Ad man George Mathen, who writes under the pseudonym Appupen, describes himself as a wanderer in search of a medium to express himself. After dabbling in many forms of art he found the one that suited him best—sketching. He started sketching the stories he wanted to tell. His sketches, which he made available online, caught the attention of Blaft, a Chennai-based publishing house. Moonward is a collection of those sketches. It’s also part of Halahala, the world he creates in Moonward, ensconced in a planet made of cheese, where money, or means of transaction, is food. Mathen talks about the book and graphic novels in India. Edited excerpts:
Why did you choose the graphic format for your first novel?
I wanted to tell stories but I’m not one of those guys who has a clear idea of what to do. I tried animation, films, etc., to understand how these mediums work (Mathen has a diploma in animation from Xavier’s Institute of Communications, Mumbai, and has worked with film director Tanuja Chandra). I figured I couldn’t get my message across through these mediums. When I came back to Bangalore I had enough time to do (the) things I wanted to. So I started sketching. The initial idea was to put these sketches online and then see how many readers I could get. I did that on the website www.georgemathen.com and promoted it on many other online platforms. Somebody luckily saw it and pushed it to Blaft. Blaft liked what they saw and told me they wanted to publish it. I worked on the novel for another six months to arrive at the finished work.
In the beginning there isn’t much text at all. That’s my way of telling a story. Now, I think I’m losing out a chunk of the readers in those first few pages as people like stories that have clear-cut conclusions. But that’s my style and Blaft was okay with it.
Why the pen name Appupen?
Appupen in Malayalam means an old man. In Malayalam, everyone has a pen name; I wanted one too. I’m called Appu at home and besides “George Mathen” is a guy who sold his soul to advertising and seemed to take away from the story I was telling. Appupen, on the other hand, is an entity who doesn’t have any baggage and was perfect for the fantasy world.
Tell us about Halahala.
It took me about four or five years to create the comic world in which I wanted to set all the stories in. The idea was to have a world flexible enough to fit in all my stories. Over the years the world will get more colourful and fleshed out. So Halahala is that world and already extends beyond the stories of Moonward. Some characters and machines from Moonward come back in the other Halahala stories but it’s a developing comic-world of which Moonward is just a part. Moonward deals with slightly serious issues but Halahala is a lot of fun as well. Moonward was grey but the next Halahala book is going to be colourful. Of course, I don’t know if the reader is ready for it. The feedback is that some people get lost.
What is the significance of the title?
Firstly, the first and last panel are related to the moon. Secondly, I also do consultancy work for corporates and the most repeated phrase is about them wanting to set up 50 stores across India within the first year of establishment. In my head I imagine them building on top of each other and almost reaching the moon. The image suited my stories and so I chose the word “moonward”. The word exists and I liked the sound of it. Besides, the name had to be different; I couldn’t call it “adventures of Appupen” or something.
What are the themes ‘Moonward’ deals with?
The main task of the book is to introduce you to Halahala; from the beginning to a futuristic phase. Moonward revolves around a character called Mahanana. The centre of the book for me is the conversation the present Mahanana has with his future self. It’s a dream sequence where he realizes his future self is a fat, rich guy. That’s what he wants to become and the future self guides him to achieve that. For me he is the personification of the corporate culture. He doesn’t have emotions, instead, he has targets to meet and he doesn’t care about what happens along the way. I’m very affected by corporate irresponsibility, especially after my work with Bhopal gas tragedy victims.
There’s also a touch of cynicism in the idea that some of the stories in Moonward are sponsored by these evil corporates of Halahala. There are several issues and themes in the book but I haven’t dealt with them in detail, just touched on them superficially. Also it’s new for the audience, so I just wanted to disturb them enough for them to go and explore these concepts more.
Do graphic novels do well in India?
As far as I know no one has managed to make money out of graphic novels. We need to understand that graphic novels are just a sub-stream, it’s not going to become mainstream immediately. We’re too used to superheroes and over-the-pants underwear.
In India, graphic novels are still in a nascent stage. It’ll grow considering that they are converting the usual novels like Agatha Christie and Nancy Drew to graphic novels. This means that there is a readership. Just that it will take some time. I call my book a graphic novel also because people think it’s cooler than calling it comic book.
Your sketches are very intricate as opposed to the flat drawings most graphic novelists prefer.
My strength lies in my drawing. I haven’t been trained in drawing but I think I have an eye for detail. I’m happy just conveying the story through drawings, it’s only when it’s impossible for me to convey through drawing that I use words. Of course, for some stories (the) text is essential. I’m also trying to define my style. Drawings without text is not my patent; there are many European guys doing it, but their stories and style are different. If my style and the notion of Halahala click then I can take it to different languages. I’m dying to do a Malayalam version of it; of course, nobody else is interested in translating it.
What’s your next book?
The storyboard is ready, but I’ll probably finish sketching it by the end of the year. It’s a separate novel but is set in Halahala. You’re going to see a lot more of that mad world.
Moonward, priced at Rs395, was released in Mumbai on 11 February and is available at all leading bookstores in India. The 280-page book has been published by Blaft Publications. Read online excerpts here.