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Deconstruction in the Realm of Graphic Literature

 


Deconstruction in the Realm of Graphic Literature

Abhik Ganguly

M.A. (English)

Department of English

Jamia Millia Islamia

New Delhi, India

Abstract:

Graphic Literature, as a genre, was born in the European continent. In 1833, the first such piece dawned upon the readers in French, ‘Histoire de M. Jabot’ by Rodolphe Töppfer. Yet, taking nearly a hundred years to catch the fancy of mass-readers. The Belgian cartoonist, Hergé’s Tintin comics and American superhero comics like the Batman, Superman brought about the revolutionary change in the sales of comic books. In India, mythology and folk-lore inspired graphic literature like the Amar Chitra Katha and Raj Comics existed. This paper will trace the parallels of history of Graphic Literature in the West and India and how some creators deconstructed the genre with their phenomenal works. For example, Moore and Gibbons’ ‘Watchmen’ (deconstructing the myth of American superheroes), Jodorowsky and Moebius’ The Incal series (deconstruction of sci-fi tropes) and Orijit Sen’s ‘River of Stories’ (deconstructing the hegemonic media’s reports of tribals displaced by dam projects).

Keywords: Graphic Literature, Deconstruction, American superheroes, Science-fiction, Hegemonic media

Telling lore of yore has been known to man-kind since the dawn of civilization, when the Greek god Prometheus brought fire to the mere mortals. Myths, gods, stories were often one of the binding factors for the earlier communities, who’d invoke these legends. Although, the gods and goddesses themselves existed or not is disputable in itself. What’s not disputable is the fact these stories gave these early humans a ‘hope’. A ‘hope’ when the mere mortals didn’t know where to look for the answers to their problems.

Many of these stories were in forms of oral narratives and cave-paintings. Soon, these oral narratives and cave-paintings evolved into being written on papyrus documents. The oldest papyrus document is ‘The Diary of Merer’ (otherwise called Papyrus Jarf). (1)

As publishing got revolutionized with Johannes Gutenberg’s The Gutenberg Project in 1450, suddenly masses in Europe could now afford to read, what was earlier available as a ‘commodity’ only to the elites. Soon, writing became a profession for the middle-classes and a reading audience also emerged. It took slightly long but the first piece of graphic literature came along in 1833.

Rodolphe Töppfer’s ‘Histoire de M. Jabot’ dawned upon French readers, chronicling the antics of a middle-class dandy, who tries to move up the ladder of social mobility and enter the upper-class circle. A Swiss educator, he was influenced by the movement of Romanticism and used that influence in his paintings.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (a key German Romanticist) was the one who pushed Töppfer to get all the seven of his comic strips published in newspapers. Yet ironically, he didn’t live long enough to see them get published. Goethe praised the mass-appeal of what was then considered as “picture stories” (2),a nomenclature for the prototype version of the graphic literature that was to come later. Töppfer is considered today as a father of art style for the Modern Comics.

The birth of the nomenclature of ‘graphic literature’ happened only in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although, comics came into existence earlier in the form of Hergé’s Tintin comics and commercial comic book heroes like Superman, Batman (DC) and Spider-man (Marvel), among a many, from the 1930s itself.

The shaping of ‘Graphic novel’ as a marketing phenomenon began during only in the 1960s. One of the major reasons for the push for the usage of this term stemmed from the fact that crucial underground publishing circles wanted their work in the realm of graphic literature to be considered as a ‘high and serious art’.

The comics culture has been around in the Anglophone world for a far more relative time than it has been there in India. India has had four major strains of comic/graphic literature aesthetics. The graphic novelist, Bharath Murthy in ‘Graphic Novels in India: A Critical View of Artistic Styles’ (3) explores the background to how the realm of graphic literature came to life in India in the form of illustrated stories for children.

The first strain of graphic literature in India was inspired by Raja Ravi Varma's realist paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses as well as figures from Hindu epic literature like Shakuntala from Ved Vyasa’s Mahabharata. His works were a fusion of Hindu religious iconography and European oil painting.

Amar Chita Kathawas founded in 1967 by Anant Pai. Their illustrations and stories are rooted in legends of religions and sages, slightly revisionist memoirs of historical figures, folklore, among a many. Their aesthetics are caught in a flux between Tradition and Modernity, just like Raja Ravi Varma’s aesthetics were.

The second one is how commercial cinema of India followed into the footsteps of utilizing mainstream aesthetics and visual tropes from Hollywood cinema and the same was ended up being done by Indian Graphic Literature creators. ‘The Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan’ (a ten-part series) was helmed by Pammi Bakshi of then India Book House in 1984. She fashioned the alter-ego of the Bollywood actor, Amitabh Bachchan (calling it ‘Supremo’ and leading a dual life like DC’s Clark Kent) on the likes of “Robin Hood, Phantom, Superman.” (4) The series was written by Gulzar and illustrated by Pratap Mulick.

This played into the Indian culture of hero-worshipping of commercial actors and ‘larger than lives’ these actors often had. Subsequently, such phenomena haven’t been noticed again in Indian pop culture. But increasingly tie-in comics have been released as PR materials for Bollywood films like 'Agent Vinod' like ‘The Jungfrau Encounter’.

The third strain looks at the attempts at making an Indian version of American comic book heroes. Stan Lee created an Indian Marvel Superhero called 'Chakra' and Jeevan J. Kang created a ‘Desi Spiderman’, with costume of traditional Spiderman infused with dhoti (a traditional Indian lower male garment) called Pavitr Prabhakar, to cater solely to an Indian market.

There have also been attempts by leading Western comic creators of taking a jab at recreating Hindu epics like Mahabharata, like Grant Morrison's 18 Days (2014). Morrison said of the piece “Although it has fantastic, mythic trappings, this is a very modern story of real politik and the failure of ideals in the face of harsh truth.” (5)Hence, a recontextualizing of story is visible here, where an old Hindu epic is being brought out for a Western crowd, who probably won't be aware about the source material at all.

The fourth strain as Murthy points out from the aforementioned essay is how the “Indian Modernist art inspired attempt to create a new language of what defines 'Indian' idiom, aesthetics that draw from Bengal school of appropriating traditional arts that Baroda artists drew from.” For example, the usage of Gond Tribal Art to create the seminal biography of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Bhimayana’.

Now, coming back to Anglophone world, DC’s character of Superman is the archetype of a comic book hero. Somebody who wears a costume and uses an alias for bettering the world with their superpowers. The character was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, both sons of Jewish immigrant parents. They used their own experiences to craft this alien immigrant character from a fictional planet called Krypton, which got destroyed.

Though both the creators never confirmed if they were inspired by the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the ‘Übermensch’ (the superior man or a superman). (6) Yet undertones of that Superior Man from Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’, of believing in a universal grounded ideal and being an example for the human race for somebody to look up to,were evidently there in DC’s Superman, who stands as a beacon of hope for the world.

Similarly early renditions of Graphic Literature answered questions of the cultural problems posited by their generation and expected the elaboration of classifications and the combination of high and low modes we perceive in present - day fiction. From 1950s to the 1970s, comics reflected the seismic social movements in experimental phase of artistic and visual innovations of American Pop Culture.

Most of these superheroes were made to fight elements like those that belonged to Communism, Nazism and intolerance that mostly ethnic white minorities and immigrants experienced. This was largely done to give individuals new expectations and hopes, an opportunity for an entirely different world of security and a reward for their hard-work in the land of milk and honey.

As the relevance of characters like Superman, Batman decreased in the 1980s, many comic creators started deconstructing these characters known to public for at least five decades. Alan Moore turned the inside out of entire comic genre with his phenomenal work, ‘Watchmen’. Similarly, Frank Miller took apart the usual narrative tropes of Batman and instead turned him into an old figure who makes a comeback from retirement with a morality, which is extremely questionable.

The methodology used to dissect and analyze the three pieces of graphic literature in this paper is called ‘deconstruction’. Deconstruction as a concept was given by the French continental philosopher, Jacques Derrida in his book, ‘Of Grammatology’. As Derrida himself admitted that deconstruction happens to be an "anti-structuralist gesture" for "[s]tructures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented". (7)

Deconstructionism contends that structures in this world exist in the form of binaries and end up being the bones of language and society. A binary comprises of two ideas that are introduced as being in conflict with one another, automatically getting placed in a hierarchy. Models that, for example, incorporate good/bad, mind/body, heterosexual/homosexual, hero/villain. In examining these pairs, deconstructionists find that the line isolating these contradicting terms in reality helps in connecting them, thus making them related.

The line that isolates both the contrasting binaries is the grey zone that Moore explores in Watchmen. Where all the superheroes suffer from moral dilemmas, differing from the overtly good characters like Superman, Batman or completely bad characters like Joker, Brainiac. Watchmen is a group of superheroes in an alternate America where Richard Nixon never lost the elections due to Watergate scandal and the US won the Vietnam War with the help of one of the watchmen called Dr. Manhattan.

The novel begins with a superhero called ‘The Comedian’ getting murdered and an outlaw superhero, Rorschach investigating that case. In this parallel America, Keene Act is passed in 1977 which outlaws all superheroes except for Dr. Manhattan who works for the US Government and the Comedian. This eventually leads Rorschach to discover the plan set up by Adrian Veidt alias Ozymandias, who wants to unite humanity of the world in the veil of an ‘alien attack’ and kill a couple of millions in order to save billion. Rorschach falters in stopping Ozymandias and gets murdered by Dr. Manhattan.

Ironically nobody else possesses superpowers except Dr. Manhattan, who possesses God-like powers of invincibility, growing in size and being able to see all of past, present and future simultaneously unlike humans who experience time linearly. A deconstruction of his character shows that he’s completely aware of Ozymandias’ plan yet he doesn’t stop him as he feels it’s a bigger necessity to unite the opposing powers of the USA and USSR.

Dr. Manhattan eventually gets detached from humanity as he sits on the planet, Mars and realizes the futility of living. For him, death doesn’t hold any meaning as the realizations hits him that he’ll end up losing everybody he loved once. Yet he’ll live on as an immortal god. In one panel, he admits “I am tired of Earth. These people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” (8)

The character of Dr. Manhattan appears like a deconstructed version of DC’s Superman. He’s somebody who wants to help all of humanity in world peace but doesn’t mind a million innocents getting killed off as a means for achieving that. Unlike Superman, Dr. Manhattan gets detached and is a far cry from being the ‘morally supreme figure’ inspiring hope, truth and justice that the entire human race could look up to.

Moore took inspiration and deconstructed DC’s Batman into two characters in his world, where one was the superhero Nite Owl, who has all the first-world gadgets and technologies of Bruce Wayne yet lacks the charm of Bruce Wayne. Whereas the other character is Rorschach who has the detective skills of Batman yet violates Batman’s rule of ‘no killing’ and kills his nemesis.

Rorschach is like a traditional comic book superhero in following the binaries of good and evil to death. Yet, he doesn’t realize that he’s violating his own humanity by stooping to that extreme low where his villains belong. He’s also a deeply misogynist and homophobe at heart. Moore created the character to satirize the Ayn Randian philosophy of ‘objectivism’ and how much harmful and immoral it can be.(9)

The graphic series’ narration is that of a postmodernist one in a non-linear style. It is also characterized by the use of metafiction of a story within story, marked by its own self-reflexivity when one of the characters in the series reads an in-story pirate comic called ‘Tales of the Black Freighter’. Moore uses the story to deconstruct not only the ‘superhero genre’ but also uses the space to reflect upon the socio-political anxieties of the 1980s like a Cold War led nuclear attack.

Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius’ ‘L’Incal’ (The Incal) published originally in French from 1980 to 1988 is a sprawling space-opera set in a dystopian future. Jodorowsky is a noted Chilean French film-maker. Surrealism and psychedelia were two common themes in his films like El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973). Critics like Peter Schjeldahl described El Topo as "a very strange masterpiece" and added “surreal and crazy it may be, but it is also (one realizes the second time through) as fully considered and ordered as fine clockwork." (10)

Jodorowsky was supposed to adapt and bring Frank Herbert’s Dune to celluloid in the early 1970s. He’d even prepared the story boards yet the funding for the film dried up and he eventually had to abandon the project. He ended up using those story boards for ‘The Incal’ series. Jodorowsky essentially deconstructed the genre of science fiction narrative tropes with the infusion of a strange spirituality and mysticism.

There are a lot of binaries in the series for example, the binary of rich and poor. The rich, which are mostly well to do people and aristocrats, live at the top of the planet Ter21 whereas the poor, mostly minorities of all sorts, live at the lowest pits of the planet. A standard TV program is played at the top, a sort of panopticon dystopia.

The presenter Diavaloo guides the audience through filmed violence that is for the public to consume till the point they’re rendered useless with indoctrination, even their dreams being controlled. The deeply opposing binaries are made to connect by Jodorowsky. Despite the extensive brainwashing of state propaganda and control over the agency of individuals, rebels are there on this planet as well.

There’s a recurring binary of masculinity and femininity in the series as well, the line connecting them of androgyny is the grey zone that Jodorowsky explores spiritually. DiFool becomes more androgynous when he’s getting enlightened and remains ruggedly masculine when he’s still drowned in hedonistic pleasures.

The binary nature of the Anima is present in the Incal story: Di Fool realizes like other male characters Anima is his external reason for being and that ‘they have met her before’. She is a manifestation of Jodorowsky’s inspiration of Carl Jung’s concept of 'every man carrying a woman within himself’. (11)She’s the internal, grounding voice of reason and she alsohelps the protagonist concentrate on his spiritual journey.

The multiverse created by Jodorowsky delves deeper into this binary of masculinity and femininity by exploring the dualism of patriarchy and matriarchy. The depiction of the grand androgyny figure, ‘Emperoratrix’ shows how the creator dabbles in the interplay between the binaries of masculine and feminine.

The Emperoratrix’s pronouns are ‘He/She’. They are the ruler of an alchemical planet of gold and preside over a parliament of the human universe. The bound together parts of masculine and feminine is likewise one more reference to the mysterious 'synergy of the contrary energies'. The significance of the equilibrium of the masculine and feminine to attain wisdom is shown with the setting of the androgyne, as the leader of this realm.

Orijit Sen’s ‘River of Stories’ (1994) was perhaps the first Indian graphic novel to be published which differed from the usual hegemonic tropes of superheroes and mythological literature instead talking about the issues faced by tribals due to dam projects, thus acting as journal of sorts which instead of entertaining tries to educate its readers. The eminent sociologist, Amita Baviskar hand-lettered the book.

Sen’s own participation in the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ gave him a ground perspective of the large-scale displacement and loss of land the tribals were facing. (12) Sen managed to deconstruct the binaries of mainstream culture of technology, modernity at the expanse of nature conflicting with the way of life in close harmony with nature led by the Adivasis.

He further delves into it by using the character of Malgu Gayan using his ‘rangai’ to sing the songs of creation of rivers and the need to protect them, for they are life-sustainers. Another binary that Sen manages to take apart with extreme nuance is the issue of social class of the mainstream and that of the Adivasis.

The journalist Vishnu asks his domestic help Relku (herself an Adivasi) about her family life, who tells him how they were displaced from their lands and suffered discrimination by police authorities. Media often plays into this by ‘otherizing’ tribals and the mainstream never gets to know how the tribals have had their own traditions of knowledge and culture of conserving ecology.

The model of ‘development’ offered to the tribals doesn’t even help them in long run as depicted by characters like Relku where tribals get trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty and wither away their life, doing menial jobs in cities. One Sarkari Babu at the beginning asks the Adivasis the meaning of development, he responds to his own question — “…your own son can get education...” (13) and earn money to become modern.

The contrasting binaries of social class of the two groups is quite evident here as one group believes it's got a higher moral ground because of the ‘formal education’ they got and is rather trying to ‘civilize’ the tribals who are apparently without any knowledge or culture. Relku sees in her childhood, how modern ways and their vices get introduced as alcoholism and gambling, ‘the Sarkari people and Thekedars effectively take away their lands and livelihoods’. (14)

Once the Adivasis lose their lands, they also lose a part of their hearts, their culture, stories, mythologies as their communities fall apart and they get displaced like Relku and her brother. Thus, Sen shows the readers how movements like ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ eventually end up becoming a battleground for the survival of the soul of these tribal communities in face of ‘development’.

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Sequeira, Gayle. “5 Superhero Comic Books Starring Amitabh Bachchan That Would Have Made Great Movies.” Film Companion, 20 Sept. 2021, https://www.filmcompanion.in/features/books/amitabh-bachchan-comic-book-supremo-gulzar/. 

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