Writer and editor, Vinitha Ramchandani, was at the Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC) Singapore earlier this year, speaking about Graphic Novels and as part of the panel on 'Handling difficult topics in Comics'. Read on for her views on graphic novels and comics.
It is no coincidence that the bestselling books for children today—Dairy of the Wimpy Kids, Big Nate, the Gerinimo Stilton series, Dork Dairies—are all less text and more illustrative art. And, if you had to examine how a broadsheet looked 20 years ago and how they look today you will realize that the world is moving towards less text, more visuals, boxy pullouts.
In the past several years, the buzz about graphic novels has grown deafening. These books, which look like comics on steroids, seem to have near miraculous properties. It has been proved that the graphic novel format is the best way to attract reluctant readers as well as those with learning disabilities. They lure teen boys as well as teen girls. They work for ESL students, teach visual literacy and sequencing, and, above all else, they are wildly popular with an adolescent audience.
So what are graphic novels? Are they the same as comics? A large number of sources declare the term graphic novel as imprecise to describe a format that uses a combination of words and sequential art to convey a narrative.
So we have a few terms that come up when we scan the topic. When we sieve these out there are two major groups under which narratives in sequential art fall: Comics and graphic novels. Which is which? I have differentiated the two very specifically to mean two distinct things:
Comics: A kind of a language, weaving writing and art that has its own syntax, grammar and conventions communicating ideas in a fashion its readers instinctively understand / using pictures in a sequence to convey a story or information or an idea. Comic books are formats and I use it to mean light short stories, newspaper strips, etc. used to entertain.
Graphic Novels: This is a format too and I use it here to convey anything that is longer, book type/ a narrative using comic form that could be literature and have serious messages to convey.
For very long, the line between comics and what I call graphic novels were blurred and because graphic novels seem a lot like comics—with spandex-clad heroes who attempt to save the world from improbable destruction by impossibly-attired villains—there seems a lot of resistance among educators and librarians in accepting this format. Pictures are associated with children. As we grow up, aren’t we supposed to "graduate" to reading more text, bigger, more complex words?
But if we define graphic novels as “a combination of words and sequential art to convey a narrative”, then we in India have had its presence right from the paleolithic age.
The Bhimbetka, the frescos of the Ajanta Caves, the Chitrakathis of Paithan, the Phad-bachanas of Rajasthan, the Kaavad storytelling are all examples of clear narrative through sequential art. Yet, despite such a great lineage we, unlike in Japan, do not have a great legacy of comics or sequential art in India. Perhaps one of the reasons could be that unlike Japan, sequential art in India never really got to a point where text was used together with images on a large-scale. A lot of visual art was actually used to accompany or support oral narratives. Thus when oral narratives began to die out, visual narratives also became marginalized.
Perhaps this is the reason why, when India came into contact with the Western cartooning/ comics style, which was mostly print and not oral, artists here chose to follow and imitate that rather than look towards indigenous traditions as inspiration for their work.
In India, modern comics followed Western counterparts. Political cartoons came first. Indian comics were truly born when Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) was launched by India Book House, in 1967, with the intention of making mythological and religious texts, as well as stories about historical events and figures, more accessible to children. As Anant Pai, the editor of the ACK series, said, “In June 1967, I was in Delhi, watching a TV quiz on Doordarshan. I was saddened by the fact that none of the participants knew what the name of Lord Ram’s mother was. But, they all knew who the Greek god of Mount Olympus was!”
Thus, when the home-grown Indian comic magazine did make an appearance, it was as an educational and instructional medium, and was seen to be serving the interests of children. Amar Chitra Katha success (12 lakh readership) gave rise to Tinkle and spawned other such initiatives. Other publishing houses such as Diamond Comics, Jaico, Raj Comics and Dreamland Comics joined the bandwagon with Indian characters such as Nagaraj, Mahabali Shaka, Chacha Chaudhary, and Fauladi Singh. A lot of these were superhero-style characters loosely based on familiar figures like Superman.
If there is a first in India that brought out an indigenous version of graphic novel, it is Orijit Sen’s A River of Stories (1994), followed ten years later with Corridor by Sarnath Bannerjee. We may be heartened by the Comic Con but India to date remains a followers and imitators. Our GN storylines continue to oscillate between themes of mythology and superheroes.
Despite the ups and downs of the publishing industry, the graphic novel genre has only grown from strength to strength. I truly believe that graphic novels are poised to be the next big thing. Here's why:
1. Digital age: Not just children but the attention span of adults have also come down. We are a generation used to multitasking. One effect of the prevalence of visual media is that media consumers have become accustomed looking at visuals and assimilating the text at the same time. So much so that today text provides the highest level of abstraction of an event or piece of information. We can no longer extract visuals from our life. We have become so accustomed to the immediacy of visual media that the emotional impact of text may no longer be enough. A glaring example is a study of newspapers. News has pictures supported by text not the other way round.
2. Tomorrow is the world of digital natives: We are not digital natives, but our kids will be. We may still need the touch and feel of books, our kids will not. The future is already here. Changes are happening so quickly that there will soon be changes in the way we define literacy. The integration of visual and graphic media into people’s lives and work will only increase. Literacy will soon be defined by knowledge of its graphic, pictorial form as well as its verbal one.
3. The graphic novel format is a complex, most visual way to tell stories. Through one format multiple compositions of human population can be approached and addressed. No other format so far has been able to. Graphic novels are going to be today’s way of reaching out to a cross-section of people, across age and sex, across borders.
4. The biggest barrier for the growth of the graphic novel format has been the fact that the storyteller who used this format needed to be an illustrator or that the storyteller and illustrator teamed up to get a work done. Not all storytellers are illustrators. Not every storyteller found an artist they were in sync with. However technology has grown so much that you no longer need to be an artist to design pages. If graphic novels do become a rage, there will emerge a software that you can command to conjure up images according to the inputs you feed it.
Many argue that this is simply a phase and that like other trends this too will one day disappear. I disagree. I believe that this “comic book thing” may be a more permanent fixture on the literary front. As better access to worldwide information increases and more people of different cultures and nationalities move to new locales around the world, the varied perspectives found in graphic novels will remain an attraction for the medium. The internet is not a fad, but a tool that has changed the way we gather information. Because someone with a budding interest in a topic can instantly seek out and connect with others who have similar interests and superior knowledge, the internet will remain a valuable channel for attracting new fans to comics.
We are careened toward a converged digital future. Literary graphic novels, quirky webcomics, and the sequential-art format as a whole, as well as mainstream (superhero) comics are going to be a very prominent part of our lives. The world’s most approachable and adaptable art form tell us that while individual talent and personal engagement is important, we are in the era of the new global audience.
The foundation has been laid for something bigger to come. In India, in the world actually, we need a graphic novel series with powerful storytelling that is platform-agnostic. We only need a creator and publisher to back that.