And now for something scholarly – I have been sitting on this publication for a little while – as it was published in 2015 – but here is the first bit of that latest publication in the International Journal of Comic Art. The focus is on some of the indie and alternative tendencies in India’s comics scene, with examples from the work of two very cool creators and their collaborators. Take a read – and let me know what you think in the comments, eh?
From Corporate to Collaborative Comics in India
Historically, a corporate model of production in Indian comics culture has predominated that is predicated upon a division of labor, where writers, pencillers, inkers, and otherwise each perform their step in the creative process with limited interaction with other steps or the people behind them.[i] While such an approach has helped certain companies flourish, the obvious cost has been the inability for most creators to make a living from their work. Furthermore, there is little space for an active, critical community in that model of production. Accordingly, contemporary comics creators, editors, publishers, and many of their readers have recently begun to turn to a different model of creativity.
In my interviews with comics creators from 2010 onwards, I have encountered many creators who point out that the roots of comics culture lie in the broader visual culture of India, which primes readers for critically engaging with visual narratives through experiences with traditional visual storytelling.[ii] Many have used this understanding to push for a greater awareness of the comics medium as an international form with the potential for great variation beyond corporate production. Most recently, several authors and artists have begun explicitly working to establish an alternative or independent comics culture in India that is focused on creators, their craft, and the communities that form around them, rather than the corporate focus on establishing an industry. In particular, Vidyun Sabhaney of Captain Bijli Comics in Delhi and Pratheek Thomas of Studio Kokaachi in Cochin are working to develop more independent and community-focused platforms for their own and others’ work. This article briefly explores how these two creators approach the work of establishing this alternative or indie comics culture by placing craft and community over industry.
Alternative Comics Creators
Both Sabhaney and Thomas are dedicated to cultivating a comics culture in India where creators can make a living through visual storytelling. In particular, each approaches this work as a small publisher, with Sabhaney’s independent comics initiative Captain Bijli focused on “collaboration, ideas, and inspiration” and Thomas’s Kokaachi on collaboration through “…comics, picture books, pop-up stories, illustrated tales, animation, film and all kinds of visual storytelling”” (“Captain Bijli;” Studio Kokaachi 2014). This mutual emphasis on stories and collaboration provides a vivid example for the shift away from corporate models of creativity. Much like the small, self-published comics that arose from the American underground comix of the 1960s and 70s, the focus is more diverse, emotionally realistic, and expressionistic storytelling, including autobiographical and more literary elements (Hatfield 2005). Creators in this context differ from American alternative comics creators, though, in that the mainstream against which they must often define their work is grounded in book publishing and mythological comics rather than superheroes. Further, creators like Sabhaney and Thomas draw on a unique context of comics in India and their individual experiences with the medium.
Pratheek Thomas’s first exposure to comics was enjoying Spider-man cartoons and comics as a child, followed by comics in the Malayalam children’s magazine Balarama, the Phantom comics, Amar Chitra Katha series, and Herge’s Tintin. His discovery of Frank Miller’s Daredevil: the Man Without Fear and other works at the Eloor Lending Library around 2000 led to his discovery of comics as his “first love” through favorites Neil Gaiman, Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan, Greg Rucka, and the masterful Mike Mignola. His first foray into comics was co-founding Manta Ray Comics with Dileep Cherian, an effort that transformed what was possible in Indian comics through the critically acclaimed graphic novella Hush, which Thomas wrote, the anthology Mixtape, and The Small Picture series, which Cherian alone now runs.[iii] Thomas has continued his dedication to comics by co-founding the small, independent storytelling and publishing house Studio Kokaachi with his wife Tina Thomas, who is a writer and storyteller in her own right. For Pratheek, the joy of comics is built into the medium; as he noted to me, “As for making comics, it’s just pure joy to see the words I write go beyond the alphabets and take the form of visuals.” It is just this joy for the creative process, alongside the high value he places on collaboration and the friendship that it engenders, that stoke Thomas’ passion for the medium and drive to establish an independent comics community and market.
Vidyun Sabhaney, on the other hand, came to comics through a combination of comics journalism research and making visual narratives in her youth. Her first exposure to comics was mainly through the Amar Chitra Katha series, Calvin & Hobbes, and Belgian imports Tintin and Asterix. Alongside her oft-collaborator, artist Pia Alize Hazarika, Sabhaney first made comics in her youth, but would later read Art Spiegelman’s Maus and perform research on Joe Sacco’s work in college.[iv] Through that research, Vidyun would meet Orijit Sen, creator of India’s first long-form comic labeled a graphic novel, and the prolific Sarnath Banerjee, whose Corridor helped establish the comics shelf in book shops. Encouraged by them, she attended a Sarai CSDS workshop in 2008 where she met her other regular collaborator in comics, Japanese artist Shohei Emura, and created her first comics story as an adult. Her favorite creators include David Mazuchelli, Seth, Harvey Pekar, and Alison Bechdell, in part because, as she stated to me, “I like stories where the author is self-aware…that kind of honesty is something that really draws me into their work.” Sabhaney has published comics in a wide array of publications, including Comix.India, the Pao Anthology, Blaft’s Obliterary Journal, and Captain Bijli publications Mice Will Be Mice and Dogs! An Anthology, which she co-edited. Furthermore, she has presented in workshops on traditional and contemporary visual storytelling practice, including the Image & Word workshop that she organized with Emura in 2005 based on their fieldwork through India Foundation for the Arts in 2011. As co-founder of Captain Bijli, she hopes to provide a platform for collaboration and experimentation in comics in India as an alternative to the mainstream, corporate industry.
Both Sabhaney and Thomas recognize the need for an alternative to corporate comics that have come to dominate India’s comics culture. There is thus a shared emphasis on small publication runs and an adaptive distribution system that recognizes where readers are most likely to encounter their work – whether in book shops and art galleries or more public spaces like cafes and food stalls. Their passionate commitment to visual storytelling that both celebrates the creative process and is accessible to a relatively broad audience is what grounds each of their careers within comics publishing, and what pushes them to push the medium farther.
Shohei Emura and Vidyun Sabhaney before their screen-printing comics workshop at the 2013 UnBox Festival in Delhi. The two have regularly collaborated since 2008, including presentations, fieldwork and research funded by International Foundation for the Arts and Rajika Puri, and their work as small publisher Captain Bijli Comics, as well as other publications. Here, they are assembling promotional packages for the Image & Word workshop that they organized based on their research on the storytelling traditions of Rajasthani Kavaad, Paschimbanga’s Patachitra, and Togalu Gombeyatta leather puppetry of Karnataka. Photograph by the author.
Pratheek and Tina Thomas at the Studio Kokaachi booth at Comic Con Bangalore in September of 2014, with publications including volumes of Twelve, the Mixtape anthologies, and Captain Bijli’s DOGS! An Anthology. Photograph provided by Kokaachi.
[i] Corporate models of production have predominated in Indian comics culture, especially through the dominance of Campfire Comics, Raj Comics, the Amar Chitra Katha series, as well as recent attempts to establish a strong industry. Such an approach has unique implications and complications; see “Political Economy” by Mark Rogers in Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories & Methods, eds. M. Smith & R. Duncan (New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 145-56.
[ii] This paper is grounded in interviews and fieldwork performed alongside creators in 2010 and 2013, along with conversations by email and Skype from 2010 onwards.
[iii] Manta Ray Comics was closed down in spring of 2014, with Cherian taking on a lead role with The Small Picture series, published through the Mint newspaper. Meanwhile, Pratheek and Tina Thomas co-founded Studio Kokaachi to take on MRC’s publications and continue those in development, including Twelve.
[iv] In particular, in her dissertation (2008) for the B.A. in Journalism from Lady Shri Ram College at Delhi University, Sabhaney analyzed the evolution of Sacco’s narrative style over his career and how his visual storytelling held to the tenants of journalism.