Life lessons often come from the most unexpected places. The line above came from a comic book. It’s from Calvin and Hobbes, a comic from, of all sources, the funny pages of our local newspaper. Although it may not seem like it, you can find many such deep observations in Calvin and Hobbes. And, let me tell you, your teacher could compile a list of SAT vocabulary words from Calvin the kindergartener: epoch, intrepid, mortify, subterranean, magnanimous. The list—to borrow from Calvin—is intimidating.
I have never understood why most people consider comics to be an inferior method of storytelling. As an avid reader of both comics and books, I can assure you they are not. Today, comics are creeping into the realm of literature.The New Yorker, one of the nation’s most respected literary magazines, is littered with comics on almost every page. Every Wednesday when I pick up the mail, I eagerly flip to the last page. The New Yorker hosts a contest (both print and online) for readers to create a caption for a single panel cartoon illustrated by a famous cartoonist. I’m often awed by the different interpretations concocted by the readers for the same picture. One picture, it seems, can tell so many stories.
One interesting thing about comics that sets them apart from books is in the way that there are two mediums to tell a story. From what I’ve seen, the pictures can tell one story and the words can tell another. The pictures and writing together convey many layers of meaning. The pictures can depict the events being written. They can show fragments of the scene (adding atmosphere). Or they can even show abstract images—completely changing the story’s tone. But that isn’t all. The story can be told through the picture, with the writing totally freeform. An example would be Can’t Get No, a journey of a man in the wake of 9/11. The scant words are written as a prose poem accompanying the story on a different level altogether. The text has little to do with the story. The story is almost entirely told in pictures, but, with some introspection, the connection becomes clearer. This makes for a strangely enjoyable read, almost as if there are two stories.
I was introduced to comics of a different slant by my 30-year-old cousin, Ashwin, when I visited him in Singapore a few years ago. “Now go off and read these in India,” Ashwin said to me, dumping a pile of books in my arms. I spent that summer in Chennai devouring serious literary comics, or graphic novels, like The Sandman. Written by Neil Gaiman, The Sandman is an imaginative fantasy that tells myths of the Endless who personify emotions and other human experiences like despair, delight, destiny, and death. Gaiman has won many accolades for both his novels and comics.
Then there’s Maus (pronounced “mouse”). Created by Art Spiegelman, Maus is a memoir about his father’s adventures during World War II. The book tells the whole story starting with Spiegelman going to his father Vladek and listening to his tale. It weaves in and out of the story and real life. The story, which is as moving as any novel you would read, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. Art Spiegelman’s work covers a wide spectrum—from obscure underground comics to bubble gum slogans. V for Vendetta, written by the British pioneer of comics, Alan Moore, tells of a corrupt British government and the political trouble surrounding a costumed anarchist simply known as V. These titles, along with a bookstore full of others, are as literary as you can get.
You can see how the world of comics stretches far beyond the funny pages that we all have grown up with. A vast universe of comics is out there to explore: superhero comics, comic strips, single panel comics, biographical comics, graphic novels, cartoons, and many more.
But you can begin with the funny pages. Start with Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson, which may be enjoyed by anyone from your 5-year-old cousin to your 85-year-old grandpa. It mixes cheap humor with heartwarming parent and child moments. It shows Calvin as a naive 6-year-old and then shows him using big words and making political references. (I’ve spent more time pondering the possibility of Hobbes’ existence than preparing for my last math test.) Peanuts, created by the late Charles Schulz, is similar in approach. In Peanuts, the children are shown as a whole society, with the parent’s presence mentioned but almost never shown. Dilbert is a satirical take on a stereotypical man’s boring workplace, stupid bosses, and eccentric animals. G. B. Trudeau’s long-running and controversial Doonesbury is cleverly disguised as a toon, but it’s really an unforgiving political commentary.
I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “I’ll bet comics on Indian mythology would have huge potential.” Even though Amar Chitra Kathas have been around for a long time, they are only available in India and are more focused on teaching culture than on production values and entertainment. Virgin Comics has seen the potential in Indian comics and now has a whole series of monthly publications dedicated to Indian comics. They have had success with this line, and mostly from Americans and foreigners who find them fascinating. But I believe that readers are misled by comics like these, which use iconic characters of Indian lore and paste them into typical action fare. While the art is nice, the style and story don’t stay true to the real characters’ personalities. My mom excitedly bought an issue of “Devi” by Sekar Kapur, only to find illustrations of scantily clad women and gruesome violence. A series called “The Sadhu” is, ironically, the opposite of its title. This isn’t to say that all the series are bad—just that they are not appealing to an audience who would want to read something that does justice to Indian mythology and folklore.
As you can see, comics have had a great influence on me. I have read more widely as a result and learned more about the world, especially from serious works like Pride of Baghdad and Persepolis. I have found some authors who write for both comics and books and have appreciated how their work differs in the different areas. I have also gained respect for the huge amount of back-and-forth that goes on between writer, penciller, colorist, and letterer. The script for an issue of a comic is occasionally included in the collected edition, offering a peek into the complexities of creating one.
When I hear their comments, one thought will zoom through my mind. In the legendary words of Charlie Brown: “AAAUUUUUUGH!”
Parthiv Mohan, an avid reader and 8th grader, regularly zips around the house in his ABC blanket crying, “Do not fear, the Caped Crusader is here!”