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Once upon a time in the East

Once upon a time in the East
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 56 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 56 AM IST
In the eighth year of the new millennium, in a tall and forbidding white tower on Haudin Road, Jeevan J. Kang bends over his artwork with the diligence of an ascetic. In a corner niche of the great hall, with nothing before him but a blank white wall, Ram takes shape in 2B pencil, piercing eyes and muscled forearms, speed and strength seemingly evident in every gesture.   
“That’s the thing: You imagine the studio like a Mario Miranda cartoon, with people and speech bubbles. But artists work in isolation,” Kang says. The star illustrator of Virgin Comics’ Bangalore studio has torn himself away from the gestating issue of Ramayan 3392 AD for a freewheeling chat on heroes and hero worship.  
Spinning out of the heads of artists such as Kang is the defining look of the day’s superheroes: Devi, Snakewoman, Gamekeeper. Virgin Comics—the brainchild of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, film director Shekhar Kapur and maverick billionaire Richard Branson—has taken the lead in introducing the stuff of Indian legends—as opposed to Chinese, Japanese and Korean myths—to an international audience, with high production values and cutting-edge artwork.  
Yet, for all the instant recognition he commands among comic cult-worshippers, Kang is the kind of guy you would pass by on the street without a second look. The 30-year-old artist is happy to return the compliment: “Suddenly, on Brigade Road, I’ll look around and realize that this reality also exists.” 
Kang’s absent-mindedness is pardonable: Talk to him, and you will soon know the images inside his head seem infinitely more entrancing than your average street scene. This, after all, is the man who dreamt up a dhoti for Spider-Man: India in 2004 (as part of Gotham Comics, before it was bought by Virgin), morphed a post-mutiny British soldier into a sadhu and gave Ram his John Abraham-esque locks and noir-ish incarnation. “That is always the most interesting part, visualization,” says Kang’s colleague Dean Hyrapiet, 26. “Nowadays, it has become so that we think in panels.” The creator could be in the UK, the writer in the US and the artwork may be done in Mumbai or Bangalore—making this a truly global operation—but there is much back-and-forth collaboration before a series is finalized.
For men who discovered comics almost as soon as they could read—Hyrapiet remembers reading Beetle Bailey at age three, while Kang’s first comic was Archie—this is a dream job. “Sometimes, I pinch myself: Do I really get paid to do this?” laughs Kang, who worked for three years as an architect before chucking it up “because I realized I would never be as good at anything else.” 
Like most great comic-book artists, neither Kang nor Hyrapiet has ever been trained in art. And both are content to slowly build up their body of work, illustrating stories crafted by the likes of Garth Ennis (with whom Kang worked on Hong Kong film director John Woo’s Seven Brothers) and Mike Carey (writer of the Hyrapiet-illustrated Voodoo Child, created by actor Nicolas Cage and his son Weston). “That’s the way it works in this business,” says Kang, who is also senior vice-president of the studio. “You start somewhere and get to a point where one day, maybe, you’ll have your own characters and your own lines and your own illustrations out there.”
After ergonomically perfect superheroes, Kang has in mind for his own comic protagonist a fat man. “At one point, I had 200 characters in stock, some drawn out, some just a line. But then my computer crashed, and I never went back to rebuilding my database,” says Kang ruefully. That is not a worry, however. Inspiration, as the artists know, can come from anywhere: People they meet, the way a shot is lit in a TV series, or even from Bollywood movies such as Company (2002) and Johnny Gaddaar (2007). Or whitewashed walls, laughs Virgin Comics president Suresh Seetharaman. In-house artists are currently working characters and scenes from Virgin’s cult classics into the stark stairwell walls: Once complete, they will be the only manifestation of the uber-active brains locked up on the second floor of the building. 
At first glance, the vast studio can be mistaken for a call centre, so rigidly do colourists space themselves at their terminals., tinting skins, hair, landscapes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, comic art reached its pinnacle in the marvellously detailed black-and-white work of David Jackson and Garry Leach, which Hyrapiet describes as “so perfect that there was nothing to do after that.” While Kang describes artwork today as an “evolutionary derivative” of these masters, the computer has ensured that the Bangalore headquarters of Virgin Comics is outsourced a fair amount of colouring work for the company’s other comic properties.
The artists on the right side of the room, though, focus on their white sheets and dark pencils. Headphones plugged into their ears, they ignore the 50-odd others at work, and concentrate on creating a meta world, where the eternal battle between evil and good, black and white, has taken on shades of grey. Futuristic and edgy, it calls on half-forgotten myths and collective memories. The inner child may not have grown up, but he has a whole new grown-up world to deal with.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 29 2008. 12 56 AM IST
More Topics: Culture | Comics | Superhero | Designer | Cartoon |