Not many Indians read graphic novels. And only a tiny percentage of them also read novels without larger-than-life central characters. Art Spiegelman's epic Maus, based on a son's interviews with his Polish Jew father who survived the Holocaust, is a hit. So is Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a moving story of her life in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by four momentous years in Vienna and return to homeland. A few others are minor successes. The rest do not exist.
What's worse, Spiegelman, whose biggest work is thankfully valued, is clubbed together with numerous Batman and other superhero comics, most of which humiliate the excellence of masters like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman who work in the non-realistic space. In a scenario crippled by self-limiting bias, the near-absence of the culture of exploring the other 'real' side of graphic novels is understandable. Exposure and guidance which usually act as stimulators are difficult to find.
Political reportage is the main focus of news journalism. Cartoonist-writer Joe Sacco's works such as Palestine, Safe Area Gorade and Footnotes in Gaza are tutorials in observant political reportage. Palestine, which captured the essence of the Palestinian situation, came into being after Sacco spent two months in the Gaza strip and West Bank. Safe Area Gorade took Sacco to Gorade, a UN-designated safe area which faced the possibility of extermination during the Balkan conflict. An impressed Christopher Hitchens in his introduction called Sacco a 'moral draughtsman', while Time magazine compared it to Maus. These books, in short, define relevant reading.
Emmanuel Guibert, whose Alan's War originated from the artist's long interaction with a non-commissioned American soldier in World War II, is practically unheard of. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb about the Manhattan Project, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and what happened thereafter belongs to the club of unknowns as well. There are comparably brilliant others, all neglected because bookstores don't stock them. Why should they? They won't fly off the shelves. Awareness being a large-scale scarcity, they might rot unsold.
Publisher Jonathan Cape's usage of the word 'literary' for Israeli writer and artist Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds may exasperate those who see the genre as a lower form of creativity. But not others who can see why. Modan's latest work The Property reveals her understanding of human relationships and command over narration once again: two elusive qualities which make her one of the most important graphic novel artists today.
Because of their portrayal of emotional and psychological dimensions, Craig Thompson's Blankets and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home are unique. If Blankets looks at the author's inner conflicts with religion and love, Fun Home, which has Bechdel's relationship with her father at the centre, deals with themes like sexuality and gender identity. Both these works are landmarks that illustrate the growth of the modern graphic novel.
Shaun Tan's The Arrival is rare. Hugely dependent on sepia-toned illustrations, it tells the story of a man who leaves his home and family for a foreign land so that he can find his way forward. Just as his is a quest for progress, the reader (or the viewer) has to understand the progression of the narrative since the visuals don't talk and explain.
Liana Finck's recent debut A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York originates from letters from the immigrant Jewish community to the Yiddish newspaper The Forverts, whose renowned editor Abraham Cahan responded to each one of them. Finck's work may not be up there with the best. But it is important since it deals with significant themes like insularity and fleeting desires to become part of mainstream America's population.
An observation of diverse styles is charming in its own way. Spiegelman's panels have the fingerprint of minimalism, and the same is the case with Satrapi and many others. Finck uses blue for emphasis. Sacco's USP is the depiction of his own self as a short and bespectacled reporter who takes down notes amidst violence, mixes and even lives with the locals and is compassionate without taking sides. Each Modan illustration is like a scenery in which the subjects are the highlights, not the surroundings. Fetter-Vorm's illustrations are unapologetically dense. Tan's minor classic is a series of photographs.
Fantasies with aesthetic appeal are luminous dots in the map of graphic novel. What is missing in the bookshelves of the average graphic novel reader are works that tell enchanting stories with characters that you and I might know, and many others that deal with history, politics and science to inform and enlighten us. Such readers should Google a little bit more.