In December 2012, Delhi and the rest of the nation were left shaken after the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student. There was a lot of anger everywhere and people looked within themselves for some kind of appropriate response to this horrific incident. Thousands thronged the streets of the national capital in protest, while artists and filmmakers set about preparing to pay their own creatively inspired tributes to the victim. The Indian documentary filmmaker Ram Devineni, for example, created a superhero character named Priya, herself a gang-rape survivor who is out to rid the world of patriarchal domination by fighting against gender crimes.
Devineni’s comic book, Priya’s Shakti, became an instant hit; it struck a chord with the masses, garnering over 500,000 downloads worldwide — two-thirds of which were from the US, UK and Canada. The comic book form, according to Diveneni, allows one to deal with “difficult topics” like rape and acid attacks in an “approachable and empathetic way”. Besides, the form — with its visual and textual interplay — allows for better reader engagement. Diveneni’s Priya, who rides a tiger but doesn’t solve anybody’s problems, often challenges the readers to do so themselves.
“Readers can relate with the characters and story,” Devineni tells Guardian 20, “and especially the main character, Priya. The readers understand these problems without being turned off by them. Creating a female superhero and using the genre of “superheroes” provides readers with a familiarity and accessibility to the comic book and to these problems.”
Apne Aap Women Worlwide (AAWW), an NGO that helped disseminate Priya’s Shakti to various schools, is now working with Devineni to roll out the third comic of the series. “It will be about a low-income and low-caste girl who is forced into prostitution. We’re yet to decide the name,” Pinku Khanna, director of the AAWW tells us.
This isn’t by any means the only such example of an artist using the comic book form as an instrument of social and political activism. Similar ground is being charted by graphic designers and illustrators in other South Asian countries. Comic book culture is rapidly oiling the wheels of the social and cultural narrative of the towns and cities of
Pakistan and Bangladesh. These comics make use of all the American superhero tropes, yet allowing the home-grown everyday champions to take centre stage. These are heroes whose power rests with their wisdom and wit, and who wield influence, not by shooting web streams from their wrists or prancing around buildings — but by taking on the real-life monsters in an intolerant society.
Gauher Aftab, co-founder of Lahore-based CFx Comics, had his brush with Islamic terrorism as a 13-year-old kid, and the 2014 militant attack at a school in Peshawar inspired him to wage his own version of artistic jihad on the fundamentalists — by producing Paasban, a comic series that tries to combat radicalisation among young Pakistanis by exposing the mercenary motives of power and control.
In a country like Pakistan, which has an adult literacy rate of over 55%, it was important that the message of combating terrorism be conveyed in a manner that spoke directly to the masses, explains Aftab. That’s how Paasban: The Guardian was born. “Pakistan has over 25 million children who have not attended primary school. So when we’re trying to choose the right medium for our message, it had to be visual storytelling, because we want to speak directly to the masses regardless of their education level,” Aftab tells Guardian 20 on being asked about his preference for graphical narration over regular text books as a means to address the issue of radicalisation.
The cottage industry of graphic novels and animated movies is still in its infancy in Pakistan, but the reception of these forms as drivers of social change has been overwhelming. Aftab and his team distributed the first story arc of the Paasban series to over 15,000 schools and colleges in underprivileged areas before launching the digital comic app, CFx Comics, where they put the content up in Urdu.
“It’s been downloaded over 5,000 times in English or Urdu from our website and app. We also have an audio book out now on the Patari.pk music streaming service which has been heard by thousands of people around the world,” Aftab says.
Samir Asran Rahman is a writer working at a Bangladesh-based production house, Mighty Punch Studios. He is also the creator of Ms Shabash, the eponymous superhero character of the series who launches quirky attacks on skin-lightening products and outwits aunties that go about poking their noses in other people’s business. With Ms Shabash, Rahman banked upon the versatility of the comic book form to tell the story of an endearing female lead in present-day Bangladesh.
“Comics are easy to read and the artwork can draw you in,” Rahman says. “They are a strong instrument of communication. They are being used for educational purposes because the medium is able to convey large amounts of information quickly and efficiently. While comics haven’t taken off in a big way in Bangladesh yet, more and more people are beginning to see their potential.”
Among the myriad of social challenges facing countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, one that has led to a wave of gruesome killings is homosexuality. There is still no legal framework protecting the LGBT community in these places, adding to the woes of this much persecuted minority. A lot of gay activists, including the editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, have been hacked to death by radical Islamists. In Pakistan, same-sex relationships are a punishable offence that can lead to imprisonment of up to 10 years. In such an environment, Dhee from Bangladesh, and Chacha from Pakistan, are a couple of comic characters addressing the plight of homosexuals.
Dhee is a curly-haired, bespectacled 22-year-old girl, who is attracted to girls. She is part of a comic series created by a non-registered gay rights organisation, Boys of Bangladesh. Dhee is not a superhero, and she doesn’t have any superpowers. All she wants is her conservative society to know that she, too, is normal; that there is nothing wrong with her.
Similarly, My Chacha is Gay, a comic book created by a Toronto-based blogger Eiynah, is about a child trying to fathom why people ridicule his uncle, who is fond of another man. While Chacha’s social struggles, as expressed by Eiynah, has found sympathisers across the world, Pakistani media has been unsurprisingly silent on this subject.
One may now begin to look at such comic series as effective tools of social change, of an impending cultural shift. As Devineni rightly puts it, “Creating a cultural shift is incredibly difficult, but not impossible.” Comic books, then, are helping to make the impossible possible.