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As the pandemic leaches away all pleasures, at least we still have comic books

Graphic novels and comics are an easy and entertaining way to introduce complex subjects, from politics to spirituality, to children of all ages

Marjane Satrapi’s 'Persepolis'
Marjane Satrapi’s 'Persepolis'

As weeks blurred into months during this bleak pandemic year, my family’s routines were badly disrupted along with everyone else’s. On the surface, my sons, ages 12, 16 and 20, seem okay, but our lives have become so circumscribed that it can feel as though every pleasure has been remorselessly leached away. All except one. We still have comics.

We were already committed to the comics life, but the tedium and tension of lockdown have made those shelves in the family library our centre of gravity. All the while rooted in Miramar, we have dived into technicolour Côte d'Ivoire in Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie’s delightful Aya of Yop City, and canoed deep subarctic Canada via Joe Sacco’s superb Paying The Land. The first belly laughs in our house after a long time came with Matthew Dooley’s Flake, which became the first graphic novel to win the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in July.

Matthew Dooley’s 'Flake', which became the first graphic novel to win the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in July
Matthew Dooley’s 'Flake', which became the first graphic novel to win the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in July

Flake is classic British humour: deadpan, wry, understated. It tracks the hilariously low-intensity “ice-cream wars” amongst a coterie of characterful provincials. “I think there is humour to be found in any situation, even one as bleak as a pandemic. Being able to laugh at the darkest of times is important, it’s a way to cope, to make the horror a little more bearable,” Dooley, who is 36, and works at the House of Commons, told me via email.

His is just the latest graphic novel to push the genre into the literary realm. This is dramatically different from when I was growing up in 1970s Bombay, and comics were an essentially guilty pleasure. We loved and exchanged our favourites furiously, but our parents hated them. Reading was held to be edifying, and the likes of Jughead Jones or Mandrake failed to qualify. At certain occasions—say the advent of holidays—comics were tolerated. But the rest of the time they had to be sneaked, like cigarettes but even more disreputable.

Today, comics have come out from the bottom of the closet. The explosion in both quality and quantity has sparked off simultaneously in separate cultural locations. Indian millennials tend to be relatively familiar with Japanese manga, but there’s also France’s more self-consciously literary culture of bandes dessinées. It’s fair to say that great comics are being drawn and written in dozens of different countries in every part of the world.

Joe Sacco’s 'Footnotes in Gaza'
Joe Sacco’s 'Footnotes in Gaza'

In curious ways, I grew up in tandem with the genre. After consuming uncountable heaps in India in the 1970s, I went to high school in New York City when Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly started printing an epic mouse-and-cats depiction of the Holocaust in Raw, their new magazine. The compiled Maus: A Survivor’s Tale eventually became the first, and still the only, comic to win the Pulitzer Prize. Now there was no doubt the genre could handle any subject matter, on any emotional register.

Later, I spent the beginning of the 90s in Paris, just when the government formally classified bandes dessinées as “Le Neuvième Art”, the ninth art that constitutes the culture of France (the others are: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, poetry, film and television). Here, comics were serious and hip at the same time. François Mitterrand declared his approval. Jacques Cousteau (who happened to be my boss) starred in his own books.

Even with this background, I have been consistently startled by the way comics have become part of kids’ education, and powerfully affected their world view. My first inkling came over a decade ago on a family visit to Bengaluru, when, on our customary pilgrimage to Blossom Book House, I found an excellent set of manga master Osamu Tezuka’s eight-part life of the Buddha.

My oldest son was ten, and it was fun to see him get absorbed immediately. But it was his six-year-old brother who sparked epiphany, because he too picked through the books one by one. There was no way that either of them would have become nearly as absorbed if the material hadn’t been presented in the comics format.

Of course, each child is different. My boys are as divergent in their interests, and individual appetites for reading, as three brothers can possibly be. Yet they do have one thing in common, along with all of their 21st century-born peers: they prefer to absorb information via the visual realm, and find it much easier to read comics than any other books. What might prove laborious to learn in one form, becomes rather pleasurable in this one. Thus, in an entirely unpredictable twist that overturns 1970s logic, the genre once considered trash has become conspicuously educational. Sock! Pow! Bang! Comics are the new text books.

They are the killer app of my parenting style. When in doubt, insert the right comic book. The Manga Guide to Physics helped one son through the ICSE board exams (he now says it’s his favourite subject), and The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA helped his brother weather a difficult biology teacher. In my family, we haven’t just discussed the Middle East in all its political complexity, we have received an unusually visceral series of insights via Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future series, Rutu Modan’s books, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza.

Sacco is one of the great litterateurs of our times. His ouevre should be required reading in every high school in the world, in suitably affordable editions (the big drawback to graphic novels in India is that most are eye-wateringly expensive). His meticulous, ultra-detailed realism, and minutely detailed reportage based on oral histories come together to illuminate recent history in ways that are unparalleled in terms of depth and impact. Safe Area Goražde, his 2000 masterpiece about the Bosnian War, is perhaps the crowning achievement in the history of the genre. It reaches and touches where no movie or other kind of book can.

There’s much more coming, with lots to look forward to in India. Here, the genre shows steady signs of revival, despite remaining moribund after an exceptionally promising beginning a decade ago led by Sarnath Banerjee and Amruta Patil. There are comics artists bursting onto the scene, from Nagaland to Nagpur. Recently, I was delighted to learn of a new Khasi-English compilation from U Jler Comics in Shillong, which I can’t wait to share with my sons. Comics to the rescue, once again.

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