Much fanfare accompanied the launch of the Gotham comics imprint in India last year. How could it be otherwise, given that the parent company, Virgin Comics LLC, is owned by entrepreneur and thrill-seeker Richard Branson? Keeping him company is the rather unlikely figure of Deepak Chopra, best-selling writer and quantum healer. What these two men do not know about the art of selling could be written on the head of a pin.
But do they know about the art of comics? I have three first issues in front of me, all with telltale titles—The Devi, The Sadhu and The Snake Woman (the last two were just released in India). All right, this is a popular genre, so it would be churlish to complain too much about Orientalist stereotypes and so on. So, I won’t. In any case, comics are not supposed to have clever titles.
The Sadhu begins with a prolegomenon dating back to the last years of the East India Company in India. The time is 1856, the place is Bengal and a band of dacoits are fighting John Company with their laathis and not much else. Their leader is called Dadathakur, who is affectionately called Dadaji by his followers—both names highly improbable, but we will not make a fuss. Soon the action shifts to fisticuffs in a London dockyard and a certain James Jensen is recruited for the army in India.
On the evidence of the first issue, the storyline is highly improbable, but that is not necessarily such a bad thing for comics (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, perhaps the greatest graphic novel of all time, has a storyline which breaks every possible narrative protocol).
The artwork by Jeevan Kang and S. Sundarakannan is polished and assured, and the production values praiseworthy. But on the debit side, the writing by Gotham Chopra undoes all the hard work put in by the rest of the team. The dialogues are trite and wooden, while the descriptive bits are riddled with clichés by the dozen.
In addition, we have to suffer occasional spiritual nostrums culled from the works of Deepak Chopra, who happens to be the scriptwriter’s father. Apparently, the subsequent issues of The Sadhu are based on concepts such as karma, shakti and the four stages of living (reviewer scratches head in perplexity).
From The Sadhu, I moved on with misgivings to The Snake Woman, but this turned out to be a marginally better read. Scripted by Zeb Wells and drawn by Michael Gaydos, the action is set in downtown Los Angeles. We are introduced to two flat-sharing women, Jin and Jessica, both of whom seem to be making a heavy play for cute next-apartment neighbour Raj. They both work in a local bar, significantly called Bad Karma, where they meet various kinds of men, one of whom wears a snake bracelet and tries to kill Jessica on the supposition that she is some kind of snake-demon wanting to kill him. This turns out to be absolutely true, as she ends up killing him.
It is difficult to comment on the storyline on the evidence of one issue, but I was disappointed with the artwork, which seemed to be uneven and somewhat featureless. But what intrigued me was the presence of director Shekhar Kapur in the credits as the creator of the series. The Snake Woman belongs to the Director’s Cut series of Gotham comics, in which film directors, such as Guy Ritchie and John Woo, will be creating and conceptualizing characters. There is, in fact, a one-page interview with Kapur in each of the first issues, in which he is identified as the “chief visionary for Virgin comics”. The other chief visionaries are of course Deepak Chopra and Sir Richard Branson.
It was hard enough to keep a straight face after this, but the interview with Kapur took the cake. The man seriously believes that in his childhood, India had a culture of comics “no different than in America”. Also that the “Indian comic Gods are derived directly from the vast ocean of mythology. World over, people now worship the new Gods. Devi. Shakti. Hanuman. Akaash. Dharti”. This is priceless drivel. Throughout the so-called interview, Kapur makes it clear that he regards comic books as a dumbed-down genre, meant solely for the youth market. And this in an issue which carries the tag, “Suggested for mature readers” on its cover.
Finally to The Devi, which probably has the best artwork of the three (by Mukesh Singh), though heavily influenced by the DC style of figure-drawing. The eponymous character walks in pretty much unchanged from the Bad Girls comics of the 1950s, Caucasian hardbody dressed in glitter paint and not much else. In fact, if there is one failing that all Gotham/Virgin artists share, it is the inability to draw Indian characters and faces with any degree of conviction.
The storyline in the first issue (scripted by Siddharth Kotian) is somewhat long-winded, but the gist is as follows: Devi is an entity created from bits and pieces of pure gods to fight Bala, a fallen god, sometime in the second century of mankind’s arrival on earth. Bala is duly defeated, and then the action shifts to modern-day Tokyo, from where the story proper begins.
My overall impression of these early offerings from Gotham Comics was that of being in a time warp, with both story and artwork reminiscent of the early 1980s. The following two decades saw some of the most radical departures in the comic book, with the genre growing up almost overnight in the hands of such masters as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman. For Virgin/Gotham to return to the tired clichés and gestures of the previous decades seems such a waste of resources.
(Abhijit Gupta teaches English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.)
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