Appupen, the comic artist and the man behind Moonward, Brainded India, The legends of Halahala, and Aspyrus, lives a dual life. His alternate world of Halahala runs parallel to ours and his tales give realities a sarcastic spin. Renowned for his political satires and reflections, Appupen talks about himself, his art and his upcoming book ‘The Snake and the Lotus’ in conversation with The Woke Journal
Tell me a bit about your journey. Let’s start with a Cliché question- Why did you choose the name Appupen?
I am aware that what I am doing is trying to make meaning of my life. So you know, it’s like making fun. As comic people, I think we should be open to making fun of ourselves which is why I like comic more than the so-called “serious art business“, where if you make fun of it, then you are done (laughs). The market might not like it. You can’t, you have to keep up the image. But in comics and in cartoons we can make fun of the art itself. I think it’s a lot easier, an open format and it’s a lot more real and irreverent; these are the reasons why I liked comics as a kid.
I wanted all my stories to be connected. Therefore, I set them in the same world. That world has its own logic and it becomes surreal or fantasy as the story grows. There are some places where the author gets into the story itself. Like, you see in Mahabharatha, how the storyteller put himself into the story, very conveniently. He eventually becomes the ancestor of all the heroes. It’s a nice play in the very idea of storytelling itself.
Appupen, because I am called Appu at home and in school. I became kannadi Appu as I got spectacles. When it came to a pen name kind of thing, the name Appupen got stuck in my head Appu-pen: Appu’s pen name. It’s actually very obvious. And, if you are from Kerala, you know that Appupen is part of all the stories, pand pandoru appupen indarnnu, It starts from there right? So, I thought Appupen was a fun thing.
It would be too funny if I try to make a personality out of myself. Appupen makes it easier for me. When I go to Lucknow, people call me Appupen-ji. Then I have a little laugh inside me (laughs). And also, if I am on the right track, I can work and become an Appupen hopefully (laughs).
When did you start creating comics? At what point did you decide to choose political premises for your comic strips?
See, I am not solely sold on the political thing. It started appearing in my work very recently. Before that, it was aimed at similar kind of criticism but towards corporate agenda. That was my focus for the first book and a few more. The third book is basically what I learnt from advertising. Advertising is a dreamy premise, it creates a dream and the dream will control you.
I am interested in the mind space, in what occupies it. I think, if I want to become a better creator, I should be able to address most things that affect one’s mind space. So, Halahala I think was a mindscape and I am still opening it up. Politics became part of it because our political atmosphere changed. It suddenly started to block my free thinking. As an artist, or as a writer you are trying to go deeper into these zones.
Is it like you weren’t bothered by these things before and suddenly it started to bother you as an artist?
I think it came into my personal space. It started being too intrusive only after 2014. There are references to larger political things in my earlier books. But I’m more specific about it now. What I see is politics with a corporate agenda. And I am wary of it. Be it image building or how you deceive people through advertising by the corporations. The government was just catching up on it earlier. Now, the government is leading the thing. They will teach the corporates a thing or two.
When it is unleashed at that level, it seemed like being quiet about it, is not an option. If you are quiet about it now, you may not like it later or you might regret it later. So then the “Rashtraman” stories started. I am glad they came in a natural way. However, in my head I wanted ten of them, to start the series. And it was in 2015 that I started putting them down.
And then, I think in January 2016, the JNU issue happened and the situation was precisely what I had put in the comics in October. All that control and power was coming together. What we are dealing with in the Moonward or 1984 or Brave new world, this dystopian setup, this dystopian control over things, it is growing around us. I didn’t even have to make the first few comics that I released. It was already there and I just had to make this choice- do I want to put it out now? or never?
Also, at times, you are trying to depict dangerous situations in your comics, to warn people. But when that situation becomes your reality, it’s not nice. It’s very disturbing. So, there was always this idea of building a parallel to India in Halahala.
Halahala is a world with many kinds of like landscapes, usually, the landscapes are chosen by the kind of stories I want to tell. You create one place that is suited for the story. If it’s a funny story it looks like that; if it’s a dark story, it looks like that; if its pollution and post-apocalyptic, it looks like that. So Halahala is a fantasy world. You can travel up and down the timeline inside the story. But this Indian political thing came together only with Rashtraman comics.
We have a semi-literate, hardworking and poverty-stricken population. It’s very easy to manipulate them. Whoever turns to manipulation, has an agenda. Like, the issue around cow was always there. But if you rake that up and make it into something, then there is an agenda. These sort of political agendas which were becoming visible pushed me in that direction.
I could also see this worldwide shift towards the ‘right’. There is an outright show of power and control. If we want to tell stories about it, I think we should do it now because later we might not be able to.
So how do you see the landscape of free speech and expression in Modi India?
When they started, it was slow. However, suddenly things changed. People got arrested for sharing opinions on social media. I don’t know how they were doing it, or what the agenda was. It was not like they were blanketing but it was to send some signals that everybody shouldn’t do it. But now it is gone I think. Our “Modi posts” do the best mostly.
That is where I was getting to. Does it scare you? It is easy to land into trouble especially for an artist right? Do you self- regulate yourself or…
See, I really don’t want to get into trouble. That is not the idea of doing these things. We do art because we like to do art. We use art and humour to make a point. We are not hitting somebody on the head with something and saying, this is the point. Because that would be a dictatorship. If there is any action I can think of, I would prefer it this way and that also presupposes that you have a sensible ground for it.
Well, the present situation is one where you cannot presuppose anything. You know that, right?
Yeah… but what is the alternative? We keep quiet and be afraid? And if more people do that then more people will believe it and fall for it.
Have you ever run into trouble for this?
My scale is very small. I don’t have too many people following me. Also, the comics are going to elite, English speaking city folks who are not really going to do anything about it. They’d probably share it on their page and that is like the end of it. I don’t think that is a threat.
But there are at times, irritating trolls and comments. It is always the same set of people who do it and they tag each other nowadays. Earlier, it was uncoordinated, now it is very coordinated. They will tag each other, comment on the post the thread goes on.
You can see that the post has more than 100 shares and three people over there are like laughing and abusing the artist. If it gets too abusive, we ban them from the page. The problem is when people are sharing the post, under that the first comment would be like “Behenchod something”. It’s just a joke. You don’t need to carry the abuse with it everywhere.
But mostly, I don’t argue on these pages. I don’t think the arguments reach a conclusion over there. It is just to irritate your space. I need to maintain a certain space to create or draw. Even personally, I am very scared of losing that space. You need to be in the right frame of mind to find some humour in the darkness around. And I usually am, but sometimes it gets difficult.
When it comes to cartoons or comics or even stand-up comedy for that matter, political correctness is something that people are discussing quite a lot and we also have cases like that of Charlie Hebdo which shows what one provocative cartoon can result in, right? So, how much is too much for you? Do you draw a line as to how sarcastic can you be?
See, I think, I have a certain sense of what works in India. Each place has a certain level of acceptance. At times people do things to catch attention. Like, you do something crazy and can get some attention for free. But if it doesn’t really make a point then I am not for it.
In social media, there are some unsaid rules. If it’s not suitable, then there are ways to filter it when we put it out. Say if the content not suitable for kids, and if I print it in a book and say adult only, then it’s okay. Everybody who uses social media should have a certain amount of responsibility. But having said that I don’t think it’s up for any kind of censoring.
I have friends who got their posts censored. Somebody complained and they took it down. Anybody can complain. I don’t think any of these platforms are so openly fair that everything gets shared equally. We are here (social media) because that is the only way to spread our work without spending any money. I can’t print because I can print only so many books.
How easy or difficult was it to get into the publishing world?
Publishing is like the artist thing we talked about earlier. There are different tiers to the world. It was very easy for me. I started making comics in 2005 as Appupen and I didn’t know what to do with it. Also, I wanted to figure out if anyone wants to read this. Or am I on my own trip? So I was putting it up online on my website. Those were the times when social media wasn’t that popular. You had to email people to come, visit your website. So I send it to people in my circle, my friends. I think there were about 70-80 pages of comics that I had put up online.
There was MySpace after some time, so I would lead people to my website from MySpace and I would put some stuff on MySpace, as well.
Blaft, a small publishing house in Chennai, contacted and asked if I would like to get published. So it came in very easily. I got contacted by them. I don’t think I would have gone and pitched it to a publisher, I don’t think I would have done it ever. This felt very natural. And it also gave me some sort of conviction. This meant a lot. This was what I was looking for. Somebody had to come in and say,” yes you can do this, we will print this.” Blaft did that for me.
That was really helpful and changed everything for me. It made me think of myself as a comic creator. I started taking myself seriously as a comic artist. This was in 2007. The book came out in 2009. All of 2008, I was making some more stuff so that I could make one book. I wanted to throw in everything. So all the stories have various ideas; the book is really cramped, raw and rough. I really like it, and I think a lot of people like it too because it’s out of print and people still keep asking for that book.
So tell me a bit about your new book, Rashtrayana, right?
I have two books this year. The Snake and the Lotus is the big book that I worked on for like three years. Rashtrayana picked up while I was on it actually. I was working on the other one from 2015. It took me more than two years to draw it.
So in ‘The Snake and the Lotus’, I am talking about the “White City.” White city started with Moonward. In Moonward Nana, the protagonist, sows the seeds of this city and the city grows right in front of him and he says “My white city”. It’s a future version of that city shown in Lotus. So it is nature versus technology versus man.
That was very heavy and meanwhile, I was doing these fun, action hero things. I don’t like superheroes, I don’t like hero-worship. Superheroes are used to sell different kinds of agendas. Batman is actually stock trading and weapon dealing. Captain America is like fighting in the bloody war. It normalises many things for the new generation and it is also is creating some sort of jingoism.
It is similar to this surge in recruitment to the army after Mohanlal acted as an Army official in three movies. Mohanlal gets like a Padma Shri or Lieutenant Colonel or whatever. It is all a game, right? So, whether it is Mohanlal or Superman, it all leads somewhat the same way.
So, how to bring down the superhero? How do you make fun of him? How do you blow holes in this superhero idea? So, Rashtraman for me is this blatant superhero. If Captain America is really telling the truth, then he will tell people how the oil company is so important and how the rich will only get the money and whatever. Even in his merchandise, he only wants people who can buy his merchandise; he doesn’t want people who can’t afford his merchandise.
Rashtraman is that. He doesn’t care about the poor people because they have no buying power and they are not going to influence anything. So he happens to be like the current government. That’s what Rashtraman stands for. He represents the right-wing agenda, corporate agenda.
Do you feel repetitive doing political comics?
If you create something about what happened yesterday, then everybody likes it. If you make something about a very important thing that happened two weeks ago, nobody has any recollection of anything. It’s a pretty stupid format. It is very easy for someone who is controlling the media to keep you in these loops. They feed you some joke like the statue or like embroidery on the suit, any little joke.
All the cartoons the next day will be like Modi-Modi embroidery. Like how does it matter? In a dangerous future, all of us would be arguing whether the cow is okay or not to eat for the rest of our lives. How redundant can that be? We can move on to other things.
I think if I was doing like newspaper comics, which have to go every day, I would feel tired. I would try to stay away from immediate topics and focus on the wider perspectives. Even if I print this like a collection one year later, it still makes sense. You don’t have to know what happened every day to enjoy a joke.
What are you working on right now?
I am actually trying to make some money (laughs). I have taken some commercial assignments- paintings, murals, things like that. That is where the money mostly comes from. I have printed Rashtraman myself. All the other books are being published by different larger publishers.
So here’s the thing, it’s cool, you know, when you get published first and you go yaay and all that.
After two days you realise nothing has changed. You get money but not enough for three years working on a book. So you get nothing out of it. And the comic industry is very nascent, very small, we are not even in the mainstream. We are sort of like the underground of the indie aspect of Indian comics. We don’t have a mainstream sadly. If mainstream was more developed and so would we have been. Like now, Hollywood movies are spreading the word about comics. Every household is talking- “what Thanos would do?”- which is cool.
A lot of creative forces or creative energies of our people are all stuck in selling efforts right now. But, I think independent publishing will come up, there are a lot of these independent festivals happening. They come to different cities and that is where we get to sell our stuff.
Definitely, in the last two years, a lot more people are into comics. Nice, new works are coming because people are exposed to everything now. When I started, there was nothing. I had to shuttle between these shops in Bombay and this landmark in Chennai if I wanted to buy comics.
Now there is a shift, then?
There are, say, only four shops where you can get proper comics. But you can see everything online. You just have to search and you will get it. If you are trying to develop a style, then you know these are all the styles that have been used. Most get influenced by them and try to create something like that which is not what we should do but at least we are exposed to it. Earlier we didn’t know.
What is it that motivates you or challenges you as a comic artist?
As said earlier, I think we are all trying to make sense of our lives. And we have to do it in such a manner that there is a balance. If you have to make a call, you should be aware of the consequences. I think I would like to be sure where I place the weight and by nature, I go against the mainstream. So if I am making a story, I should have an original story for myself. I cannot say a predictable story and expect to be a storyteller.
So, I think what we are trying to do is make a mark saying that you tried to do something. Sometimes I really like it. Some days I think, it really makes sense. At least it is something that sort of adds to the variety of things we have. It is not like one more of a mass-produced thing. I am not part of some mainstream agenda or some mainstream ad. It is a small voice but at least it is a true voice.
As artists, I think that is what we look for, to try to find our voice and our expression because all of our source material is the same. We all live in the same world. It is how we see it, and interesting ways of putting it out like film or comic or music. We are trying to put our light on it in some way. We shouldn’t underestimate it also. It is not like a two-year crash course or something.
Sometimes a lot of satisfaction, a lot of pleasure comes from doing the job or finishing the series or putting it together. Some solid meaning is made of your time. I was looking for that. I am hoping that more people look at their work seriously because now there are many new artists coming in. It is not going to be easy for them. But if they stick with it, they will get some- I am not saying any commercial success, you cannot guarantee- but there is a lot of satisfaction.
So, final question! I heard that you used to play cricket and you also played music?
Who told you about cricket?
Cricket is there, huh? (laughs)
So, what would you rather be known as? As an artist, as a cricketer, or as a musician if you had the chance?
I would somehow try and delete the information about cricket. That is very embarrassing. Cricket was… it was fun, it was nice. I never played to win a match, I always played to get selected. Everybody played some games while they were in school and it is pretty much like that for me. It is a good experience. You can meet a whole bunch of people from different states and be on coaching camps and things like that. Cricket was just like childhood stuff.
I love to play music. It is there but… I had a band for a while. And it was nice. We had a good time but then it fell apart. I wouldn’t have given up the band yet because we were just getting popular and playing across the country. But anyways, I lived the band thing. The band dream, check. I wouldn’t rely on it much because I was also feeling bored, repeating songs like 300-400 times. When you are on stage, you have to- it becomes a bit of an act.
So Appupen it is? You would prefer that over the others?
Yes. There is a lot of stuff I would love to work on. I have a list of things to do for Halahala. I think I have become a workaholic like that and I like it.