Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Legends of Halahala - silent pictures from another world

[Did this piece for the magazine Democratic World]

What people are willing to consider literary, or even literate, is highly variable. Often, one hears the casual remark “This mass-market/popular novel is not literature” – a statement that, apart from being inaccurate at a purely definition-based level, also suggests an elitism that runs against the long, complex history of art and popular culture. However, even the most broad-based definitions of literature are sure to contain the word “writing”. It is taken for granted that words, made up of those tiny shapes we call alphabets – so intimidating when we can’t decipher them, and so empowering when we can – are involved. And this may be why, when asked about my favourite Indian novels of the past year, I hesitate for a second before mentioning Legends of Halahala.

But only for a second. This is a work of graphic fiction by the hugely talented artist Appupen (the pen name of George Mathen), his second after the extraordinary Moonward. Like that book, Legends of Halahala is set on a planet that resembles our own in many basic ways. It employs different drawing styles to tell five stories set in separate periods, each presenting a perspective on love, obsession and its effects. There is conventional, youthful (some might say foolish and impetuous) romance, but there is also the cutesy idea of two oddball, parasite-like creatures – from the remote “Oberian” era – being each other’s forever-companions. There is a man pining for the super-heroine he encountered as a child, and another man – a swarthy, motorbike-riding daredevil – who is the rescuer of, and then the abductor of, a supermodel’s absconding left breast (!). And in the bleakest of these tales, titled “16917P’s Masterpiece”, there is the love of artistic creation as a form of self-affirmation.

Most intriguingly, the book is almost completely wordless. This is not a minor achievement. Last year, the Chennai-based publishing house Blaft produced an anthology of visual storytelling titled The Obliterary Journal. The name came from the book’s tongue-in-cheek mission to “obliterate” conventional literature – and yet, most of the stories in that collection, though beautifully drawn, did use text; words and images worked in unison. And this has been true of the majority of international graphic novels too, even the ones that do spectacular things with pictorial form. Alan Moore’s Watchmen – about an alternative America where costumed “superheroes” are becoming irrelevant in the face of the world’s biggest problems – is one of the most intricate works of storytelling I have ever seen, in its use of visuals that echo each other, and an intense narrative within a narrative. But it is also a book that you read – the first time, at least – in the normal way, since the story is propelled by dialogues and by stream-of-consciousness musings from a journal maintained by one of the main characters.

Reading a narrative made up entirely of drawings involves a different cerebral process, but within a few pages of Legends of Halahala I was hooked; so adept and fluid is Appupen’s artwork that these stories don’t need words. The few bursts of conversation there are take the form of exclamations and are depicted in a droll, almost cheesily visual way: when a king’s servant has to announce that the royal dinner is ready, the speech bubble issuing from his mouth contains a picture of a plate and cutlery; when the king and queen realise their daughter is missing and shout out her name, we only see her image in the speech balloon (we never learn what she is called); and after a dragon-like creature is sternly instructed to stop setting things ablaze with his fire-breath, we see a “no smoking” sign emanating from his head as he crawls sheepishly away. In a cheeky touch, most of the written words that adorn the book’s back-cover are fake blurbs such as “Book of the year!” by a publication called The Halahala Observer.

But it is the true silences that are most impressive. The first story – about star-crossed lovers whose fathers rule rival kingdoms – is the most straightforward one, linear and very easy on the eye. It is also bright and vividly coloured, which is central to its purpose: the kingdoms are represented by green and orange respectively, and this distinguishing colour scheme runs through the story, right up to a cheeky last panel where the two lovers are finally united and the picture of a heart on a flag brings the two colours together. Contrast this look with that of the next story, drawn in deliberately gloomy black and white, where a child and his parents – walking the streets of what looks like a Hollywood noir film from the 1940s – are rescued from a monster by Ghost Girl. (When we seen the grown up version of the boy years later – a depressed-looking man still haunted by the memory of his saviour – the panels acquire a neon yellow tinge.)

Just as interesting as the differences, though, are the similarities – the visual motifs that subtly connect the tales. For instance, the opening illustrations for three of the stories involve a chasm that has to be bridged: in “Stupid’s Arrow”, it is the valley that divides the kingdoms, a tenuous rope bridge stretched across it; in “The Saga of Ghost Girl”, the skyscrapers of a metropolis are drawn in a slanted way so that the gap between them becomes another sort of valley, and we see the small figure of the super-heroine swinging from one building to another. And there are many other touches that you might properly register only on a second or third read. (Isn’t the image on the opening page of the first story – the silhouette of the valley and the rocky hills – akin to the bottom half of an India map, complete with a little Sri Lanka tapering away at the bottom? And if so, could the kingdoms stand for the politics associated with the western and eastern extremes of the country? Or is this over-analysis? Decide for yourself.)

Three of the stories in Legends of Halahala end with clear heart symbols, but if you squint at the final pages of the other two you might see distorted heart shapes in them too: in the rings of cigarette smoke floating across a city’s dark skyline. Or in the broken pieces of a plaque on which a man banished from a machine-run land has inscribed “16917P was here” as he uses his art to battle oblivion - by building a monument to assert his presence in a world where he is an outcast. On the evidence of his two books so far, Appupen’s own tryst with literary fame is well underway, and happily graphic novels are not as marginalised as they once were.

[A few earlier posts on graphic novels and visual storytelling: the many faces of the Indian comics industry; Jis desh mein manga bikhti hai; the Pao Collective's anthology; Ambedkar in Gond art; the maali who weeded out myth; Kashmir Pending and The Barn Owl; on reviewing a graphic novel]

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