The serious business of comics

THOUGH FANS and fanatics may argue that the very first comics were the sequential drawings on cave walls, purists insist that the very first comic book featured The Yellow Kid, created by Richard Fenton Outcalt in 1896. This was because he drew the dialogue balloon, arguably the most important element in comics. The early comics were essentially humorous, hence their generic name.

Comics came to their own in the 20th Century, evolving into an art form that used dramatic images, well-defined storyline and economical dialogues. Soon, they were a reflection on what was happening in society (meaning American society, of course). When I was growing up, comics were looked down upon, fundamentally because of their American spelling and simple language. However, what inspired me to read the classics in their original form was the series called Classics Illustrated where the tales of English and European masters were simplified and illustrated in a most appealing manner.

The golden age of comics roughly corresponded to the years of the Second World War. It was the age of the superheroes and during this period, some 400 of them were created. The character who heralded this was Superman, created in 1939 by a couple of teens, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman made millions for DC Publications while its creators, who died in the '90s, got just a pittance as they signed away their rights for $130.

Superman's character developed down the years. Initially, he could not fly, only capable of superhuman leaps. He got his x-ray vision as time went by. It wasn't long before TV snapped him up, with George Reeves playing the eponymous character.

For a more sophisticated audience, it was Christopher Reeve who embodied Superman. With his superb physique and an ironic air about him, the now incapacitated Reeve took the character to new heights. The movie was followed by three sequels, one very good, one so-so, and the last very bad.

The other superhero who appeared the same year as Superman did was Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger for DC Publications. Batman did not have Kryptonite powers, but like Superman, he was an orphan (his parents died in a mugging). He was a lonely millionaire cared for by a faithful butler. He lived in Gotham City, a dark, foreboding place that reflected his angst, and populated by bizarre villains.

Though there were superheroes by the dozen before DC Publications came into being (in 1935), DC's genius lay in that it recruited its own writers and illustrators. Post-Depression America was desperate to get away from harsh reality, and comic books offered a cheap way out. This was the time when Westerns and science fiction characters came to their own. Increasingly the graphics grew sophisticated as did the stories. The classic example was Spiderman, who got his powers from a radioactive spider. He was the property of DC's rival, Marvel Comics, and was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

It is remarkable that Spiderman the movie is a monster hit, unlike the angst-ridden epics of Batman that flopped miserably, at least in India, despite the presence of manic villains like Jack Nicholson and Jim Carrey.

While it required an urban, English-speaking background to appreciate superheroes, two characters that appealed to us Indians were Lee Falk's Phantom and Mandrake. This was primarily because several newspapers ran these strips, with translations. It was only when we grew up a bit we realised they, like Tarzan, were racist. It was only natural that Indian publishers followed up Western characters with our own. Two generations of children have grown up on Amar Chitra Katha. This series not only concentrated on the main characters in history and mythology, but also on little-known personages. Europe also took to comics and two series, Asterix (by French creators Goscinny and Uderzo) and Tintin (by Herge of Belgium) are world favourites to this day.

Today, comics are serious business, both as a cultural statement and satire. In this context, one must mention Mad Magazine, for whose editorial staff nothing was sacred. Their caricatures were pure genius, and their satire unrelenting. Social situations, movies, politicians, religion, just about anything, were fertile ground for Mad's staff, who thrived under the inspired leadership of its late founder William M. Gaines.

There are alsoothers like Bill Wattersons' Calvin and Hobbes, and Scott Adams' Dilbert who pokes fun at the corporate world. While most comic characters, including those from Charles Schultz's Peanuts, find themselves morphed into toys and T-shirts, Bill Watterson has consistently refused to cater to the cutesy-pie market. His creation, Calvin, the precocious six-year-old who doesn't fit in, gets away from the awful reality of life by transmogrifying himself, often as Spaceman Spiff. In his world, adults are often transmogrified into monsters.

In 1995, Watterson decided to call it a day, and the last Calvin and Hobbes strip appeared on the last day of the year. He is quoted as saying: "I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises." Tell me, how many so-called litterateurs have such conviction?

Another fascinating character is Modesty Blaise, the closest thing to a female James Bond, created by Peter O'Donnell. She has an exotic lineage and a very intriguing relationship with her sidekick, Willie Garvin. There used to be another amazon, Axa, of a medieval vintage, who appeared bare-breasted, even in the mainstream papers.

No article on comics should end without the mention of manga, the Japanese adult comics. They are very graphic, full of sex, scatology, and violence and are most unsuitable for children. Japanese adults have a voracious appetite for them and they constitute a 500 billion-a-year industry.

Today, comics have come into their own as an art form. There are serious collectors and many vintage editions are highly prized. Geniuses like Frank Miller have introduced a new dimension in graphics, with illustrations reminiscent of art-house cinema. Fans even compare his sensibilities to that of Hitchcock.

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