One of the reasons why comics maestro Alan Moore was never in favour of adapting Watchmen (the graphic novel he co-created with Dave Gibbons) for film or TV was that he wanted this book to achieve something that couldn’t be readily replicated in any other medium. He wanted to create something that represented the unique and inimitable power of sequential art. Longform 2022, Penguin’s recently released anthology of graphic narratives (edited by Sarbajit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De), understands this sentiment quite well. Out of the 18 entries in this collection, at least a dozen steer well clear of conventional and/or ‘cinematic’ techniques. The best among them construct a hyper-specific visual grammar from scratch, trusting the reader to be fully invested in the ride, in both the medium and the message.
The collection begins with Debjyoti Saha’s ‘Murder’, about a young boy’s somewhat creepy encounters with crows (the collective noun for crows is ‘murder’, explaining the titular pun). This is a smartly written story about memory, paranoia and cultural baggage. The narrator’s grandfather’s beliefs about the crows are religious and therefore opposite to the narrator’s own ‘cold’ logic.
See this passage where Saha plays with both his grandfather’s faith and the templated pop cultural depiction of birds: “Every morning my Dadu would feed the crows. He believed that the souls of our forefathers rested in them. Hah! Forefathers?! I doubt that. Those filthy black creatures mocking me with their cacophonic laughter. Aren’t birds supposed to be sweet and dainty?”
On the page itself, this bit of dialogue happens across several panels, and the artwork for every panel reveals a little bit more about the narrator and his grandfather — the lateral sprawl of the feeding panel, the usage of ‘phonetic’ lettering to indicate the “cacophonic laughter” bit, these are all classical comics manoeuvres deployed to great effect here.
Quite a few stories here have an impressive grasp of the basics of visual storytelling; it’s no coincidence that two of the four editors here are currently also teaching comics and/or design. Pavan Rujurkar’s ‘Noor’, the story of a recently orphaned boy who ends up on the streets, has great usage of dramatic angles and the visual ‘noise’ present in most large Indian cities today. Alendev Vishnu’s ‘The Tail’ uses visual gags inventively and always as a conduit to the story—the figure of the tadpole is used to signify overnight and disorienting change, much like the tadpole loses its tail to become a frog.
A number of stories here have an agreeably open and humorous relationship with surrealism. Jerry Antony’s ‘Fledged’ features a talking biped rabbit who can also use his oversized ears to fly — that he happens to be remarkably chill about these things is just a bonus. Suman Choudhury’s intense, wordless ‘Storm in a Teacup’ looks as though Picasso video-called Robert Crumb and they spoke about each other’s weirdest dreams. Solo and Oz’s ‘Chimera’ is one of the most daring, unabashedly experimental stories here and as per usual for the duo, deals with themes of self-actualization, mental illness and the mechanics of remembrance.
There’s something in here for everyone, which is a quality more anthologies should aspire to. Partha Mahanta’s ‘Oye Tubu’ is the simply told, powerful portrait of the artist’s grandma. Anirban Ghosh’s ‘Polaroids of Pride’ is similarly straightforward in its approach — standalone poster-like portraits of queer people (and allies) around the world alongside a brief bio of the subject as an extended caption of sorts. Noah van Sciver, the American cartoonist responsible for hilarious books like Fante Bukowski and St. Cole, has a poignant and very well-written mini-memoir called ‘Holly Hill’, which is about being young and not-very-ambitious in a productivity-obsessed culture.
I liked so many of the stories in this collection that it’s almost unfair to pick a favourite. But, Arghya Manna’s sensational ‘Bose Versus Bose’ is a 20-page psychedelic reimagining of one of the greatest Indian scientists and polymath, Jagadish Chandra Bose’s life. In it, his towering intellect is on display but crucially, we also see a man deeply conflicted. In a thrilling sequence, we see Bose the scientist arguing with Bose the spiritualist/philosopher over the latter’s fixation with Vedanta philosophy. The artwork in this story is intricate and conveys the phantasmagoria of Bose’s visions effectively.
In the Christopher Nolan movie The Prestige, there is a recurring visual conceit wherein scientists are shown ‘glamorously’ like magicians and magicians are portrayed as workman-like, hunched over their tools and their mechanical experiments. ‘Bose vs Bose’ is similar in that Manna’s writing and his supremely skilful art collapses the distinction between scientist and religious figurehead, as Bose truly begins to see himself as the “new pope of science”.
Longform 2022 pages are only about 6-7 inches tall, making some of the artwork feel a little cramped (dare I say it, short-changed). I think another 2-3 inches would have done the trick. But this is a very small complaint to make about a book with a large heart and mad skills throughout.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.