Wednesday, May 02, 2007

An Animated Life

In an interview with Ahmede Hussain, Sharier Khan talks about Laily, Bangladesh's first graphic novel.

Your Laily (Published by Panjeree Publications) is the country's first graphic novel. Will you please explain the concept of graphic novel a bit for our readers?

Sharier Khan: In short: it’s a novel presented graphically. It’s different from a comic book because comic books deal with shorter stories and they are presented as part of a series. In the US where the first graphic novels were introduced in the sixties, full-length serious comics are termed as graphic novel. Tintin or Asterix episodes are all graphic novels in terms of presentation though termed as comic books. Archie or Spider-man or Japanese Inu Yasha or Dragonball are all comics (manga in Japanese) without any doubt. Laily is a graphic novel because it is a stand alone 92-page book, with around 900 drawn out colour pictures.

In our country publication of a comic book it self is rare and while there are some cartoonists, there is no true professional comic book artist. Plus our audience and publishers in general are not aware of the graphic novel form. Therefore there had been no graphic novel in our publication history. Comics come out in larger qualities in the western countries and in Japan, Korea and China for all kinds of audience—including the matured audience. Only a small part of these publications are graphic novels. Some of them are very serious in nature, while many of them are really full-scale action novels (like X-Men novels, for instance). Graphic novels typically have longer shelf life. Manga industry in Japan is a billion dollar industry (and believe me some manga artists are literally billionaires because of their involvement in animation industry), while comics industry in the US also grosses millions of dollars.

We know that you studied Journalism at Dhaka University, and you are known to be as the country's one of the leading journalists; how did doing cartoons occur to you? Will you share this journey with us?

Sharier Khan: I am a man with a few of obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). Cartooning is just one of my OCDs. Okay, the truth is I have been a cartoonist long before I became a journalist. I made my first comic book drawing at the age of seven or eight and I attempted making animation at the same time around in 1974-75. That was no work of any genius. During my childhood my dad used to buy us brothers dozens of comics from Stadium market and Readers Corner in Bailey Road. Those comics (Disney, Classics, Harvey and later Marvel comics) inspired me to draw out staffs on the walls at first. After getting a few slaps from mom, I started drawing in books… that too, in story form. I did not have the drawing talent—but I did have a lot of imagination to carry out most silly stories possible. How silly? Well my hero could swallow an oxygen capsule (the idea came from Kuasha—a Bangla thriller series) and dive to the bottom of the ocean to flee the villains and walk all the way to the other continent.

Being the youngest of four brothers—my elder brothers used to tell me how Hanna-Barbara made cartoons. Upon learning about how different frames created the illusion of a movie, I acquired tissue papers (they seemed so ‘foreign’ back then) and tried to use the tissue paper strips as the animation cell and tried drawing figures on them. Off course that did not work. But I tried, didn’t I?

And I drew and drew till my hands started to smarten up enough to make them understandable to others. My cartoons are truly a result of practice and my ‘harmlessly’ (I claim—others refute) mischievous nature.

By 1979, drawing staffs had become a permanent feature of my character. I made my own comic books, comic magazines and all that. All for my personal consumption—as I dreaded other people laughing at my self-indulgent entertainment. I made the first full colour (hand painted) incomplete 62 page graphic novel back in 1984-85. I published my first cartoons in the New Nation newspaper in 85-86. I created cartoon character Babu (published weekly in the Rising Stars section of the Daily Star) in 1983. I also published, jointly with a friend of mine a single-issue satire magazine called Arbachin in 1985—and extensively used cartoons there. So by the time I joined The Daily Star, I was emotionally involved in cartooning. Then why did I become a journalist? I thought becoming a journalist will give me an additional leverage. It did. Because I quickly become bored doing one kind of thing for a long period. I need to toggle between several things to make my-self happy. So doing serious good reports makes me feel spiritually strong, and making good cartoons makes me really happy. I think when one can do multiple staff—they should try to maintain all of them. Because ultimately what matters is that whether you are enjoying what you are doing—and whether you’re not repressing an inner drive in serving your profession.

Though it does not handle it directly, in a way of Laily is actually a political work (say the way it handles the question of a woman's identity in a male-dominated society). Will you share your reading of Laily with us?

Sharier Khan: I don’t like putting any political agenda artificially in any of my work. Instead, when I do something I try to portray my lead characters as likeable people—and possibly people who can be icons or role models (male or female). I perceive the natural difference between men and women as sweet elements that make our lives wonderful. Nobody is supreme or nobody is inferior. Individual characteristics make a man or woman who they are. While making Laily’s pointless script, I just wanted to make her a crazy sweet woman and I wanted to make her a crazy role model—not just for other women, but for men too. Then I added the action element in her character before drawing it out. Till Laily, my cartoons revolved around male characters. I thought I should show (I am show off too) our readers a strong female character that rocks. In this book, Laily is a workingwoman—which is now becoming a common trend in our society, especially in Dhaka. Laily is also outspoken, very courageous and quite a fighter. She beats up leeches just like that. Again, she becomes quite lovesick in presence of the person she loves. Finally Laily was deliberately made glamorous to offset the common notion that pretty faces with sharp curves are dumb (and I love making leading male-female characters look good).

I wanted to portray an offbeat role model female character for all to like and I wanted my readers to share the modern outlook about women. The time for Shabanas holding Alamgir’s feet singing and weeping “heaven is underneath the husband’s feet” has long gone. Denial is stupid.

Who are your favourite cartoonists? What role do you think humour play in changing the society?

Sharier Khan: In comics/graphic novel line-- I still love Harge (creator of Tintin) for setting the example of telling graphic stories in clean outlines. I also love Goscinny and Udurzo’s works (Asterix for excessive humour) and Akira Toriyama (Dragonball for clear story telling). Though Stan Lee is not much of a cartoonist, he has created some of my favourite comic book heroes—Spider-man, Hulk, Thor, Fantastic Four and Silversurfer. In fact my early obsession for comics was dominated by Stan Lee’s creation. In addition, I salute the hordes of cartoonists who made Harvey Comics and the Archie’s in the sixties and the seventies. Among strip cartoonists- Jonny Hart of BC is the boss.

I am not a fan of any foreign political cartoonist—because I can’t align with their outlooks. I have however enjoyed Indian cartoonist Laxman’s works very much. At home, I just love Shishir Bhattacharya’s works.

This is how I look at humour—it’s the pinch of salt in your life. You can live without humour, and life becomes tasteless. Add humour the salt, life is groovy. Without humour, you loose imagination and you gradually become emotionally challenged and you start doing wrong things. At political level, if we had adequate humour—our Hasina-Khaleda would have been friends and productive. I mean have you seen a humorous person really unhappy? Bangladesh needs humour, a lot of it.

What is your next project about?

Sharier Khan: Right now I am working on a futuristic science-fiction fantasy, slightly humorous, set in Cox’s Bazar-Chittagong region. The idea is to accommodate Bangladeshi flavour as much as possible. There will be a strong female character—but its nothing like Laily. The lead character is a ‘role-model’ male this time. Should not elaborate much—because there is a lot of work to be done and this one might extend to a larger scale story. Based on my experience of completing Laily—which took me six months to complete along with the colouring—I am not going to make this new comic book in colour. Plus I am already committed to other long-term cartoon works (namely Basic Ali in Prothom Alo, which claims a good deal of my time). Hey if there is anyone interested to join me in my comics/graphic novel crusade, let me know. You can always find me at The Daily Star.

Digital Women

Rabi Khan's new digital paintings dwells on beauty; beauty that has a rhythm and vibrancy of its own. His new works, put together in his first solo exhibition in La Galerie of Alliance Francaise de Dacca dazzle with light and colour, but what is more striking is a circular movement that comes back to his work as a leitmotif. Take "The Kiss", which Art Critique Phil Hunter has described as "celestial". We find two forms blissfully entwined, but the painting refuses to stop just at being a suggestion of celestial love. In Rabi's composition small details like a knife-like detail reminds one of the difficulties that such passion has to endure in an apathetic society.
All of Rabi's works are digital though, the painter, who has a house in Canada, makes use of Adobe Photoshop, a graphics software, and transforms his thoughts into this amazingly poetic language. In "Venus", he masterfully deconstructs the myth or the woman behind the myth. Venus here is a woman of course, but the (digital) pain that her long black hair, or her slightly cubist (or rather distorted) face suggests give a new dimension to the already clich├ęd saga. Here, too, we see motion; it is indeed in a sea of movement that Rabi's Venus lives in. Like this idea of static life becoming kinetic, Women as a recurring theme comes to the senses of the artist very often. "Against the Wind" will be an apt example to describe this: The painting is electrifying, literary and metaphorically. In this painting the writer takes a journey, as a central character in a narrative, against an adverse world. The woman portrayed in it, though she stands still, her hair floats in the wind, or the tide, which suggest a great flux of unsettling wind, against which her form remains as a pillar of concrete. The adverse force that threatens to unsettle this woman is interestingly painted yellow; this, coupled with a little detailing, makes the painting a marvellous work of art.
Nature is a huge presence in "Sun Kissed" too. Like the other works that are displayed in his solo, in this one the suggestive forms are static. A marriage of colour is made between brown and yellow, with a female figure drenched with light. In "The Two", a male and a female figures embrace in an ethereal silence; the absence of detailing along with the overpowering all-encompassing play with forms make the lovers a wonder to look at.
Rabi's works are at times repetitive though. One lesson that this young artist must learn is to transform the theme that he has already mastered at into something anew, something afresh. This is a journey, long and ardent that it is, which all artists must make, and we hope that Rabi takes it sooner than later.