Maus: the Power of the Graphic Novel

MausAs I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a member of a generation who grew up reading comics. Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones… the list goes on and on.

All these had a common characteristic – they were “safe” for children. They were saccharine tales stripped off all the unpleasantness in life: one feels that the parents of Siddhartha Gautama (before he became the Buddha) would have approved of them. Even the fairy tales which had a lot of gruesome elements were sanitised for children’s consumption.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not believe that children should be exposed to the full horrors of life from a tender age onwards. Parents can take a call on this – as they have been doing, expertly or inexpertly for years. My focus here is on a medium, which has a lot of possibilities, being forced to sit in a corner and babble in baby talk.

I am talking about the medium of comics, or to give it a more fitting name, the graphic novel.

***

There was a time when horror stories, told in comic format, ruled the roost in the USA.

Entertaining Comics, or EC Comics, published horror stories, crime stories and war stories with vivid graphics that pulled no punches. The stories were uniformly gruesome, and must have given kids sleepless nights and “delicious nightmares” (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Hitchcock). I do not wish to enter into the debate whether the publications of such stories were ethical or not: they effectively went out of publication in 1954 because of the stringent guidelines put into effect by the “Comics Code Authority” set up by the Comics Magazine Association of America. It was a move ostensibly to save the youth. What it did, in my opinion, was to destroy (or at least temporarily deactivate) a powerful medium.

For me, a child of the sixties, all this history was unknown. For me, comics meant Disney and his contemporaries; telling cute stories of animals and fairies living in idyllic surroundings, where the most frightening thing was the bumbling Big Bad Wolf. Even the comics meant for “mature” readers, like Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom, contained a surprisingly small amount of violence or death. What it resulted in was my rejection of the format itself as not worthy of serious consideration.

Until I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

***

Persepolis I: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis II: The Story of a Return recount Marjane Satrapi’s life as a rebellious teenager in the Iran of the Islamic Revolution; her “escape” from the country; and her return to find a totally changed landscape. It is a novel, told in comic-book format, and she exploits the possibilities of the medium to the fullest extent.

The illustrations are all in stark black and white. The story is told in a straightforward fashion, with little embellishments – however, the inherent power of exaggeration available to the cartoonist makes the difference. I was especially impressed by the way violence was portrayed: graphic and shocking, yet not at all disgusting.

However, compared to Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: Here My Troubles Began, Persepolis is tame – because Maus takes that taboo subject, the Holocaust, and makes a comic-book out of it.

***

“The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but not human” – Adolf Hitler

Dehumanising the enemy is the first step towards eliminating them: which is what Hitler tried to do with Jews and nearly succeeded. In this book, Art Spiegelman tells us a story from that dark era – a very personal one, that of his father – yet distances us emotionally brilliantly by using Brechtian techniques.

Vladek Spiegelman, Art Spiegelman’s father, is a survivor of Auschwitz. He has a troubled relationship with his son: Vladek, a man of extreme miserliness and obsessive-compulsive traits, is very hard to get along with. He lives with his wife Mala (whom he married after Anja, Arthur’s mother committed suicide), with whom he has a love-hate relationship. Art, a child born after the Holocaust, is trying to tease out his father’s life story. It is the story of these interactions between father and son as much as the story of the Holocaust that these books tell.

The story of Art’s parents until their incarceration in Auschwitz is narrated In part one. Vladek, a handsome young entrepreneur in Poland, marries Anja, an heiress. They have a blissful life until Nazism starts rearing its ugly head, first in Germany and then in most of Eastern Europe. Anja and Vladek, returning from a sanatorium in Czechoslovakia where they had sojourned after Anja’s post-natal bout of depression, find Poland drastically changed – as Jews they were not safe any more.

However, the full extent of the Nazi design on Jews is brought home to Vladek when he is captured as a prisoner of war. He sees that Jews are treated differently from other POWs, and their ultimate destination is the grave: the question is only whether it shall be a slow death due to deprivation or a fast death by a bullet. Using his innate cunning, Vladek manages to escape and come back to his family.

By now, however, Poland is overrun. Jews live in ghettos. Spiegelman and his in-laws hide out for a time, but one by one their numbers get depleted as more and more people all either executed or shipped off to concentration camps. (Vladek and Anja send their firstborn Richieu with Tosha, Anja’s sister, to a “safe” ghetto – however, he is also killed by Tosha before she commits suicide, when they are about to be captured.) Ultimately, only Anja and Vladek are left – until they are also taken, betrayed by people who promise to smuggle them out to Hungary: the last in a line of betrayals.

Part One ends with the shocking discovery when Arthur learns that his father has destroyed all the notebooks his mother had kept, about her life in the concentration camp, after her suicide. As Art feels partly responsible for her death – it happened following his drug addiction, and institutionalisation in an asylum – he feels this act to be equivalent to murder: the murder of memories. Art calls Vladek a murderer and walks away in a huff.

In Part Two, Mala has had enough and left Vladek during their vacation, and he wants his son and his wife to move in with him, permanently – something which Arthur cannot imagine. However, they stay with him temporarily as Vladek continues with the story.

Maus 1

In the camp, the inmates are subjected to a slow, drawn-out death sentence as the guards play with them. There is no humanity here, it’s every man for himself, and the toughest shall only survive. And Vladek happens to be one smart, tough guy. He not only manages to survive, he manages to get Anja to survive, even to meet her inside the concentration camp. After the war, he manages to track his wife down, and start a new life.

***

After finishing this narrative which left me devastated, something was forcefully impressed upon me: the comic book format is the best format (perhaps the only format) to tell this harrowing tale.

Art Spiegelman uses a standard tool available to the caricaturist – anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics to animals.  Here, the device is put on its head as human beings are transformed into animals. The Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and Americans as dogs. Changing the characters into animals accomplishes two things – by taking away the individuality, we are forced to look at the big picture: and the race differences are emphasised so as to be insurmountable (a Jew and a Gentile are both human beings, but a mouse can never become a cat). So even when we are caught up in the story, the political subtext is never forgotten.

The cruelty of Auschwitz is emphasised by showing the Nazi cats playing with the Jew mice before killing them. The Nazi cats are not the cute ones out of Tom and Jerry, but have uniformly frightening visages which are set in permanent snarls. Mice are anyway “vermin” to be exterminated. But they are very clever and adept at finding holes to hide in – this is what many Jews did during that terrifying era (the Spiegelman’s hidey-holes are covered under the chapter “Mouse Holes” in Part One).

When the Jews are trying to disguise themselves as Poles, they are shown wearing pig masks tied at the back of the head. The use of this standard trope of comic-book disguise is brilliant here: its ineffectiveness is showed up, as well as the meaninglessness of dividing people into racial categories.

For me, the most impressive part of the book was the second one, where Art tries to come to terms with his father’s death as well as the ethics of making a book out of his life. Here, all the characters are shown as wearing animal masks, rather than as animals themselves – they have become more humanised and homogeneous, but the masks of race and nationality are not fully discarded.

Maus 2

As Art is interviewed by journalists from various countries, the panels depict, at the bottom, heaps of dead mice piled one on top of the other, their faces twisted in agony – this is superb use of the medium, not possible in a conventional narrative. Art regresses to a child, crying out for his dead mother, as the paparazzi bully him – a sequence both terrifying and comic.

(A funny tidbit:

An Israeli journalist asks Art: “If your book was about Israeli Jews, what kind of animal would you draw?

Art’s reply: “I have no idea… porcupines?”

A sliver of humour in a bleak narrative: I chortled at that!)

The troubled relationship between Art and Vladek is analysed in detail: and we get a glimpse of how Vladek changed into the self-centred, obsessive-compulsive miser that he has become. Did he survive because these traits were inbuilt, or did the camp life make him what he is? Tantalising question.

However, the penultimate panel of the comic is so very poignant and sentimental that it brought a lump to my throat.

Vladek is falling asleep, tired out after their very last session, and he tells Art: “I’m tired from talking, Richieu, and it’s enough stories for now…”

The dead son, the beautiful boy who should have had a bright future which was snuffed out by mindless race hatred – Vladek is talking to him here.

And I feel, to all such beautiful and unfortunate children.

American Imperialism – The Disney Way (A Review of “How to Read Donald Duck” by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart)

…This book, conceived for the Chilean people, and our urgent needs, produced in the midst of our struggle, is now being published far from Chile in the uncleland of Disney, behind the barbed wire network of ITT.

Mr. Disney, we are returning your Duck. Feathers plucked and well-roasted. Look inside, you can see the handwriting on the wall, our hands still writing on the wall:

Donald, Go Home!

  • Dorfman and Mattelart, January 1975, in exile

Donald Duck as the agent of American imperialism? Surely it’s a joke, right?

Not according to Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, exiles from the Chilean dictatorship. They are in dead earnest – and they do a good job of convincing the reader, in this slim volume of less than a hundred pages.

Donald Duck (and later on, Uncle Scrooge) was my personal favourite among the Disney characters. In an age bereft of TV and computers, comic books were very popular among the bookish kids – and Walt Disney was a sort of god in the field. If anybody would have mentioned that there was anything political in those harmless fantasies in those days, he would have been ridiculed to death.

But that was India. In Latin America, a turbulent continent struggling with lawlessness on one hand and dictators backed by the USA on the other, anything and everything was political. In Chile, a country with an unfortunate history, the struggle between capitalistic despotism and communism was fought on the arena of comic books – unlikely as it may seem.

***

In 1973, the democratic government in Chile was overthrown by the military with the blessings of the USA and with liberal help from the CIA. Liberals and leftists were jailed and tortured. Democratic institutions were closed down. Books were burned, including this one. Even now, this book is not available in Chile: in those days, to be found in possession of one was to risk death at the hands of the authorities.

This “War of the Comics” had started in 1971. In 1970, after the Popular Unity government came to power, there was a marked shift to the left. This worried the US, because Chile was totally in their economic control till then. However, as David Kunzle says (in the introduction to the book), it was easier to nationalise the copper industry than to remove the influence of insidious American popular media. Chile took the effort anyway: apart from this book, a local comic called Cabro Chico (“Little Kid”) was created to counter Disney. How effective these measures were can be seen by the violent reaction of El Mercurio, a reactionary daily (funded by the CIA, no less), who claimed these comics were a plot to seize the control of young minds by Marxist media – which was true in a sense. What they forgot to mention was this was already being done by America, through its “free” press!

The inevitable happened: the military stepped in with the blessings of the US. In the words of David Kunzle:

On September 11, 1973 the Chilean armed forces executed, with U. S. aid, the bloodiest counterrevolution in the history of the continent. Tens of thousands of workers and government supporters were killed. All art and literature favourable to the Popular Unity was immediately suppressed. Murals were destroyed. There were public bonfires of books, posters and comics. Intellectuals of the left were hunted down, jailed, tortured and killed: among those persecuted, the authors of this book.

To illustrate where Disney stood in this fight, Kunzle reproduces a cartoon which is chilling in its implications. A couple of vultures, Marx and Hegel (see the blatant politicisation in the names) are attacking innocent animals, and Jiminy Cricket as the voice of conscience is trying to dissuade them. However, they attack Jiminy (“Get him, comrade!”) who says “Occasionally I run up against guys who are immune to the voice of conscience“. However, the farmer comes with his guns and chases the birds away, cheered on by Jiminy: “Ha! Firearms are the only thing these bloody birds are afraid of.” Emphasis is mine, to clarify the message – shoot the communist.

Definitely not the Uncle Walt I knew as a child – so let’s now look at Disney the man before diving into the book.

Disney the Man

Like many famous people, there is a wide chasm between Disney’s public persona and his private. Publicly, he is Uncle Walt, pandering to the all the children of the world and the universal child in all of us. He is the creator of innocent dreams, the merchant of fun and frolic worldwide. In an entertainment industry tainted by sex and violence, he stands as a beacon of clean fun.

In reality, Disney is now known to be a ruthless businessman whose eye is firmly fixed on the dollar (like the ‘$’ which lights up Uncle Scrooge’s eyes time and again). Almost all his work is the production of hapless wage slaves who are not given credit for their creative output. Walt is also a man of dysfunctional family relationships. Instead of being an animal lover, he only loved the money the animals brought in: especially shocking is the story where his film crew ran lemmings off a cliff into the sea, to show them committing “mass suicide” in his movie – a myth which has been disproven now. Uncle Walt is most definitely not Mickey Mouse: he is more akin to Uncle Scrooge.

Walt Disney, by his own admission, never learned to draw and never put pen to paper since 1926. What he did was assimilate and market the creative a genius of a group of people. The case of Carl Barks is illustrative: Barks retired in 1967 from the Disney Empire and was unknown until relatively recently even though he drew most of the popular Donald Duck stories and created many endearing and enduring characters – the most popular being Uncle Scrooge. In actuality, the relationship between Disney and Barks was almost a parallel of that between Scrooge and Donald (one almost wonders whether Barks did it tongue in cheek). Walt did not consider any of his employees as creators or what he did as art, it seems – he was interested more in its marketability. This trend is continued by the Disney studios even now. It is the god of capitalism and consumerism at the altar of whom they worship.

Walt’s family life also informs his stories. His father was a carpenter and failed farmer, who subjected him gruelling labour – getting up at 3:30 in the morning to deliver newspapers, sometimes in biting cold, to augment the family income. He also occasionally beat him with a leather strap for no good reason. The memories of a mother are absent from Disney’s memories, so is that of his little sister: there is no feminine touch. Walt did not keep in touch with his parents as a grown-up. According to the authors of this book, this dysfunctional childhood and subsequent development as a capitalist shapes Disney’s worldview, and those of his characters.

Now, onward to Duckburg!

Juvenile Literature

We tend to think of “Children’s Literature” as different. Children are supposed to live in a world of innocence, free from all subterfuge and deception. Their world accordingly, has to be “sanitised” from such “evils” as violence and sex: and above all, from politics. As the authors say in the introduction:

Inasmuch as the sweet and docile child can be sheltered effectively from the evils of existence, from the petty rancours, the hatreds, and the political and ideological contamination of his elders, any attempt to politicise the sacred domain of childhood threatens to introduce perversity where there once reigned happiness, innocence and fantasy.

It is this mythical world which Disney aims to protect with his magical world of talking animals.

According to Dorfman and Mattelart, this ideal child’s world is creation of the adult, based on their concept of what a child should be. Children’s literature envisages a magical world which is nothing but a projection of the adult’s inner child which wants to shut out the unpleasantness and angst of existence, prevent all forms of questioning, and ensure the perpetuation of the current society with its status quo. And this lie is self-sustaining: children nurtured in such an environment grow into adults who will continue to recreate this fantasy world of the nursery and the vicious circle is maintained.

So the apolitical world of the child is anything but: its lack of politics is its politics. And Donald and company invades this universe with their own subliminal messages which affect the mind of children in insidious ways.

The Uncle-controlled Universe

In Disney, there are no fathers, mothers, wives, brothers or sisters – we have instead a plethora of uncles, aunts, cousins and girlfriends. There is no reference to parents at all. The characters have no biological roots, and seem to have originated out of a vacuum. Moreover, there is no sexuality other than of the most puerile kind – the ladies (Daisy Duck, Minnie Mouse) exist just to be courted, and they display all the drawbacks of the traditional nineteenth century female stereotype: bossy, temperamental, vain and foolishly romantic. There are no husbands or wives, just fiancés.

Disney’s “uncle-land” is, however, strictly hierarchical; and it is the authors’ argument that the lack of any strong biological ties makes this world even more arbitrarily disciplinarian than a real family ever would be. Scrooge McDuck exercises absolute control over Donald and his nephews by the threat of “cutting them out of his will” (in fact, this threat is used in more than one place in the Disney stories, showing where the real power lies – money), and makes them do grossly unreasonable tasks. Similarly, the slacker Donald also exerts total power over his nephews: however, the tables are usually turned when the kids prove much more resourceful than their uncle. Here is another significant fact according to Dorfman and Mattelart: it is only by mimicking adult behaviour and becoming “little men” that children are able to take control of their universe

The World Outside Duckburg

Donald and company constantly move out of Duckburg into the wild blue yonder. Disney is a stern critic of the city and its pollution, and the characters are always trying to move out into the “clean” world of nature. Like fairy tales, the woods are always available nearby. Also, once in a while Donald, Scrooge et al. make adventurous trips into the uncharted wilds of Africa or the Amazon: however, the aim of these trips is usually to bring home some priceless artefact or to make money otherwise. The dollar is always the bottom line.

The “natives” the Disney characters meet outside the sanitised environs of Duckburg are of two categories. The first is the “noble savage” popularised in colonial literature: the black, brown or yellow man who is full of an innate goodness but who did not get a chance to become civilised like the white man. These natives are shown as having plenty of natural resources (gold, diamond, oil etc.) which are no good to them (sometimes even a curse). Scrooge usually “helps” them by relieving them of these things in return for trinkets. (There are also bad characters like Black Pete and the Beagle Boys who steal from them. The only difference between them and Scrooge is that the latter does it openly under a patently unbalanced trade agreement! However, more about that later.)

The second type is anything but noble. These are the evil revolutionaries and insurgents who disrupt the natural order (read: feudal or capitalistic) of a country and try to impose a military dictatorship (read: socialism). Donald and Scrooge usually get caught in these disputes and are always shown fighting on the side of the “good” guys: i.e. the king or democratically elected president. Towards the end of the story, the natives realise that the revolutionaries are traitorous agents of “enemy” countries and turn against them and re-establish the monarchy or the capitalist republic. McCarthy would have been proud!

The Good, Bad and Ugly

Who are the bad persons in Disney?

Simple. They are the thieves who steal private property.

Private property is sacred for Disney, no matter how it’s made. Scrooge’s millions, even if made unscrupulously, are legitimately his: the Beagle Boys who try to take it away are evil. And as we saw earlier, those who try to “steal” the wealth from third-world countries are thieves, while those who take it away through patently unfair trade agreements are good: because commerce, the lifeblood of capitalism, is sacred.

There is hardly any manufacturing activity going on in Duckburg. The people are work in the tertiary service sector. So where is the money rolling in from? Maybe children don’t think about it, but it comes from manufacturing and industry, which keeps tycoons like Scrooge rich. By keeping Duckburg sanitised from its corrupting influence, all the Disney characters are kept firmly in the field of the imagined capitalist utopia of America. People have money-making “ideas” here, however, there is no explanation of how the ideas actually make money.

Take the central character of Donald. He is a slacker who is permanently broke, yet can’t hold down a steady job. Donald continuously has ideas which more often than not turn out disastrous; however, he manages to survive. And it is worthwhile to note that Donald is not concerned about where his next meal is coming from – he’s concerned about his next payment on the mortgage or the TV instalment! Donald is not a representative of the downtrodden poor – his poverty is lack of luxury, and the comics show that only his lack of enterprise is the reason for this. The lesson: poverty is due to the unworthiness of the person.

Contrast this with Mickey, the only really “heroic” character in Disney’s stories. Mickey is extremely smart and resourceful. His only aim in life is helping others. Like Donald, Mickey is never shown having a steady job yet he lives comfortably. One thing he’s always doing is helping the police nab malefactors, just for the fun of it. Mickey is the symbol of stability in a chaotic world, a “world policeman”. Need I say more?

A Static World

For all its hectic activity, nothing changes in Duckburg. The stories are endless repetitions: the characters are static in their nature. The Beagle Boys, for example, walk about with their masks and their convict tags around their necks! Even when Disney characters move across time to do historical stories, their nature and the type of societal relations does not change. However, by giving the “upper class” characters in his stories little quirks which allow them to oscillate within a permitted range, Walt Disney creates an illusion of fluidity and randomness which is not present in the usual superhero comics. He allows the status quo to be maintained while providing the feeling that it is being destroyed and recreated every time. Therein, according to the authors, lies his victory.

***

I cannot dispute the depth of research and the clarity of analysis on the side of Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. They have written very lucidly, and most of their conclusions are hard to refute. Having read a lot of Donald Duck, I could recollect and remember many of the stories analysed here and look at them afresh through the eyes of the authors – and I saw a wholly different world. The book influenced me despite myself. Kudos, gents.

What I was thinking all the while I was reading was how popular media informs and sustains stereotypes which maintain the status quo: just look at most of our Indian movies and TV soaps. They have to, if they want to sell their product! This is the inherent nature of capitalism, or any philosophy which depends upon the perpetuation of social inequality to maintain itself.

But I still love Donald, because I believe that characters have a life of their own apart from their social context. I can still read Disney’s stories, and laugh at this silly little duck in the sailor suit with his grandiose ideas and short temper without thinking about the imperialist baggage he carries.

 

 

Childhood Memories of Reading (Part IV)

My reading started with comic books.

There were not many available in those days in India. The most popular publishing houses were Gold Key, Indrajal Comics, Harvey Comics and the Classics Illustrated Junior series: and later on, Amar Chitra Katha. Gold Key published all the American favourites: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear et al. Indrajal comics brought us Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Amar Chitra Katha was Anant Pai/ Mohandas team’s answer to Western comics, to teach Indian children their own heritage through a familiar medium, dealing mostly with Indian history, mythology and legends: even though the art and narration sucked in the beginning, it soon became much more professional.

The very first book I remember reading (and I still own it!) is a Donald Duck story where “Unca” Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie go in search of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, sent on the mission by Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge’s arch nemesis, the witch Magica De Spell is also after the booty which complicates matters.

From the first read onwards, I was a confirmed fan of the bad-tempered, cowardly, boastful Donald – on hindsight, I guess there’s something inherently endearing in his flawed personality which is not present in Mickey Mouse, who is a hero all through. I was never a great fan of Mickey – though I liked Goofy. Donald fails by pretending to be something he is not, while Goofy accepts his idiocy and always falls on his feet somehow.

But the one which takes the cake from the entire Disney pantheon is Uncle Scrooge, in my opinion: the miserly billionaire without a single saving grace, but one can’t help admire his financial acumen. The biggest disappointment of Scrooge McDuck’s life is his “idiot nephew” who refuses to change his wastrel nature. The most enjoyable stories are where Donald, Scrooge and Donald’s super-clever nephews all star – their contrasting personalities always guarantee great stories.

I loved all of Walt Disney’s creations – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Scrooge, Pluto, Daisy, Minnie, Grandma Duck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, Chip n’ Dale, Scamp… the list is nearly endless. I used to get them at the old Pai & Company bookstore at Broadway in Ernakulam, and the Higginbotham’s stalls at railway stations – the books were cheap, even by the standards of those days (each costing a rupee or less). I can still recall the smell and feel the glossy covers, with the “Gold Key” emblem (the publisher) in the corner – oh, the sweet smell of nostalgia!

Apart from Disney, Gold Key published many other famous cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester et al and the numerous cartoons by the prolific Hanna-Barbera team: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Beep Beep the Roadrunner, Magilla Gorilla… I liked them all, even though not as much as the Disney favourites.




Of these, Tom & Jerry in book form were nowhere near as funny as the animated series. Woody was a pale reflection of Donald. I liked the Warner Brothers team better, especially Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Also, I remember Yogi fondly; and the Flintstones had an interesting premise, a Stone Age community living like a modern-day neighbourhood of America: with everything including the TV and the car built out of stones and with a dinosaur for a pet. The Road Runner stories had much more meat in comic book form than the animated shorts, with the birds given more personality – but Wile E. Coyote was still the villainous star.

The “Classics Illustrated Junior” published fairy tales. This was where I first encountered all the favourites from Grimm Brothers and Hans Andersen. Now I realise that many of the tales had been doctored to remove parts considered “unsuitable” for children (like the evil queen in Snow White being forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes); however, it opened up a whole new world to me, and must have triggered my lifelong interest in myth, legend and fairy stories.


Harvey Comics was totally different. Most of its stories centred around the denizens of Enchanted Forest: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, the “tuff” ghost who is not so friendly; Wendy, the good little witch and her three horrible aunts; the little devil Hot Stuff et al. Moving away from the woods, there were also the perennial favourites Richie Rich and Sad Sack, and Baby Huey the baby giant. Harvey’s stories were much wilder and full of magical elements than the Gold Key favourites, and surprisingly contained very few animal protagonists. The stories were also much longer.


From these, I “graduated” to the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon, published by India’s own publishing house, “Indrajal Comics”. The paper was of a lower quality (mostly newsprint) and the colours were duller than the foreign item, but these stories were really adult! For the first time, I knew what hero worship was as the Phantom bashed up the baddies and left the skull imprint on their jaws, and Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and knives turned into bananas! (For a long time, I thought mass hypnotism was possible.) Also, these stories featured violence and death, and skirted playfully around sex –which was exciting for an adolescent. Diana Palmer and Princess Narda were my first crushes.


Last but not least, there were the Amar Chitra Katha books, which introduced me to Indian history. The mythology they published was rather well known to me – however, later on, I came to appreciate the minute details and unknown stories they unearthed from our culture. The language was very ponderous, though!


I still have many of these books – about 20+ bound volumes, very much treasured. And I still read them once in a while, on lazy afternoons… when the years slip away, and once again I am in that ageless garden of childhood.

[Image courtesy: www.mycomicshop.com and www.comicvine.com ]