (but not before he consumes his daily cup of green tea to arrest the ‘free radicals’ in his body).

Writer-artist George Mathen aka Appupen. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

For all of us who grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha and Phantom, it is fascinating to see how comics today have evolved and grown into different and fantastic things. They are still stories, yes, but they are also art and personal expression and protest. They are often hilarious, sometimes deadly serious, and almost always intelligent and relevant. And, of course, they are online.

Although still nascent, there is already an incredible diversity of form — from hand-drawn doodles and vintage Indian art to stick figures and beautiful imagery — and diversity of subject, ranging from gender issues and the environment to politics, caste and the angst of contemporary life. Even cinema reviews have become a comic. The Vigil Idiot reviews Bollywood films in a hilarious stick figure satire, and has a large fan following.

Web comic Royal Existentials juxtaposes contemporary (and sometimes historical) issues with vintage Indian miniature paintings. “I was deeply affected by what was happening in politics and by various social issues, and made the decision to contrast the opulent imagery of miniature painting with social and political writing,” says filmmaker-writer Aarthi Parthasarathy. The comic does not refer to specific incidents or people but focuses on the larger issues. From dissent to history to social injustices, Royal Existentials takes on current and pressing affairs. “While the incident is important, of course, for me the insight is what is more universal and timeless,” says Parthasarathy. “I try to write in a way that gives the insight that quality — so that it is not dated or too rooted in a specific geography.”

Tambrahm Rage and its Telugu counterpart, Gult Rage, on the other hand, may not appear to be universal. And yet the strips, which satirise the traditions and stereotypes of these communities, are familiar across the country. And not only do they let these communities laugh at themselves but allow others to laugh with them.

Another comic that has found somewhat of a cult following is Crocodile in Water Tiger on Land, named after a Bengali proverb that’s the equivalent of‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’. It takes pot-shots at the political system, calls out stereotypes and injustices and points to the sheer absurdity of modern life. And it does so with powerful visual metaphors where, for example, a television becomes a character; and through writing that is ironic and irreverent.

Not only have web comics moved on from storytelling to poking fun at popular culture and social customs, they have also grown increasingly political. As expressions of outrage and frustration against the system and as a form of registered dissent, the web comic can be viewed as the new, emerging sub-culture. The outcry against the arrest of JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar and the subsequent sedition charges slapped against students is just one among a series of events that has brought out the best in comic artists.

Appupen, who has published three graphic novels, recently put out a series of online comics that highlight the nationalism debate, featuring Rashtraman, a superhero preserver of the Rashtra and the destroyer of radicals. “Graphic novels are great for stories, and people like to have them on their shelves because they’ve become kind of ‘cool’ now, but being expensive they are not necessarily the right vehicle to put out a message,” says Appupen. “I’m not a very online person; I don’t even have a smart phone.

But I’m serialising Rashtraman as an online comic because this is not about being published; it’s about giving it to the people so they can read and share these ideas.”

In Sanitary Panels, Rachita Taneja takes on misogyny, sexism and social injustice. She doesn’t consider herself an artist, she says, but her stick figure panels tell stories about discrimination and hypocrisy in familiar and funny ways. “Visuals are a lot more shareable, and I can explain a complex issue in a few panels, adding links and comments to provide context,” she says. Her series has covered a range of issues, from victim blaming, harassment and homophobia to menstruation and democracy.

In the hands of illustrator and animation designer Rohan Chakravarty, the web comic transforms into an activist’s tool, talking about conservation, wildlife and sustainability. His strip, Green Humour, manages to be informative, giving facts and figures, but also really funny and moving. His characters are among the most endearing — from elephants who call newspaper editors to point out corrections to animals that discuss climate change. Chakravarty’s wildlife maps of India are exquisitely detailed and coloured depictions of India’s biodiversity.

Most comics went online because of the ease of sharing, and the flexibility and freedom of form that the medium offers. Parthasarathy says the Internet is an immediate and unfiltered platform that offers a direct connect with readers. As Taneja says, her strip often leads to intense online discussions. “It’s great to receive feedback in real time.

I have a few dozen fans who are extremely passionate about the issues I deal with and who engage in discussions with people with different points of view. So it creates a forum for dialogue; one that I don’t even need to get involved in.”

As freedom of expression becomes something we can’t quite take for granted anymore, the work of these artists expressing dissent in their comics assumes a uniquely valuable position in political conversation. Graphic novelist Orijit Sen’s post with an artwork titled ‘She came in through the bathroom window’ was recently blocked by Facebook for nudity. Everyone who shared it to express solidarity with the artist was warned and even temporarily barred from the social media platform. In response, Sen immediately put out a post with the comment “Busted by the FB-I”, featuring a man in a mask with the Facebook logo pointing a gun at the reader. Social media is an important medium of sharing and censorship has become a very real threat.

Yet, the creators of these online comics make no money. A few might go on to get published, but for now, most work at day jobs, becoming comic artists on days off or after hours. Being online opens up some possibilities for collaboration. Parthasarathy and a group of South Asian women have recently formed the Kadak Collective, which has been selected to exhibit its work at the East London Comic and Arts Festival this June. “But how long can they survive this way?” asks Appupen.

The trick might be in readership. Having an active and engaged reader base that views, comments and shares the comics can only lead to greater diversity of style, story and form. And the better the quality and more the collaboration, the more are the chances of publication, cross-fertilisation and online adverts.

Aneesha Bangera reads, writes, rhymes, and lives in Bengaluru.

Posted by on March 20, 2016. Filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.