While it is a difficult struggle to convince people that comics can indeed be considered as literature, it is a far more difficult struggle trying to convince people to not dismiss erotic comics as pornography. While the argument proving that erotica and pornography isn’t the same is long, it is easier to state that the world of erotic comics is not a new one. With the rise of alternate universes that showcased explicit drug use, sex and violence, well-loved superheroes found themselves in situations that weren’t entirely innocent. Among the famous names who got noticed for sexy illustrations, Superman co-creator Joe Shuster is one. Disgruntled and disillusioned over dealings with DC involving the copyrights of Superman, he illustrated a series of rather “interesting” images for a magazine, Nights of Horror, in the 1950s. But what did these blasphemous illustrations boast of? Racy, sexy images of Lois Lane and Superman, what else!
The rise of erotic comics can be traced back to the 1932 comic Jane where the heroine’s misadventures lead to her inevitable loss of clothing. Created by Norman Pett and published in the Daily Mirror, erotic comics soon became very popular. And over the years comic greats like Robert Crumb, Art Speigelman, Alan Moore and even Marvel and DC became an intrinsic part of it.
While the rest of the world revelled in sexual liberation, closer home, Sabitha Bhabi known for its cheap thrills became the comic to define the Indian scene. But sadly, Sabitha Bhabi was completely pornographic in nature. But that did not mean that erotic comics did not exist in India. Of the creators who dared to explore sexuality, Saumin Patel’s name is perhaps the most famous one. Known for his sexy illustrations for the GQ sex column, Sex Talk, Patel is not a stranger to the Indian comic industry. He also has titles like Devi, Gabbar and Agent Vinod to boast of. And in recent times, his latest release Kaamotsav has been creating quite the stir.
Though many choose to identify Kaamotsav as a graphic novel, in all honesty, it is not. A collection of erotic art with no text to guide readers, Saumin takes the time to explain the concept to us. “Kaamotsav is a collection of my erotic artworks. It has no text with it as I thought that way the viewer will be able to derive their own meaning out of each image. Sometimes when words are added to any imagery, it kind of binds the imagination. It’s better if various people connect with it differently that way many stories could be born out of the same visual.”
Over the years, erotic visuals have been an integral part of society. Starting from the Palaeolithic era, ending with the master strokes of Milo Manara, the tradition of provocative imagery is in no way a new one. Even in the Indian context, eroticism needs no introduction thanks to the Kama Sutra that has literally created history in this very realm. And away from the pages of books, the temple art noticed in Khajurao also educate us about the relationship India has had with erotic art in the past years.
And it is no surprise to realise that one of the most prominent influences the art book boasts of are the sculptures and art depicted on the walls of old temples. Even though fantasy plays an important role in the blue-tinted images, the illustrations are nothing like the absurd, vulgar and misogynist depictions that most Indian artists turn to while drawing a woman. And Patel believes that his finesse is due to his close understanding of the ancient arts. “I would recommend observing sculptures and murals from Indian caves and temples,” he says. “Eroticism is a governing theme of this ancient art and its spread all around us. Then there are sketches and murals by Gustav Klimt who is a master of composition and technique,” he adds more about his influences. “From comics there are plenty of great artists as well but my favorites are Adam hughes, Milo Manara and Paolo Serpieri,” he smiles.
But it was only between 2010 and 2012 that Patel discovered the joy of drawing erotica thanks to the GQ columns. And it was while he was exploring the realm of sexuality in a visual form that he learnt about the fine line that separates erotica from pornography. “During this time I felt like I wanted to work on an erotica visually. Mostly at that time I had imagined it to be a story to be explored in form of a comic narrative. It could be Sci-Fi or fantasy or even horror but I was sure I wanted it to have a distinct Indian flavour,” he recalls initial inspirations. But though he had sketchbooks littered with ideas, it was only recently that he could create the world he was searching for.” Soon I had a bunch of images which I loved and thought just as a start, these could be shared with people in form of a sketchbook. As I refined these sketches further, they became these ornate illustrations which i then complied into a small book which is Kaamotsav Volume 1,” he says. Though the imagery in Kaamotsav is sexually provocative, there is no actual exploration of sex in the book. A project inspired by mythology and fantasy, Patel chooses to describe his masterpiece as an “exploration of desires or even lust where our inner beasts are given a human form.” In a nutshell, Kaamotsav is what the name hints at – it’s an exploration and celebration of pure desires.
As the conversation draws to an end, Patel leaves us with a thought about the Indian comic industry that is worth pondering over:
I think there is lot of artists and writers telling their stories through comics. But as a medium its a very laborious medium. To write a story or to draw it panel by panel is a time consuming process. Many artists/writers have managed to successfully create big volumes of their stories but not many creative people can follow that. Mainly as most creative people are lured by lot of lucrative choices. A good writer and a good artist both are tempted to work on more and more assignments which are paid and in turn pay the bills at the end of the month. So a few people are creating comics and telling the stories they want to tell. Also the number of them is not increasing. this means fans are left dry for long periods of time from one release to another. And this means losing the momentum each release gains. So this is just one side of it. Other side is do we even have stories to tell? Are we experiencing the world where stories are getting generated every moment? We are simply spending away our time on either our digital devices or spending too much time sharing our tiniest of thoughts with the world where four of our friends could high five it and like the comments. This is a big problem i feel as we are not gathering material, we are not marinating it and letting it grow and then interpret it. So each one of us is a storyteller now and each one of us has an alter ego…the one which is our online persona is cool even in the sad times and the one we are really is something we never ever reveal to the world. We all are no very comfortable with this duality.
All this is affecting our habits in ways we cant even imagine. Somewhere i feel these are some of the reasons that stories are not getting told through comics and stories are not getting read in comics. By it i mean the underground comics not the mainstream ones. I also believe there is a serious dearth of honest stories. also this has lead to no honest following by the readers as well as anything underground is either too vague or too self indulgent or too creative. And such material connects with a lot of people surely but will also surely not connect with a huge mass which is busy watching our mindless movies.
So i think there is work happening and its getting read and fan base is increasing slowly. the pace might be slow but there are creators with some excellent stuff out there and they surely have a certain fan base.