Picking up a book lying on the table, you flip through absentmindedly. Stopping at the tenth page. Sketch and picture, cover to cover. Is this a kids comic, you wonder? Stories usually told through words, now spill in action sequences which don’t seem very kiddo-friendly in use of words or color? More panels like the still photography of a movie follow. Image dominates. Less wordy. But distinct from newspaper comic strips read by adults, where the action goes from start to finish in one go.
This complete narrative – the adult graphic novel, which as a lovechild of cinema and literature is hoping to go from it’s alternative status in the 20th century, to the mainstream, in India of the 21st. Orijit Sen’s The River of Stories published in 1994 was India’s first to step away from the devotional, the mythical and the historical hero and slam dunk straight into environmental politics of the then present, the controversial construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river. Twenty six years later in 2021, Sen is the editor-in-chief of Comixense, a quarterly magazine, which at Rs 1600 for a two year subscription is specifically aimed at twelve to seventeen year olds. In an interview with The Hindu, Comixense contributors shared recently how the stories hope to break a biased narrative children have of certain communities and show the issues people are fighting for, by telling relatable humane tales.
Framing Climate Change ‘Panels’
Climate change is often a toughie to wrap one’s head around, not only because it is vast, but also because it happens over time. Often the connection between causes and effects of climate change do not register clearly either, as we go about our daily life. Can its effect be understood then in an instant?
Yes, panels in graphic novels are able to compress time and space in cinematic flashback and forward. In The River of Stories, Sen used the panels to juxtapose the voice and thought of the displaced. While over the rest of the page, a canvas unfolded, showing the dense forests, by the Narmada. He didn’t have to then state their role in the ecosystem. It became visually obvious by connecting the distant with the near.
Like good cinema it can also make the invisible visible. Clever page design often in fact makes some connections graspable. Like Figure 2 here, from the 2015 comic, The Fragile Framework: Can Nations Unite to Save Earth’s climate?
What helps most though is positioning people as part of the story. Through the experience of the protagonist, the reader can be more willing to explore unfamiliar situations. A 2017 study conducted at US’ Pepperdine University, in fact confirms that when a graphic novel is used as teaching material, it advances visual literacy and deepens student engagement. A reader gets to actively participate in the story, while the blend of image and text, breaks the continuous monotony of either. Quite like the underdog in movies cinegoers identify with, but here there is time to stop and reflect, go back and forth and then perhaps root for.
For instance, the second issue of Comixense has a graphic adaptation of the title story from the award winning short story collection by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, The Adivasi Will Not Dance. Set in one of the nine districts where coal is mined in Jharkhand, it takes you into the racha, the inner courtyard of a Santhal adivasi home. It tells you the story of the conflict between the adivasi and development as the governments see it, from a Santhali point of view. The adivasi gets a face one can see and a context unfolds like a tale. Not dry facts and figures in otherwise well meaning school textbooks.
Colouring in the gaps
While the impact of both sequential visual art and graphic novels dealing with climate change on readers is quite an understudied area, a 2017 study by Sweden’s Lund University did explore the issues with perception. With creators and readers, through in-depth interviews of authors and focus groups with two groups of fifteen students each.
Results showed that graphic novels helped become a relatable conversation opener to discuss problem areas. While some used to reading text did not pay attention to the images, some others looked only at the visuals, with only a few doing both, for perhaps more complete meaning making. The participants also expressed the importance of integrating art with science to better visualise the aftermath of climate change and natural disasters. Communications thinker McLuhan back in 1964, associated comics with games and with the social in the human. Later thinkers saw its potential for instruction and entertainment. While comics are often derided historically for not being serious, several experiments continue regardless.
The Economist in 2018 attempted a graphic novel approach on Instagram to make the work of data journalists understandable through Data Detectives. Comics Uniting Nations routinely partners with UNICEF to help the young connect with Sustainable Development Goals, goal by goal. NASA in September 2021 came out with a fictional interactive graphic novel to showcase the story of the first woman on the moon. At the ongoing CoP26, 5×15 brings together authors, activists, entrepreneurs, slam poets, graphic storytellers and a singer who has been concerned about the environment since she was 3! The aim, an art and science combo event. Creating a buffet of skilled storytelling to provoke thought, stir the imagination and take the climate change conversation forward.
With cli-fi getting as young as climate activism around the world and with screens dominating India, Comixense and the visual world seem in timely cahoots. Whether young or adult in India, climate change can be as graphic as they come.
Devanshi Daga is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She has completed her major in Psychology and is currently pursuing her minor in Sociology and Media Studies.
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