“True, comics are a popular art, and yes, I believe their primary obligation is to entertain, but comics can go beyond that, and when they do, they move from silliness to significance,” Bill Watterson, American artist and the author of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had stated this years ago, but his words seem to resonate in several comic books, today. While most comics continue to enchant, amuse and entertain readers with their mythology or fantasy-driven content, many are treading the unchartered terrain by using socially relevant themes, now.
Read the change
“We have always believed that comics and illustrated art is a very effective conduit to talk about not just entertainment but a variety of topics. They have a universal appeal and can be interpreted by a wide audience. Social issues are what each one of us has to deal with, every single day. So, why not address them in a format which everyone is familiar with, which is not preachy and can depict the message visually as well as through the text content?” reasons Vishvesh Desai, CEO, Division 91 Studios, that has branched out into new territory where their titles are addressing social issues.
Division 91 Studios has worked with an NGO, based out of Africa to create a comic series targeted towards youth dealing with problems like drugs, AIDS, financial stability, racism and education. They have also created comics dealing with issues such as water conservation, saving electricity and the education for the girl child.
Story board for society
Division 91 isn’t the lone publisher. Several others are moving towards subjects that make a difference, and are important to be spoken about. Sharad Devarajan, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman, Liquid Comics, strongly believes in the ability of superheroes and great stories to enact social change. “Great characters and superheroes can embody universal values that transcend race, religion and culture and can provide fictional role models to inspire and motivate youth around the world. Themes like tolerance, work ethic, responsibility and compassion are seen in some of the most successful characters from Spider-Man to Harry Potter,” he stresses.
Citing an example of his tryst with socially relevant themed comics, Devarajan recalls the time when under his company, they worked on a project to bring awareness of the rights of the disabled in the Middle East using imagination and superheroes. In 2010, he worked with the Open Hands Initiative where he brought a group of American students with disabilities to Damascus, to spend a week with differently abled students from Syria, and collaborate on the creation of a new differently abled superhero that would speak of disability rights and advocacy. The hero they created, Silver Scorpion, was distributed throughout the Middle East, and students received worldwide recognition. “To commend their work, at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative, former US President Bill Clinton, highlighted the Silver Scorpion Project, stating that the comic book will help to establish trust and understanding between cultures and will empower young people with disabilities,” shares Devarajan.
At the other end, other comic companies that create comics based on lighter content, are attempting to introduce issues of social relevance in their content, indirectly. Hinting at this trend, Jason Quinn, Content Head of Campfire Graphic Novels, says that when they work on a new book, they try to make it socially relevant, irrespective of the subject.
“Of course, with Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums, this becomes easier, as on its own, it’s a socially relevant theme, though we try to make every title socially relevant for today’s audience. It’s one of the beauties of the comic book or the graphic novel industry. I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and recall Spider-Man dealing with drugs while Green Arrow and Green Lantern were battling racism, poverty and bigotry. Comic books are a great way to highlight social problems without being preachy,” he explains.
Make learning fun
Many believe that comics with social issues can serve as effective tools in schools to make learning fun. Desai says that like schools in the West, where comics as tools are already used in classrooms, the same option can be tried here too. “For young readers, comics can be graphical and illustrative, with the text being introduced when they are ready to connect words with images. For them, comics provide visual clues to content. For advanced readers, comics can contain the complexities of a regular school lesson, which they must try to understand. A single panel in a comic can represent paragraphs worth of written material in an enjoyable manner,” he suggests.
Panel with hurdles
However, from the view point of illustrations, it’s not always a cakewalk working on a comic with social undertones. “Sensitive information often goes into such comics, which has to be precise and authentic. A lot of research has to be done before we illustrate for such comics. For example, the illustrations I had done for an NGO on women’s rights to abortion, had to be done with a lot of care as the subject was sensitive,” says Savio A Mascarenhas, Art Director, Tinkle and Tinkle Digest. Jatin Varma, founder Comic Con India, summarises this emergent trend, saying that socially relevant content is already popular, internationally in comics. “It is prevalent in India, though on a much smaller level. However, there are quite a few takers for such content, among fans, and this must continue.”
Saving the world with a comic book
The comic book, Mother Teresa: Angel of the Slums, is on the life of Mother Teresa and at many levels touches issues that are socially relevant.
Silver Scorpion is a superhero comic book that talks about the issues faced by differently-abled people.
Comic Superheroes for the world
“The western superhero was really defined in the 1960s by Stan Lee and his creative partners and largely influenced by the Cold War ethos and atomic age of ‘Man Versus Science’. Many heroes created from that era (Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil) get their powers from mutations or unknown radiation that played on the unknown powers of radioactivity during that time.
Characters like the X-Men dealt with strong allegorical social issues such as racism and the themes of separatism versus inclusion, which were often being reflected in the political dialogue of that time through Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s different philosophical perspectives to the Civil Rights Movement.
Similarly, many Japanese comics and anime were defined early on by ‘Man versus Nature’ (seen in Akira, Godzilla, Princess Mononoke, etc.) where industry disrupts man's balance with nature and leads to post-apocalyptic wastelands, technological monstrosities or a lack of our balance with nature,” says Sharad Devarajan, CEO, Liquid Comics.