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The Snake And The Lotus — Appupen

Design Log 20 Mar

We enter the mythical world of Halahala with artist Appupen and plunge into his latest graphic novel The Snake and the Lotus, a black-and-white hand drawn visual treat for sci-fi fans and art lovers alike.

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Pages from the book The Snake And The Lotus

The genius of Bangalore-based novelist and artist George Mathen, better known by his pen name Appupen, runs through the 276, gorgeous hand drawn pages of his fourth graphic novel The Snake and the Lotus, which releases today. From the depths of Halahala - a mythical, dystopian world envisioned and created in Appupen’s previous books Moonward, Legends of Halahala, and Aspyrus - comes a powerful new story of mankind’s fight for survival, the impending clash between Nature (the Green) and Technology, and the fragility of the universe.

The latest adventure, his most visually stunning and darkest endeavor yet, is set in a future where humanity is in ruins, and we are the control of AI and machines. The remaining survivors of our race follow the New Order, unable to hear the dying call of the Green. Under these bleak circumstances begins an adventures to prevent impending doom. 

Over three years of drawing, storyboarding, and giving shape to his imagination, Appupen has created a graphic novel that makes for great storytelling while also subtly hinting at the direction we’re taking today as a civilisation, the politics that rule us, and the urgent need to change our ways. He shares his process in an in-depth interview:

Three years spent hand drawing every page of a book. That’s quite a commitment. After the previous Halahala books, what drove you to work on The Snake and the Lotus?

I simply have a thing for nature, and building webs and stories. From the time I started working on Moonward, the idea of limited resources and Nature has stuck with me. The Green is calling, but no one's listening. And if you do listen, something connects to you at a deeper level but it’s disturbing because you don’t want to give up on your comforts and lifestyle to save the Earth. Collectively, we’ve ignored that voice. But what happens when the stakes are raised to the point that if man puts even one more hay to the camel’s back, it’s all gone? This book is trying to capture that moment. I believe that my work should mean something and give me reason to dedicate myself to hours of storytelling. 

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Original hand drawn pages from the book The Snake And The Lotus.

What are some of the themes you’ve tried to highlight?

In the book, everything in Halahala has been ruined and all of man’s creations lie in rubble. I feel that as humans, the time has passed where we can put a stop to things. We’re really not the smartest beings and have no survival plans! So an underlying notion is about how humans think they’re the masters, but are being controlled by machines.

When the heroine reaches the City, she finds that humans are surviving on pills that sustain the divine aura of the Godlings. Here, I’m hinting at Aldous Huxley’s Soma from Brave New World. It’s like being stuck inside your Facebook page where you cover yourself in an image of happiness. There’s not much to your life outside it, but within its walls, it sustains you based on Likes.

The novel also brings out themes like the obsession with power, how women’s beauty is used against them and the interconnectedness of life forces being linked and the breaking of the natural order.

What was the idea behind keeping it black and white entirely?

It played into the idea of only grey and white people existing in the City and bring out any kind of segregation, classification and divide created by man. Personally, I feel the Information Divide is going to kill us. I want to connect to a person but can’t because it's a different world we’re living in today. Everyone’s so deep in their own pocket that nature and humanity have become distant now.

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An illustration of the protagonist of the story.

What tools did you use?

This story was particularly heavy, so it was made over six different storyboards. All the lines were done with a 1 point thick pen, so the levels of details stay consistent. All the fills were done with black China ink, a pen and brush. And lots of black and white correction ink! I used Photoshop as little as I could for the touch-up. I also developed the text and wrote my own script for the first time, so there were a lot of notes involved.

I tried to make the images and details as solid as possible so that the reader doesn't feel shaky stepping into this world. It’s like being able to enjoy a sci-fi film only when the background and make-belief element is done right. If the dragon isn’t flying properly, you just don’t buy the story.

How different was working on this compared to the other three Halahala books?

I don’t have a process. I didn’t go to an art college nor was I born with artistic skills. But over time, I’ve become a much better storyteller, even though it took me time to learn the ropes.

I think I’m finally done with my preoccupation with the demon in this book. The new story is positive, softer, more emotional. I’ve finished dealing a lot of baggage through the Halahala books. So it might not be happy imagery throughout the book, but it ends with a hopeful image at the end, which is what redeems it in my head.

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This is the fourth of Appupen’s books based in Halahala.

What kind of a mindspace were you in during the making of this book?

When people see the art, they think I’m suffering, depressed or ready to kill myself. But if you’re a really depressed person, you can’t make so much and be depressed. My act of making comes from a place of hope. People don’t believe I lead a life like this, where I’m genuinely happy making art and comics in my studio and having my whole life revolve around my work.

I’ve always had a busy life and worked hard to earn my money. But for this book, I had saved some money from advertising and commissioned works. When I got the IFA grant for two years,  I delved into this world like I’ve always wanted to, and could visualise each frame, each page. I wanted to go deep and found out things that other full-time comic artists who are invested in their work do. There’s no end to the things you’ll discover in a particular medium. And if you’re trying to build a world of stories, it’s crucial to go into the nuances.  

How does it feel now that this book is over?

Well, I had trouble stopping the work for the book. I spent two and a half years drawing. So after I finished, I didn’t know what to do. I started making extra pages till I forced myself to start other projects. There are about 50 short stories in the notebooks I’m ready to attack!

I’m now focusing on the other project in my life: Brainded, where I’m using visual communication to show people one way of thinking. I’m also working on a book compiling my Rasthraman comics.

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Book Cover of The Snake And The Lotus by Appupen 

Having worked with multiple publishers, what are your learnings about the publishing world for comic artists/graphic novelists?

The market is arranged such that the margin for retailer/distributor is high while the creator gets 8%. You can’t control the prices, and no creator of comics can survive on 8%. Plus, we’re at such a nascent stage of the comic scene in India that we can’t even complain that people aren’t buying comics for 800 rupees. So that itself is killing the scene.

I’m the most invested creator. I want to finish a comic, give it to the publisher, take a short break and start working on my next one. But either I get a big publisher and make 8% or I run around with it in my bag and ask people if they’ll buy it. These are the only two ways.

A lot of passionate artists and publishers have gone the indie way, and realized that distribution is a pure number’s game - only the big guys play and win. If us small guys want to play, we have to do it with our own set of rules. So we need to find a new model. I’m trying to work on a distributor idea with a few people that might change this balance. Having said that, I’ve been very lucky with the Halahala series. Getting published means taking yourself and your work seriously.

You can order Appupen's book 'The Snake And The Lotus' here.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.