Thursday, September 25, 2008

G Aravindan’s Small Men and the Big World: Re- Defining the ‘Comic’ in the Strip.

Fig 1

Fig 2

The referrals of Fun and Comic have taken definite turns by the postmodern advent in the global culture. Comics, for instance, no more need to be ‘comic’ i.e. hilarious. The case in point focuses on this divorce of certain senses from their corresponding fields, by locating one of the very popular comic strips in Kerala as one of its kind in dissociating ‘comic’ from its mere lexical implications. The reference is to G Aravindan’s comic strip Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum (Small Men and the Big World) which appeared in the Mathrubhoomi Azhchapathipu, from 1961 to 1973. The strip split its readers into two equally enthusiastic categories: while many appreciated the strip for its thought provoking, understated, subtle kind of humor there were as many readers who derided it for not being “funny”. The translated version of Walt Disney’s Funny Animals was the only other cartoon that this premier journal carried at that time. And it was indeed part of a general trend to envision comic strips as well-animated good-time laugh gags. Cartoons and comic strips only meant good-time humor: they ought to crack a laugh or two before they could be forgotten by the reader. Naturally, Aravindan’s strip opened to mixed response in the readership.
Aravindan needs to be considered a pioneer in the graphic narrative for recognizing the medium’s potential for narrative complexity and the ability to deal with mature subjects and current affairs, as early as 1961. In the US it took the underground comix movement and prolonged counterculture experiments of the latter half of 60’s, to construe this potential. The comix artists and the head shops were still fumbling with tentative creations in the US, slowly mapping the field, and trying to outline what would eventuate as one of the most powerful currents of popular culture. Given that the medium was still inchoate in its ideological foundations with no tall history of such graphic narratives to lean back upon, it becomes absolutely significant therefore, that Aravindan could put behind him a few couple of years of work of similar nature, and contemplate a strip of such deliberation in a mainstream Malayalam literary magazine.
Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum began as a series that revolved around Ramu, the protagonist who kind of represented the archetypical middle class Malayali with ambitions of upward social mobility. Ramu, at his political best, was an idealistic, educated, unemployed Keralite male with a qualified taste in literature, music and cinema. Ramu’s unemployment and his constant struggles to find himself an opening were the main subject matter of the earlier strips. As years limped by, sustained musings over the meta-physical implications of stranding such a situation in the Keralite society started to surface in subtle tones of satire and a qualified bitter humor. Instead of keeping Ramu suspended in a never-changing world as is the usual practice with long-running strips, Aravindan let him age, love, lose it, think, struggle, find a job, climb up the ‘social ladder’ and finally turn into a manipulating business magnate, crushing in that process the pure idealism and the innocence bordering on naivety that characterized him in the beginning.
A collected edition of these strips was first published by Bees Books in 1978 and subsequently by DC books in 1996. These collected editions (not definitive editions, only two third of the strips were included) proved to be a huge success and save for the abrupt ending reads much in the mode of the later varieties of graphic novels achieving the sort of ‘culminative effect’ that Charles Hatfield identifies in certain successfully serialized graphic novels(Hatfield, 154-155).
Perhaps this prompted E P Unny, editorial cartoonist with the New Indian Express, to label Aravindan’s work as the ‘First Indian graphic novel’ (‘officially’ India’s first graphic novel is Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. New Delhi: Penguin, 2004.) Unny comments so:
Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum is the closest we got to a graphic novel. A true forerunner in the 60s and 70s. It certainly wasn't a pre-set novel, in terms of having a worked-out plot. What gave it the extra dimension are the ageing characters and all that went with it. The gradual shift in their relationships and changes in their lifestyle - suggesting a real life parallel. For the first time the Malayali reader sensed time in a cartoon strip.
The collected edition provides us with an understanding of the strip’s evolving visual narrative. When he started out, Aravindan adopted a wide-angled panel construction cramming in every possible detail into these panels.

The panels are crowded with people, automobiles, buildings and text balloons and the strip (see Fig 1)invariably inhabited a public space with the events mostly taking place in parks, libraries, railway stations, offices, schools, restaurants, shops, roads and other such spaces with Ramu remaining inseparable from the fabric of the society he lives in.
As the strip progressed and entered the 70’s, there occurred a gradual but striking transformation in its visual language. The background of the panels got totally stripped of any details.
The story now shifts from the old, familiar public spaces to such exclusivised, private spaces like Ramu’s air-conditioned cabin or the elite club which he is a member of(Fig 2).This withdrawal to self and individual (ironically, Ramu achieves greater social acceptance in the process) is accentuated by the close up shots and proves a case of the form mirroring the content; the text balloons that once dominated the panel space shrink, the text itself becomes sparse and characters are pushed into corners of the panel frames, often to the extent of nearly disappearing from the panel altogether.
While the earlier strips are more or less constructed on the lines of conventional paintings keeping the ideas of perspective and vanishing points in place, the later strips are devoid of any centre or point of focus. The waning of centre-points, the demeaning of the ideal in art and other ways to defy the conventions of visuality, marks an artist’s qualms with the normalized ways of understanding the spectacle.
Considering Aravindan’s later feats in filmdom, his fascination for and association with the camera must have informed his brush much in the course of drawing. Camera and its impact on the artistic frames had been pondered about much in the context of early 20th century visual theory. Ways of Seeing is a case in point. It informs the context of discussion, when John Berger associates the act of decentering (that Aravindan had employed) with the invention of camera (Berger, 18). Aravindan’s evolving style can be thus understood as a shift from the aesthetics of painting to that of cinema. In fact, the strip does mark an important stage in his development as a film maker, for with it he developed a visual narrative style that his films would be appreciated for.
Aravindan’s first film Uttarayanam was made in 1974, a year after he had stopped drawing the strip. In this acclaimed film, as in his strip, Aravindan reflected on the life of an unemployed youth in a society with eroding values. As if a logical progression of the comic strip he had left behind, Aravindan’s maiden directorial venture divulged the cartoonist in him, the streak particularly evident in the film’s portrayal of the then Keralite society (Vijayakrishnan, 150). Elements of caricature resurface in a later film Oridathu (1986). Here, he resorted to a lot of exaggeration and humor, especially with the characters and their dialects. In fact Oridathu, which is about the electrification of a village and the changes that it brings in the power relations of the society, is Aravindan’s most comic-strip like film. Here again, Aravindan is more preoccupied with societal changes and the need for some basic ethical premises, than with the merits or demerits of technology and mechanization. More than the individual characters, it is the society, the macrocosm that interests him.
It would therefore be grievously reductionistic to read the strip as a mere tragedy/black comedy of an individual’s life and times. To Aravindan, the individual’s ‘tragedy’ spanned the ‘tragedy’ of the society he lived in. Thus the strip is also about a society gravitating from Idealism to materialistic ‘pragmatism’ or to speak in political terms, from the vestiges of the Nehruvian socialism (of the early 60s) to Mrs. Gandhi’s manipulative power politics of the 70s. By1961, Nehruvian socialist model of nation building had demanded that some compromises be made with the high idealism of Mahatma Gandhi. Even though the country did move away from Mahatma, Nehru’s presence served as a reminder of those idealistic times. Right from the beginning of the strip, Ramu is aware of this shift in the value system of his society and even as he continues to turn down jobs and make other decisions on moral and ethical grounds, he retains in his mind, reservations about the veracity and ethic of such choices. But as the time takes pace, reflecting the real world, the characters of the strip exhibit a tendency to self-justify their actions and show a strange willingness to adjust to the social realities. In the end; very few remain as they were in the beginning.
Passing away of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri in the mid 60’s mirrored the demise of the ideals and the times they represented, and paved way for the emergence of the ‘Syndicate’ (a collective of some powerful regional party bosses).The Syndicate wielded great power and was instrumental in Mrs. Gandhi’s rise to the post of Prime minister (Chandra et al. 220-21). The scheming ‘Syndicate’ took decisions, pulled the strings and manipulated the party, and oared the government to their advantage. The syndicate lost much of their power later and was replaced by Mrs. Gandhi’s coterie, headed by Sanjay Gandhi. Emergence of Ramu and his rich friends as manipulators and powerbrokers reflect this shift of democracy to oligarchy. These mad scrambles for power and its consolidation into a few would later culminate in the darkest phase of Indian democracy: the declaration of national emergency by Mrs. Gandhi, conferring upon herself the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties.
The 60s and early 70s proved to be an invigorating time for literature in Malayalam with the emergence of a group of writers with strong modernist sensibilities. The group included O V Vijayan, M.Mukundan, Kakkanadan and Anand who were largely influenced by the writings and philosophies of the modernists and presented an aesthetic totally different from that of the earlier generation of social realists, humanists and romantics. Aravindan himself came from a group with modernist leanings and it is not just coincidental that Cheriya manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum imbibed this significant shift in the aesthetic sensibilities of the Malayali reader. Ramu and his mentor Guruji are seen discussing writers like Camus, Lorca, Sartre, Kafka, Durrell, Saul Bellow and Genet. The discussions also premise on the masters of world cinema who inspired the then nascent ‘New Cinema’ movement in Kerala. The strip on its own exhibited strong modernist influences with a plot that drifted from the societal to the individual, fragmented visuals and undercurrents of cynicism, alienation and existentialism. All this helped the Malayali reader to acquaint himself with the western Modernist movement without which the consolidation of the modernist literary and visual sensibilities in Malayalam might have been quite arduous.
This period also witnessed an intense self fashioning of the Malyali identity. Even though this process had commenced with the social renaissance decades ago, the Indian independence movement, integration with the Indian union, the formation of the state of Kerala, land reform acts of the first communist government, library movement, spreading of education and literacy, the Naxalite movement, proliferation of newspapers, magazines and the evolution of a Malayali Diaspora meant that the Malayali identity had undergone a significant transformation by the 60s and the70s.While they first had to reconcile with an Indian/national identity, there was also this urge and conscious effort amongst the educated to mould themselves into global citizens, informed of and actively participating in the issues of their age. This enables Aravindan to discuss events like Che’s murder in the forests of Bolivia; without having to worry about his reader’s awareness of such global affairs. In a manner that truly represents the nature of the Malayali identity of his times, Aravindan contrasts Che’s relinquishing of the post of a minister with the desperate endeavors of a local politician to be one, thereby casually connecting the global with the local.
For the major part of the strip, Ramu exhibits this insatiable urge to escape the encumbering surroundings of his society by drowning himself in the vast sea of humanity of the cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Bangalore. Without the prying eyes, probing questions and constrains of caste and class, the city emerges as an exhilarating and liberating space.
Thus, the strip not only opened up a ‘bigger’ world and its possibilities to the average Malayali, but also played a seminal part in describing to him/her how s/he perceived it. The contemporariness of the medium and the long run that it had in a mainstream magazine of fairly good circulation facilitated the strip to undertake such a project. The importance of Aravindan as a comic-strip artist rests in how he managed to conceptualize those issues which were deemed outside the scope of a so called ‘Low art’ medium and thereby obliterating the compartmentalization of high and low art. It sort of drove the point home that the art in itself could not be “high” or “low” by virtue of any specific medium. In his hands, we see the last page comic-strip space metamorphosing into an important site where the cultural, political and the social mingle, reflecting and in turn shaping, discourses of a phase in the history of a locality.

Works Cited
Aravindan, G. Cheriya Manushyarum, Valiya Lokavum. Thiruvananthapuram: Bees, 1978.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.
Chandra, Bipin, Mridula Mukherjee, and Aditya Mukherjee. India after Independence, 1947- 2000.New Delhi: Penguin, 2000.
Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. Oxford, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2005.
Vijayakrishnan. Malayala Cinemayude Kadha. Kozhikode: Mathrubhoomi, 2007.
Unny, E. P. E-mail to the author. 21 Sept. 2007.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The culture Industry in Calvin and Hobbes

Spaceman Spiff and the Stupendous Man: The Culture Industry in “Calvin and Hobbes”

“The paradise offered by the culture industry is the same old drudgery”

-Theodor Adorno and Marx Horkheimer

Fantasy and imagination have been the central and recurring theme in “Calvin and Hobbes”. Watterson himself admits that the strip revolves around the subjective nature of reality. There is Calvin’s reality and then there is other people’s reality. What Watterson does is to juxtapose these versions of reality, with the two rarely agreeing. When for Calvin, Hobbes is very real, to the others he is just a stuffed doll. The reader (better informed of the situation than the characters of the strip) mostly takes Hobbes to be imaginary or a stuffed toy that magically comes alive when only Calvin is around and unconsciously adopts one of these positions while reading the strip. Thus, the choosing of ‘reality’ takes place not only at the level of the characters of the strip, but also at the level of the readers of the strip. This is a trap that the reader of this strip may not, but would do well to avoid. Watterson is not concerned with the ‘truth’ but with the subjective nature of reality and this lends immense power and flexibility to the strip.
As Watterson puts it in an interview that appeared in Comics Journal (Issue no 127, Feb 1989):

I should also mention, just in that con­text, that the fantasy/reality question is a literary device, so the ultimate reality of it doesn’t really matter that much anyway. In other words, when Dorothy’s in Oz, if you want to make this obviously a dream, it becomes stupid - you confine yourself.

This paper will not be focusing on the reality/ fantasy factor of Hobbes’s character nor would it be enquiring why Calvin fantasizes. This paper would be dealing particularly with the many alter-egos of Calvin, the central character of the strip. It will examine Watterson’s choices of Calvin’s alter- egos, and what he intends to achieve by using these particular set of alter-egos.

Calvin possesses a highly imaginative mind and fantasy is his escape route from the tough situations of life. These situations are normally tasteless food, school quiz, boring classes, "persuasive argument"-style assignments, or a meeting with the principal on the counts of indiscipline and short attention spans. Calvin imagines himself to be Godzilla, predatory dinosaur, large mammal, killer shark, eagle, bat and other such creatures (sometimes with the help of a ‘Transmogrifier’ which is nothing but a big cardboard box with its top open). He is also fond of acting out the parts of forces of nature- thunderstorm, active volcano, tsunami like wave, solar eclipse causing planet, C-bomb and even an omnipotent deity. A common feature in all these parts is a passion for acts of violence and destruction.
It is pertinent to ask why Calvin enjoys playing these parts that are destructive in nature. What kind of a society necessitates such destructive streak from a six year old? Calvin is shown watching films like, “The Cuisinart Murder of Central High” and “Attack of the Co-ed Cannibals” and making heinous looking snowmen on the front porch. Even though it is all innocently done, what these Calvin personas actually do is to reflect the violent nature of the American society, where guns and acts of violence are so common, that news of high school kids shooting their classmates fails to shock anyone anymore.

“Calvin and Hobbes” is a strip that is political but not overtly political as - say, “Doonesbury”. Obviously, the strip is not just about a six year old and his pet. Using Calvin, his alter egos and the fantasy sequences, Watterson exposes, problemetizes and dismantles what is called ‘The American way’. He cuts down to size, an indulgent mass media, a highly commercialized popular art and finally, a capitalist-consumerist society. Calvin is an archetypal American “raised to an alarming extent by the Madison avenue and Hollywood” (“Calvin and Hobbes” 31 Oct.1995) and demands to be shocked and titillated by the media because he has the money. (“Calvin and Hobbes”24 July .1995)

Watterson, like Adorno finds fault with the American culture industry for production of standardized cultural fare that lulls the public into passivity and into a false sense of well being. Calvin represents a society that is constantly assured that they, the consumer, is the king, while in reality they are only mere appendages to the machinery of culture industry. Hollywood, comics industry, television and other forms of popular culture are ridiculed for selling twisted values. He does it by developing a set of Calvin alter- egos that closely resembles the stereotypical characters of the popular culture which Calvin or any child growing up in America would naturally subscribe to. Watterson employs all the worn out clichés of each genre, from the language to lighting, tone and style to show how clichéd and predictable they become once they compromise on innovation, originality and artistic integrity in the name of quick money and a “cmon,its popular culture!” attitude.

He has always remained a critic of rampant commercialization of the popular art and has repeatedly rejected offers to license his characters, saying:

Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product. The strip is about more than jokes. I think the syndicate would admit this if they would start looking at my strip instead of just the royalty checks. Unfortunately, they are in the cartoon business only because it makes money, so arguments about artistic intentions are never very per­suasive to them. I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but that’s not my motivation either. I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.….. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens. Instead of asking what's wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to beasking, “What justifies it?” Popular art does not have to pander to the lowest level of intelligence and taste. (Comics Journal Feb.1989)

A close analysis of the important Calvin personae reveals how Watterson offers a critique of the denigration of the popular culture, particularly the American comics’ scene.

Stupendous Man: A super hero part that Calvin adopts by donning a crimson cape and mask his mother made for him. Even though he claims to have only won “moral victories” Stupendous Man is found using his ‘stupendous powers’ for silly personal gains. Stupendous man is the ‘Champion of liberty and Defender of free will’ and his enemies are Evil mom-lady (Calvin’s mom), babysitter girl (his babysitter) and annoying girl (his classmate Susie). In one strip, Calvin on donning the stupendous man mask and the cape, asks a perplexed Hobbes- “seen any crime?” imitating the American state’s eagerness to play the ‘global cop’. Right from their golden age (late 1930’s) the American superheroes have remained great propaganda machines for the state. Heroes like Captain America had played a significant part in convincing the Americans to enter the World War II. In their claims of being the protectors of democracy, law, freedom and liberty, these superheroes endorses the use of might and muscle power as the best way to deal with ‘problems’ and often take law in their hands (assuring us that “with great power, comes great responsibility”).This idea of a superhero, quintessentially American, is an extension of the aggressive policies pursued by the American state.
Watterson parodies the American pantheon of macho- street vigilante and the state using the very same literary device extensively used by the industry in their role as the state ideological apparatus - caped crusaders with secret alter-egos.

Captain Napalm: Another super hero persona that Calvin draws from the comic book he reads. Captain Napalm is a thinly disguised Captain America. He is the leader of the ‘Thermo Nuclear league of Liberty’ and protects “truth, justice and the American way”. His name triggers associations with the Napalm bombs that were used extensively in American military operations in Vietnam and around the world.

Spaceman Spiff: Valiant Spiff, “interplanetary explorer extraordinaire," zips around in a red flying saucer with a bubble canopy and explores the galaxy carrying a ‘napalm neutralizer’ with which he fights hideous aliens who in real life are usually his parents or his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood. The galaxy is a cruel place and a substitute for the tough ‘real’ world in which Calvin lives. A spoof on Star Trek, Star Wars and science fiction adventure comics like “Flash Gordon”, Space man Spiff brings mock heroic elements to the strip. Watterson while drawing the space sequences adopts a completely different style and tone so that the connection with the space adventure comics/films/TV series is immediate and inevitable. Spiff is shown carrying an array of intricate and mean sounding weapons like The Atomic Napalm Neutralizer, Death Ray Zorcher and Demise-O-Bombs, while aliens use Deadly Frap Rays to shoot his flying saucer down. The Spaceman Spiff alter -ego throws light on the American psyche of the cold war years when the race for arms and dominance of outer space was at its zenith.

Tracer Bullet: Tracer bullet is a private investigator and is a spoof on the genre of film noir, Frank Miller’s Sin City series (comic noir) and popular detective fiction with stereotyped characters and narrative techniques. The film noir style used in drawing and in dialogue is so clichéd that it reflects the lack of originality and specter of standardization that haunts the American popular culture.

Calvin is named after the 16th century theologian John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism and a strong believer in predestination. To Watterson, Calvin’s choices have been predestined. Not by fate, but by the ideology of his society. Calvin is the eternal customer, the object of the culture industry of whom Adorno and Horkheimer writes about. It is to be understood that unlike Wertham’s (Seduction of the Innocent, 1954) criticism of popular comics which led to the setting up of the Comics Code Authority, Watterson’s criticism of popular culture is not myopic in nature, but stems from the understanding that all popular culture, including comics, reflect the ideology of the society that gives birth to them. Even though he condemns the cheapening of popular art forms in their overarching bid to affirm the status quo, his critique of the popular culture is essentially the critique of capitalist- consumerist ideology of the American society. The choice of the above described Calvin personae for their politically charged nature enables Watterson to highlight the mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the state and the culture industry.

In 1995, after ten years of drawing the strip, Bill Watterson declared that he would be discontinuing the strip. By then, the strip had appeared in 2400 newspapers around the world and had won a large fan following.Everyone was taken aback by this “strange” decision, for it is unusual in the comic strip industry for an artist to quit when a strip is at its best and turn back on millions of dollars that it generates.Watterson in his letter to the readers cited the constraints of smaller panels and deadlines as the reasons for this decision and expressed the desire to work at a more thoughtful pace with lesser artistic compromises. His constant tiffs with the Universal Press Syndicate over licensing rights, repeated demands for larger spaces and steadfast refusal to compromise on the integrity of his strip might have been acts of resistance against the consolidation of the power in the hands of a few media syndicates. One may safely assume that it was these fights with the ‘culture industry’ that finally prompted Watterson to quit drawing the strip and embrace self imposed anonymity.

Traditionally, main stream comics have been hesitant to explore sensitive subjects or question the accepted norms and beliefs of the society. They have happily remained as propaganda for the established socio-economic and political order. Thomas M. Inge in his book, Comics and Culture finds that comic strips always conclude with a trust in the larger scheme of truth and justice and adds:

They (comic strips) soften the impact of reality by providing a comic distance on life’s dangers, disasters and tragedies and enable us to laugh at ourselves as the pretentious characters we happen to be. (15)

Comics can do much more than enabling us to laugh at ourselves. The real power of comics lies in its ability to ask questions and shock us out of our state of complacency. What is important here is that Watterson locates himself within this site of popular culture and then proceeds to deconstruct the very same space. Watterson may not have had the last laugh, for the culture industry does permit deviants and dissidents even though only as a kind of novelty that fosters its business. But with Watterson, the comic strip medium attains the maturity to break away from the claustrophobic hold of the market and becomes self reflective enough to ask some very significant questions.


Adorno, Theodor W, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum,
Watterson, Bill. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Kansas: Andrews, 2005.
---.“ The Cheapening of Comics.” Festival of Cartoon Art. Ohio State University. Columbus. 27 Oct.1989.
Inge, Thomas M. Comics and Culture. Oxford, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1990.
Baker, Martin. Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989
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West, Richard Samuel. Interview with Bill Watterson. Comics Journal 127(1989)