Pao: The Anthology of Comics Part 1 is more than a simple comic book; it is all at once an introduction to the world of comics, an example of the various forms a comic can take and, most importantly, a fine example of how comics need not be restricted to superheroes, genius chachas or animated jungle animals. Nothing is beyond their scope, that is the true strength of the comic form. With stories ranging from science fiction to historical epics to present day terrorism, not to mention thesis-like treatment of subjects like offal and the venerated poet Kabir, the 12 varied comics in the anthology bring together the best of what Indian comic book writers and illustrators have come to achieve.
Before delving into the comics themselves, however, its useful for novice and expert comic reader alike to read the Q&A format introduction. While some of the questions sound like they wouldnt be out of place in a magazine interview, others provide essential information, such as how best to read the anthology (reclined at an angle of 37.2 degrees, according to one member of the Pao Collective, the group behind the anthology), or why a story needs to be told in comic form, and not just in text. One of the answers, which emphasises the oneness of text and images in a comic story, provides great insight into how the anthology should be treated. Each comic is written and illustrated by different people, and that difference is the first thing you notice while flipping through the book. And its that difference that allows this anthology to transcend the comic book-ness to become a work of art.
But enough of that. The anthology, of course, is carried by the comics it contains, and its best to judge them on their own merit. The depth of a comic book story, the double meanings and social commentary it contains are immediately brought out in Tattoo, the first story in the anthology. With simple, clean illustrations and just the sufficient amount of text, it uses a simple road-side tattoo artiste to tell a story about changing fashion trends, one-upmanship among peers and even provides a snapshot of a changing city scape. A fitting introduction to the scale and scope of comics if there ever was one.
Tattoo is followed by Plasmoids, an excellent example of how a tale that could have remained a good short story becomes something greater when melded with vivid illustrations. Written by Samit Basu, no slouch when it comes to science fiction/fantasy writing, and illustrated by Orijit Sen, Plasmoids is a story almost about itself. The premise is that aliens live among us on Earth, and feed us notions about themselves via our dreams, which are then penned as science fiction stories. In a lovely hat-tip to JRR Tolkien and his fans, the comic questions your belief that somebody that talented could indeed be human! So convincing is the presentation and story, that even the extraordinary notion that Tolkien may have been an alien becomes plausible.
Where Plasmoids is fully coloured, the next comic, The Pink, is predominantly black and white, with splashes of pink here and there, demonstrating how a compelling story can be told using minimal words and ink. Print Screen is yet another example of the sheer variety the comic book genre engenders. It reinforces the fact that a comic book need not be about super-powered heroes performing mighty deeds, or about moral lessons taught to children in a format they can relate to. Comics can be about everyday life, a life led by you, me, everybody. And why should they not If the illustrations and narrative are done right (and they are in this case), simple acts like sitting at a computer, visiting neighbours only to hear them discussing marriage proposals, or meeting uncles on the street exhorting you to join government service, can become a great story. Print Screen thus seems to differ from Plasmoids in that sense, that while the latter was a story added to by vivid illustrations, the former wouldnt be much of a story itself, but is brought to life by the illustrations.
The Afterlife of Ammis Betelnut Box seems to lie on the event horizon between being a comic and an illustrated story. The presentation is very much like the latter, with text covering the majority of the page, accompanied by full-page illustrations on the next page. Reading like the biography of a family and specifically one central character, The Afterlife isnt one of the easiest reads in the book, but the stylised illustrations are just superb, exerting a powerful page-turning compulsion that more than compensates for the story. And the seemingly stained pages of the story lend themselves to a perception of great age and wear, both qualities intrinsic to the narrative.
One of the most moving and relatable (at least for readers old enough to remember pre-liberalisation India) stories in the anthology is Tito Years, the tale of a young boys desire for the seemingly unattainable Nike shoes sported by athletes the world over, but so notably missing from pre-1991 Indian markets. So great is his desire for the shoes that he even agrees to wear his America-based cousins second-hand, worn out sneakers (which, of course, his proud father did not agree to). Here the story is a mix of funny, exaggerated illustrations and real-world photographs that lend a sense of realism to the story that doesnt take away from the comic book form in any way.
The two standouts of the anthology, however, are quite different from each other. The first, Hindus & Offal, is written like a college assignment on offal: what it is (the parts of animals that are wasted when the prime cuts are removed), its treatment around the world, who eats which parts, etc. What would have been quite a boring read, unless as an academic pursuit, becomes a fascinating narrative when combined with the illustrations by Pia Alize Hazarika. Skeletons here, bits of intestine there, the lovingly created visuals almost make you feel like the illustrator has more than a passing fancy for the morbid, a quality well-placed when dealing with dismembering animals for food.
The most fun to be had, however, lies with the second highlight of the anthology, and the last comic in the book, Chilka. Admittedly, I am a big fan of the Indian epics, and so have a bias when dealing with them. But rather than telling the story of the Mahabharata, Chilka simply tells one of many stories that could have taken place during the time of the great war. With illustrations inspired by Japanese Manga, illustrator Shohei brings to bear a style reminiscent of the highly-successful Buddha Manga series by Osamu Tezuka. That style, combined with Vidyun Sabhaneys story of a baba on a quest to deliver a magical weapon (a banana) to the great warrior Arjun so he may use it against his nemesis Karna, yields a funny yet powerful story, with every panel full of action.
The takeaway from the whole experienceand make no mistake, reading this book is an experienceis the wonderful attention to detail and high production quality, not to mention the sheer talent Indian comic book writers and illustrators are exhibiting now. Move over Tinkle and Chacha Chaudhary, theres a new breed of Indian comics on the horizon, and its name is Pao.
Pao: The Antho Logy Of Comics partI