We talk to an inspector from Kerala who also writes and draws comic strips and stories as he completes his Ph.D, while organising gallery shows and academic conferences about comic books.
Perhaps the most discussed aspect of a superhero is his/her/its alter-ego. The alter-ego defines the superhero; it shapes the story in ways that nothing else can. There would be no Batman if there wasn’t Bruce Wayne’s anguish at the loss of his parents, and Spiderman would probably be a side-show freak or a super thief if it weren’t for Peter Parker’s upbringing (“with great power comes great responsibility”). Therefore, when at the Second Annual Indian Comic Con, I was told about Gokul Gopalakrishnan, I was a little more than intrigued. Gopalakrishnan is a cartoonist who draws and writes comic strips and occasional short stories. He spends the rest of his time working as an inspector with the Kerala Motor Vehicles Department.
Gopalakrishnan says that he probably wouldn’t be as good a cartoonist or writer if he wasn’t an inspector. “I’ve met people from all walks of life and I have interacted with them because of my job,” he explains. “My writing work and my understanding of the world would be a lot more limited if I weren’t an inspector. I would never have had this opportunity if I would have stayed closeted in the academic world.” I should also mention that Gopalakrishnan is currently working on his Ph.D thesis at the Mahatma Gandhi University of Kottayam in Kerala. His subject? The history of the Indian comic strip. Gopalakrishnan’s first love was comic books and and he always wanted to be a comic book artist but it would have been difficult to sustain a living making comic books in an India, a country where to many, comic books are still considered children’s books.
When Gopalakrishnan was completing his M. Phil in 2009, he organised an academic conference, the first of its kind in India, about comics and how they are presented and perceived. The keynote speaker at the conference was John Lent, a professor at Temple University and the editor of the International Journal Of Comic Art. It was at this conference that Gopalakrishnan met Bharath Murthy, comic book artist and publisher of the Comix India anthologies. When Bharath was publishing the first anthology, he contacted Gopalakrishnan, asking him to send in a contribution. The contribution Gopalakrishnan sent was about his dual identity, as a police officer and a comic book writer, following his daily routine and why it is so difficult to write a comic book.
His second published comic was also in a Comix India anthology and was a story about a normal person who lives a lonely life in the city. There is almost or no dialogue in it and yet the story somehow manages to convey what it wants to through simple panels. Gopalakrishnan’s art is not the most technically proficient art you will find when you look at comics but the way the story flows is beautiful. There is an unparalleled attention to detail that allows a reader to get immersed in every aspect of the character’s life, living the character’s dreams and hopes through their own. There is nothing lost in translation, the panels could fit any situation in anyone’s life and it is probably this seemingly simplistic narrative that makes the story so palatable. It was after these two short comics that he was approached by The New Indian Express to do a comic strip titled Small Talk. The comic strip was about a group of anthropomorphic creatures living in a vast arid desert talking about things. They would discuss politics and abstract philosophy as they sat around dunes.
The comic was part of the Zeitgeist supplement the newspaper produced, wherein they were promoting local cartoonists by allotting one page to them. “There would be about six or seven cartoonists that drew on the same page and I was one of them but later the management changed and they decided to discontinue it all. After this, there were only three cartoonists left who would draw a comic and luckily I was one of them,” says Gopalakrishnan. He also drew, for a brief period of time, a weekly comic strip for DNA Sunday called As City Is. The comic was about the daily life of a couple that lives together in a city, sometimes gently lampooning that life and sometimes celebrating it.
One of his stories, Honest Pen Hospital, was also featured in Kindle magazine’s comic themed issue. The story was about a man who fixed broken ink pens and his store. Gopalakrishnan’s style of drawing is very languid and calm, much like his demeanour seems to be except when he is talking about comics. The amount of enthusiasm he has in his voice when he speaks about his meeting with Canadian cartoonist Seth (also his idol) almost convinces you that he isn’t pursuing a Ph.D.
Talking about his style of work he says, “I start out with an idea in my head and go on with it but after a while, especially when drawing comic books, the characters I create begin to think and behave a certain way. They are as alive to me as possible and once they’ve become a certain way in my head, it is very difficult to change them. The tone and behaviour of the comic will also be set like that.” This strikes me as a very important thing to have because the characters evolve and grow instead of changing according to gimmicks or the audience. One need only examine Batman if one needs to be so convinced. The most influential Batman stories are where his evolution from a man to Batman and from Batman to really old Batman is displayed. Even the recent films on the subject have a character whose story is extremely coherent and sequential while on the other hand, most other Batman comics fall short of expectations, relying on strong characters or some other form of superhero/super-villain gimmickry.
When talking about his daily routine, job, Gopalakrishnan expresses no bitterness. “I had to take up the job to fulfill a set of responsibilities and I cannot turn my back on those things. But if I can draw comics full time and sustain a living through that, I will definitely quit.” His colleagues, he says, have been very supportive of his work. Like me, Gopalakrishnan had imagined they would laugh at him and consider him to be ‘strange’ but they have tried understanding and some of them have even started considering comic books as something adults can read and consume. “If you can study films academically, comics shouldn’t be too hard. They are actually better than films in a way because you can turn back at any time to examine something you may not have noticed earlier and this is difficult to do in a film. You don’t need to simplify a comic for the masses. The masses that read the comic will probably understand or try to understand what it is trying to say.”
Gopalakrishnan’s work can be found on various blogs. Click here for Small Talk and here for As City Is. He is currently working towards organising India’s first gallery exhibition of comic book art at Gallery Ske in Bangalore. More details on that soon. While this article was being written, his wife gave birth to their second child about whom he talks almost the same way as his comic books.