The stories of our lives: New Longform anthology makes a compelling case for graphic novels
To re-appropriate the classic idiom, a book of pictures is worth thousands of uncountable words. That idea, when translated into comic books, can result in a great deal of fun reading material, especially for children. But that’s where graphic novels, as a concept, are now gaining significance — both among writers, and adult readers.
To be certain, India has a rich history of producing comic books — from Amar Chitra Katha mythological retellings and pastime editions of Tinkle to a recent surfeit of independent releases covering everything from desi superheroes to sci-fi set in hyper-local native settings.
What then sets graphic novels apart — we ask, at the release of Longform Volume 1, An Anthology of Graphic Narratives, a new book that’s being billed as the first of its kind in the country.
For Pinaki De, one of the anthology’s four editors — along with Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra and Sekhar Mukherjee — the difference is perhaps to do with the seriousness associated with the format of comic books.
“First of all, we don’t like the term ‘graphic novel’ at all,” confesses Pinaki, “as we believe it to be a convenient coinage by the publishing industry to erase the ‘popular’ roots that comics always enjoyed. We love to call them comics with complex plots.” Of course, either way — as comics or graphic narratives — they’re all stories.
“Whatever you call them, ultimately, it doesn’t make a difference, as unless they are told from the heart, they don’t matter,” asserts Pinaki.
‘A subversive quality’
The deciding factor here turns out to be realistic stories, set in contemporary times. “There are stories about everything you can imagine,” offers Pinaki. “The anthology takes us through the streets of Rome and Kolkata, modern-day Tehran and ancient Bhutan, around-the-corner dystopias, imaginary cities and kaleidoscopic dreamscapes.”
The book also includes an interview with Sandip Ray, son of the late auteur Satyajit Ray, where he talks about his father’s obsession with comics. Ray was a prolific graphic artist as well, and the book presents a selection of early works by the master, which have all the makings of a sequential narrative.
“All the stories in Longform are told with passion — whether it is about Theyyam from Kerala, or a food fetish, or a daily journey through an urban landscape, or even a silent comic on fairness cream,” describes Pinaki.
There are a few foreign contributors in the fray too — from South Korea, France, Iran and Bhutan — in addition to the Indian contributors from all across the country. “It will be unfair to pinpoint any story in particular, but there is a certain subversive quality about all the narratives, which dismantles the idea of blatant consumerism,” suggests Pinaki.
“In a sense, they are all stories about resistance — in their own way,” he adds. “The entire anthology is meant to provoke serious ideas. Entertainment is secondary.”
The initiative promises a suitable spur for the publishing of comic books and graphic novels in India, and overseas. Where the comic book format was not considered to be for serious reading earlier, today, they’re even making textbooks and academic material in the comic format. At the very least, the idea is to encourage creative thought.
“I believe that comics have enormous potential to encourage reading habits among youngsters,” agrees Pinaki. “The visual nature of the stories ensure that they remain hooked to it. I also think it is important to introduce comics in classrooms, where its potential can be unlocked in a different way,” he points out. “We already have comics like Delhi Calm by Vishwajyoti Ghosh and Bhimayana in English literature at various universities. We need more works included in the syllabus.”
Pinaki adds, “It is to be noted that comics can be used as great communication tools as well. Sarbajit, one of Longform’s editors, has actually produced a full-length book titled Carbon Kotha (Carbon Chronicles) in Bengali on the impact of carbon footprints and global warming.
“The more works we produce, the more we have the opportunity to integrate them to various facets of our lives.”
A creative ecosystem
The anthology, at the same time, brings together unique styles of storytelling and illustrations. “A lot of the narrators are from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad and Jadavpur University, Kolkata,” Pinaki notes.
“Many artists submitted their work independently, and we chose some of them as well. The process was cumbersome, as we had to omit so many who could have been in this anthology,” he informs. “But for that, we would need a book of 800 pages!”
The unexpected number of submissions allowed the editors to conceive an annual anthology, to feature newer narratives that keep pouring in. Another great way to discover new talent is to organise workshops with young participants, suggests Pinaki.
“They surprise you with ideas that are simply out of this world. This country never had a dearth of talent, but what we need is to create a creative ecosystem to nurture them.”
Still, over everything else, editorial priority is always given to the stories themselves, says Pinaki. “Style comes through automatically. We believe that every artist has a signature style. Once the stories touch the heart, style can always follow. We, as editors, always look for storytellers first.
It does help that the editors of Longform are artists themselves, and interestingly, are in some way or the other involved with academics. “We are all artists, but we have different sets of skills, which help us publish this kind of book seamlessly,” explains Pinaki.
“Sarbajit is a pioneer of comics in India, having created a popular character called Timpa. He also won a National Award for a documentary film he made on Thanka painting in Sikkim. Sekhar is a senior faculty member who teaches animation at NID, and is a mentor to numerous talents who magically appear every year at that place.
He also organises Chitrakatha, a global animation festival for students at NID — happy hunting grounds for new talent. Debkumar is a mathematics major, but is obsessed with comics. His enthusiasm keeps us running. I, being a graphic designer, help to set the entire thing down in book form.”
A mind-bending experience
Among other stories in Longform, Sarbajit presents “an amazingly complex work titled Dodo and Food Fetish, a kind of urban paean on gluttony...” offers Pinaki.
“Sekhar’s story is about his personal experience of the iconic La Bella, a non-vegetarian Goan restaurant in Ahmedabad, run by one Mrs Lobo. In his own quirky manner, he draws the magical kitchen of Maria Alfonso Caramelo Lobo that fights tooth and nail everyday to ward off corporate biggies.
Debkumar has also contributed his piece, Buli — the Unfinished Interview, which is a comic reportage based on real interviews.” (Buli is a part of a larger body of work that Debkumar is currently working on — a series titled Stories from the Street.)
All said, Longform creates a great sense of hope for the comic book format. The Indian publishing industry is certainly getting more comics-friendly, notes Pinaki, “but it still needs to be more consistent with respect to production values and marketing. Comics are the genre to look for in future...”
Pinaki takes a step back to reflect on his own introduction to graphic novels — one that readers might associate with. “My first encounter with a comic with a complex plot was Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman’s Maus,” he relates.
“I never thought that comics can be used in such a way, to tell a story of such depth. Today, if you read something by Marc Antoine Mathieu or Patrice Killoffer or Gipi or Richard McGuire or Chris Ware or Brecht Evans, you simply cannot believe the leap that comics have taken... It has been a mind-bending experience.”
And, while India does have a long history of sequential storytelling — be it in the forms of Kavad in Rajasthan, or Pat in Bengal, or Pattachitra in Orissa — the history of comics in India isn’t one that many people know about, admits Pinaki.
“Most of them are created specifically for children,” he explains. “However, when it comes to mature comics content, we lag behind. The last 10 years saw many new narratives slowly making their presence felt. We have wonderful creators like Orijit Sen, Amruta Patil, Sarnath Banerjee, Viswajyoti Ghosh, Appupen, Malik Sajad and many others publishing substantial books.”
Still, compared to other countries, we are way behind, he adds. “It is to be noted that here, I am not even talking of countries like Japan or France, which have a well-established mature comics culture. We are really like a baby trying to stand on our feet.”
The effort of putting together the book took over two years, while Paul Gravett, the noted comics scholar wrote its inspirational introduction. Incidentally, the title, Longform, is a nod to an essay by award-winning Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist, Joe Sacco.
Flipping pages, very slowly
For one thing, making a livelihood as a graphic novelist is not always easy, admits Pinaki. “It is a very labour-intensive genre, and the returns compared to the effort are pitiful. Things will hopefully improve soon, he adds.
For Longform, meanwhile, all the artists contributed purely for the love of the medium, insists Pinaki. “They didn’t pick a single dime.”
As for the future, the collective claims to already have enough narratives to fill up 400 pages of two more editions. “We are in this for the long haul,” says Pinaki. “And, more genre-bending will happen,” he assures, “but it all depends on the story.”
For a note, the editors consciously avoided mythological subjects in the first volume. If there is a story with mythological roots, we have no qualms in accepting it, but it should have a subversive streak — otherwise, there is no point having them in our anthology.”
Looking further afield, Pinaki makes room for a sort of ‘all-media’ storytelling exercise — combining print, video, music and possibly, even performance.
“Tell your own stories in your own way,” he enthuses. “Other media can be involved, but we are partial to print as it helps in ‘slow reading’ — where you can take in a story by flipping the pages, meditate on them, and maybe get back to another page at your own free will,” he affirms.
“It gives you a sense of ‘unhurriedness’ that we need to understand the world around us more deeply.” For now, the collective is hosting workshops titled DOGS (Doing Graphic Stories) at campuses across the country, while they have a busy Facebook presence too, where they encourage people to post stories, podcasts, videos and more.
“The possibilities are endless!” enthuses Pinaki.
Rightfully so, the best way to read Longform is cover to cover, over and over again.
Longform Vol 1, HarperCollins India, `1,499.
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