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Monday, April 13, 2009

The Year Of The Graphic Novel

[Originally published here at]

(It’s been a weird kind of semester. Starting off at full steam, it seemed like it’ll all be over and done within two shakes of a dog’s tail… but it’s ended up dragging on and on. Mercifully, it’ll be over soon… my exams are starting in a week, and this will be the last entry in this blog for 15 days.)

Every year, around this time, I have a lot of reading to catch up with, (as the summer approaches) and as I start to look back at all the stuff I read, I notice a pattern. There are typically one or two writers/schools of writing to which I get attracted… and then I start to read up most or all of their work. And although I try to be as heterogeneous as I can while buying books, these writers inevitably end up on my list.

So,while the period around my tenth standard was mostly about magical realism(Rushdie, Marquez, Grass… the whole shebang…), after giving the Engineering Entrance Exams a couple of years later, I buried myself and my I/Me/Myself pangs into Camus and others of his absurdist ilk. Going even further back, I recall that I more or less saturated the Wodehouse rack at the local library in the summer vacation when I was in the seventh standard, before proceeding to do the same to the Asimov and the Stephen King racks.

Looking back at this year(Yes, being a student, I tend to treat an year from April to April) if I have to label it, it would undoubtedly be the Year of the Comic Book/Graphic Novel . I’d read some pretty good comics before, but the credit for introducing me to this wonderful world goes to my friend Arvind Sowmyan here on campus, geek extraordinaire, and brilliant artist himself. One day, when we were sitting in his room trying to beat the sticky Kharagpur heat, I commented on the drawing he’d made of a hooded, goateed figure (curiously resembling Colin Farrell!) he’d drawn on the wall, something which I thought had clear manga influences. He remarked, “It’s closer to Sandman than manga….”

It was then that I discovered Neil Gaiman’s stunning Sandman series, a huge, sprawling achievement in every way, something which has the density, maturity and texture comparable to the best of modern literary fiction. After that, there was no looking back. Afte completing Sandman, I quickly moved on to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is considered the definitive graphic novel of our times. By now, I’d well and truly caught the bug. I read up everything I could by Moore, including the massively entertaining LXG(League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) series and From Hell the stylistical masterpiece set in Victorian times. Later this year, I read dozens of prominent writers like Frank Miller(Sin City and Ronin are my faves). Among standalone graphic novels, I read “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman, two memoirs about different childhoods in different parts of the world, both of which are throbbing with poignance and utter beauty, as is the magisterial “Blankets” by Craig Thompson. Honourable mentions go to Sarnath Bannerjee, whose witty and ambitious novels “Corridor” and “The Barn-Owl’s Wondrous Capers” I enjoyed immensely; and also to Amruta Patil, whose dark and shadowy “Kari” serves as an intriguing advertisement for her future work.

I feel that as visual artists, graphic novelists have a lot to offer to the world of cinema. While it is a bald and mundane topic that the comic-book medium is inherently similar to the silver screen, things cannot be put in such a simplistic manner. The stylistic innovations brought to the genre by messrs Moore, Gaiman and Miller are testimony to the fact that comic books today can be as challenging as the best offered by Scorsese, Stone or the Coens. Read any “Sin City” title or any of Gaiman’s Sandman books , and you’ll know what I mean. Iron Man was the film which started pushing the barrier last year, before Christopher Nolan set the cat among the pigeons with The Dark Knight. Inspired from classic Batman titles like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”, Alan Moore’s “The Man Who Laughs” and Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Holloween”, he made what is sure to be an enduring classic among movie-goers everywhere, helped generously by a hauntingly macabre performance by the late Heath Ledger.

And yet it wasn’t good enough for the pundits. I won’t start a tirade about the quibbling idiots at the Academy Awards.(I loved Hugh Jackman’s song-and-dance routine “How come comic-book movies never get nominated/How can a billion dollars be unsophisticated?!”) What I’m surprised about is the people who’ve actually been lavish with their praise have managed to make it patronising and ultimately holier-than-thou. Roger Ebert is a critic I admire immensely, not just for his forthright reviews but also for his often self-deprecating humour. Now, he gave the Dark Knight four out of four stars, recognising the brilliance for what it was. But even his review came with a rider.

Towards the end, he says that The Dark Knight is “a haunting film” which “leaps beyond its origins” and that it “redefines the possibilities of the comic-book movie” , the implicit argument being that the origins of the film were inherently inferior because they were, at the end of the day, comic-books. The air smells of intellectual snobbery when people like Ebert come up with stuff like this. I dare these people to see “Persepolis” (the film version was co-directed by Marjane Satrapi, the writer of the graphic novel, herself) and not be moved to tears by the end. The power of comic-books as a storytelling medium was explored by the Manoj Shyamalan thriller “Unbreakable” which had some pretty cool theories about comic-book sensibilities.

Part of the problem is that filmakers in Hollywood are still not ready, for the large part, to think of comic-books of anything other than huge, flashy colours and “Kaboom” sound buubles. The “Wanted” comic-book series by Mark Millar was a brash, in your-face crime thriller, with plenty of spunk and bold brushstrokes all over the place. But the movie turned into an excuse to show off every last one of Anglina Jolie’s curves in devout super-slo-mo sequences. Later in the year, “The Incredible Hulk” too, disappointed on most counts. Ed Norton, an actor I like immensely, gave a shockingly ineffective performance. Neil Gaiman has expresed his disappointment at several abortive attempts at making a Sandman movie… but he also said that a project like this was only possible with a director who was as obesessed with the subject matter as Peter Jackson was with the LOTR saga. This is one of the reasons why writer Alan Moore distanced himself from “V From Vendetta” , which was actually a pretty good effort in the end. He had faced bitter disappointement earlier with the film adaptations of his books “From Hell” and “The League of Exraordinary Gentlemen” (I think we can all agree that we never want to see Naseeruddin Shah beat up people with his boots again!).

I fervently pray and hope that there’ll be a brash maverick out there somewhere who’ll replicate the magic of people like Moore, Spiegelman and Gaiman. I haven’t yet seen Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” , but the initial rushes look very impressive indeed. Remember Watchmen was called “unfilmable” ….. Closer home, I’m eagerly waiting for the silver screen adaptation of “Doga”, one of Raj Comics’s more enduring titles, a Punisher-like ruthless vigilante wearing a dog-mask. At the helm of the project is Anurag Kashyap, who is currently the toast of the town with Dev D and Gulaal.Kunal Kashyap is said to be playing Doga. Having read a bit of Doga comics, the dog-man does kind of fit the bill as a typical Kashyap character…. Let’s wait and watch :)

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