Friday, October 19, 2012

Nothing comical about it

[Did this for the Business Standard's "Eye Culture" column. Incidentally I wrote this alongside my review of the Pao anthology, which I will - reluctantly - put up here in a couple of weeks]


On certain occasions, mostly drunken ones, I get asked what sort of book I find most difficult to review – “literary fiction”, “genre fiction” and “non-fiction” usually being the proffered options. “Comics,” I reply, and watch the questioner sidle away uneasily. “Or rather, graphic novels,” I add if I’m in a kind mood, and then sometimes he shuffles a step and a half back, still looking nervous.

But it’s true. It is much easier to write about a book that is all text than one where drawing and writing operate together in complex ways. Critics make lots of noise about form and content – as well we should – but in a text-only novel, both form and content are expressed purely through words. And words are the reviewer's stock in trade too. This makes for a happy marriage: among other things it is possible to indicate what an author is trying to do by quoting passages and commenting on them. But it's a very different business reviewing a book where words and images act in conjunction (or in contrast) to create a particular effect, or where multiple narratives converge in a single panel. The lazy way out is to discuss the work purely in terms of “what happens” or in terms of its “themes”, but that doesn't begin to do justice to the whole sensory experience.

Little wonder that the reviews I have sweated the most over in the past year – and the ones that I have been least happy about – are reviews of comic anthologies. Recent months have seen the publication of two very good Indian books in this category, Blaft’s The Obliterary Journal (with its mission to "obliterate" conventional literature) and Penguin India’s Pao (put together by The Pao Collective, a group of comic-book artists). These are ambitious, honourable projects and there are few weak links in them – a considerable achievement given that they bring together so many disparate artists, writers, styles and plots. But how does one meaningfully write – in an 800-word space – about a collection of 15 or 20 exercises in visual storytelling, each of which has its own idiom? Invariably, one is reduced to summarising plots, or making a perfunctory observation (one that sounds more knowledgeable than it is) about a drawing style – charcoal, oil painting, mixed media, whatever – being atmospheric and well-suited to the story.

Single-narrative graphic novels pose this problem too, but to varying degrees. Some, like Joe Sacco’s journalistic Palestine, Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age tale Persepolis or Art Spiegelman's Holocaust-centred memoir Maus, are driven more by the writing (and the “ideas”) than by the art; but the more rigorous a comic is – the greater the symbiosis between text and drawings – the more difficult it is to write about. Alan Moore, for instance, is a great comics writer who specialises in making fascinating visual and textual connections between seemingly unrelated things: running two or more ideas together, intercutting sequences so that the dialogue from one scene might spill over to supply commentary on another event, casually incorporating phrases and images that acquire a deeper resonance later in the story.

One of my all-time favourite books is the Moore-Eddie Campbell opus From Hell, a dark, multilayered historical fiction that examines the late Victorian era – and the approaching terrors of the 20th century – through the prism of the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. It is more than 550 pages long, adding up to well over 3,000 panels that range from deceptively scratchy, formless drawings to incredibly detailed and vivid depictions of the squalor of London’s East End. The meters of intensity shift continuously and nearly each image succeeds in conveying exactly the mood required at a particular point in the story: I can open a page at random and feel a cold shiver as I gaze upon a dialogue-less panel showing a poor, ailing prostitute – one of the Ripper’s future victims – leaning against a wall after a scuffle, gasping for breath, an unspeakably desolate expression on her face. Or the mild disappointment, tempered with fatalism, on the visage of another woman when she realises she has to earn another two pence late at night if she is to get any boarding-house accommodation. And here I'm mentioning only two panels that are relatively easy to describe in isolation from the larger narrative.

To do a satisfactory holistic review of such a book, I would probably have to write a book myself (and going by Jean-Luc Godard’s proposal that the best way to review a film is to create a new film in response, it might have to be a graphic novel). And even that may not be enough. As a professional reviewer, nothing can make you feel more emasculated or irrelevant.


  1. I got distracted by the words "form and content". Reminded me of those presentations from back in the day! Heh! A+ for impact! Whodathunkit? (back then!)


  2. Hello!
    This is a great post, and it is true that one ends up thinking about the 'story' of comic books - at least, that is what I do most of the time! You're pushing me to think about it beyond that, and thank you for that. I need to re-think the ways in which I engage with these texts.
    Incidentally, I recently did a blog post on Watchmen. Hope you don't mind my referencing you in the post. Here's a link: