Gritty, pacy and offering lessons in history better than many university programmes – a new breed of Tamil comics is changing readers’ expectations for the better
Exotic physics barely differs from outlandish fantasies when it proposes strange worlds of different dimensions. The world of Tamil comic books is one such.
For decades, it has existed without much scrutiny from the mainstream media. Most intellectuals think of comics as too trivial for their taste. And they cannot be blamed entirely. The Tamil comic world I grew up in usually had things divided neatly into good and bad. Worse, they often mapped it into white and black as well.
As a kid, I loved Phantom comics and fantasised my own skull cave in that deep jungle of our backyard garden and, of course, let me be honest, my own Diana Palmer.
It took two decades for me to understand that Denkali was actually Bengali and the pirates were actually a representation of the initial Maratha naval resistance to European colonialism. After all, Phantom himself was called ‘Guardian of Eastern Dark’ – a slave cult which used opium to make slaves addicts – a typical Protestant depiction of Eastern spiritual traditions.
Phantom the ‘ghost who walks’ was also accompanied by the patronisingly racist Mandrake-Lothar combine; Mandrake represented the highest exhibit of mental powers and the dark-skinned Lothar was the ‘strongest man on earth’ – clear racial segregation of brain power to the whites and muscle power to the blacks. Blonde-haired Flash Gordon, of course, saved blue-eyed Dale from the Asiatic-looking, extraterritorial dictator, Ming.
Even then I had my inhibitions about some of the themes covered in the old comics. There were a few comics which dealt with the confrontational relationship between the West and native spiritual traditions. In one of these, an Aztec scion tries to use ancient technology to rebuild the Aztec empire. I felt sad when British agent ‘Steel Claw’ thwarted those attempts. I could not understand why Lawrence and David of the UN special force could not understand the anguish of Incas trying to take revenge on the Spanish diplomats for what the Inquisition did to their ancestors. But then, the adventures and the sheer heroic narrative of the comic made one forget such petty historical irritation. For a ten-year-old boy, I was happy with the comic in my hand, and it made for a great read on a Sunday afternoon.
Now the world of Tamil comics has changed irreversibly. When “grown-ups” tease me for reading “still childish stuff”, I just shove a few select comics into their hands and say to them, “Read it and tell me if you still think this is kid stuff!”
S Vijayan, the editor of the major Tamil comics publications, Muthu Comics and Lion Comics, while continuing with the tradition of cowboy adventure and euro-centric comics, has also constantly challenged his readers and introduced a qualitative change in the publication’s content. I wonder if this trend exists in any other Indian language.
One milestone in the world of comics was achieved, through Tamil, when in 2011 the complete collection of the famous XIII comics was published. At 858 pages, the mega comic provides not just adventure and thrill but also very interesting insights into the working of American polity. Created by writer Jean Van Hamme and artist William Vance as a graphic novel series, starting from 1984, the comics travel through the Cold War period. An amnesic charged with the assassination of the US president and his adventures through the web of political conspiracies take us inside the underbelly of American politics. It is the world of Ku Klux Klan and the mafia residing in the highest towers of power in the US.
The inhuman and unjust purges of McCarthyism are told, and strange alliances surface with left-wing revolutions in South American countries being sponsored by American corporate giants. The bitter rivalry between the Irish Catholics and the Italian Catholics, with the former dominating the radical political movement and the latter dominating the mafia, is another interesting dimension. There are no good and bad guys (or girls) en bloc here. Ultimately, individual decisions matter irrespective of the ideological affiliation.
Then, the comics, now almost of an epic proportion, continued with one issue for each major character, telling the story of how their life events shaped them so as for them to arrive at the point where they get introduced in the original XIII comics. One is almost tempted to say that the XIII comics provides for readers what even an Ivy League academic course in political science cannot reveal about American politics and history.
Vijayan made another bold move in 2014 when he published in a collectors edition of Lion Comics a graphic novel on Nazi abduction of Gypsy children. Batchalo (2012) brought out vividly the less talked-about aspect of the Holocaust – the experiments done by Nazis on abducted Roma children. The novel also brings out the deep prejudices that permeated the psyche of Christendom against Roma – the people of Indic origin.
Written by Michaël Le Galli and illustrated by Arnaud Bétend, the novel brought out the Hindu origins of Roma at the climax when the Gypsy healer woman who offers herself to the carnal desires of a Nazi officer, kills him, and sets the Nazi quarters on fire. It happens on a full moon day, and she says to the Roma plotting the escape that the fire would guide their pursuit for freedom. The comic shows her eyes and quotes the verse from the Gita, “wherever the evil arises, there I shall descend as Avatar”. With crisp translation by Karunaianantham and Vijayan, the novel opens up, to Tamil readers, the real dimensions of the Western history which are seldom found in the pages of history books we read at school.
The world of Tamil comics reached another high point this month. Written by Alessandro Bilotta and with art by Matteo Mosca, the graphic mini-novel Friedrichstrasse explores the dark dynamics that go on inside the mind of an East German agent, Friedrich, who in his ambitions had even betrayed his family to party higher-ups. The Berlin Wall at once becomes not only the symbol of a battle between free democracy and a totalitarian regime; it is also the wall in which the agent has put himself in. When he is given the duty of “monitoring” a singer who is also his secret beloved, he slowly realises the wall crumbling around him. But then, suddenly, the roles are treacherously reversed and ... well you have to read it.
The mini-novel has brought for the first time to Tamil comic readers the cruel world of totalitarian Marxist regime that existed in East Berlin, in a telling manner. One would have expected the literati in Tamil Nadu to have brought to Tamil readers the cruelty of Marxist totalitarianism, but then it should be noted that in India, most of the writers of the 1980s generation, who are today pontificating about freedom, the Jawaharlal Nehru University variety in particular, could have all been state guests of the East German regime.
At large, the Indian comic world has been imitating Western superheroes and trends. As a contrast, Amar Chitra Katha is a uniquely Indic attempt which has had success across generations. However, it is strictly limited to history and the classical heritage of India in the fields of art, literature, science and religion. Yet, for any nation with such vast diversity as India, it is an attempt that needs global adulation as it provides a model for holistic teaching of history and culture.
In the case of fiction-based comics, India is still in its infancy. ‘Devi’ (Shekhar Kapur) or ‘Sadhu’ (Gotham Chopra and Jeevan Kang), characters launched by Virgin Comics, which borrow heavily from Hindu mythology and history, are fine-tuned and even distorted for Western sensibilities.
It is at this juncture that the work Tamil comics are doing becomes significant. While it is true that they are still publishing the translations of Western comics, they have displayed variety and chosen bravely. It is definitely quite a revolution in the world of comic literature that Tamil comics have brought the latest developments in the domain to Tamil people.