11 August 2014

Graphic Designs

While Germany might be a late starter as a comics nation, India has much to learn from it. (My piece in last week's BL_Ink, drawing on a recent trip to Germany organised by the German Book Office, New Delhi.)

One of the primary aims of the Delhi-based German Book Office (GBO) is to explore different aspects of book publishing in India and find ways of developing them further. A few years ago, for instance, their focus on children’s book publishing led to the establishment of an annual programme called Jumpstart, whose fifth instalment is due to unfold in Delhi and Bangalore at the end of this month. In general, most Indian publishers and editors do not have sufficient opportunities to meet their international counterparts and see how things happen in other markets. As a joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Foreign Office, Berlin, the GBO is well-placed to facilitate such contact. With this in mind, it organises an annual editors’ trip to Germany, centred on a different genre each year.
This year, the trip focused on graphic books and young adult (YA) writing, enabling editors from five Indian publishing houses — Penguin Random House, Rupa, Roli, Vani and National Book Trust — to meet representatives of German publishers such as Mosaik, Oetinger, Carlsen, Reprodukt, Carl Hanser, Suhrkamp, S Fischer and Büchergilde.
As presentations and conversations unfolded, it became apparent just how varied and mature German publishing is in these genres, both of which are still nascent in India. German YA fiction, for instance, ranges from tender coming-of-age narratives that take on board issues of race, disability and sexual identity to disturbing, even erotically charged (though not explicit), murder mysteries.
The comic/graphic book scene is even richer. There are independent publishers such as Mosaik, which nurtures the legacy of Abrafaxe, a very popular series that began in East Germany in the 1950s, and Reprodukt, which specialises in graphic novels. There are also larger houses such as Carlsen, which began a Manga imprint in 2000 and also publishes some of the most acclaimed graphic artists, including Isabel Kreitz and Reinhard Kleist.
Considering this range and excellence, it came as a surprise that within the Euro-American universe, Germany is considered a late starter as a comics nation. Andreas Platthaus of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argues that the reason for this was, ironically, the historical popularity of picture stories in Germany: humorous illustrated periodicals became popular in the 19th century, and the strength of that tradition made Germans dismissive of American-style comics, even as they spread through Europe in the early 20th century.
Then came the Nazis, who famously ridiculed comics, making it near-impossible for publishers to promote them. Even after 1945, with American occupation, comics did not really take off in Germany (unlike, say, in Japan).
Thus many Germans started out reading comics from Belgium, France and Italy, and their classics such as Asterix and Tintin remain hugely popular. A visit to X-tra Boox, an excellent little comic bookshop in Frankfurt, revealed the German market’s continuing openness to other cultures, with a top floor filled with Manga in translation and a basement devoted to American superheroes.
It was after German reunification in 1990 that the first generation of avant-garde German graphic artists emerged. Anke Feuchtenberger and others became university professors, helping groom a second wave.
“Now we’re into the third wave and the fourth wave,” said Sebastian Oehler of Reprodukt. “At the end of the ’90s, there was a big discussion on whether comics were art. And now the discussion is, are comics literature?” More graphic artists now address ‘serious’ subjects — like Ulli Lust’s Flying Foxes on World War II, or Nicolas Mahler, who has produced graphic versions of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters and The Do-gooders.
The trip also provided occasion for the participating Indian editors to discuss the challenges they face. The German comic reader, while exposed to international comics, reads German books avidly. But one of the problems in India, said Ameya Nagarajan of Penguin Random House, is that Indian readers who actually buy graphic novels prefer to buy wellknown Western names, rather than risking money on Indian newbies. And this, as Nagarajan points out, is that small proportion of readers who are visually literate.
Regional runs
The costs of good-quality graphic publishing are also a real hurdle, especially for smaller publishers. “We are bringing out our first graphic book series on Param Vir Chakra bravery award-winners,” said Neelam Narula of Roli Books. “We had published a non-fiction book on the subject earlier, but the author wanted to reach out to a younger age group, 12-18 years. The first two books are doing well. But to sell these 32-page books at ₹100 each, we had to keep our costs down and increase our print runs.”
The situation is even tougher when it comes to publishing in the regional languages. “Visual culture is the next big thing, but it is still not the choice of the masses,” said Aditi Maheshwari of the Hindi publishing major Vani Prakashan. “We’re trying to create a body of work through translation. But we have to create a buzz for each book.” Vani has just released one of the first graphic books in Hindi, in collaboration with the Japan Foundation.
Neerav Sandhya ka Sheher, Sakura ke Desh is the Hindi translation of an award-winning Manga calledTown of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, on what happened in Hiroshima after the atomic explosion. Also in the pipeline is a Hindi translation of Persepolis.
What about original graphic books in Hindi and other regional languages? “The Vani Foundation has just instituted four ₹20,000 fellowships for writers and illustrators of children’s books,” says Maheshwari. “Selected fellows will get to attend masterclasses at Jumpstart 2014, receive mentoring from Gulzar and Paro Anand, and get a three-book contract with Vani.” It’s going to be a long haul, but it looks like the visual book is here to stay.
(Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi)

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