A graphic Gandhi

Sunday, 9 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 11:02pm IST | Agency: DNA
Graphic novelist Jason Quinn talks to Daniel Pinto about his muse, the Mahatma

Englishman Jason Quinn, who wrote an award-winning graphic biography on Apple founder Steve Jobs, has drawn inspiration from a revered historical figure in Gandhi: My Life is My Message. Quinn, who moved to India in 2012, is the creative content head of Campfire Graphic Novels and has worked in publishing for 20 years as editor and writer.

What was your first encounter with Mahatma Gandhi and what qualities about this historical figure made you deem him worthy as the subject of a graphic novel?
I think I first became aware of Gandhi as a child. My grandfather had a hardbound biography of him on his bookshelves. I won’t pretend that as a five year-old I found the subject fascinating but I do remember that book, so it must have registered somewhere with me. Then at school when I was around eleven years old, I bought a pictorial history of World War II and there was a photograph and a section on India and Gandhi and the Independence movement. However, the first time he really registered with me was back in the ‘80s with the Richard Attenborough movie. I remember I didn’t  really want to see it but my girlfriend at the time insisted. However, it wasn’t until I was writing Steve Jobs’ biography, Steve Jobs: Genius By Design, and thinking about what to do next that I really began thinking of the Mahatma for a graphic novel. The fact that we call our biography series ‘heroes’ definitely had a big influence, after all, heroes don’t come greater than Gandhi.

 Then I began to realise that he lived through some of the most tumultuous times ever and that his life would be ideal for the graphic treatment; there is just so much to tell. Not only does his message need spreading in these increasingly angry and violent times but also his life is surprisingly action packed. With many life stories, all you get is ideas and no action, but with Gandhi you get plenty of exciting visual scenes and settings.
 
Why have you given the narrative an autobiographical tone?
I think it is important for the audience to relate with the character, to get under his skin and to be emotionally connected to the subject. Having the book written in the first person really helps with that. You become interested in the character you are reading about and you get to know his thoughts and his feelings rather than the writer’s thoughts or judgments. Using research, his letters and his writings I have tried to use his own words or at the very least, his tone throughout the book.
 
How did you go about shaping your story from the mountains of biographical material that is available on the leader?
I wanted to tell more than just a timeline of his life. If that is what people want, they can open an encyclopaedia or Wikipedia. So as I was researching, I made copious notes of any little incident, not necessarily the big key events, but any incident that might give a clue as to his character or personality. I focused on his relationship with Kasturba and with the little things, at first seemingly unimportant, which help an audience to know the subject and the other main players in his life.
 
Was it easy to decide what details to leave out while condensing Gandhi’s lengthy life story?
Of course, you are never going to please everybody and I am sure some people will wonder why I left such and such person or a particular incident out of the book. I had to think of the book in terms of an international readership as much as an Indian readership. Trying to explain the complexities of the caste system and the idea of ‘untouchability’ to a western audience is difficult and yet I couldn’t just ignore it altogether. I hope I’ve managed to cover this without trivialising it . If readers want to know more then they will be intrigued enough to find out any of the elements or incidents that weren’t covered in such detail by themselves. Also, I want to aim at a family audience, appealing to youngsters. At the same time, I hope older readers will be just as interested as youngsters in the book and that it may lead them to discover more about the great leader.
 
What were some of the challenges in translating your writing into a visual format?    
It was surprisingly easy because he lived through such exciting times;  apart from when he was in prison he was always on the move. Yes, there could be a danger of having page after page of him at his spinning wheel but he and the people around him were always doing something, and with an artist like Sachin Nagar it wasn’t difficult to find scenes and scenarios of graphic interest for the reader.


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