The world of Indian comics and graphic novels has been coming into its own over the last few years, even reaching a tipping point according to some. There’s no dearth of comicons, supportive publishing houses (read: Manta Ray Comics and Studio Kokaachi) and most importantly, no dearth of creative talent. Hence, we’re not choosing to focus on the best Indian graphic novelists through a magnifying glass. Instead, we decided to narrow down our search by handpicking an eclectic and thrilling bunch of novels to have emerged from this subcontinent that seem to share a common subtext—a conscience. Politically, societally, and generally motivated by the darker sides of the human psyche, they choose to depict it in their artistic works, perhaps in an effort to bring it to the world’s attention, if not make it a better place.
I. Sudershan (Chimpanzee)
“The intent here is not to soften an unpalatable truth, but to provide some distance. To see reality from another perspective.” - Rajesh Devraj.
Dense. Dark. Detailed. A few choice adjectives to describe an utterly immersive graphic tale. Penned by Rajesh Devra and darkly pencilled out by illustrator Meren Imchen, this dynamic duo represents a new breed of creativity within the Indian subcontinent. Tracing the journey of its simian star, Sudershan the Chimpanzee, the anthropomorphic tale deals with the fickleness of fame and delusions of grandeur. The layers peel off to reveal an astonishing depth as it captures the increasingly seedy underbelly of the city and its most notorious industry - Bollywood.
The real stars of the show, however, are Meren’s almost nervous monochrome sketches which perfectly evoke a sense of this shady (pun intended) world its characters inhabit. Buy Sudershan (Chimpanzee) here.
Consumerism in comic disarray.
George Mathen, aka Appupen, created Halahala, a fantastical universe quite unlike any we’ve seen, comprising elaborate sketches reminiscent of an Indian Tim Burton. It is from this world that he draws his tales, where all the pockets of darkly disturbed madness are only lightly shaded over by their comical masks. The plot shadows Nana, born in a tiny village convinced of his own godliness. He meditates, replaces his hunger with pride and lo and behold - Nana embodies the personification of a corporation. Through this discourse, the anxieties of urban life thus become a recurring theme.
Hundreds of pages remain text-free but herein lies the beauty of Appupen’s talent - he spins the tale visually than textually, a rarity in the world of Indian graphic novels. Incidentally, the Negaluru-based novelist is taking things a step further with his soon-to-release sophomore leg of the story, in which he does away with the written word altogether. Possibly one of the most inventive minds to emerge in the Indian graphic novel landscape, it would be near-blasphemous to give this one a miss.
See more of Appupen aka George Mathen’s art here.
III. Angry Mausi
A gun-wielding, system-hating Maharashtrian bhai is here to take every corrupt politician who gets in her way down.
One of India’s premier illustrator/cartoonists, Abhijit Kini is the creator of many a Tinkle sketch. Never a mainstream-clutterer, his last novel Uud Bilaw Manus brought to life the first ever Bhojpuri-speaking hero, whose sole purpose is to protect the fictional city of Beehar from villains. With Angry Mausi he’s released a whole other kind of fury with a typically tough, gun-wielding, system-hating Maharashtrian ‘bai’ with a vengeance.
The villain? An evil, silver-toothed politician, artistically glorious in every way. And the only one capable of taking him down is this vigilante mausi, who refuses to be drowned in a corrupt system. Armed with Marathi expletives as her deadliest of weapons, we haven’t seen a character quite as riotous or memorable as her in the Indian comic game for a while. It’s cheap, styled in a manner intentionally bordering on trashy, and hardly intellectual. But for reasons we’re not quite sure of, it sticks. Good ink tends to do that.
Check out more of his work here.
Telling the tales that never get told. But deserve to be.
In the introduction to this wordless, ink-and-watercolour tale, journalist Rahul Bhatia writes, ‘By the time [the novel] ends, everyone in it has seen too much. Life won’t be the same. And that, in a way, is what this book is about. It tells readers that the quietest stories are often the most devastating ones.’
To provide a synopsis of Manta Ray’s inaugural and collaborative visual story would be to destroy the experience of it. Reaching deep into the quiet desperation of violence, abuse and loneliness, this short story has no words, but exquisite images that convey a deadly story that stays with readers long after the pages stop turning. Let the ambiguity of this summary not stop you, because it’s a gem for art lovers, readers and graphic novel enthusiasts from across the world. Experience a full preview of Hush here.
V. River Of Stories - Orijit Sen
Liberty. Fraternity. Equality.
You wouldn’t be alone in thinking Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor was the first graphic novel to rise from this crowded subcontinent in 2004, but you’d most certainly be wrong. A decade prior to Banerjee’s fame, Orijit Sen was quietly rubbing lead into paper, hard at work creating River Of Stories. Loosely based on the politically charged Narmada River Valley Projects, he was the first of so many ‘comics with a conscience’, using the seemingly child-like medium to tell a deeper story. He cleverly weaves traditional elements into it using characters like Malgu, the village gayan - or singer - to reinforce the age-old tradition of oral storytelling in rural India. Malgu also acts as an omnipresent moral compass throughout the novel, where the story culminates in a farcical confrontation between Malgu and a diabolical politician - a climax few bother to aspire to, let alone achieve. You can download the graphic novel here.
VI. Kashmir Pending
A definitive graphic recounting of how different like in Kashmir is from everything we might have imagined.
Few authors have attempted to offer unfiltered commentary on anything Kashmir-related (fictional or otherwise) in more traditional mediums of expression, let alone try their hand at a graphic novel depiction of the same. It’s this which makes Srinagar-based writer Naseer Ahmed’s effort both refreshing and gutsy.
Better still, rather than plague its pages with the assured grievances that are consistently repeated in any literature that does make it our way (not to trivialise their importance at all) his simplistic approach, choosing to illustrate a coming-of-age take of a young man and reforming militant in the valley, does more to humanise the ground realities than you would expect. Narrated from the dark cells of a Srinagar prison, the overall mood is grim but real as the protagonist struggles to come to terms with his own fears and even develops the determination to bring about real change in his life through passion. All in all, a definitive graphic recounting of how different like in Kashmir is from everything we might have imagined.
VII. Delhi Calm
Where India’s history of politics, democracy, corruption and doubts collide to tell the story of an era no one has ever committed to visual imagery.
That 1975 was an eventful year for the country is probably one of the least underestimated facts in our history books. Being the only time all civil liberties were (openly) suspended in the country as part of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of ‘Emergency’ makes it fantastic fodder for good storytelling and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s attempt to chronicle some of that chaos for young graphic novel audiences who might never have known the intricacies of the time is an admirable one. Not to mention, a well-executed one too but that’s unsurprising for a serious cartoonist with an even more serious social commitment as both an editor and activist.
Though this might be subjective, his visual style is one of our favourites on this list for its striking ability to immediately draw readers into the folds of a time you could never have imagined unless you lived it.Ghosh hasn’t wasted any time in the character parallels he’s trying to draw either. Though told as fiction, the facts are clear as day right from the obvious basing of characters on the Gandhi scions and even moments like The Prince (Sanjay Gandhi) and his monstrous sterilisation campaign. As a review of the book so aptly summed up—“Delhi Calm is a powerful work that commits to printed word and image an era that the political establishment would probably like the nation to forget.”
A complex and humorous narrative of the debilitating alienation India’s urban citizens experience.
Often touted as India’s first graphic novel, Sarnath Banerjee’s delightfully risqué Corridor might just be the one most forced to fit the context of this article however, it seemed blasphemous not to include it despite the abstraction of its message.
Chronicling the sickening loneliness and alienation of urban life through an ‘imaginative alchemy’ of the text-image art of storytelling this piece is dedicated to, the plot follows several unforgettable characters right from newly married Shintu, looking for the ultimate aphrodisiac in the seedy by-lanes of old Delhi to Digital Dutta, a man torn between Karl Marx and an H-1B visa. Hence, though the story might not necessarily be outspoken about great injustices and inequalities, it did a fantastic job of challenging norms and perceptions of the thousands of urban aliens who existed and continue to exist in the shadows. Moreover, the fact that it brought kink into a contemporary Indian narrative was an indication to us of a healthier society, wherein at least some people were committing to encouraging progressiveness.