Anand Venkateswaran enjoys the metaphorical flavour of the stories in this graphic novel.
There’s this flexibility in satire as a medium that I’m sure writers of other genres envy. Non-conformity, unbridled humour, irreverence and a sudden turn into poignancy, all of which are sometimes part of the same story, or a single page even.
In the very first frame of the story “Stupid’s Arrow”, Appupen pulls the rug from under your feet. Is that a map, yoni, a valley or simply an empty outline? Appupen doesn’t explain. He lets your imagination fill in what it will.
His stories are quirky, but with a distinct metaphorical flavour that the reader can relate to. The process is somewhat like a fly lured into an electric wire mesh, or, if you’re inclined towards the poetic, a moth to a flame. The end result is the same — you are toast. And you can hear him laughing in the background. Best not to try to out-guess the author; it spoils the fun.
There are no speech bubbles in this graphic novel. If his available work online is any indication, dialogue is mostly redundant in an Appupen frame. That he decided to do away with them almost entirely has ended up making Halahala a much more interesting place. It takes a little getting used to, a couple of pages initially, but later on, the story skips along with no need for space-eating word-crutches. “Oberian Dysphoria” is hilarious. Cleverly, the characters are only vaguely recognisable creatures that the reader wouldn’t expect to talk anyway.
The twist in the tale is a very neat trick that he sustains throughout the book, in all five stories, with the possible exception of “16917P’s Masterpiece”. If you did think this alludes to the “Unknown Masterpiece”, you’re not alone. A story as vividly coloured as any other, but one that, for a moment, seemed to reveal what the author was really thinking about.
There is a predilection towards religion and religious connotations. Halahala itself is a take-off on an exotic-sounding reference from mythology that has little to do with any of the stories. While it will go down well with a vast demographic, it can be limiting in the long run.
In typical graphic novel format, the style of illustration and the colour palette are varied and to a great extent support the theme that Appupen has adopted for that particular tale.
That said, there is something mercurial about the art, about the stories themselves. Reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s work before he found his Discworld or of Bill Watterson before Calvin happened on him, Appupen, it would appear, is still not entirely at home with his creation. The totem pole illustration that separates stories, the story of a runaway mammary — which is a stroke of comic genius — all somehow give the sense of an unfulfilled artist.
Glass half empty — he is an artist still coming into his own. Glass half full — he is an artist still coming into his own. Halahala has more secrets to reveal, more characters to unleash. Appupen’s readers will watch eagerly as he plumbs its depths.
Legends of Halahala, Appupen, HarperCollins India, Rs.499.