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In Moonward, artist George Mathen (who prefers to be known by the pen name, Appupen) created the world of Halahala. Named after the poison generated through the churning of the primordial ocean and swallowed by the god Shiva, Halahala reflects and magnifies the absurdities, idiosyncrasies and poisons of our own world.

In his second book, Legends Of Halahala, Appupen creates a mythology for this world, legends of absurd, sundered, impossible romances that contrast the ideal of love with its often brutal and comic consequences. Aspyrus, Appupen’s latest offering, explores the same universe, but this time, his themes are dreams and ambition.

‘Aspyrus’ : HarperCollins India, 168 pages, Rs 599.
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‘Aspyrus’ : HarperCollins India, 168 pages, Rs 599.

Even though Appupen’s work never touches on or alludes to any particular country or ethnicity, Aspyrus is a reflection of, a response to, and a critique of, the India we live in today—where advertising bombards us relentlessly at every turn, a society in the fevered grip of consumerism and ambition.

Dreams—and their seductive, destructive allure—are at the heart of this graphic novel, and Appupen experiments with a layered and framed narrative to play with multiple ideas/concepts of dreams. He sets up this world in his first act. In his second act—and the most powerful section of the book—his protagonist, who seems to be a young ambitious executive, is consumed and seduced and maddened by a fever dream of desire and ambition. There’s some smart referencing of contemporary culture—English businessman Richard Branson and the Kingfisher air hostesses seem to make appearances. Appupen creates his own clever visual devices and symbols in lieu of captions or text—a pair of wings informs the reader that this is the object of the protagonists’ desire, for instance. Details hidden in the panels add humour, comedy and critique—a model that the protagonist relentlessly pursues is the face of a “fairness and wellness" cream.

Part of the charm of this graphic novel is Appupen’s curious visual devices and narrative asides. In his imagining of a world permeated by the idea of Aspyrus, Aspyrus is also depicted in art—Picasso’s famous cubist nude painting, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, is reimagined as Damsels D’Aspyri, and another imagining of Aspyrus references Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Mathen’s artwork, in this latest novel, offers us a world of ghostly/spectral blues and greys, seeming to echo the cold, chilling flicker of television screens, a very different palette from the stark black and white of Moonward and the vivid colours of Legends Of Halahala. Aspyrus, like Legends Of Halahala, is a largely “silent" graphic novel—Mathen uses text in only one section to establish his setting.

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Artwork in ‘Aspyrus’ offers a world of ghostly/spectral blues and greys.

Nonetheless, Appupen’s phenomenal artistic talent marks him as a graphic novelist to watch. It is his ability to transform aspects of our daily experience, to depict the pain of desire visually—and to blend this pain with humour—that makes his storytelling style intriguing and unique.

Samhita Arni is a writer based in Bangalore. The book will be out in early July.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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