For those of us growing up in the eighties and nineties, comics and illustrated works like Amar Chirta Katha hold a special place in the recesses of our memory. Comics help to illustrate, with a tinge of satirical humour, issues which the mainstream media may shy away from covering. However, the intensive labour and intricate artwork that goes into creating a comic book, or a graphic novel as it is fashionably known, results in turn in an even higher selling cost. Webcomics then become revolutionary in their own right, providing free access to several thousands of people over the internet.
Despite being around for almost 20 years, Indians took to webcomics only at the turn of the century, the first ones being authored by Indians living abroad writing about conflicting cultures and living a ‘hybridised’ identity. Uncubed which began in 2007, is semi autobiographical. Take Krishna Sadasivam for example. “I created Uncubed to document my experiences as an Indian kid growing up in the US in the late 70s/80s. To the average American, our names, culture and language were strange. I was never quite American and never quite Indian,” says Krishna. After a search for identity, he emerged a hybrid Indian American. He chronicled this experience to share with his daughter. “In some ways, the comic also serves to entertain and educate folks about Indian culture and social norms,” he adds. A similar story is narrated by Berkeley-based Sandeep Sood who wrote “Badmash” and “Doubtsourcing” in 2003. The latter became an animated series but “Badmash” was eventually discontinued. Today he writes “ACK“, a comic strip about the escapades in modern-day New Jersey of Dhushasana and one of his brothers from the Mahabharat.
Since the time webcomics were an avenue for NRIs to channel their emotions, it has been embraced by the new Indian generation who are using it as a way to voice their opinion-political, feminist, satirical or simply bizarre. Underlying principle behind webcomics is that because it is free and free of the power play of mainstream media, it can afford to say that which is left unsaid elsewhere.
Take the webcomic, Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land for example. It is updated every Monday and covers recent news with a biting satirical edge. Speaking about their artistic technique, the creators who wish to remain anonymous say, “We use technique that the content needs. The TV set and microphones (which feature in their work quite often) are characters too, representative of how big media houses and government sometime talk down to people. We use angles and positions of these objects to denote expressions. We use other styles too, characters and objects that interplay with the text. We sometimes leave little extras in the illustrations that watchful readers may catch. CWTL is a rant, so the text is often in the forefront, although we feel the images do a lot of the talking.”
Webcomics have also looked at issues like feminism as a topic of discussion. Royal Existentials, celebrating its first anniversary, is one such webcomic. Started by Aarthi Parthasarathy and Chaitanya Krishnan, it uses Indian miniature paintings with thought bubbles to air views ranging from the philosophical to the political. Taking a cue from David Malki’s comic strip, Wondermark, which uses vintage images to comment on contemporary issues, Royal Existentials began using Mughal miniature paintings available in the public domain, each duly credited, to discuss feminist and social issues with an Indian viewpoint. “The feminist movement gained prominence after the Delhi gang-rape incident. I wanted to figure out a style of writing that would discuss gender issues by keeping it respectful and contrast the dialogue with the opulent images in the paintings,” says Aarthi.
Webcomics since its inception has delved into various facets of society, covering often sidestepped issues like environment and racism. Rohan Chakravarthy’s Green Humour attempts to bring to the fore issues related to the environment which are often dismissed as ‘rants of activism’, while Dalbir Singh’s ‘Sikh Park’ takes inspiration from his encounter with racism through the years spent abroad in Budapest and Canada.
The popularity of social media is one such contributing factor to the rise and rise of webcomics. “The viral effect on websites like Twitter is strong. Things get retweeted pretty fast and reach more people,” says Hemantkumar Jain, an early bird who, along with B-school friends Shubham Choudhary and Nikhil Kulkarni, started the award-winning Arbit Choudhury, World’s 1st MBA comic character in 2004. They still update the comic every fortnight but their busy careers do not allow them to promote it through Twitter.
The question that arises as a corollary of the increasing popularity of Webcomics is that whether comic books in its printed form are nearing an unceremonial end. The man who created Chacha Chaudhary, Indian cartoonist Pran says, “We have to keep pace with the times, or we’ll stagnate. These webcomics will only promote Indian comics and cartoonists. As long as they’re original, it’s good.”