The delicate dance of panels

A 22-piece volume of graphic non-fiction explores the unique plasticity of the medium even as it captures the Indian liberal elite’s sense of loss

June 19, 2016 01:53 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:42 pm IST

In 1951, the U.S. Army was locked in a brutal campaign against the communists in Korea. War had churned the peninsula, killing millions, maiming even more. The Pentagon looked to weapons more subtle than bullet or bomb; shells fired into the ultimate enemy territory — their minds. The military-entertainment complex got to work. The psy-ops boffins thought the answer was comics: four-panel leaflets that showed how to surrender to the Allied troops should they choose to. Others extolled the virtue of giving up. By the end of the war the Americans had dropped a staggering 2.5 billion of these. Alas, later analysis showed that the leaflets were let down by muddled storylines and inept translations, and the North Koreans stuck to their dear leader.

Still, even as late as 2001, such methods were in the toolbox, with the U.S. blitz on Afghanistan preceded by drops of Spiderman comics to “soften up” the Taliban. This just goes to show that while graphic novels are au vogue now, the unique efficiency of images and text working together has always been recognised.

The magic of comicsFirst Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction from India promises to be first volume of a series brought out by Yoda Press (Rs.595). Why this medium? Why not a documentary, or a series of long reads, or even a photoessay? Isn’t it just a gimmick?

Unlike photographs or film which show the subject as a distinct entity, allowing empathy at a remove, comics can allow a unique level of identification with the characters. This is the magic. This is what makes picture language so effective, ever since the first cave-people scribbled on the walls.

Theorist Scott McCloud dwells on this unique alchemy, asking the question, “Why are we so involved?” Showing the process where a photograph of a face turns into a cartoon, he says, “As we continue to abstract and simplify our image, we are moving further and further from the ‘real’ face of the photo.” He calls this “amplification through simplification”, explaining “when we abstract an image through cartooning we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focussing on specific details”.

Look at Tintin, with dots for eyes, and of course that quiff. McCloud says that “by stripping down an image to its essential meaning an artist can amplify the meaning in a way that realistic art cannot”. Herge’s magic is placing Tintin against hyper-detailed background, utilising the very architecture of your brain, the way it perceives the world, to allow a total reader immersion. Tintin is an empty jug, allowing you to fill it up with your imagination.

Such machinery lends itself well for advocacy. Editor Vidyun Sabhaney writing in her preface to First Hand …, says, “Comics gives its creators tremendous political agency to counter an establishment view.” Then we come to the common question — is it “real”?

Critic Noah Berlatsky sums up this debate, “The advantage of prose or of film can perhaps be summed up as ‘authenticity’. Journalism’s goal is to show truth, and so spur to action. Prose and film are, for historical and formal reasons, often seen as at least potentially transparent windows on truth. Comics, on the other hand, foregrounds its artifice.”

First Hand … co-editor Orijit Sen answers this in his preface, saying “this innate and intensely-filtered subjectivity itself is the source of the medium’s very particular claim to truth-telling”, going on to point out, “it is a powerful alternative claim in a world that has become deeply suspicious of the contextualised and controlled nature of the ‘objective truth’ being ceaselessly churned out for mass consumption.”

As Sabaney puts it, “evocatively-drawn comics don’t often have to be the most skilled, or even, technically correct drawings”, adding that non-fiction comics gives an opportunity “to enter another person’s real world, but as they see it”.

Intersecting mediums The volume comprises 22 pieces, divided into oral histories, autobiography, documentary, biography, commentary and reportage.

The opener sets the mood, ‘Effects of RTI’ by Mohit Kant Mishra, is straight and unaffected with its ballpoint aesthetic, reaching its grim conclusion with inexorable logic (the effects can be quite fatal if you have to know).

The next piece led me to think on how little we know our own history. A.P. Payal looks at her grandparents’ escape from Burma in the face of the Japanese invasion of 1942. The horrific death march of the Indians, left to fend for themselves by the British, is brought out in Payal’s unvarnished art which focuses on the recollections of her aunt, who was a child then. She plays with scale, zooming into a button found on the streets of a bomb-ravaged city or the hand of a corpse hanging from a tree and still keeping the sweep of the family’s journey from Rangoon to Kerala. Comparable experiences to a Westerner would probably see dozens of Hollywood movies or best-selling novels.

I was especially interested in pieces that made use of the potentialities of the medium. Smita Sen’s fascinating profile of Shakila Sheikh, an untaught talent, is one example. The story develops when statistician-turned-artist B.R. Panesar spots her selling vegetables and gives her some paper and pencil to draw. Her journey to becoming a collage artist, intercut with samples of her work, is a poignant reminder of the strengths of sequential art.

Another example of intersecting mediums is by Nikhila Nanduri, who looks at Likhai, the art of making intricate wood carvings, through an extended conversation with Gangaramji, a master carver. The piece is an adaptation of an oral history project and the old man’s reminisces are interleaved with theory of the discipline, “oral sources are a necessary condition for a history of the non-hegemonic classes” as an academic is approvingly quoted.

Other pieces also point to the unique plasticity of this medium. Music is translated into images when ace animation filmmaker Gitanjali Rao teams up with Rajesh Devraj to look at the childhood of Begum Akhtar. There is beauty and despair at the heart of this story and both come through in a marriage of arresting images and virtuso panel-breakdowns.

Meanwhile Priyanka Borar adapts a 1985 docu that follows Hajari Bhand, a “jester without a court”. Bhand is a Bahurupiya, a class of itinerant artistes who makes their living through enacting different castes and characters, in return for cash or food. These little portraits are slices of vanished worlds, preserved through the graphic medium.

Comic practitioners know about the delicate dance of panels that must invisibly lead the reader’s eye around the page. This is one of those arcane arts where establishers, orienters and gutters come into play. Fans of such arcana would like ‘Ellipsis’ by Ikroop Sandhu, a bizarre journey to the underworld and back, told through looping panels and vertiginous perspectives. Sandhu breaks up the page into a kind of maze that mirrors the journey of the soul of the protagonist.

‘The Girl Not from Madras’ by Neha Dixit and Orijit Sen is a dark account of the rescue of a woman from slavery in Haryana. It features a female superhero (Laadli, in a faux Phantom outfit) who actually doesn’t do anything. She merely narrates the disturbing goings-on, leaving the rescue to an inept inspector and a trio of committed social activists. I am not sure if this de-powered superhero is an ironic commentary on the state of the nation today.

While the pieces have considerable diversity in their approaches and subject matter, one can’t help feeling it is preaching to the choir. The themes are all in the playbook of the liberal elite. A sense of loss seems to hang over everything — loss of a past, loss of a landscape, loss of a world that was, giving the entire project a generally morose outlook. Perhaps we live in morose times.

Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance writer.

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