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Updated: June 2, 2012 15:46 IST

Myriad hues

Jai Arjun Singh
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A playful aesthetic sense fills each page of this book.

The publishing house Blaft has earned a cult following for its offbeat choices, high production quality and an inventiveness that is just right for its material. If you're familiar with their earlier work — notably the Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies and the picture book Kumari Loves a Monster — it will come as no surprise that the comics anthology The Obliterary Journal (co-published with Tranquebar) is a good-looking book that establishes a playful aesthetic sense right at the outset.

“The Table of Contents” is a wall mural done by a Chennai-based artist who gets a credit at the end, and there is an amusing two-page foreword in which three pictorial symbols discuss the need to “obliterate” text-driven literature. (Of course, they are then branded “infidels” and destroyed by angry alphabets. It's enough to make one feel guilty about attempting a text review of this book!)

A strident view of things has it that an anthology is only as good as its weakest link. I don't subscribe to this — two or three brilliant pieces and a few good ones can give a book abiding value. The 20 pieces in The Obliterary Journal represent a fine array of drawing styles, themes and ideas; the techniques range from atmospheric black-and-white charcoal images to brightly coloured comics to classic manga; and there is usually something to appreciate in even the hit-and-miss inclusions.

A few of my favourites

Since it isn't possible to write comprehensively about them all in limited space, I'll mention some of my favourites. In “Memories of the Nayagarh Incident”, the Oriya style of pata chitra is employed for a straight-faced account of extraterrestrial sightings in Orissa in 1947 (among the depictions are a “yantra-purusha” with pincer-like hands and a space-suit wearing alien raising its palm in the “ashirvad stance”).

Somdutt Sarkar brings visual life to mathematics problems posed by Bhaskaracharya in the 12th century. (“Arjuna used four times the square root of the number of arrows to kill off all Karna's horses... How many did he shoot in all?”)

The excerpt from “The Hyderabad Graphic Novel” (an ambitious project about the city's history, written by Jai Undurti and intricately drawn by Harsh Mohan Chattoraj) reminded me of passages from the great Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell comic “From Hell”.

And Amitabh Kumar's piece (which obliterates text in its own way by having a title made up not of words but a symbol — an image of a plane inside a bisected heart) is a stark, minimalist tale about an ill-fated goat on a gruesome journey. There isn't a rigid emphasis on storytelling or on narratives: Two of the most enjoyable pieces here are really collections of individual artwork that come together under an overriding theme. “One Dozen Dangerous Food Items” (written by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, drawn by B. Anitha) includes droll drawings and text featuring such characters as a kleptomaniac okra named “Villain Vendakkai” and the gruesome gourd “Psycho Sorakkai”.

And “Twenty Three from the One Gross” (illustrated by Malavika P.C.) is made up of a series of imaginative juxtapositions (“Lemur rhymes with femur”; elephants wait on a helipad) that are hard to describe but pleasing to experience. Some of the simpler stories do experiment with form too. Bharath Murthy's “A Kovai Gay Story”, for instance, has an intriguingly meta-textual component: It begins with a panel where Blaft editor Rakesh Khanna commissions a story from an artist named Surendran, and ends with a close-up of Surendran's email account as he sends the final PDF (and we note that this gay man's chat status is set to “Invisible”).

Evocative shades

Marginalised figures also dominate Roney Devassia's “Karuna Bhavanam”, which presents conversations in an old-folks' home in austere black-and-white — or rather, in moody shades of grey. The content here is reportage-driven, but the drawings make these forgotten old people seem like ghostly figures, which is of course what they have become. I was less stirred by the inclusion of vehicle art — in “Autoraj”, about an enterprising Bangalorean rickshaw-driver — and pictures of street art from the tiny South American nation Suriname (which has a highly eclectic population including Bhojpuri and Javanese people).

These images make the book more colourful than it otherwise would have been (and several of the pictures are entertaining in their own right), but cut off from their context and confined to the pages of a print publication, they seem sapped of their vitality. A case can, therefore, be made that this collection is “too” diverse. Most (text-only) anthologies are built around a specific theme or the work of a single person, which carries appeal for a readership with specific tastes. But here, the only “peg” is visual storytelling, and this accommodates a huge range of pictorial work, placed at the service of many types of narratives (or anti-narratives). The ideal reader for this book, therefore, will be someone with hugely eclectic tastes — which is of good quality, of course, but also a rare one.

The Obliterary Journal, Blaft/Tranquebar, p.269, Rs. 695.

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