Appupen is just a pen name, I thought I should come up with something cool but not totally weird,” says George Mathen, a first-time graphic novelist, long-time cynical comedian and author of Moonward.
Understanding Moonward is all about tuning into its author’s trip. To that end a few details: Mathen started out in advertising and used to support that work by doing freelance illustrations for magazines and even wall paintings for various pubs. Subsequently, he got sick of the corporate world and turned to the NGO route, going to work for Greenpeace in Bhopal. After a major ideological fallout there, he returned to advertising for a bit before taking up the graphic novel gig fulltime on his website georgemathen.com. Shortly after, BLAFT publications in Chennai decided to make his work their first full graphic novel.
Moonward is based in an allegorical world called HALAHALA (also the name of the poison Shiva drank during the churning of the oceans) which Mathen confirms is intended as a sort of dark mirror for our own. “Where else could I get the inspiration from?” he asks. Its story traces life in that world from origins, the animal kingdom, to idol worship and the pivotal point where man comes in to the picture and begins his lust for conquest, all told portrayed in stark grayscale images that goes perfectly with its somewhat dystopian tone.
As Mathen says, it’s hard to identify a protagonist among the litany of characters, but the story centres on a character called Ananthabanana, or Mahanana as he eventually becomes known and his power trip to conquer the world. The book is not exactly art reflecting life, but Mathen confesses that the character is loosely based on the executive director of Greenpeace. Ironically though, Ananthabanana comes to represent everything about corporate greed and its need to consume all.
He has several aides along the way though and Moonward is at its best when it describes technology (or consumerism) running amuck — machines that run on TICTAC syrup, giant plants on conveyor belts, robot manufacturing lines, an official drink called supacola all created by a scientist called Mushtaq and promoted by Mahanana himself and a guy simply known as the marketing head.
Several characters recur throughout the book and of these ‘the artist’ is particularly interesting — having first come on the scene with magic running in his blood (literally) he eventually ends up painting huge wads of money and life-size portraits of
Mahanana. Mathen is elusive about whether there’s a bit of himself in this character but offers an explanation “When people get into fields like advertising they don’t realise the kind of power they have.” While they get into the creative stuff because they have some sort of magic in them they eventually end up blindly drawing things to sell to consumers. So it’s a bit like painting money.”
The theme of the book is nicely held together in the prologue and epilogue, which feature a character called the moonwatcher. Without giving too much away, those particular segments end with the moonwatcher realising that the moon has been colonised by HALAHALA. “I just want to ask the characters in the book where they are going,” Mathen says. “If conquering the moon is what all this is eventually leading to.”
Mathen, who is also popularly known as the drummer for the Bangalore band Lounge Piranha frankly admits that he initially though of Moonward as a comic book but “people think comic book are for kids. Once I said I was writing a graphic novel
everyone was like Wow! That’s serious.
“I just hope that some of the thoughts in there strike a chord with readers. Hat’s the good thing about pictures, you can interpret them any you want. Some people might find it disturbing, but why should something disturbing be bad?”
While the writing in Moonward is minimal it’s probably just as well because Mathen’s strength is in the drawing, in depictions of the crowded HALAHALA and in characters that tell their own story.