Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Obliterary Journal, an anthology of visual storytelling

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review. Also see this story about the Indian comics industry]

The publishing house Blaft has earned a cult following for its offbeat choices, high production quality and an inventiveness that is just right for its material. For anyone familiar with their earlier work – notably the Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies and the picture book Kumari Loves a Monster – it's no surprise that the comics anthology The Obliterary Journal (co-published with Tranquebar) is a good-looking book that establishes a playful aesthetic sense right at the outset. The Table of Contents is a wall mural done by a Chennai-based artist named S Venkataraman, who gets a credit at the end, and there is an amusing two-page Foreword in which three pictorial symbols discuss the need to “obliterate” text-driven literature. (Of course, they are then branded “infidels” and destroyed by angry alphabets. It’s enough to make one feel guilty about attempting a text review of this book!)

A strident view of things has it that an anthology is only as good as its weakest link. I don’t quite subscribe to this – two or three brilliant pieces and a few good ones can give a book abiding value. The 20 pieces in The Obliterary Journal represent a fine array of drawing styles, themes and ideas; the techniques range from atmospheric black-and-white charcoal images to brightly coloured comics to classic manga; and there is usually something to appreciate in even the hit-and-miss inclusions.

Since it isn’t possible to write comprehensively about them all in limited space, I’ll mention some of my favourites. In “Memories of the Nayagarh Incident”, the Odiya style of pata chitra is employed for a straight-faced account of extraterrestrial sightings in Orissa in 1947 (among the depictions are a “yantra-purusha” with pincer-like hands and a space-suit wearing alien raising its palm in the “ashirvad stance”). Somdutt Sarkar brings visual life to mathematics problems posed by Bhaskacharya in the 12th century. (“Arjuna used four times the square root of the number of arrows to kill off all Karna’s horses ... How many did he shoot in all?”) The excerpt from The Hyderabad Graphic Novel (an ambitious project about the city’s history, written by Jai Undurti and intricately drawn by Harsh Mohan Chattoraj) reminded me of passages from the great Alan Moore-Eddie Campbell comic From Hell. And Amitabh Kumar’s piece (which obliterates text in its own way by having a title made up not of words but a symbol – an image of a plane inside a bisected heart) is a stark, minimalist tale about an ill-fated goat on a gruesome journey.

There isn’t a rigid emphasis on storytelling or on narratives: two of the most enjoyable pieces here are really collections of individual artwork that come together under an overriding theme. “One Dozen Dangerous Food Items” (written by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, drawn by B Anitha) has a cast of characters including a kleptomaniac okra named “Villain Vendakkai” and the gruesome gourd “Psycho Sorakkai”. And “Twenty Three from the One Gross” (illustrated by Malavika PC) is made up of a series of clever juxtapositions (“Lemur rhymes with femur”; elephants wait on a helipad) that are hard to describe but pleasing to experience.

Some of the simpler stories do experiment with form too. Bharath Murthy’s “A Kovai Gay Story”, for instance, has an intriguingly meta-textual component: it begins with a panel where Blaft editor Rakesh Khanna commissions a story from an artist named Surendran, and ends with a close-up of Surendran’s email account as he sends the final PDF (and we note that this gay man’s chat status is set to “Invisible”). Marginalised figures also dominate Roney Devassia’s “Karuna Bhavanam”, which presents conversations in an old-folks’ home in austere black-and-white – or rather, in moody shades of grey. The content here is reportage-driven, but the drawings make these forgotten old people seem like ghostly figures, which is of course what they have become.

I was less stirred by the inclusion of vehicle art – in “Autoraj”, about an enterprising Bangalorean rickshaw-driver – and pictures of street art from the tiny South American nation Suriname (which has a highly eclectic population, including Bhojpuri and Javanese people). These images make the book more colourful than it would
otherwise have been and several of the pictures are entertaining in their own right, but cut off from their context and confined to the pages of a print publication, they seem sapped of vitality.

A case can therefore be made that this collection is too wide-ranging. Most (text-only) anthologies are built around a theme or the work of a single person, which carries appeal for a specific readership. But here, the only “peg” is visual storytelling, which accommodates many varieties of drawings placed at the service of different types of narratives (or anti-narratives). The ideal reader for this book, therefore, will be someone with hugely eclectic tastes – which is a good quality, of course, but also a rare one.

[Earlier pieces on Blaft publications: Tamil pulp fiction and Ibne Safi's Jasoosi Duniya]

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