The Great Defender

Appupen’s Rashtraman comics use ribald humour to reflect political reality

This story was originally published in India Today.

On November 28, Appupen put up an installment from his new comic book Rashtrayana II: Divide and Fool, which is being serialized on Brainded, the website and collective he co-founded five years ago. The chapter featured a graffiti artist spraying slogans against the series’ ostensible hero, the saffron cape-swirling sarkari strongman Rashtraman. As the artist tags a wall, an arm snakes into the frame and nabs him. It is the long arm of Lady Justis, one of Rashtraman’s various sidekicks (others include Propagandhi, Vigil Aunty, Bat-Manu and Win Diesel). The artist who is forced to edit the Constitution of Rashtria as penance for criticizing the government.

Just a few days later, Attorney General KK Venugopal allowed contempt of court proceedings against Rachita Taneja, the artist behind Sanitary Panels, a webcomic that tackles injustice and political corruption using stick figure characters. ‘We had this street artist getting screwed in Rashtraman, and almost the next day it happened to Rachita,’ says Appupen (artist George Mathen’s nom de plume) over the phone from Bengaluru. In response, Brainded started #SolidarityPanels on Instagram and solicited drawings. Cartoonists and readers sent in their own ‘stick men and women who have more spine than the supreme crybaby of India’, as one caption put it.

Unlike Sanitary Panels, which makes no bones about being politically confrontational, Appupen didn’t set out to make overtly anti-establishment comics. His earlier works, beginning with Moonward (2009), were deeply engaged with political issues but predominantly visually driven, oneiric and allegorical. ‘Moonward was basically a critique of the corporate view of the world,’ Appupen says. His work in the advertising industry, ‘was hitting me a lot’, particularly after working on a project in the early 2000s about victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘State power was not as intimidating at the time,’ he adds. ‘Slowly, along the way, corporate power grew, and its link with state power solidified. When both them started coming together it really started threatening free thinking for artists.’

‘Its what we were afraid of,’ Appupen says. ‘And it’s very nicely done. There’s an adversarial environment – everybody is sensitive about everything. You don’t know who you are going to offend with what you say.’ (The title Divide and Fool refers to the fact that ‘the voices of dissent are divided between a hundred things right now,’ he says.) Appupen eventually branched out into more directly critical comics, beginning with commentary column Dystopian Times, then the Rashtraman series and first Rashtrayana book, Trouble in Paradesh (self-published in 2018).

Despite being stylistically completely different, both Appupen’s graphic novels and the Rashtrayana comics are set in the universe of Halahala, where ‘the Silent Green’, tries to survive the destruction wrought by an industrialised civilization. ‘I’m still just pulling the connections,’ Appupen says. ‘I’ve started stories in different places in Halahala—building this world in different time zones, different dimensions.’ In the last few installments of Divide and Fool, ‘the forest and the spirits’ (for example elephant-man Pachu, or Rhinosara) ‘are waking up to oppose the regime. And we start talking about the Silent Green over there.’

Unlike the serious, dark exploration of this universe earlier Halahala books like The Snake and the Lotus (2018), Divide and Fool employs the colours, styling, broken panels, and exaggerated muscles of superhero comics. ‘It’s an aesthetic you don’t really see in graphic novels,’ says Appupen. Thick with visual and verbal puns, Rashtraman is an exuberant, unselfconscious bit of satire that pokes fun at power and harks back to the irreverent spoofing Appupen encountered in Malayali comics as a kid. This kind of regional pushback ‘used to be much stronger,’ Appupen says. Part of it has to do with language. ‘When I started in advertising, we used to have to translate ads into all languages. Now only very local newspapers still have language ads. We’ve lost out a lot of local colour.’ In general, ‘The mainstream is just pulverizing everything,’ Appupen says. The idea behind Brainded was to grow a more vibrant space for art and opinions.

Still, not even all of Brainded’s followers catch the satirical tone.  Appupen recalled two instances of surprisingly viral posts. One was on Dystopian Times, a comic of a ‘robocop version’ of Modi threatening those people who don’t stand up for the national anthem at gunpoint. ‘That got a lot of traction and I thought, finally! People are getting it,’ Appupen said. It turned out the image was being share by rightwing Facebook pages, ‘because that’s the image you have of your leader—this guy who can just mow you down if you cross the line.’ Another time, a pro-UID handle tweeted one of his cartoons that said ‘UID or DIE’ to endorse its policies.

About three weeks ago, they shared a post featuring Trump and Modi that was ‘very in your face, no room for doubt’. It read ‘One orange fascist out, one orange fascist to go.’ ‘Suddenly some 300 people unfollowed us. They were saying “This admin is really braindead!” It was very cool.’ People have cautioned him to tread with caution, but Appupen points out that ‘this is basic cartooning. We’re not launching missiles or doing sting operations.’

Appupen’s in-progress graphic novel returns to ‘the other zone’ of Halahala, but promises to be no less provocative. He plans to complete it at the Maison des Auteurs residency in Angouleme, France next year. ‘In it, I’m arguing that we’re losing the connection with the inner child. We protect the inner child with layers of armour, which makes him insensitive. But we need that sensitive side for anyone to accept change or think about things. As artists, that’s what we appeal to, but the audience is constantly shielding themselves. By doing that, you’re taking a defensive stand against art also.’

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