Stripping it down to the basics: A look at Indian Webcomics with Sreejita Biswas

Indian webcomics
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In the 90’s, since the advent of the internet and infancy of social media, webcomics became the new frontier for comic books and cartoon strips. As, webcomics grew and democratised the art-from, the traditional print stalwarts struggled to meet the changing consumer consumption patterns and revenue mediums. In today’s “like/share” culture, the fat guy from Oatmeal and the stick figures from XKCD and Cyanide and Happiness are as much a part of the cultural zeitgeist as the DC trinity or Marvel’s Avengers.

Over the past few years, I have had the distinct privilege of hosting panels with Matt Melvin and Rob Denbleyker of Cyanide and Happiness – and they’ve been kind enough to share their decade old insights as to what makes a good webcomic, the struggles involved and the success thereof.

But the Indian context is where it gets interesting – as is the case for any art-form in its infancy. There is fantastic work being done in parts (looking at you Garbage Bin, Stripteasethemag.com, Vigil idiot and Beast Legion) and some terrible (and not so terrible) juxtaposition of vectors/graphics and text pretending to be webcomics in other parts.  

For me personally – the stand-out webcomics come from Stripteasethemag.com. They are one of the few that are pushing the artistic boundaries of what webcomics can achieve in India. With a rotating roster of talented artists spearheaded by Sreejita Biswas, Ojowsi Sur (Head of art) and Karn Kaul, there are a lot of cool things happening at Stripteasethemag.com.

As a comic book publisher who doesn’t really do webcomics, I thought it would be fun to get some insights from Sreejita herself – one part grandma and two parts “catgirl” of the Indian webcomics scene – and ask her about the webcomics scene in India. She’s a comic book creator, columnist, photographer and advertising rebel and also the co-founder of Stripteasethemag.com

Shreejita Biswas TheTeam
From left: Sreejita Biswas, Stripteasethemag.com Team


Tau
(an erratic but fun webseries) and Sunday Comics (a regular Sunday feature on ST) are two of my favourite offerings from their stable and here’s a brief excerpt of a conversation with her on both:

So where did the idea for Tau and Sunday Comics come from?

The idea or inspiration, like a lot of our webcomics, came from pop culture mostly. It was a spaced exercise in imagination. The name Tau, approximately 6.28, came from StripTease the Mag, co founder, Karn.

Sunday Comics also came out of a spaced exercise in imagination. However, this time, it was David Bowie who ‘inspired’ us. We were planning to make page long comics that were not Bollywood wisecracks, social spoofs or stick figures and while listening to ‘Rebel Rebel’ we came up with the first one. As luck would have it, David Bowie passed away a couple of days later and we didn’t have the heart to upload the comic for a while. But then one day, we decided to name the comic after the song and we uploaded it.

For the benefit of others who haven’t read Tau and Sunday Comics, can you elaborate more on the concept?

Tau is about a young alien far from home. He’s spent his life obsessing over Earth and now here he is, stationed in our solar system, keeping logs of what happens here. Sadly, nothing too exciting. So Tau’s left to entertain himself. He has his spaceship’s AI for company though.

We started posting Sunday Comics seriously around 5 weeks ago.  You already know how we named the first one. When we made the second one with Karn, we decided to stick to using song titles. So far, we have Rebel Rebel by David Bowie; Joy of a Toy by Soft Machine; Bad Moon Rising by CCR, Enter Sandman by Metallica and (It’s) A Kind of Magic by Queen on the ‘playlist’.

How do we decide on the songs? We pick one off our playlists at the beginning of every week and we build a story around it. It has proved to be a fun exercise so far.  

Tau, Sunday Comics
From left: Tau, Sunday Comics

So do you just do the writing? Or just the art as well?

Well, I had initially started drawing Tau, but then Ojoswi Sur offered to help me out – which was great to be honest. After Ojoswi, Sangeeth took over for a bit and then RJ whereas Adarsh (Panicker) is our newest artist on board.

I am not saying that I will never illustrate Tau. I am just saying that the time isn’t right yet.  

The important thing about any webcomic is the following it gathers over its course. How has the following been like for Tau? How have you managed to build it?

It’s been fairly good actually. Every time there’s a new page upload, we get some thousand odd hits and a bit of fan mail. To be fair, the fan is mostly complaints about the irregularity of Tau. But as a creator, it is still a pleasantly surprise to realise that there are people out there who are willing to follow an erratically updated webcomic about an alien. The fact that they care enough to grumble when the creators go off the radar is a humbling experience!  

I’ve had that complaint too actually, about its frequency. Be it Tau or webcomics in general is always a little erratic – why do you think that is?

I can’t comment on others in general but in our case, it is mostly other deadlines, sometimes, incorporating changes and sometimes, creative barricades.

Tau webcomics
From left: Tau Episode 07, Tau Episode 09, Tau Episode 11

You’ve worked with multiple artists and are going to introduce a new one. Is it more fun? Or does it hinder the consistency of the comic?

NO! Not at all. It’s a lot of fun! Honestly, I did not have “consistency” in mind when I had thought of experimenting with Tau as a webcomic where different artists came on board every 3 pages. So far, I can’t say that I dislike it.

Having said that, I will HAVE to give you spoiler. The artwork is inconsistent for a reason. You will get to know why sooner or later. I would place my money on later though.

A lot of webcomics internationally do graduate What’s the plan with Tau – print any time soon?

I really haven’t given that thought yet – it’s way too early into the journey!  

You make quite a few webcomics apart from Tau and Sunday Comics, can you tell us about them?

I edit an anonymous web-comic called The Girl Who Smokes Pot – it is basically about the misadventures of a young girl who also happens to enjoy an occasional toke or few. This series is hilarious.

I have a comic blog on Tumblr where I keep making some of the most random webcomics. But that is mostly handled by my evil twin.

Which three Indian webcomics do you love and would recommend for the readers?

I love Green Humour by Rohan Chakravarty, it is a humourous and insightful look at wildlife and nature.  My other favourites include Crocodile in Water, Tiger on Land is great witty writing and Jazyl Homavazir does an awesome job all alone with The Beast Legion.

Hobo Lobo of Hamelin
Hobo Lobo of Hamelin

Which five webcomics do you regularly read and would recommend for everyone else?

Lackadaisy by Tracy Butler, it’s about anthropomorphic cats – which I admit, I have a soft spot for.

The Holy Bibble which as you might imagine, is a spoof of the Bible.

XKCD, I mostly don’t like webcomics that use stick figures. But XKCD is a work of genius – it is so good, that even stick figures look like sheer art.

Romantically Apocalyptic by Vitaly X Alexius, the sheer amount of work this man puts in to make every single comic is incredible. I love his idea and how he uses images from the present to shape an apocalyptic future.

Hobo Lobo of Hamelin by Stevan Živadinović, you need to take a look at this site, right now!

The scene here in India obviously has its problems. What according to you are the worst things to have happened to comic creators in this country?

While most people who make comics in India are quick to blame the reader, I blame the people who are responsible for nurturing the reader. Do you know, most of the self-proclaimed critics, curators and editors born out of new media actually do not know the difference between fine art and sequential art?

We need to realize that all of us have a sort of responsibility towards the form of art we “support”. If you are not educated enough or well-informed yourself and yet choose to swear by sequential art just because it is a valid form of coolness, you become a part of the problem.

So what would be your message for the prospective webcomic makers in India?

Your webcomic won’t make itself – really!

Aniruddho Chakraborty is the founder of Chariot Comics, an advertising person in the daytime and an occasional columnist and reviewer.

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