Graphic novels are a new avatar of the ancient illustrated dramas, says one publisher. They are now a promising genre in India, too.
In an era in which the spectre of e-readers haunts the publishing industry, one genre of books has done surprisingly well: the graphic novel. Even in the shadow of the recession, these picture-filled story books, many of them printed in full colour on expensive paper, have been so popular that K D Singh of The Bookshop in Delhi’s posh Jorbagh has devoted one entire shelf to them. He shows me the inventory of titles on his computer. It runs for pages and pages.
Cartoons and comic art can trace their lineage back to ancient forms of pictorial story-telling. Across Asia, for instance, in temples from Tibet to India, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, stories are depicted through paintings, bas-reliefs and sculpture. But today’s graphic novels go beyond the ancient storytellers’ art. They are often highly personal and politically in-your-face. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde provides a pitiless account beyond the reach of the international press corps, of the Bosnian War. Nicolas Wild’s Kabul Disco covers a tiny outpost of French graphic design in war-torn Afghanistan.
“You could say they are a new avatar of the ancient illustrated dramas,” says Renuka Chatterjee of Tranquebar Press in response to my question about whether graphic novels represent something “new” in publishing. Nor are they just novels in pictures. “They are so dialogue-driven,” she says, and “the background narrative is provided by the illustrations, unlike in a novel”.Tranquebar’s recent publication of architect Gautam Bhatia’s Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India is a case in point: it is a ferocious satire on modern Indian life, told through pictures painted by contemporary Rajasthani miniature painters. The result is a startling combination of old and new. The artistic style belongs to medieval times, as does the story of a cruelly callous elite terrorising the starving peasantry. But the ethos, the names and the locations belong to our world of corrupt politicians and helpless citizenry.
Graphic novels, as something distinct from large-format comic books such as Tintin and Asterix, have been around since the late 1980s, starting with the phenomenal success of The Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, drawn by Dave Gibbons and continuing with hundreds of others, most notably the various albums of the Batman saga. In India, Penguin India’s Corridor: A Graphic Novel by Sarnath Banerjee, published in 2004, is considered the first local example of the genre.
According to Abraham, “the graphic novel in India isn’t really large-format. Almost all the ones published so far range around the ‘royal’ size — the same size as [the average] fiction hardback. At this size they aren’t particularly more expensive; at most Rs 100 above a regular literary fiction paperback. It’s the ‘collectible’ edition that’s truly expensive, and herein lies the irony: in the midst of a recession, luxury still sells. This type of publishing caters to a niche market that’s willing to pay more.”