Dark Night of the Soul: The Art of Appupen

When artist and writer George Mathen, who writes under the nom de plume Appupen, burst on to the Indian graphic novel scene with his 2009 book Moonward, what immediately caught the eye were the stark black and white images of his panels. An experimental narrator, Appupen’s books don’t deal much in words. Unless strictly necessary, he prefers his art to do the talking.

Two more books followed, each based on a similar template, but varying the artistic style with the stories. Thus, where Appupen primarily used pen and pencil sketches on Moonwardand Legends Of Halahala (2012), he turned to watercolour for Aspyrus (2014).

Set in the dimension of Halahala, which is also the setting for Appupen’s other books, The Snake And The Lotus(TSATL) is a deeply anti-capitalist fable as well as a superhero fantasy, and an end-of-times science fiction dystopia. Many readers, and critics, tend to think of Halahala as a planet similar to our own. While there are obvious references to the other books, the self-contained nature of TSATL’s world suggests it is set in but one Halahala among many others.

Although Appupen’s other books aren’t all fun and games, TSATL is especially dark, and unrelentingly bleak. Quite fittingly then, the art too makes a sharp stylistic shift to large full-page panels that recreate the visual effect of elaborate woodcuts. In this, Appupen says, he was directly influenced by, and sought to pay homage to, the American graphic novel pioneer Lynd Ward. But where Ward used actual woodcuts, Appupen chose brush, ink and pen. “I can’t do woodcuts. So I used A3 paper and did the outlines with a one-point thickness pen. The fills and some of the shading are done with the brush,” he says over the phone.

Depicting a world where unbridled consumerism, mechanization and a fully realized class structure have brought the planet to its knees, the black and white panels seethe with detail. On one side is the techno-capitalistic White City—a recurring trope from Moonward—which is shaped like a white lotus; on the other side is the Silent Green, which is the natural world. The White City, where the narrative unfolds, is layered and claustrophobic, with a white-skinned, pill-popping ruling class, or Godlings, lording over the grey-skinned multitudes—literal lotus-eaters who live to produce a grey “lotus milk”. This is the sole source of nourishment for both them and the Godlings. Both classes of humans are slaves to the city, an impersonal demon that exists to feed itself at the cost of everything and everyone.

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This machine hive-mind of the City is contrasted with the primal and decidedly un-pretty Green. The Green is dying, and the vast hinterland of the White City is just an endless rotting pile of masonry and discarded human artefacts. Amidst this desolation stalk giant rats, wolves, locusts and other creatures. The symbolism and tropes can be pretty blunt and clunky at times, but they are rescued by a genuine pathos. Appupen shows himself to be a master at drawing truly nightmarish-looking beasts, and, yet, their lurid, eldritch shapes are somehow graceful and honest, as opposed to the true nightmare of the devouring city.

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The artist’s full-page panels allow him to explore both these facets of Halahala in minute detail. The staircases and pipes and sewers of the city can be felt, as can the muscular physicality of the beasts and insects. In all this, the two protagonists, a grey girl and a Godling man who aren’t what they seem, play out a complex dance of shifting agency, manipulation, abuse and fleeting compassion. The protagonists aren’t standard heroes, but characters who play out their part according to their natures. The narration and dialogue, though fairly minimalistic, are important. “In the beginning, I thought that I could manage it without words. But the ideas were just too complex. Can’t leave that much meaning up in the air,” says Appupen, recounting how daunted he was by the scope of the story.

He uses an omniscient narrative voice, but even the true location of that voice is a mirage. “I wanted the voice to be of someone that is not human. Therefore, I wanted to use a language which removed all human cultural references,” he says. Appupen fashioned a specific script for this, modelling it on the Elvish runes of J.R.R. Tolkien. “The idea of having another script for Halahala was always there from the beginning. But in this book it made more sense.”

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While his earlier books function as a connected anthology of short stories, TSATL impresses with its novelistic scope, its attention to detail, and its consistently stunning art. Although the plot doesn’t pull up any trees, it’s the visuals that leave a lasting impact, and reward the reader’s attention.

The sumptuousness of the frames recalls the work of writer and illustrator P. Craig Russell, especially his black and white art. Appupen’s voice is certainly unique. Unlike, say, Sarnath Banerjee’s self-referential humour or Amruta Patil’s languorous art panels, Appupen’s work possesses a brutalism and otherness that can be bracing. But that’s also what makes his art so compelling.

This article was published by Mint Lounge on 6 April, 2018.

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