Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Comics That Made Me What I Am (A Nerd In The Very Best Sense)

A few days ago, I received a pack of DVDs from an online seller that made me delirious with joy. The DVDs contained scanned comic books from the 60s and 70s (the so-called Silver Age), and among these were many that I had owned when I was a child.

Going through this set gave me many nostalgic moments, and I realised that my very way of thinking has been profoundly altered by their influence.

My favourite comics were not of the light, ha-ha funny kind. Many of my friends enjoyed reading Archie, Richie Rich, Donald Duck, Sad Sack, and the like. My favourites were Science Fiction and Superhero comics.

Being middle-class, my parents couldn't afford to indulge my every request, but they did occasionally buy me the comics I asked for, and these gave me so much pleasure that I read them over and over, memorising the dialogues even when they made little sense at the time.

In those days, Indian schoolteachers were strongly discouraging of comics. The received wisdom was that "comics spoil your English". Our teachers wanted us to read classics in book form instead. But I maintain that I learnt a lot more from comics. I not only built up an impressive vocabulary at a young age, but also learnt a number of scientific concepts long before they made their formal appearance in my classroom. That's why I would encourage all parents to give their children Science Fiction comics from a very early age, and indulge them in their fantasies. My father was quite indulgent, and often laughed along as I made up my own scenarios and dialogues using scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology.

Here are some examples of what I read:

Doctor Solar - Man of the Atom

One of my first SF comics, if not the very first. This was published in 1967, and I got my hands on it sometime in 1969, I believe. I was six years old then.

In retrospect, the Doctor Solar comics were a bit amateurish, because the hero's powers were not well-defined, and he could apparently do anything. Still, this comic familiarised me with a number of scientific terms that I would learn the meanings of only much later.

For a 6 year old, my vocabulary began to expand in strange ways.

"Outer Space" became a common word in my vocabulary, and this was not the only comic to use it

"Atomic radar vision"? Oh, well.

Germs, viruses, contaminated

An isotope of Uranium

The speed of light

Vaporized lead, orbits, spores

Atomic artillery, matter, energy


Molecules, absolute zero

High-frequency sound, airless void

"No sound can pass through an airless void"

Expansion can explode vessels like steam overloads a boiler

Cosmic storm

Looking back on this five decades later, I'm in awe of how much this one issue taught me. I was mesmerised by the story, the superhero and his powers, and all the scientific terms that were casually thrown about. I think this was the comic that laid the foundation for my later career choices in favour of engineering and computer technology, and my lifelong interest in science in general.

Magnus Robot Fighter

I had two comics of Magnus Robot Fighter, and both were mind-blowing. Looking back now, I realise that it was Russ Manning's visionary artwork that brought a future world to life in such breathtaking and convincing detail.

Bunda the Great

This was a story about a robot that grows too big for its own boots, even demanding to be treated as a god until Magnus brings it down.

As I said before, the artwork in this series was simply spectacular.

The drawings were so detailed and consistent that one could form a mental picture of the future society called "North Am".

Magnus defeats the mighty Bunda that weighs four tons. It crashes to its death because it does not contain anti-gravity units!

There is an element of religion here, and perhaps my first exposure to the idea that religion is just quackery.

The birth of a new religion...

...and its debunking by science.

Robot Ghost

Another beautiful Magnus story was of a group of invincible robots surrounded by a force field, robots built by a scientist to exact revenge on society after his death. The robot Nadmot filled me with delicious chills. It became my favourite villain for a while. The only way to defeat it was by trickery.

Note the beauty of Russ Manning's artwork, and the imagery it conjures up.

Guard-robs and riot-robs

The guard-robs prove ineffective against the evil robots' force-field

I had memorised this sentence so well that older kids in my school bus would ask 7-year-old me to recite it for their amusement: "Even Magnus's steel-smashing strength is unable to penetrate the mysterious barrier that veils the evil robots"

Ultimately, Magnus fools the evil robots with an illusion...

...and sends them off on a one-way trip into deep space. Once again, look at Russ Manning's depiction of the world of the future.

Space Family Robinson - Lost in Space

Much later, I learnt that this was a futuristic take on the classic adventure story "Swiss Family Robinson". The issue I had was called "Attack of the Plant Creatures".

Once again, the artwork in this comic conjured up a very romantic image, this time of space travel in general. 

How lovely to be able to live in a home like this!

Ooh, laser pistols! And they can burn holes through a ship's casing unless you set them for close range!

The notion of vacuum has never been explained more graphically

How nice it would be to live in a space station! Sigh.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Closer home, the adventures of a nuclear submarine called the Seaview captured my imagination. I had two comics in this series. The first was about an intelligent dolphin called Star that organised the creatures of the sea against humans.

The Emperor of the Oceans

The artwork here was fabulous, too, and it gave me chills.

It was scary to see whales hijacking a submarine. The reddish light in the submarine's cabin gave it an atmosphere of crisis.

The Life and Death of the Seaview

This issue was even more dramatic. It introduced something called the Moho fluid, believed to be responsible for all life on earth. But a subterranean explosion opens up an underwater reservoir of the Moho, and the Seaview is forced at one point to fill its ballast tanks with the fluid. That turns the Seaview itself into a living creature.

The artwork in this issue was nothing short of magnificent. I was by turns fascinated and terrified by the underwater scenes it depicted.

I wouldn't want to be caught in something like this!

Not to mention being inside something like this!

This was one of the most thrilling scenes for me - how the Seaview was taken back

And the thrilling race back to the surface, because there's a time bomb that will seal them in along with the Moho fluid if they don't make it out in time!

Admiral Nelson of the Seaview was one of my early heroes, and it gave me a thrill later on in history class when I learnt about the real Admiral Horatio Nelson

And the mandatory philosophy lesson right at the end.

I simply loved submarines, thanks to the adventures of the Seaview


The School for Superman Assassins

One of my aunts bought this issue for me, and I remember this with gratitude.

Superhero comics were a slightly different experience from Science Fiction comics, but there was still a great element of science fiction in them.

In those early issues, it was necessary to remind readers that Superman's secret identity was Clark Kent. 

Since this was my very first Superman comic, I certainly needed to be told that.

This was my first introduction to the notion of matter and anti-matter...

...and to the notion of time travel. I would read HG Wells's classic 'The Time Machine' only much later.

"Friction causes heat" - I learnt this from a Superman comic long before I heard about it in any science class

In-between some humour, a number of concepts were taught

Again, long before I learnt Newton's Third Law in a classroom, Superman had already taught me that "the physics principle behind rocketry is reaction"

This is just a sample of what my eclectic childhood was like. I grew up on a university campus, with academics for parents. I would never trade my childhood for anyone else's. And a large part of the magic of that childhood was thanks to the wonderful Science Fiction and Superhero comics I grew up with.

Once again, I would exhort parents to give their children the gift of this magic. Five decades later, I'm still tingling with excitement to re-read these beloved stories!

Review Of "Ghoul" - An Allegory On The Danger Of Summoning Up Spirits We Cannot Control

[Spoiler alert]

The 3-part Netflix serial "Ghoul" is scary, and I'll tell you why.

Not because it's a supernatural thriller (there are no such things as ghouls, after all), but because it's an allegory for something that is already happening in India, and in a few other places in the world.

The trailer predictably focuses on the superficially scary, and tempts the viewer into uncovering its deeper chills over its three episodes

The premise is simple, and not much of a stretch from what we see today. Set in the near future, this is a dystopian tale of the Indian state that has turned hypernationalist, seeing enemies around every corner, and cracking down hard on every hint of dissent, terming it sedition and treason. In this story, Muslims are the natural suspects, but so are those who merely exhort others to reason and question. India here is a society that has placed itself under siege.

The main character is a young woman, a Muslim, who nevertheless accepts the official narrative about enemies of the state, and goes as far as to turn in her own father for his seditious activities. The father is no terrorist, merely a professor who strays from the officially approved syllabus in order to make his students think for themselves. But in the kind of country he happens to live in, that is a treasonous act. The young woman belongs to a quasi-military law enforcement agency, and she is summoned to join the team at a special interrogation centre, for reasons she uncovers only later. All the prisoners here are Muslims. With the exception of the protagonist, none of the law enforcement officers is Muslim. The lines are drawn quite starkly.

The superficial storyline deals with the interrogation of a new prisoner who turns out to be something other than human. In the torture chamber that is euphemistically called the interrogation room, he turns the tables on his captors, and unleashes a bloody trail of horror. However, that's the predictable part - the shadows, the suspense, the running, the screaming.

But here's the secret to unravelling the allegory. According to the serial, the ghoul (or ghul in the original Arabic) is an evil spirit that is summoned by someone who draws its symbol using their own blood. But after the ghoul appears, it has a will of its own. It is not subservient to the will of the person who summoned it. It often devours them, then assumes their appearance and walks among their kind, striking at them when they least expect it.

It's fairly easy to decode the allegory once we start looking for it, since the best stories usually weave a deeper tale beneath the one they are ostensibly telling. The ghoul haunting the entire serial is the spirit of hypernationalism. The viewer cannot miss the irony in the dialogues. Once summoned, the spirit of hypernationalism takes on a life of its own and cannot be sent back to where it came from. It will exact its price in blood until it is sated.

This, in fact, is not the scariest entity in 'Ghoul':

These are:

The rigged interrogation of an innocent man

The official who knowingly has an innocent man executed, and still maintains that he has done no wrong

What is especially scary about 'Ghoul' is that it is so topical, so close to reality. The demonisation of Muslims in India is complete. They can be lynched with impunity, and their killers walk free even when there is clear video evidence of their crime. Hindu members of the public march in numbers in support of rapists and killers. Ministers and officials greet them with garlands, and pay their respects to them when they die. The families of their Muslim victims are further harassed with trumped-up charges.

The prevailing culture has turned hypernationalist. Those who do not stand up for the national anthem are punished. Those who don't toe the nationalist line are called traitors. Fake news is circulated about opponents, and they are vilified as enemies of the state. Critical journalists are murdered.

What can a demonised minority do when the slightest resistance will be seized upon as an excuse for a harsher crackdown? 'Ghoul' is both a warning and a kind of wish-fulfilment. It is of course a warning to those who think that summoning the spirit of hypernationalism is without risk. The evil spirit will devour those who summon it as well as those it was originally meant to devour. But there is wish-fulfilment here too.

After all, the supernatural being who wreaks bloody havoc among the oppressors is not a rakshasa or asura from Hindu mythology. It is a ghul from Islamic mythology. For a community that is helpless to fight back against injustice, a cultural twist to an otherwise karmic revenge can be the only grim satisfaction.