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The satirist and the spectacle

  • The recent work by graphic artist-author, George Mathen, or Appupen as he signs his creations, has been fiercely political
  • His imaginary kingdoms and characters since 2005 are set in the universe of Halahala

A panel by Appupen called ‘Chronicles Of Cowrashtra’.
A panel by Appupen called ‘Chronicles Of Cowrashtra’. (Photo Courtesy

Graphic artist and author George Mathen, or Appupen, as he signs his work, worries his art will be constricted in a bovine dystopia. “I can’t get stuck in a cow-okay-or-not-okay loop for the rest of my life. These days if you want to be satirical, you just say something about a cow," he says, in a reference to the temptation for caricaturists to harness the inordinate political manoeuvres devoted to the domestic animal in recent years to make their point.

Appupen thinks of himself as someone who uses art, beauty, satire and humour—the biting Malayali kind, fortified on a diet of puns handed down by seniors in school and nurtured by a lifetime’s supply of weekly cult cartoon strip Boban And Molly—to convey ideas that expand the viewer’s mind. You can see his work online at or at the Indie Comix Fest in Bengaluru on 3 November.

These days, he says, it’s almost like a competition between comic artists to see who cracks the best joke about yet another outrageous news item. This only serves to further highlight the offending topic. “It’s almost like we all fell into the same trap," says Appupen. “We need to zoom out a bit…. Your work should make sense even after people have forgotten the headline."

His contribution to the growing body of bovine satire was to give Rashtraman, the saffron-caped superhero he created in 2016, a beefy sidekick, Cow Boy, who works alongside his friends Buffalo Bull and Gau Raakshas (a demon god with underworld links) in Rashtrayana: Trouble In Paradesh. The self-published graphic novel, which was released last year, is set in the Year of the Cow, in a country where Go-Moo-Tra is the No.1 selling drink.

In an earlier iteration—or let’s say until his third graphic novel, Aspyrus: A Dream Of Halahala, which released in 2014—the former Greenpeace employee and economics graduate mostly riffed about themes such as environmental degradation, consumerism and big corporations. The indie artist’s long-standing dislike for large companies and mainstream superheroes is comfortingly predictable, but in recent years this distaste has converged around the politics of an increasingly authoritarian state and the superheroes who run the regime.

“I didn’t plan on making only political cartoons. It just became so heavy because the environment is like that," he says when we meet for coffee. Appupen’s recent work has been fiercely political, like the thrice-weekly online comic column “Dystopian Times" on the website Newslaundry, which ran through most of 2018 and riffed on Rashtria, a country inspired by the dark soul of New India; or, from 2016, the online series and last year’s self-published graphic novel featuring Rashtraman.

Then there’s Brainded India, the collective of graphic artists that he has cobbled together and which features stand-alone images such as the Godzilla: King of The Monsters-inspired movie poster, “Gauzilla & Gau Mothra vs Aliens", and collections such as a gallery of Aadhaar-related cartoons. An anti-Aadhaar activist took permission to print and distribute one such spoof—titled “Chandan Made Chaddis"—to the 500 guests who attended his wedding.

Appupen’s imaginary kingdoms and characters since 2005 are set in the universe of Halahala. The uniqueness of this world comes from the mostly dystopian, sometimes magical physical environment his pen conjures up, and from the story that is unspooling in his mind at any given point in time. “My world keeps changing depending on the story," he says.

In an age when the daily political spectacle easily overshadows every attempt—however humorous—to point out its flaws, it may again be time to change tack.

When the all-powerful entity you are challenging already has a hotline to the worshipping masses, how do you package dissent? “I can’t explain anything contrarian beyond two lines…by the second line I have already lost my readers’ attention," says Appupen. As a former advertising executive, he can’t help but see the parallels between a large corporation and the omnipotent state. Both have already done their market research and know all the tricks to influence their consumers. To get through to this audience, the satirist must also get past their protective cloak of numbness. “In a world where everyone’s playing this game, you can’t just expose your inner self…and how do you get through when you are talking through art, beauty and humour?"

He wants to go further down a path he explored when he was creating his graphic novel Aspyrus. “In the beginning, a child wakes up in a fish bowl, swims to the top where the landscape changes to become an ocean…he walks out of the ocean and sits on a beach. This to me is your inner space, you are comfortable and fragile in that space. The beach has soft sand and if there’s a shard of a shell you will cut yourself. There, you are probably at your sensitive best. I want to take people there, to help them journey to that inner world where they can feel something again."

At the same time, he will continue to do what he does best. Use critical thinking and world-class drawing to spoof the powerful.

Appupen attended Mary Roy’s (author Arundhati Roy’s mother) Pallikoodam school in Kottayam and the students learnt fast that they had to think things through before they spoke. “You had to be really sharp when you talked to her otherwise she would totally pick on you. All the men in town were terrified of her and my father only came to school once when she suspended me for playing cricket." At the time he was attending school in the 1980s, his principal was fighting her Syrian Christian community for equal inheritance rights for women.

Another great influence was MAD magazine. There’s a great image of the MAD mascot Alfred E. Neuman with a pin, he tells me, adding that the magazine taught him many important lessons about puncturing an image.

“What exactly is Hindu Rashtra? Say it loudly…I want to know," he says. “Will we have to bow? Will we say all these people are guests in our country? And then will we say Atithi Devo Bhava (the guest is god) and then will we worship them?…" He laughs and adds, “I want to create some odd scenarios and throw them into the mix."

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

Twitter - @priyaramani

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