Benevolent kings and their beauteous queens stroll in palace gardens or verdant forests while loyal servants eavesdrop and evil enemies plot. Meanwhile, marauding armies scale impossibly high walls and are beaten back by animals that can miraculously talk. A courtier outwits his king every single time and a poet brings strong men to their knees with his intelligence.
This complex cast of characters operating in a fantastical world held us in thrall every single issue of Amar Chitra Katha that we devoured eagerly. As the legendary comic brand reaches its 50th year of production, with over 450 titles to its credit and an astounding 100 million copies sold in over 35 languages, like any 50-year-old, it is emerging from its own version of a mid-life crisis.
Although adored by two generations of Indians, in the last 10 years, some of the adulation has been countered by scepticism bordering on outrage about what has been labelled Amar Chitra Katha’s ‘regressive’ content, both in its art and script.
A number of scholarly writings have come up, criticising and condemning the comics for reinforcing stereotypes: women characters are too subservient, caste hierarchy is established by skin colour, with upper caste characters invariably lighter toned, and its religious biases are clear. The controversy has been similar to what the Enid Blyton pantheon faced, forcing it to rethink its golliwogs and dwarves.
Beards and saris
If all this had happened in an Amar Chitra Katha, a single word from the superhero (placed in a spiky speech bubble) would have reduced the grumbling detractors to tiny, powerless creatures to be borne away on a tidal wave of nostalgia and affection. But real life is less forgiving. Thus, recently, when young artists in the comic house’s studios pointed out that there were no women in the crowd scene in a new title on Sardar Patel, Reena Ittyerah Puri, Executive Editor, immediately had it rectified by removing beards and adding saris for some of the crowd.
Kitaab’s Interviews Editor Felicia Low-Jimenez in conversation with Gavin Aung Than, the creator of Zen Pencils
Australian cartoonist Gavin Aung Than was in Singapore in February 2014, where hundreds of his loyal fans attended an event held at Books Kinokuniya. It was a spectacular turnout for the creator of Zen Pencils, an online comic that has been featured in The Washington Post, Slate, Buzzfeed, and The A.V. Club. A freelance cartoonist based in Melbourne, Australia, Gavin has an “aw, shucks” demeanour that belies a determined, risk-taking nature that compelled him to give up his day job, sell his house, and embark on a career as a full-time creator of comics and cartoons. Zen Pencils is an interesting take on how a single idea can manifest itself in many different forms. However, on occasion, Gavin has run into copyright issues while using quotations or content that were attributed to other people. For example, he was asked by Charles Bukowski’s publisher, HarperCollins, to remove a cartoon he did based on Bukowski’s famous poem, Air and light and time and space.
Tell us how Zen Pencils came about.
I had finished working on two long-running comic strips without much success and was eager to think of an idea for a new webcomic. I wanted to do something quite different from what I had previously done, which were more traditional humour strips. At the time, I was reading a lot of biographies and saving some of my favourite inspirational quotes from historical figures. I had also noticed that a lot of people were sharing their favourite quotes on social media. That’s when I got the idea to base an entire website around these quotes and combine them with my cartooning to produce something new. Read more
Speaking at a three-day international conference on “Literacy Through Literature”, Tharoor touched upon different aspects of literature and its close association with literacy levels in the country.
One of the elements he passionately spoke about was the undermined status of comic books in India.
“Reading is important for many reasons and we always need to enrich because it transforms our lives. Reading comics at an early age helps in building this foundation,” he said. Read more