Sometimes, things just fall into place. I had no idea that Ryan Holmberg had a new column planned for yesterday, or that he would be making reference to Amar Chitra Katha, a Classics Illustrated-type historico-literary adaptation project and one of the famed comics series of India since its foundation in 1967. And yet, it just so happened that two weeks ago, while I was in New York for the CAB festival, a friend unexpectedly thrust a copy of Amar Chitra Katha into my hands, insisting that while he did not know what this book was — nor was he especially forthcoming as to where he originally got it — he felt that it would nonetheless prove useful to me.
THUS: to your left, you see “Ellora Caves – The Glory of the Rashtrakootas,” a 1988 historical episode, reissued in 2000 in what I understand to be a visually restored format, with reworked color separations and better paper stock. The story is 29 pages — the typical length for an issue of the series — and presented in English, as the series generally was. The writer is H. Atmaram and the artist is Ramanand Bhagat; the cover painting is uncredited. The editor remains “Uncle” Anant Pai, the series’ longtime public face, who died in 2011. I cannot hope to add very much to the Holmberg column’s excellent grasp of cultural and economic history, but I think a brief tour of this comic might prove interesting, if only as a peek into a storied comics tradition rarely acknowledged in even specialist forums.
Truth be told, the titular Ellora Caves don’t make an appearance until about 3/4s of the way through this comic; the emphasis, instead, is very much on the (miscellaneous) glory of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, which ruled a sizable portion of what is now southern India in the 8th through 10th centuries. Above, for example, is a political power play executed by ambitious Indra II, who kidnapped the daughter of a king and sired with her a son as a means of consolidating power within the empire. That child, Dantidurga, would ultimately seize control of the whole region; his death would leave an uncle, Krishna I, on the throne, and know that any suggestion of impropriety in this means of succession is dutifully scrubbed away from the comic book historical record, where everyone is beaming good friends and moreover terrific fighters against their various, less handsomely-drawn foes.
I’m uninformed as to the domestic reputation of Amar Chitra Katha, but it’s been noted that controversies have arisen concerning the series’ depictions of cultural practices as well as religious and gender portrayals. I first encountered the idea of kidnapping a bride as the path to satisfaction in Veer, a highly dubious 2010 vehicle for Bollywood star Salman Khan; set in the time of the British Raj, the story (in pertinent part) concerns a young prince in love with the daughter of a rival king. At one point, the prince reveals his interest in the girl to his father at a raucous party – there is a sudden, awful silence, before the father enthusiastically suggests kidnapping her. ‘I kidnapped your mother!’ Historical applicability aside, it isn’t until page 21 of this comic that a woman enjoys a speaking role, and only then as a devoted wife; every other female exists specifically to bear children and fan exhausted men on their thrones of conquest.
There’s quite a lot of fighting, of course, to a rather numbing effect. I soon found myself honing in on favorable details of Bhagat’s art, like the rather deranged gleam in Dantidurga’s eye from the second panel above, or even better: those wonderful doodle clouds in panel one, little more than overlapping arcs poured over with pregnant blue in the ’00s restoration. I’d like to compare this with an original edition, though I suspect the effect would be no more elaborate.
Indeed, there are numerous panels toward the end of the issue where Bhagat becomes prone to depicting his characters in long shot, diminishing them against the landscapes of Ellora, where the “Caves” finally come into play – his wife suddenly taken with the desire to fast until the spire of a temple to Shiva can be seen, Krishna I sets about commissioning what would become the great Kailashnath Temple of the region, hewed from a single rock. It is logical, then, that Bhagat elects to emphasize the vast scale of the surroundings, to best communicate the enormity of the undertaking, and, metaphorically, the enduring legacy of these long-dead figures. As a result, Bhagat’s art begins to exhibit a slight whiff of Jesse Marsh, at least in terms of the inky natural surroundings given increasing primacy on the page.
I presume this closing image is drawn from photo reference, but all I can focus on is the waterfall of lines spilling from the rightmost cliff’s edge, as if threatening to flood the temple itself. Kids, I imagine, couldn’t care less; it’s not surprising to hear Holmberg report of a much greater prevalence of Harvey and Archie product in the shops he’s visited, as those comics are doubtlessly more fun. But there’s something about the squareness of Amar Chitra Katha that directs the eye to its construction, and the suggestion that, as with the Dell Comics Pledge to Parents, the hidebound moral instruction of these comics might conceal the labors of fascinating workmen – drawing for English, but consigned, for now, to the invisible ubiquity of residual mass appeal from a foreign place.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
Sunny Vol. 2: Being the 216-page continuation of my personal favorite autobiographical comics release of 2013, an ongoing Taiyō Matsumoto creation so beautifully drawn and so fiercely evocative of mood and emotion that it threatens to ruin virtually any other comic read in its proximity. Viz has really gone to town on this release too, producing hardcover packages closer in presentational quality to the deluxe manga releases by ‘art’ comics publishers, which maybe speaks to the audience they’re hoping to access. Give it a shot – four volumes are out right now in Japan, so there’s not an overwhelming amount of material left to get, but more than enough to tantalize anyone who’s piqued. I gotta say, 2013? Pretty fucking decent year for quality manga; $22.99.
The Mysterious Underground Men: Oh my god, it’s PictureBox again — still operated by an editor of this website, unless something *really exciting* happened in the last week or so — teaming up with the aforementioned Ryan Holmberg to present a 1948 color(!) book by 19-year old Osamu Tezuka, then still so flush with the joy of creating insanely popular comics in the postwar period that he’d all but emblazon yawning white pages with screaming action. This is Tezuka at his rawest — partially because his original art was not photographed, but hand-traced onto the printing plates by an intermediary workman, one Kōji Shima, via the “kakihan” process — careening through a pulp fiction premise (it’s a drill! it’s a rocketship! it’s a civilization! under the earth! and terrorists! and crime! AND termites! AND magic! AND! AND! AND!) that mixes the manifest destiny of technological progress with just the brand of human-or-not bathos that would come to define the artist’s Astro Boy in the subsequent decade. As usual, there’s a first-person account of the work’s creation paired up with a longer study by translator Holmberg, who lays out the many potential international influences zooming through Tezuka’s head in those critical early years. Presented as a 176-page hardcover, at period-appropriate 5″ x 7.5″ dimensions. Samples; $24.95.
Briony Hatch: This is a 128-page Limehouse Books release of a graphic novel by Ginny & Penelope Skinner, a slice-of-life depiction of a teen girl infatuated with a series of fantasy novels; a magical element enters the picture eventually. I only know of this through a very enthusiastic review by Richard Bruton on the Forbidden Planet blog, and I generally feels it’s worth calling attention to smaller-scale UK releases, as they are especially prone to falling between the cracks in terms of comics store ordering. Lots of samples at those links; $19.95.
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story: Meanwhile, Dark Horse presents a considerably more public vision of British life, as Broadway producer Vivek J. Tiwary scripts this 144-page biography of a crucial early presence in the lives of a very big popular act. I believe a movie is also in production, but I’m interested in the participation of artist Kyle Baker, who’ll be drawing some animation-style sequences to supplement the primary visual contributions of Andrew C. Robinson. Note that a collector’s edition will also be available with 24 pages of added supplements, as well as a signed and numbered limited edition. Official site; $19.99 (regular), $49.99 (collector’s), $99.99 (limited).
Violent Cases: More from Dark Horse, this time a new edition of the Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean original from 1987 — a childhood reminisce swirled with menace and distrust, if you haven’t had the pleasure — mentioned here insofar as McKean will purportedly be adding some new coloring and supplements to round out the 64 pages. In hardcover, 8 1/2″ x 11 1/2″. Samples; $19.99.
Unforgotten: Definitely a week of unfamiliar books, which is great – who the hell wants to know about everything already? Tohby Riddle is apparently a respected children’s and picture book illustrator in his native Australia – begging comparison, I suppose, to countryman Shaun Tan, who has highly praised this 128-page project, a fable of angels and statues released in North America by Inklit, a graphic novel division of Penguin, in case you needed a refresher on comics imprints of the various major book publishers. Dedicated site; $19.95.
Scene but Not Heard: Ah, Nickelodeon Magazine – truly one of the unheralded sources for reliable work by alternative and underground cartoonists willing to serve up some all-ages stuff in the ’90s and ’00s. And one of the most prolific of the contributors was Sam Henderson, whose Kurtzmanian wordless strips have now been collected into a 6″ x 9″, 128-page hardcover from Top Shelf & Alternative Comics. Samples; $14.95.
Tune Vol. 2: Still Life: This is the new Derek Kirk Kim, a webcomic about a young man whose aimless life positions him as a prisoner of in an alternate dimension, released in print format by First Second. While the initial volume was drawn by Kim himself, this one brings in Les McClaine as primary artist, which is not an approach I see all that often from projects placed with big YA-minded publishers, although I could just be looking in the wrong direction; $16.99.
From the New World Vol. 1: Cross-platform endeavors – people like ‘em! I think this was the first official adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s popular 2008 novel of the same title: an old-fashioned-sounding scenario about psychic children learning the truth about their far-future society, probably best known in English for a 2012-13 television anime version. Kodansha published the original novel, and slotted this Toru Oikawa-drawn comic into Bessatsu Shonen Magazine alongside Attack on Titan, although know that Vertical is handling the translated release (as they did with another serial from the same magazine, The Flowers of Evil); $10.95.
Berserk Vol. 37: Never-ending serials – people like ‘em too, sometimes! This is the newest release from Kentaro Miura, catching Dark Horse’s English editions right up with the Japanese compilations. The publisher will be reprinting all prior volumes nearing sellout levels, so don’t let anyone gouge you online. Preview; $14.99.
The Ring of the Seven Worlds: This is the newest all-in-one Eurocomics tome from Humanoids, a 2003-13 series from writers Giovanni Gualdoni & Gabriele Clima, and artist Matteo Piana, all of them veterans of Italian publishing set to working toward an interplanetary saga about teens and war and steampunk and stuff, in a rather manga/anime-informed vein. It’s 236 pages in color, at 7.7″ x 10.5″ – I always like the weight behind these things. Preview; $29.95.
The Incal Vol. 5 (of 6): The Fifth Essence: Yet little else this week could ever be as weighty as Humanoids’ penultimate 12″ x 16″ hardcover installment of the Moebius/Jodorowsky SF classic, presented in its original colors; $79.95.
Valerian Vol. 5 Birds Of The Master: Pierre Christin & Jean-Claude Mézières are still seeing translation too, via Cinebook, in these continuing 8.5″ x 11.3″, 48-page softcover albums. Preview; $11.95.
Marada the She-Wolf: But enough of this Eurocomics stuff. That’s right – time for some responses to the unexpected popularity of Eurocomics stuff in English! I’m referring, of course, to Epic Illustrated, which took to filling some of its space (particularly early on) with superhero comics veterans in an effort to match up Heavy Metal-style graphics with the ease of comprehensibility endemic to the House of Ideas. This 112-page Titan Comics hardcover compiles one of the results: a lady warrior fantasy from writer Chris Claremont and artist John Bolton, the latter of whom will doubtlessly bring a certain… vivid quality to each and every page of the action, if expectations hold. Preview; $24.99.
Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol. 21: You know the drill, citizen – two big stacks of Dredd, 318 pages culled from 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine, served up by Rebellion in chronological order (which puts us in the latter half of 1994). Co-creator John Wagner returns to write a bunch of this stuff, including the two-magazine crossover Wilderlands, as well as a Rogue Trooper team-up drawn by John Higgins. Note that the publisher also makes all of these releases available for digital download, at the prior link, for a reduced price; $31.99.
City of Light, City of Dark: Okay, hands up if you recall the 1993 initial publication of this one, a prose-comics hybrid from YA lit/children’s books specialists “Avi” and Brian Floca. I’d never heard of it until just now, but surely it’s galoots like me whom Scholastic is counting on to welcome this new 20th anniversary reissue into a world of many more comics and comics-like items on the scene. The story is a fanciful thing set in an alternate New York rife with plots and daring, or so I’ve read – I’d just like to flip through the damn thing, to see how such mainstream alternatives conducted themselves during the Image Comics revolution down in the Direct Market; $10.99 ($19.99 in hardcover).
The ACME Novelty Datebook Vol. 1: Also an anniversary reissue, in commemoration of this Chris Ware sketchbook compilation’s 10th birthday. I don’t think Drawn and Quarterly has added anything new, but just in case you haven’t gotten a copy – there’s just as many odd, funny comics in these 208 pages as an average early issue of ACME itself, with the added benefit of absurdly gorgeous exercises and studies running far afield of Ware’s usual visual approach; $44.95.
Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896-2013: And finally, your book-on-comics of the week – a 9″ x 12″, 180-page study by cartoonist and writer-on-comics Trina Robbins, “her most comprehensive volume to date,” per publisher Fantagraphics, “a revised, updated and rewritten history of women cartoonists, with more color illustrations than ever before, and with some startling new discoveries.” I believe the Journal‘s Kristy Valenti is also credited with co-writing a chapter. Preview; $29.99.