There is something about the comic book format that is so appealing. Growing up, bliss was nothing more than an unread comic book waiting to be dived into. It really didn’t matter what was featured there- anything that told a story with cartoon pictures accompanying it was devoured. The staples of Indrajal comics- Phantom, & Mandrake, the infinitely mesmerising world of Riverdale with its cast of Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead and the lot, Commando comics that told us tales of the Second World War with brutal glee, the early versions of the superhero universe then represented by Superman and Batman, the magic of Tintin and particularly Asterix, that created an incredibly intricate world of puns, allusions and intertextual jokes, the magic of Indian mythology that was brought alive in Amar Chitra Katha, local characters like Bahadur, Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, the adventures of Dennis the Menace, the occasional forays into characters like Casper the friendly ghost- it was a long list of favourites.
In a world without video, comic books were our only truly accessible means of being able to consume stories visually. Also, the kind of stories comics told us were not available on the big screen. One could go the movies only once in a while but could pick up a comic book at the nearest circulating library. It took little time to run through one, but it was always possible to re-read the comic book and pick up nuances that one had skipped over before.
Not all of the early comic books stand the test of time. There couldn’t be anything more hair-raisingly racist than Commando comics, nor as tone-deaf as the unabashed celebration of class and disparity in wealth as Richie Rich. But that was a time when we cheerfully ingested all that we could lay our hands on. It is worth noting in passing that a lot of the people who call themselves liberals today have grown up with exactly this kind of ‘toxic’ influence.
There is something about the combination of text and image, particularly in the early comic books, that is a much more open and inviting format, particularly for the very young, than books. Stories leap off the page with an immediacy that is hard to match, and the rudimentary codes of representation allow us to focus on what is truly crucial rather than get lost in descriptive detail. The focus on essential meaning over lifelike detail also allowed the readers to insert themselves into the narrative as surrogate protagonists. The sequential nature of storytelling is a key ingredient allowing us, as writer Scott McCloud explains, to ‘perceive time spatially, for in the world of comics, time and space are one and the same thing.’ The text is usually direct given the limitations of space, and we know exactly what every character is doing or thinking without any need for interpretation. The speech blurb animates the person, while the thought blurb gives us access to their inner world in a way that is not available to us in real life.
The thought blurb surely must be one of the most innovative uses of design to capture an abstract idea in simple visual terms. The sound of sound effects (POW!!!, SPLAT!!!) adds another dimension to the experience. Overall comic books use two-dimensional space to deliver a three-dimensional experience. This is a world that represents reality while being free of its constraints. It makes imagination appear more concrete, but because the art has no need to stay tethered in the rules of the real world, it can create alternative worlds that are fantastic while feeling exceedingly real.
The use of illustration that gives it a weightlessness that renders it non-threatening. This is also why comics were always seen as being inferior to the real things- books, and why parents frowned at excessive comic reading. However, the power of this form comes precisely from its accessibility. It is a mystery why textbooks don’t use the comic book format to augment learning. Can you imagine history being taught this way? Boring facts could have turned into stories, and dreary details might have been so much easier to remember. Historical figures would have a flesh-and-blood presence in one’s mind. It is instructive how much history as a subject was disliked, and how avidly it was consumed through comics like the Amar Chitra Katha.
Even for the early texts in science, explaining concepts using a narrative form with visuals would make the subject itself feel more real. Comic books can locate otherwise arcane subjects in real life and help the young visualise concepts, rather than try and learn them by rote, as is the current practice. In fact, there used to be and perhaps still are, comic book-type series that explain truly complex ideas (post-modernism, relativity, quantum theory) under the banner ‘A dummy’s guide to… which did just that for adults.
An indication of this format’s power lies in the fact that 3 of the top 10 blockbusters of all time are based on comic book characters. Marvel and DC are entertainment empires built on the back of comic book franchises. The superhero genre, the popularity of which is a mystery that needs to be unlocked at some other time, is the dominant storytelling format in cinema today, with a never -ending series of adventures of a vast cast of differently gifted (and troubled) superheroes. The comic book is now an adult passion that is followed with earnest zeal that one rarely encounters in real life. The Comic-Con experience with its own intricate codes of behaviour is testimony to the mainstreaming this once fringe sub-culture. Beyond its current fanbase, the comic book is increasingly being recognised as a literary genre worthy of scholarly attention as we see new innovative forms and styles emerge.
Sudhir Kakar once referred to Indian cinema as a place ‘where we continue our long-standing quarrel with reality’. Perhaps that characterisation fits comic books even better.
This article is intended to bring a smile to your face. Any connection to events and characters in real life is coincidental.
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