A Peek into the Comics Archive of Arun Prasad
An interview by Vasvi Oza
The coming together of words and pictures has always created multiple ways of reading, be it comic books, graphic novels or illustrated story books. We often hear how comics and picture books people read in their childhood or in their teens leave a deep impression on their minds - impressions created by fascinating narratives and fantastic visuals. While this nostalgia for the pleasure of reading is a common phenomenon, there are some fabulous people who have taken their passion for words and pictures to another level in the fields of art, design, languages, publishing, education, archiving and more.
BlueJackal, through a series of conversations aims to bring to you explorations and intriguing journeys of such individuals and groups of people who have been paving a path through this enthralling field with much passion and enthusiasm through/in/with forms of words and pictures.
Arun Prasad at his comics archive
Arun Prasad is a practicing Pannapictagraphist (Comic Archivist), history researcher, artist and freelance writer based in Bangalore. He began his career as a journalist and soon enough decided to dedicate his time exclusively to nurturing his life long passion for collecting comics. His comics collection is a treasure in a true sense, consisting of Indian and Western comics books/strips with an exhaustive collection of The Phantom, Indrajaal comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle and many more. Arun contributes regularly to several newspapers and magazines on topics related to history and heritage of Bangalore. He has exhibited his collection of comics at several Comic Cons in india from 2012 onwards. Arun's collection has been showcased in the History channel in the programme, The Great India collectors Ride in August 2014.
Arun Prasad can be reached at email@example.com
Vasvi Oza is an artist, researcher and core member of BlueJackal. She is currently a Guest Faculty at the Department of Painting, Chitrakala Parishath, Bengaluru, India. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Arun's Study Table
Vasvi: It is quite fascinating to know that you have been collecting and archiving comic books/strips from various linguistic and geographical locations since many years now. I am sure most of us have been nostalgic readers of comic books, but have rarely come across enthusiasts like you who engage with comics as archival material. Would you like to share with us how your interest in comics took shape?
Arun: I am not sure if I was dyslexic in my younger days but I surely kept myself away from text oriented books. I loved listening to stories but not reading. Too many texts and lengthy sentences made me feel heavy and bored.
My perceptions changed when comic books entered my space. When narratives came with illustrations and speech bubbles, reading seemed simple and interesting. Comics are certainly a versatile art form which can be easily adapted into every walk of life. It is a powerful medium which can carve the upbringing of an individual right from their younger days.
V: It is interesting what you mention about comics being influential at a younger age. Would you like to tell us about the time when comics first made an impact on you with some specific anecdotes from your childhood?
A: Since my younger days, I was attracted towards fascinating objects and used/discarded things. When I was around 6 years old, waiting for my school bus, I was captivated by thrown away bus tickets lying on the ground at the bus stop. Curious, I picked them up and pocketed them. It became a regular habit. Watching my craziness, bystanders at the bus stop started giving me their previous days used tickets. At one point of time I had a huge stock of colorful and varied bus tickets which I categorized based on denominations, size and colour and stapled them to thick card boards to make them look like ticket holders.
As I grew up, I began to realize and sense that there is always a story attached to what is being thrown away after its actual use. From these materials, one could have an amazing perspective on the cultural legacy that’s being left behind.
V: Your journey from collecting thrown away bus-tickets to collecting comics sure seems very intriguing! I am curious about your practice as a comics-collector. How do you collect, what do you collect and how do you maintain your collection?
A: When I began collecting, I was primarily looking for comics that connected to my memories of childhood. On my journey I picked up other interesting comics too which came my way. I find comics right from the junkpiles of raddiwalas to the collections of collectors who are willing to trade or sell their spares. I am a regular at the second-hand book shops and Sunday street markets. I have an extraordinary nose for sniffing out comics from piles of junk! Many a times I feel that ‘comics find me’ and not the other way round. Wherever I go, my eye is looking out for comics. I have had some surprises from odd places too. The feeling of finally finding that one single comic book you have been looking for since a long time, is simply indescribable. It is like a ‘eureka moment’! There is no fun in any journey if things always come easily. Some of my friends too stretch their lending hand by picking up comics that I need and sending them to me.
Collecting comics is an ongoing process. Looking for lost and important comics has become part of my regular activity. I spend a considerable amount of time with comics- reading, leafing them out, dusting, unbinding, cleaning, packing, cataloging and making note of interesting anecdotes connected with a particular comic book/strip.
One of the cabinets at Arun's archive
Protecting comics is an important aspect of the collection and the most daunting task as well. Basically comics need to be kept away from dust and moisture. The more they are exposed to these, the lesser their life. I have converted the ground floor space of my residence into a comic warehouse. Most of my important comics are placed along with imported acid-free boards and then packed in polypropylene bags. I have got white carton boxes made specially to store comics and I place them vertically to avoid breaking up of spines.
The labelled boxes where Arun stores his comics
V: You are also an independent researcher interested in the fields of History and Art. How do you locate your interest in comics as a form which has contributed significantly to history and/of Art over a period of time now?
A: Apart from reading the usual narratives in comic books, I cherish reading between the lines and bubbles, beyond the panels and pages and behind every comic book. Perhaps that’s more interesting and fascinating for me.
Apart from comics being a material of art and literature, I consider them as archival material too. As a collection of illustrations and literature, it is a repository of cultural records too. Comics talk about daily life, question political perceptions, report wars and talk philosophy too. Biographers have drawn the lives of great personalities through comics. Comics are often a recorded testimony of a way of life that existed.
Comics always exhibited a distinctive medium of visual language, be it through character design, composition of panels or arrangement of pages. Given the emergence of comics as a medium of both literature and art, addressing a wide spectrum of subject matter, makes them a very serious and worthy art form.
Being a history buff, I feel so honored to be considered as a keeper of comic books. It is perhaps a pleasure and privilege to play a role in preserving something of the past.
V: I am quite curious to know, how you see these terms -'comics', 'graphic novel', 'storybooks', 'picture books' etc. As a collector of comics, do you see them as distinctly different from each other or as inter-connected in some ways?
A: Be it Comics, Graphic novels, Story books or Picture books, all these are wonderful forms of art and literature built on a common thread that’s the ‘narrative’. It might be simple at one place and complex in the other.
When it comes to Comics and Graphic novels, I think there cannot be a definite distinction between the two. Both the mediums use illustration and texts to narrate a story. Although there is not much of a difference in terms of content and narration, Graphic novels are generally complex in nature (both art and literature), much more serious than regular comics.
In my opinion, Graphic novels may be considered as a combined extension of both comics and novels. Though the term Graphic novel has been widely used in recent times, history has it that the form predates that of Comics, with its first appearance in late 18th century. 'Leonardo and Blandine' a pictorial narrative book illustrated by Joseph Franz Goez, published in 1783, is being argued as the first graphic novel ever published. It is based on Goez's stage adaptation of a German ballad by Gottfried August Burger, a tragic story of two ill fated lovers.
Though there are many interpretations on the origin of Comics, it was in the year 1837 that Rodolphe Topffer , a Swiss cartoonist who for the first time created a complete comic book with captioned sequential panels. It was called 'Histoire de M. Vieux Bois' . It was later translated into English as ' The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck' in 1842. This was perhaps for the first time that hand drawn artworks were mass printed.
By the beginning of the 20th century Comic strips were widely being used in newspapers and other periodicals with serialized humorous and adventure stories ( Popeye, Tarzan, Captain Easy, Adventures of Tintin etc.) Early comic strips were also used widely as propaganda and advertising material. During the world wars, comics were published to support and unite soldiers and to motivate their vigilance against enemy. In 1930's with the entry of super-heroes, comics as a distinct genre became a popular medium globally in terms of narrating stories.
Story books and picture books are usually simple in their form and content, catering mainly to the younger generation.
V: You have talked about a 'cultural legacy being left behind' in the context of comics. Is it the legacy of visual storytelling through print you are referring to or is it the legacy of mainstream storytelling narrative which is more often based on a kind of hero worship (Amar Chitra Katha, Superhero Comics)?
A: Yes, I am referring to the legacy of visual story telling through print, legacy of manual drawing on paper, culture of reading, legacy of imbibing certain good qualities from a super-hero and so on. Comic characters are so powerful that they even shape the personality of an individual from a very young age. Comics introduced an era of reading in both young and adult alike. Reminiscent of an earlier era of grand parent’s bed time stories, comics took up the task in the print form. Hero-worship still goes on with other visual media such as television and films. There is an increase in visibility of comic book characters due to many big budget films being released these days based on comic book heroes and their stories.
A set of Indrajal Comics
Though in general Western superheroes like Phantom and Mandrake were preferred largely, Indian characters like Bahadur, Moochwala, Chacha Chaudhary, Inspector Azad and Vikram became very popular among young Indian readers. Chandamama set a classic example for pictorial narrative with its brilliant cover art being done by well known artists. There was a time when Amarchitra Katha became a household name in India. Tinkle too entered the scene in 1980 featuring characters like Shikari Shambu, Kalia, Supandi. In all, children of 70’s, 80’s and 90’s cannot imagine a childhood without comics. Manoj Chitra katha, Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, Nuthan Comics, Kiran Comics, Star Comics, Lion and Muthu Comics too established themselves with a long print run of comics. Apart from main stream publications, many other small time publishers too came up with interesting comics. For example, Fort Comics, Ganga Chitrakatha, Adarsh Chitrakatha, Golden Comics, Anand Chitrakatha, Chaturang katha, Gaurav Gatha and the long list goes on!
V: Considering that a major part of your collection is in English and Hindi, how do you see the role of languages in comics production, circulation and distribution? You had mentioned how it has been difficult for you to collect comics in vernacular languages like Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada etc. Do you feel, as far as collecting comics is concerned, English and Hindi have more value in the field of comics compared to other Indian languages?
A: Though initially, vernacular languages were considered secondary as compared to English and Hindi in terms of production, circulation and readership; introduction of comics in other languages gave a truly Indian feel and started reaching the rural class as well. Hindi being the most commonly used language in the north, comics in Hindi were well received and became more popular in the northern parts of the country. Indian Comics history is very vague. Comics collection is relatively new in India and we’ve lost many early Indian comics in the process, due to our poor preservation culture.
There are wonderful comics being produced in vernacular languages too. Bobanum Moliyum published in Malayalam magazine Manorama is a classic example. Created by VT Thomas (Toms), Bobanum Moliyum talks of life, people, politics and culture that prevailed in the state of Kerala in the 60s, in the most satirical manner. It has elevated Toms to one of the greatest comic creators of India. The simple and masterly lines give life and emotions to the characters who are often drawn from life. G Aravindan’s ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum’ (Little Men and the Big World), noted for its extremely critical satire of politics and society gave a new dimension to comic literature in vernacular in the early 60’s. Pratul Chandra Bandopadhyay, Mayukh Chowdhury, Narayan Debnath produced incredible comics in Bengali. Aabid Surti too created comic strips in Gujarati.
Tom's 'Bobanam Moliyum' in Malayalam
Mayukh Chowdhury's Comic strips in Bengali
V: You have expressed discomfort about tagging your comics collection as mere 'nostalgia' of a bygone print era or as a mere consumer culture in popular contemporary understanding. You have also been exploring possibilities of exhibiting your collection in a more discursive space than a space like 'Comic Con'. Do you feel there is a lack of imagination when it comes to thinking about exhibition-spaces for a comics archive? If so, then what kind of a space you think is needed to disseminate the varied and rich experiences of comics culture in today's time?
A: Well, there is an ‘out of box’ perspective to comics. They are not just a nostalgia anchor or entertainment products. The strength of the medium is much more than what is being projected. There is an inherent value in them as an art form too. Considering the vast diversity and quality of art being produced in the medium and their diverse subject matter cutting across simple personal experiences to questioning cultural and traditional ideologies and practices, comics need to be considered as medium of high art. And showcasing such medium to a passionate audience needs a thoughtful and exclusive space, a space where academics, artists, critics, writers, scholars, all can come, view and appreciate comics as a serious work of art.
A set of comics with Amitabh Bachchan as the protagonist
V: Is there any particular comics series which is your favorite from the collection and would you like to share any interesting anecdotes related to it?
A: Yes, Phantom is my all time favorite. Although a bit racist in nature, which I realized later as an adult. I think we’ll have to leave that to 'comic liberty' and as a reflection of the time it existed in. My love with Phantom went upto the extent of drawing phantom action images and scribbling jungle sayings all through my text and note books and once I was thrown out of class for outlining ‘Evolution of Phantom’ over the ‘Evolution of Man’ images in my science text book. And it is with Phantom comics that I have had a long silent wish to be an artist one day. It is perhaps the quest for finding my childhood Phantoms that has taken me to this wonderful world and passion of collecting comic books.
All Images: Arun’s Comics Archive
Special thanks to Chithra K.S.