Meme not found

Appupen’s biggest fear is of being a sell-out

Griffin and dragon: Creator of Aspyrus

Aspyrus: Appupen HarperCollins Graphic novel ₹599

In Aspyrus, graphic novelist Appupen shows how an idea can take over the world and a thought come alive

I am in the drawing room of Appupen’s apartment in Bangalore. I really mean drawing room, for this is where the artist creates his graphic novels. The eyrie-like apartment has a lone window, the light from which falls on his drafting board. The view is obscured by residential blocks and commercial complexes. It does not matter. Appupen has sketched far beyond these dismal vistas, past unlovely piles of concrete to a land where the imagination is prized above all things. To a land made by the imagination. The land is called Halahala. Our first reports of this terrain came in 2009 via Appupen’s debut graphic novel Moonward. Further information was received through Legends of Halahala.

Now Appupen presses a graphic novel, still warm from the press, into my hands. It is his latest missive. “The books are looking healthier,” he says, “I like this book, Aspyrus; it is the first time the book is actually looking the way I created it.” For this, he had to convince HarperCollins to shift printing to a press down the road, where he could supervise the production and execution. This attention to detail makes his work so rich and immersive.

The first two graphic novels were extensive forays in what fantasy authors call “world-building”, creating a living, breathing world with its own internal physics and self-consistent logic. With the basics done, Appupen has now taken on another ambitious theme with Aspyrus. In 1976, scientist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’, for an idea that is the equivalent of the biological gene, an idea that would replicate, an idea subject to selection pressure. The joke you liked so much that you had to share, the email you have to forward, the pop tune that you can’t get out of your head, and cats, so many cats, all of these are memes. Visually, a combination of dragon, griffin and dinosaur, Aspyrus insinuates itself into every cranny of the host planet.

I was reminded of the Tintin adventure in The Calculus Affair where the country of Borduria is ruled by the dictator Kurvi-Tasch, with his distinctive moustache. Kurvi-Tasch’s moustache pervades reality in all forms, from car hoods to military caps, just as his thoughts have invaded the population’s minds. “Parasites living inside our heads — we are just hosts for other people’s thoughts and now, increasingly, other corporation’s thoughts, other Government’s thoughts,” I say, stumbling over my explanation of memes. Appupen nods, “That is the idea behind the dragon — he is a trend, and you pretty much welcome him in, he has a very friendly approach; after you become the host, he takes you for a spin.”

Appupen frequently returns to the tension between the Creator and the Created. “This is the biggest taskforce of creative people in the world probably,” he says, referring to the advertising field, “Many creative people cut themselves from the fact that the meme comes off their so-called ‘creative’, and it is justified because they are not accountable for any of the outcomes of that ‘creative’”.

“My fear is that I might get to be really creative if I want to, but what if I make this super ad which converts people to something I don’t really believe in? What is my feeling if that happens?” This is clearly not an abstract fear. I had asked him how he put the bread on the table? He started off in college doing murals in a bar he and his friends frequented. They were a hit and, soon, more inquiries started coming in. His voice dips as if confiding a terrible, terrible secret, “One year… 11 months actually, I worked in an advertising firm.” He shakes his head, as if at the enormity of what he has done. “Actually I just sold myself, I went to three ad firms, I just took the guy who was paying most,” he says with a laugh. He had to — he was working on Moonward and had run out of money. He stayed on the job till he finished the novel.

Without the scaffolding of words, his creations burst the panels with great vividness. What are the challenges of writing ‘silent’ comics? “Back in Kerala,” he says, “a man looks after my father. He doesn’t speak English or have any experience of comics. He reads my work first. Wherever I see him not getting it, I know I have to iron that part.” He evokes Jim Woodring’s Frank, combining graphic sophistication with the doodles you make at the back of your college notebook.

Appupen, by writing his own private mythology, has unlocked a world that lies between the madness of the meme and the genius in the gene.

(Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer and graphic novelist)

Published on July 25, 2014

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