Vimanas as anti-gravity machines. Astras as WMDs. Kshatriyas as super warriors. Comic book writer Grant Morrison on how he recast an epic for the Internet.

Scottish comic book writer Grant Morrison is known for his unusual story-telling methods, best demonstrated in his popular works such as Batman, The Invisibles, Fantastic Four and Animal Man. Using non-linear narrative and countercultural references, he has redefined the comic book genre. After almost a lifetime with western superheroes, he now brings his unique innovative style to the retelling of the Mahabharata, adapted for the Internet and mobile-savvy generation.

Produced by Graphic India, 18 Days is a series of web episodes based on the Mahabharata that will be aired exclusively on YouTube. Two episodes have already been released while the rest will be launched every week through the year in English, Hindi and Tamil languages. Excerpts from an e-mail interview.

How did the 18 Days project come about?

As a child, I was obsessed with mythology of all kinds, so I had a very basic grasp of the Mahabharata story. I’ve visited India many times and travelled there on my own, mostly in the north and in the mountains — New Delhi, Agra and Ladakh — although I’ve also been in Goa during the monsoon. It’s a country, a culture(s) and a people that I find endlessly fascinating, overwhelming and inspiring. 

When I met Sharad Devarajan many years ago, he shared with me his passion to build characters, heroes and stories that tap into the unique creativity and mythic culture of India but appeal to audiences worldwide in the same way Lord of The Rings, Clash of the Titans, Harry Potter or Batman have been able to do. When we discussed the Mahabharata, it was clear there was no better partner for me to work with on this story. The project started many years back and has been a labour of love for all of us. Graphic India is really pioneering a new space in Indian character entertainment and the quality of the artwork being done by Jeevan J. Kang, Mukesh Singh and many of the other talented creators in India is some of the best being produced in the world today.

You are familiar with the Mahabharata, having used it extensively in The Invisibles. So how was doing a motion comic web series on the epic different?

 I had to condense this immense text into something that could work in digital short episodes and it was hard to do drama in short episodes, particularly if you were showing the spectacle of the war, which was much more interesting. So, we developed this kind of modular style of almost plugging in the human stories behind the 18 days of the battle at Kurukshetra in separate episodes so the whole thing would build up as a mosaic. I describe this as almost three-dimensional as the way I saw it in my head. You see almost a mosaic of building up what seems to be a huge mythic war but then we begin to get close-ups of people’s lives and what brought them to that stage, so that the next time we see them or if we see them in danger or under pressure, we’ll begin to feel it even more. The idea was to continually ramp up the emotional level of things that would only be accepted on that big mythical level. 

What is the quintessential Morrison touch that you have lent to the series? Also, how have you made it more contemporary and appealing to the western audience?

We decided to play up the more fantastic, science fiction elements of the Third Age. We took the descriptions of vimanas and astras as literal descriptions of anti-gravity machines and super-WMDs. The supreme technology of the Third Age, we’re told, was based around ideas of communication, so we’ve given our warriors their own versions of computers and the Internet, and so on.

We chose to translate the Sanskrit term kshatriya as ‘super warrior’, which suggests something even grander and more disciplined than a superhero but hints that our characters are, in many ways, obvious precursors to the likes of the Avengers or the Justice League.

I’ve also given the entire story a new twist, not present in the original, which makes the battle much more relevant to our current times.

By choosing to concentrate on just the 18-day long battle, don’t you think it is kind of injustice to the great story, which is in fact a sum of many different stories?

My brief was to translate the Mahabharata into a series of short web episodes. If I’d attempted to tell the entire story — from Shantanu and Ganga to Yudishtra in hell — in a linear fashion, using five-minute chunks of narrative, it might have taken centuries! I chose instead to focus on the 18 days of the battle because it’s filled with the kind of action and incident that suits the animated format and allows us to backtrack from significant moments in the war, to show how our characters got there. These flashback episodes fill in much of the background.

Who would classify as a superhero in the Mahabharata? Who is your favourite character from the story?

We’re playing all the characters as superheroes. The kshatriyas are the genetically-modified superheroes of the Third Age, with their incredible god-weapons and prodigious physical abilities. My favourite characters are Karna and Krishna but having spent so much time with the Pandus and Kauravas, I’ve grown to like all of them, even Duryodhana!

After seven-year run, the Batman series have come to an end. How do you look back at the journey?

Writing Batman stories has been one of the great pleasures of my life but I’m glad it’s over for the moment!

Are you familiar with other Indian epics like the Ramayana? Do you see yourself being inspired by other Indian mythological stories in your future projects?

I will always be inspired by Indian mythology and philosophy and that’s likely to show up in my work in any number of ways. I’m not as familiar with the Ramayana as I’ve become with the Mahabharata and the Rama story has already been told in comic book form several times, so I’ll probably stay away from that one.

Do you see a future of the comic book as one has known it or will it all go digital in years to come?

The unique combination of words and sequential images that make comic books special will always have an appeal, I think. I imagine print comics will survive for a while as collectible artefacts created for enthusiasts but there’s a strong likelihood that the real innovations and new developments in the field will happen online. Ultimately, there will be no requirement for print but that day is still a little way off.