Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tintin & Asterix - Trivia

I think even as I try to sound serious about comics, I shouldn’t desist from posting a bit of interesting observations. Even though in one of my earlier posts, I had said that Tintin and Asterix are as different as chalk and cheese in the sense that they don’t fall into the same genre in comics, I cannot help notice a lot of similarity between the main stars of both the comics. Maybe it’s because they are from the same backyard, or maybe it’s accidental, or maybe certain things inspire certain other things. But as the Boy Reporter appeared almost 30 years before the Gaul, I guess the onus is on the latter to vindicate his name that I am about to sully a bit.

Tintin & Asterix

All right, protagonists first! No comments on the funny nature of names. That happens with every single comic book hero. But couldn’t help notice the lack of height! Well yeah, Tintin is a boy (though he often gives the impression that he is at least a 20 year old). So he has to be short! But being the first kid on the block, he owes no one no explanation. But what about Asterix? Why does he have to be a midget? So that he’ll look cute? Or is it that before he debuted in the comic book he was part of a stock character team along with Obelix as shortso and fatso?

Haddock & Obelix

Both the protagonists got companions who are not as brilliant as them and are there mostly for comic relief! One drinks like a fish and one eats like a pig!

Snowy & Dogmatix

The dogs! The only difference here is that the latter belong to the sidekick. There is a huge mystery here. How did Dogmatix end up on Obelix’s lap instead of on Asterix’s lap, as is usually the case? I mean it’s the hero, who always has a dog, isn’t it? I mean the hero does all the adventuring, doesn’t he? I mean the hero deserves the dog, doesn’t he? So was it rather deliberate?

Calculus & Getafix

When you are in fix, get a fix! That’s what the Druid is for. Lack of technology meant that he had to fool around with potions and mistletoes. But his earlier Belgian counterpart, a certain Professor Calculus has the 20th century at his disposal and dabbles in modern day inventions. Not as potent as the magic potion, nevertheless his inventions can take you all the way to the moon. Bottom line is, both are inventors in the their own right.

Castafiore & Cacofonix

Now it’s a mere question of gender! The ladyhood and 20th century snobbery might have saved Madam Castafiore a lot of blushes, but for the poor old Cacofonix, it was tough life indeed. But then you can’t expect a bunch of bashing barbarians to have an ear for music, can you?

Apart from the main stars I can only think of one other character similarity off hand, but this one is even more striking.

Abdulla and Pepe

Aha! Both of them are spoiled brats and irritate the hell out of the readers themselves that you want to enter into the comic book just to spank the hell out them. But that’s beside the point. The point is that both of them are there for diplomatic reasons and their protection is top priority. Besides both look similar. Coincidence?

But well, even though one can point out all these similarities proudly like Thomson and Thompson, I am not going to argue that the creators of Asterix liberally helped themselves to the characters from Tintin except perhaps in the case of Pepe and to a certain extent in the case of Cacofonix. It was perhaps merely a question of creating a wide array of characters and besides in Asterix some of the stories revolve entirely around these characters, which is not the case with Tintin.

But then at the end of the day it is quite interesting to note these little similarities that add a lot of colour and breadth to the two great comic book series ever written!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Phantom & Batman

Phantom Vs Batman! Now if both the vigilantes were to lock cowls, who would win?

Oh, yes, it’s a silly question indeed. It would be the Dark Knight all the way! The Grey Ghost (or should we say, the Purple Ghost?) would be voted out by comic book lovers all across the world. Even critics, who usually bail out the underdogs, would swear by the Dark Knight. Indeed, an unfortunate state of affairs for the grand daddy of Masked Vigilantes and ‘underpants-over-the-pants’ crime fighters.

Reminds one of the Superman Vs Captain Marvel sales war way back in the 40s where the public chose the ‘Inspired’ over the Original forcing National (now DC) to sue Fawcett over intellectual property rights violation.

Just like it was plain and acknowledged that Captain Marvel was a verbatim copy of Superman, (so were all the subsequent super heroes) so was Batman a reinterpretation of The Phantom, though never really acknowledged.

Yes that is indeed a serious allegation, no doubt. But let me see if I can convince the jury. Here are the three key points of discussion.

1) Raison d'ĂȘtre – What made Christopher Standish (later Christopher Walker) to become the Phantom and what made Bruce Wayne to become the Batman were the gruesome killings of their parents. Coincidence?

2) Fear – Now this is the most telling aspect of the Phantom that was appropriated into the Batman character. One of the underlying Ideas in both the comics is the play on Fear and Superstitions. The very look of the Phantom is to induce fear among the criminals, an Idea that was liberally borrowed by Kane while creating the Batman. But neither Kane’s artwork nor the writers’ story telling ever managed to create that feeling on the pages of Batman comic. The only time I’ve seen this motif effectively captured was when Chris Nolan came out with the movie, Batman Begins.

3) The Territory – Even though the Phantom operates in the city occasionally on account of his numerous visits to meet Diana Palmer, his ladylove, Phantom’s territory is usually the Jungle. And so is Batman’s! Practically it may not be, for Gotham is a city with a Mayor and all that bureaucracy. But metaphorically even the Batman operates in the jungle. Unlike in Superman or Spiderman, the city plays a far more important role in Batman Comics. You don’t speak about Metropolis or (oops, I can’t even remember where Peter Parker lives!) in the same breath as you would speak of Gotham! Gotham plays far too critical a role in Batman comics. Just like the Phantom who cannot exist without the Jungle, so can’t Batman without the City! Just like the Phantom who needs the cover of the jungle to operate, so does the Batman, the City. In Batman, the city is a metaphor! A metaphor for the jungle where all the dangerous species take refuge. And when the night falls, the city behaves no differently from a Jungle. From the alleys, isolated buildings and dark corners, criminals crawl out for the kill. But don’t worry, Batman to the rescue!

Now before the jury retire to the chamber to make up their minds, here are a few minor points to chew upon:

4) The Mask – The Phantom may not be the first in popular fiction to wear a mask, but he certainly was the first to in comics (even though there was a fella by the name of the Clock who was masquerading around the same time). True, Batman’s mask is more of a Cowl, but just like in the case of the Phantom, the whole get up is part of the character (thanks to Bill Finger who convinced Bob Kane that a Domino mask wouldn’t just do the trick!) Yes, this is rather debatable on account of the fact that a character based on a Bat has to resemble a bat at least aesthetically and I am sure that the die-hard fans of Batman won’t just give up easily on this topic. So let’s leave it there and move on to …

5) The pupil – This was purely Lee Falk’s genius. Inspired by the Greek busts that were devoid of pupils, Falk employed the same idea on the Phantom with great result. The result, masks without pupils become a superhero standard!

6) Skin-tight costume – Yet another superhero standard, thanks to the Phantom.

7) Colours – Indeed, the Phantom wears a Purple costume where as Batman is dressed in Grey. But then the original colour of the Phantom’s costume as mentioned in the comics was Grey!

8) Underpants-Over-The-Pants – To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t Superman who introduced this standout feature of the superhero culture. It was the Phantom!

9) The Cave – This doesn’t need much explaining, does it? Both the characters use a cave as their bases.

10) Wealth – Both the characters are rich beyond one can imagine.

11) Generations – Looks like Batman will soon incorporate this aspect of the Phantom (even though to generate reader interest). Dick Grayson is touted to don the cape and in a few decades time one can expect to see Dicky retiring or giving up the cape to err, what is the name of the incumbent Robin?

I rest my case. But originality seldom sells, does it? As we all know it’s all about bottling the product! And that is what made Batman the figure that he is today and the Phantom more of a one-dimensional stock character. Again one’s attention is brought towards three decisive factors:

1) Aesthetics - There is no denying the fact that the Batman has much more appeal than the Phantom. A Masked Vigilante in a purple suit! And to say nothing of the striped overwear! Come on, gimme a break! The ideal colour could have been a deeper shade of grey as Falk had initially mentioned in the early comic strips or even black! Such a character has not even a snowball’s chance in hell against the Crusader decked up in shades of grey, with his face covered in a stunning dark mask (with bat like ears) and shrouded in a cape. Ah the cape!

2) Art – There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the artwork in the Phantom. As a matter of fact, Sy Barry’s more than 3 decades long artwork is immaculate, consistent and flawless to say the least. But as opposed to the artwork in Batman, the artwork in the Phantom lacked the edge. It’s seldom inspirational. You don’t find yourself lost in a particular panel or the use of shadows and colours. No, you can’t defend by saying that the Phantom is not much into staying awake in the night to allow shadows to play across the face. It’s about understanding the possibilities of a character. This can easily be understood if one compares Superman and Batman comics of the 60s and 70s. While Batman comics looked exciting in terms of artwork, Superman comics looked dispirited. This was because the same artists who worked on Batman comics found making Superman look respectable a bit difficult and ended up presenting a beefy hunk instead. So unlike Batman who could often take the comic book to the level of a graphic novel luring older audiences ensuring longevity, Phantom could never grow beyond the definition of a comic strip character. Nevertheless its heart warming to note that the newer artists are doing some commendable job on Phantom. Well, better late than never!

3) Villains – A hero is only as good as a villain. So one can imagine what villains like the Joker, the Two-Faces, The Penguin, The Riddler and The Catwoman (the list is endless) among others can do to Batman’s resume. One aspect that made the Phantom, the poor man’s Batman!

But even if all these aspects had been favourable, the Phantom still wouldn’t have made the cut. Because the single most important factor that can decide a character’s popularity is exposure. And that brings us to the Medium.

The Medium – This was perhaps the single most important factor that shunned the Phantom’s emergence as an internationally relevant superhero. Phantom made his appearance in comic strips instead of in a comic book. The trouble with comic strips is the fact that it doesn’t really lend itself to feature length stories, as it would take at least a few months to finish a story. And reading an adventure story, 3 panels a day doesn’t really work unless you are a die-hard fan of that particular strip. Even though the Phantom stories did get collected and were presented in the form of a comic Book, well unless the medium gets carte blanche command over a character they can’t really do much, can they? On the other hand Batman had the perfect launch pad in the form of Detective Comics. Finish the story in one go and just hope that there is some mischief brewing in Gotham so that Batty can put it right! Besides Batman often got reprieves in the form of highly successful TV Serials and Movies.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill Watterson & Kieran Meehan

 Watterson and Meehan are the two names that come to my mind when I think of comic strips. Though there are so many successful strips and artists, to me none perform at the highest level as Watterson did and Meehan does. There is no need to wax eloquent about Watterson. I mean, what can you say about Calvin and Hobbes that has not been already stated? Well it's funny, it's witty, it's thought provoking, it's addictive, it's blah-de-blah! So i will talk about Meehan instead.

 Meehan is not Watterson. His claim to fame - A lawyer, a doctor and a cop (now called Pros & Cons) may take some more time before it might draw comparisons with Calvin. But to me Meehan is Watterson!

 (1) While Watterson created a boy who thinks, talks and acts like a grown up, ever dwelling on life and fate, Meehan created a bunch of grown ups who think, talk and act like children.

 Sample this: 

 & (2), Both Calvin and LDC are rather formulaic. 

 Well, the formulaic bit is true for almost all the strips. There is a set of stock characters, who operate in a particular environment and who deal with certain recurring situations.  But more often than not, most of these strips suffer from lack of consistency in humour. So maybe i should have said: (2) Both Calvin and LDC are overly formulaic. 

 While other strips tend to be wary of recreating similar situations, both Calvin and LDC seem over-enthusiatic about it. As a matter of fact both the strips thrive on being highly formulaic. Yet we love it. Look forward eagerly to the next strip. That leaves us with the most obvious question to ponder about: is being formulaic the key to producing the most funniest of strips? 

Perhaps. But i think the success of these two strips stem from three different factors. Three factors that can be considered so unique to these two strips. 1) The Simplicity 2) The Artwork & 3) The Smile!

 1) The Simplicity

While strip artists tend to think clever with the result that it becomes rather contrived,  both Watterson and Meehan think simple (sometimes outrageously so!) in that they look at real life situations and try to appropriate them into their respective worlds and thus create a contrast resulting in a sense of ludicrousity but more often than not, clever!

2) The Artwork

For most of the artists, artwork is to a large extent representaional. The artwork is there cause the medium demands it; to turn a joke into a comic strip. This is where Watterson and Meehan again scores over the rest of the pack. Instead of confining the artwork to communicate emotions, Watterson and Meehan take emotions beyond their generic form resulting in more subtle expressions. 

Spare a glance on the poise of most of the LDC characters. It requires incredible artistic skills to synchronise the emotions and body language so well especially when you portray them as having kiddish personalities.

To understand the brilliant artwork that Watterson is bestowed with, all you need to do is look at this one strip.

But having said that if you strip both the strips off its artwork, then you are left with a few lines that won’t even make any sense. A few of them would, i am sure, those that are cleverly written like the LDC example above. But look at the other examples contained in this article, especially the one involving the cadet. Most of the LDC strips are in that vein.  So if it's not the words that generate humour as is in the case of the first example,  then where does the humour come from?

It stems from the smile that never takes leave of the characters. 

3) The Smile

As far as I am concerned, this is the trump. Both Calvin and the characters of LDC always have a smile on their face - a wide optimistic, self-indulgent smile. In the case of LDC you can add the words, ethereal and kiddish! And without those smiles, the humour in most of the strips would just be lost.

 For most of you Meehan maynot be quite as familiar as Watterson is. So for all those uninitiated, here is the link to Meehan’s website -

(all the strips presented in this article have been used for illustrational purpose only)