The difference between a cartoonist, a graphic artist, and a caricaturist is the same as between a Baptist, a Protestant, and a Mormon. For a practitioner, there is a world of difference. Step back and they are pretty much the same, each trying to find meaning by drawing” – this is how New Yorker cartoonist and creator of the satirical superhero Too Much Coffee Man, Shannon Wheeler described to me the difference between the three, when I met him for a book event in California.
When I first began exploring graphic novels they struck me as comic books for adults. However, you can’t just flip through them like you would comics, or glide past the picture panels, which are intricately drawn with dense text. And what’s more, you must summon up greater focus and concentration for going through a graphic novel! But the rewards are twofold: There’s text that’s as rich as in any good work of fiction, and graphics that rise to an art form. My introduction to the graphic novel was through my meeting with India’s first graphic artist Sarnath Banerjee. I was amazed by his ability to draw something impromptu and personal.
For someone who is starting his/her journey with graphic novels, here are some landmark titles. Maus by Art Spiegelman, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a classic. Will Eisner’s A Contract with God made the genre term ‘graphic novel’ popular. Perhaps the first ever novels to be drawn were the Japanese manga comics. They sparked a revolution in the West, with several illustrators reimagining the graphic novel. Foremost among them: Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware, Alan Moore and Frank Miller.
The first graphic novel that went mainstream was probably Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. This novel about a young woman in Iran, drawn in black-and- white panels, was embraced globally by even those who had hitherto ignored the genre. So many graphic novels today can boast literary merit – consider Blankets by Craig Thompson, a 600-page black-and-white graphic novel that takes a meditative look at falling in love, or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a political memoir of living in war-torn Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The genre is also known for how it tweaks iconic themes and characters from the world of pop culture. To give an example: In one desi version of The Return of Superman, Clark Kent meets his brown colleague: “‘Hello,’ she says, ‘I’m Lois. Lois Chaudhary.”
An even more welcome development is the turning of modern literary classics into graphic novels. Thus, we have, in graphic form, the stories of Kafka as well as Marcel Proust’s epic In Search of Lost Time and Paul Auster’s postmodern City of Glass. Finally, to not mention Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha series would be a serious lapse. We wholeheartedly embraced it because it was the beloved story of the Buddha, and also because we hadn’t encountered a graphic novel with an Asian or spiritual sensibility before.
For beginners in this genre, graphical adaptation of the classics is a good starting point. My personal favourite is Christophe Chaboute’s retelling of Moby Dick. The pages swing to and fro with the swell of the waves depicted on them, in beautiful black and white sketches. Another favourite is New York Times bestselling author Nick Bertozzi’s retelling of Pearl S Buck’s timeless classic The Good Earth. Ulysses Seen by Rob Berry, a graphic adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is a very ambitious project. So far Berry has completed about 138 pages of Ulysses Seen, and more pages will soon be onlin at the Joyce Center website. According to Publisher’s Weekly, the artist estimates that it will take roughly a decade to complete the full adaptation!
Perhaps the most noble aspect of Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is that the author, Kazuto Tatsuta, did not volunteer at the nuclear plant just to write a manga novel, which is what most opportunistic artists would have done. Tatsuta’s intentions were merely to do his bit for this Japanese disaster site where perhaps the most lethal nuclear waste cleanup mission today is in progress. His manga went on to become a sensation in Japan, particularly for the way it revealed daily happenings at the cleanup that the government had not fully disclosed. He took part in the cleanup until his radiation level almost reached the danger mark, and that is when he stopped.
Today, the graphic novel in India has taken off in such fantastic directions, with Kari, the lesbian heroine, Kashmir Pending, imaginatively and explosively looking at what’s happening there, Mumbai Confidential, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers and Moonward – to name a handful.
When my friend Dr Malvika Iyer’s inspiring story was made into a graphic novel Mai by the very talented Jagannathan Sriram, the narrative struck a chord across generations, finding readers among both children and adults. That’s the true power of a graphic novel!