In December 2010, indie comic publishing house Manta Ray (MaRa) came out with Hush . Not a word graced its pages; only thick heavy black brush strokes did. Within 34 pages of taut gut-wrenching narration, it let loose the demons of familial child sexual abuse. It also catapulted MaRa into artist and writer circles nationwide.
Over the next two years, fresh storytellers were unearthed, closet artists discovered, and collaborations ensued, the most prolific results of which featured in The Small Picture (TSP), MaRa’s weekly full-page comic in Mint . In 2013, MaRa floated Mixtape , a bi-monthly anthology of comics traversing varied genres of art and story-telling; and Twelve , a series of 12 mini-graphic novels of individual life stories tied together by a theme.
MaRa began when mechanical engineer Pratheek Thomas was on a hiatus from work. His brother Vivek had planned to make a film but its story board evolved into Hush . Pratheek’s college mate, Dileep Cherian, suggested that they self-publish Hush . Together, they co-founded MaRa. In the Indian comic world, overrun by animated mythology and indigenised super heroes, MaRa’s content of real-world gritty narratives is a breath of fresh air. “I dressed up as Superman once as a kid, didn’t relate to him then and don’t relate to super heroes now,” explains Pratheek.
The choice was evident in TSP, which has covered everything from suffocation in overcrowded urban spaces to the secret lives of cats, the budget, and modern interpretations of Tagore poetry. This variety is possible because of the myriad backgrounds of their 40-odd writers and artists, believes Pratheek. “I’m the only person at MaRa who works at it full time. Writer Gokul Gopalakrishnan, for instance, works as a sub-inspector in Kerala and illustrator Jasjyot Singh Hans works with Sabyasachi Couture.”
In fact, MaRa’s core team too is geographically scattered. While Pratheek and his wife Tina Thomas are based in Bangalore, Dileep works from Dubai and art director Prabha Mallya is based in San Francisco, the U.S. “MaRa physically occupies one half of my bedroom, which is shared with three dogs,” says Pratheek. “The remainder is on Gmail,” adds Dileep.
“ Mixtape is an experiment in every sense of the word,” writes Pratheek in the anthology’s credits. For one, all its artists and writers have given their work pro bono. “It takes immense time and effort to put together a comic that takes five minutes to read, and they’ve done that despite knowing they aren’t going to get paid anytime soon,” he says. Moreover, it is in downloadable DRM-free (digital rights management) format, i.e. it can be legally distributed y number of times once obtained. “I don’t see it as piracy. I want people to feel like they own the work, and that comes with being able to share it anywhere,” says Pratheek.
“The experiment felt like we were tearing our hearts out and putting it out there for the world,” says Prabha, which explains the cover art: an outstretched hand holding a severed heart. Within though, the art is peppered with references to the 1990s music culture, which created cassettes with a playlist of favourite songs: a mixtape.
MaRa is respected for this detailing in its artwork. “We want readers to return to the story and find something new each time,” says Prabha. While Hush and Mixtape are largely silent works in black and white, Twelve is more dialogue-driven and uses splashes of colour. “With each project, we try to overcome new challenges. With the earlier works, we got over the fear of panelling right. With Twelve , the challenge was to write dialogue that sounded real,” says Pratheek.
On the art front, Prabha says black-and-white pushed them to see how far just two variables could go. “Colour can be a distraction sometimes, but using it occasionally can make it more powerful.” The genres of art too range from brushy textures, to grungy looks, mostly created first on paper with final touches, colour correction and lettering done digitally. “We wanted to front artists who never thought their art could work as comics but find that it can,” says Prabha. The result is signature styling marked by personal stamps. Jasjyot’s art, for instance, features beautifully illustrated women drawn from his experience with fashion, and Prabha’s reflects her obsession with cats.
“We want to grow into a publishing house that is seen as the first option for original graphic narratives,” says Dileep. “Each of the core team has completely different preferences. So when a story clicks with all of us, we know it works. We also look for stories that are visually strong” adds Tina.
In its editorial vision, MaRa is influenced by graphic novel greats. Twelve , for example, pays tribute to Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, creators of Demo. It is also reflected in Twelve ’s stories of young Indians faced with life-changing choices. One story narrates Irom Sharmila’s decision to fast for AFSPA’s abolition at 28; another speaks of a young soldier at the battlefront and still others of people in love and tough situations.
Of MaRa’s unconventional trajectory, Pratheek says, “We’re still finding our feet but, in the years we’ve been around, we’ve grown more confident in our creators, and our stories. We’ve learnt that good content will find its readers.”