Sunday, April 12, 2009

The world of comics

Comic art expert, Dr. John A Lent talks about the power of comics all over the world. However, its future is being impacted by television and the Internet

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the summer of 1993, while interviewing cartoonists in Asia, Dr. John A. Lent, one of the foremost authorities on comic art in the world, entered the tiny, cramped office of Ramesh Chande, a cartoonist of the Janmabhoomi newspaper at Mumbai. It was his last day at work.

“Ramesh asked me if I wanted an original of his work,” says Lent. “I replied, ‘Sure.’”

The cartoonist reached into feet-high stacks of original artwork and pulled out three and gave them to Lent. Then he said, "Do you want all of these?"

Lent replied, “I cannot take them. They are your life's work.” Ramesh said, "It will be thrown out tomorrow when I am gone."

His remarks left an indelible impression on Lent who has been on a mission to
preserve Asian cartoonists' works. The founder and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Comic Art, Lent has set up the Asian Research Center on Animation and Comic Art in Beijing, and plans are afoot to set up a library and archive in Guiyang, China.

Recently, Lent, 73, who is also a professor of communications at Temple University, Philadelphia, had come to Thrissur to take part in a private function. He speaks in a soft voice, although he is a broad-shouldered hunk of a man, with a straggly grey beard and resembles Count Leo Tolstoy in his old age.

Comics, he says, have flourished in most countries, but it first developed a mass circulation in the United States, in the early 20th century, thanks to the newspaper strip.

“The mix of words and pictures proved popular, and spread throughout the world,” says Lent. However, the most fanatical readership of comics is in the Philippines and Japan.

In Japan, ‘manga’ comics have sold in the millions. Manga means ‘playful images’. The comics are usually in black-and-white and have to be read, Japanese-style, from right to left.

“No country in Asia, or the world, for that matter, has a comic book industry the size of Japan,” says Lent. “Around 2 billion comic books and magazines are sold yearly. This represents 45 per cent of all published materials in this highly literate culture.”

Lent says the one possible reason why the Japanese have a fascination for comics is because they live in a repressed culture.

“Reading comics gives the reader a chance to act out all these characters in their various guises,” he says. Some of the subjects include the Lolita complex, gay love, love stories and women’s sexual fantasies.

Surprisingly, Japanese comics have found a market in Europe, also. “It’s unexplainable,” says Lent. “Some say it is because of the fast action and the easy-to-read format. Also, the French, Germans and the Italians may have got tired of reading about superheroes and Disney characters.”

Interestingly, different countries have varied popular themes. “In Sri Lanka and the Philippines, it is love and romance,” says Lent. “It is humour in Myanmar and Thailand, fighting and kung fu in Hong Kong, adventure in Bangladesh, and historical or warrior adventures in Malaysia.”

While most people read their comics at home, in Japan, they have invented the comics cafes. You can go in, have a cup of coffee along with eatables, and read comics. There is Internet access also and it is open 24 hours a day.

“Other countries have followed suit,” says Lent. “There are comics caf├ęs in China, Indonesia and India.”

In Delhi, cartoonist Sharad Sharma has set up one in 2006. Says Sharad: “I wanted to open up an alternative space for media persons, activists and youths. Visitors can read comics, draw one, write stories, screen documentaries and organise book reading sessions. Of course, all this is done over a cup of coffee.”

As for comics in India, Lent says, it has been around for the past 60 years and the nation-wide circulation is 100 million annually.

“Diamond Comics and India Book House are the main publishers,” says Lent. India Book House has been bringing out the Amar Chitra Katha series since 1967. Chacha Choudhury, created by Pran Kumar Sharma, first appeared in the Hindi magazine, ‘Lotpot’ in 1971, and has been immensely popular.

“Pran told me there are more than 600 TV episodes based on Chacha,” says Lent. “There are language comics in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal which have been very successful. Recently, graphic novels in English have also done well.”

The first graphic novel, Sarnath Banerjee’s ‘Corridor’, the story about a ‘brilliant and banal bookseller and his bunkum customers’; was published by Penguin in 2004.

Two years later, Sarnath’s publishing firm, Phantomville, published ‘The Believers’, which is about an Edinburgh University anthropologist who returns to his village in Kerala and finds everything changed.

However, cartoonist Sharma says that nothing has changed in Indian comics. “It is stuck in the traditional mould, in terms of graphics and stories,” he says. “Most of the artists are afraid of trying new experimental styles, while publishers are unwilling to take the risk to publish such attempts.”

Cutting-edge creativity could become a necessity, because the future for comics in India and worldwide may not be that bright.

“The TV and the Internet have taken away readership all over the world,” says Lent. “In Sri Lanka, the number of comics has dwindled from 13 to seven. Circulation has also dropped considerably: the largest, ‘Sittara’, has gone from 250,000 to 50,000.”

However, in the US, there has been a reverse trend. When comics, like Superman, were adapted to television or films, and became box office hits, it revived interest in the print editions. “So, that has been good for comics,” says Lent.

There have been other positive changes. “In the past 15 years, the comic book has been elevated from a child-only medium to an art form, educational tool, and money-making engine,” he says.

Now there are several comic-art programmes in universities and colleges, new museums, research institutes, libraries, the infusion of government funding, and the conferral of honours on comic creators.

And in these times of growing repression in many countries, thanks to invasive electronic surveillance, one of the biggest attractions of comics is that it is usually a weapon for the defenceless against the powerful.

“By the defenceless, I mean, the poor and those who are disqualified to have a voice,” says Lent. “And, thankfully, most of them can afford to buy comics.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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