Comix India and the Indo-Manga Connection: An Interview with Bharath Murthy

A ten year old Bharath Murthy's sketchbook (1988).

First tell me how you got into comics.

It was after I started reading a whole lot of American and British comics, mainly American and British comics. I also had discovered manga. This was when I was studying film in Kolkata during 2001-04. Just then a lot of works by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, alternative American superhero comics, Watchmen, things like that started appearing in the bookstores. I had never heard of these people or works before. I was surprised to discover that they had been done in the 80s and early 90s, when I was a teenager. We didn’t have access to these works then. I had stopped reading comics at the age of twelve.

When were you born?

I was born in 1978. As a kid, I had access to Tintin, Asterix, and some superhero comics, DC and Marvel.

What format did they come in?

In those monthly, 32 page magazines. But they were only randomly available, assorted titles in libraries and bookshops. I started drawing because of reading these comics, by copying Tintin and these superheroes. And also Indian newspaper cartoonists, like R.K. Laxman, Mario Miranda, and quite a few people who drew for an illustrated children’s magazine called Target, which was published through the 80s, I think it stopped in the early 90s. [Note: Target ran until 1995]

Target (April 1981), cover.

I know about Tinkle in India. What is Target?

Target was a children’s magazine published in Delhi, by the same publishers who do India Today magazine. A British woman [Rosalind Wilson] was the first editor. It had an unusually high standard of illustration, unmatched still now by any other children’s magazine. The quality could compete with any adult magazine. Many of the most interesting illustrators in India started their careers there.

When did the magazine begin?

In 1980 I think, just when I was growing up. I discovered the magazine in my cousin’s place in Bangalore. I insisted and persuaded my father to subscribe to it. It was a monthly magazine, and I always looked forward to the new issues. They had lovely covers. I used to copy Ajit Ninan’s cartoons. He is now a very well-known political cartoonist for the Times of India. But his best work is in Target. That’s how his career started. And there’s Manjula Padmanabhan, one of the few woman cartoonists in India. She did a lot of illustrations for Target, and I’d copy those as well.

Were these actual comics?

Yes, one or two page comics. There was one character called Detective Moochwala, “guy with a mooch,” a moustache. That was by Ajit Ninan. Then there was Gardhab Das, a singing donkey character, modeled on Bengalis. A bad singer. A very humorous short.

Ajit Ninan, Detective Moochwala, Target (December 1982).

Are Bengalis known as bad singers?

No, but it was poking fun at them in general. They are known to be very culturally sophisticated. It was drawn by two Bengali artists, a writer and an artist, Neelabh and Jayanto Banerjee. Both of them now work for Times of India I think. There was another cartoonist named Atanu Roy, who used to illustrate for Target’s humor page, with jokes, knock-knock-who’s-there type jokes, very tiny illustrations, which I used to copy as well.

So that’s how I started drawing. But I never really considered the idea of actually making my own comics. I didn’t know how it was done. I didn’t know what I had to do to do that. Gradually, I was nudged into being an artist. I started painting, and eventually joined art school. By that time I had almost forgotten about comics. But surprisingly, in art school, when I started trying to do my own work, these comics elements started reappearing in painting. I used speech bubbles and cartoonish characters, and text over the image. Then I discovered these American and European books, and manga. And actually it was manga that gave me the idea that I too could write comics.

Which manga, and what years are we talking about?

This was in 2003-04, just as I was graduating from film school. Osamu Tezuka, first of all. Buddha, first of all, later Apollo’s Song, Ode to Kirihito. Then I started reading a lot of manga on the net, starting to discover what that whole scene was about. I had previously been impressed by newspaper cartoonists, all based on line art, not color, and I found that manga had something similar, based on line art. Then here was this big fat novel in that kind of drawing style. It never occurred to me that I could do the same. So it was from reading manga that the idea occurred to me.

Did you think color was some kind of barrier?

Yeah, I always felt that color was industrial, something very complicated, something that I couldn’t possibly do. Like how was I supposed to get that color from Tintin? Or the complicated color work in American comics.

A young Bharath Murthy reading Tintin (1986-87).

This is kind of a side question, but why is Tintin so widely available in India? If you go to a used bookseller here, they always have stacks of Amar Chitra Katha and Tintin.

Yeah, it’s a mystery to me as well. It’s very popular in India, ever since the 60s. When the new middle class developed in the 70s, my parents’ generation, I knew many of them who would gift Tintin to their children. Even now, I have seen a lot of parents doing that, Tintin being a comic that is suitable for kids. While there was a little bit of censorship around superhero comics, too much violence.

Going back to manga. You said you read Tezuka just as you were finishing film school. What else was available at the time? Now you can order anything online. Was that the case then, or were you relying only on bookstores?

Only bookstores, there was no online sellers. This was in Kolkata. We used to go to a big bookstore called Landmark, the name’s changed now I think. You could find all sorts of popular works, like boys adventure comics, fantasy things like Naruto or Bleach, and I’d just read a volume here and a volume there. I wasn’t interested in the narratives themselve. What caught my attention was the techniques they were using, which I thought were far more innovative without being intrusive for the reader. While I appreciated the formal innovations of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman books, to my taste I found them to be very heavy. They didn’t allow narrative involvement for the reader. You appreciated the formal beauty of the work, but from a distance. With manga, I found myself once again relating to the characters. I found that kind of technique to be something to emulate.

Bharath Murthy, What the Fantasy?, Comix India, vol. 3 (September 2010).

What was it about the drawing style?

Mainly it was the use of black and white. I realized the amount of detail that could be done in black and white. That reminds me, Akira was also available. So was Ghost in the Shell. But anyway, the drawing style appealed to me actually because I could connect it to Tintin. A lot of the manga had realistic backgrounds, but with characters with facial features that looked really cartoonish. I think that is the case with Hergé’s work as well. So manga kind of brought me back to my childhood association with comics, with a particular kind of comic actually, with Tintin. I had read Tintin so much, I was almost disgusted with it. I thought I would never read Tintin again, and because there were no other comics to read, I had kind of abandoned comics. But then when I started reading manga, it brought me back to that earlier time. I thought this style was not found in the British and American comics I had read, where the illustration was trying to imitate the cinema, trying very deliberately to do cinematic angles, to the point where even the faces were realistic. I found when I tried to do expressions, on the basis of American and British comics, they felt very constipated. While with the Japanese works, I found them much more loose and caricaturish, and that kind of allowed me to be freer, it was a way back into comics.