Silent pictures

Written by JAI ARJUN SINGH
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When a paint stroke speaks a thousand words

WHAT PEOPLE ARE willing to consider literary—or even literate—is highly variable. For instance, I hear someone casually say, “This massmarket novel is not literature”, a statement that, in addition to being inaccurate at a purely definitionbased level, also suggests an elitism that runs against the long history of art and popular culture. However, even the most broad-based definitions of literature contain the word “writing”. It is taken for granted that words, made up of those tiny shapes we call alphabets—so intimidating when we can’t decipher them and so empowering when we can—are involved. This may be why, when asked about the best Indian books I have read in the past year, I hesitate for a second before mentioning Legends of Halahala. But only for a second. This is a work of graphic fiction by the talented artist Appupen (the pen name of George Mathen), his second after the extraordinary Moonward. Like Moonward, Legends of Halahala is set on a planet that resembles our own in some ways. It employs different drawing styles to narrate five stories set in separate periods, each presenting a perspective on love and its effects. There is conventional, youthful (some might say foolish and impetuous) romance, but there is also the cutesy idea of two oddball, parasite-like creatures—from the remote “Oberian” era—being each other’s forever-companions. There is a man pining for the super-heroine he encountered as a child, and another man—a swarthy, motorbikeriding daredevil—who is the rescuer of, and then the abductor of, a supermodel’s absconding left breast (!). And in the bleakest of these tales, titled 16917P’s Masterpiece, there is the love of artistic creation as a form of self-affirmation. Intriguingly, the book is almost, completely wordless. This is not a minor achievement. Last year, the Chennai-based publishing house, Blaft, produced an anthology of visual storytelling titled The Obliterary Journal. The name came from the book’s tongue-in-cheek mission to “obliterate” conventional literature. Yet, most of the stories in that collection, though beautifully drawn, did use text; words and images worked in unison. This has been true of the majority of international graphic novels, too, even ones that do spectacular things with pictorial form. Alan Moore’s Watchmen—about an alternative America where costumed “superheroes” are becoming irrelevant in the face of the world’s biggest problems—is one of the most complex works of storytelling I have ever seen, in its use of visuals that echo each other, and an intense narrative within the main narrative. It is also a book that you read—the first time, at least—in the normal way, since the story is propelled by dialogues and by stream-ofconsciousness musings from a journal maintained by one character. Reading a narrative made up entirely of drawings involves a different mental process, but within a few pages of Legends of Halahala, I was immersed; so adept and fluid is Appupen’s artwork that these stories don’t need words. The few bursts of “dialogue” there are take the form of exclamations and are depicted in a droll, almost cheesily visual way: when a king’s servant has to announce that the royal dinner is ready, the speech bubble issuing from his mouth contains a picture of a plate and cutlery; after a dragonlike creature is instructed to stop setting things ablaze with his firebreath, we see a “no smoking” sign emanating from a thought balloon over his head as he crawls sheepishly away. But it is the true silences that are most impressive. The first story—about starcrossed lovers whose fathers rule rival kingdoms—is the most straightforward one, linear and very easy on the eye. It is also bright and vividly coloured, which is central to its purpose: the kingdoms are represented by green and dark orange respectively, and this distinguishing colour scheme runs through the story, right up to the cheeky last panel where the lovers are finally united and the picture of a heart on a flag brings the two colours together. Contrast this look with that of the next story, drawn in deliberately gloomy black and white, where a child and his parents— walking the streets of what looks like a Hollywood noir film from the 1940s—are rescued from a monster by Ghost Girl. (When we see the grown-up version of the boy years later—a depressed-looking man still haunted by the memory of his childhood heroine—the panels acquire a neon-yellow tinge.) Just as interesting as the differences, though, are the similarities—the visual motifs that subtly connect the tales. For instance, the opening illustrations for three stories involves a chasm that has to be bridged: in Stupid’s Arrow, it is the valley that divides the kingdoms, a tenuous rope bridge stretched across it; in The Saga of Ghost Girl, the skyscrapers of a metropolis are drawn in a slanted way so that the gap between them becomes a different sort of valley, and we see the small figure of the super-heroine swinging across buildings. There are many other touches that you might properly register only on a second or third read. (Isn’t the image on the opening page of the first story— the silhouette of the valley and the rocky hills—akin to the bottom half of an India map, complete with a little Sri Lanka tapering away at the bottom? And if so, could the warring kingdoms represent the politics currently associated with the western and eastern extremes of the country, Gujarat and West Bengal respectively? Or is this over-analysis? Decide for yourself.) Three of the stories in Legends of Halahala end with clear heart symbols, but if you squint at the final pages of the other two, you might see distorted heart shapes in them too: in the rings of cigarette smoke floating across a city’s dark skyline. Or in the broken pieces of a plaque on which a man banished from a dystopian kingdom has inscribed “16917P was here”, as he uses his art to battle oblivion—by building a monument to assert his presence in a world where he is an outcast. On the evidence of his two books so far, Appupen’s own bid for artistic immortality is well underway, and happily, graphic novelists are not as marginalised as they once were. (The views expressed in this column are of the author alone)

 

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