Students at Bonabyl Academy are falling victim to a mysterious sickness triggered by intense fear. Miro, a blind student who is terrified of the dark, must travel to dangerous places and face his deepest fears, in order to save his best friend before it’s too late...
‘A horrifically cute comic adventure about monsters and friendship’, Bonabyl is the brainchild of Bangalore-based illustrator and designer Manek D’Silva. Released online, page-by-page every Tuesday, the idea for Bonabyl started when Manek decided that he wanted to do something where he was the client, and things were professionally made for him rather than him working for others.
We speak to Manek about his comic-making process, the drive to create Bonabyl, and the comic scene in India, among other things.
Tell us about your childhood and early years as an artist.
I grew up in Bangalore and drew a lot as a kid. From copying whatever was on my classmates’ pencil-boxes to anything I saw on Cartoon Network, I tried to draw it all. A lot of my friends used to be good at art as well and we used to have friendly competitions of who could draw the best bike, the coolest weapon or the funniest face. That’s where my interest stemmed from. I went on to do a degree in painting, where I met a lot of people who were different from me, all great at their own techniques and concepts, and whom I could learn from.
Interestingly, until I was 18, all the art I ever made was in black and white. I was mortally afraid of colour. But there were people in college who were so good at it, so I picked up some tricks from them and now, colour is one of the defining aspects of my work.
Process shots depicting the making of a single page in Bonabyl
What led up to your experiments combining text and imagery in the form of a comic?
Over the years, while watching cartoons and films, I started getting enamoured by not just the art but the stories as well. I’ve always been fascinated by long-form Anime and Manga stories like One Piece - one of the longest running and highest earning animation series in Japan. Their range of character designs were really far-fetched and still somehow fit together, so the art really fascinated me. But more importantly, after watching hundreds of episodes, you get to a point where you’re so engaged with the characters that you forget about the fact that you’re even reading or watching something created by someone else. Even though it’s so clearly a cartoon, it feels real. That’s the greatest gift a creator can give an audience. And that’s what I want to do as well. I want other people to feel what I felt watching all those amazing films and series growing up.
In terms of art, I’m also influenced by concept artists like Michael Kutsche and Loish, whose playful painterly styles make fantastical characters feel real. Then there’s comic artists like Gabriel Bá, the artist behind The Umbrella Academy, and Fiona Staples, who worked on my current favourite comic Saga.
Growing as a writer, I started shifting my focus from being someone focused on big words and complex sentences to actually thinking of what should happen at each moment. I started breaking stories down into simpler bits and pondering what makes them interesting. I also started studying writing and went to a conference in Rome by the Oatley Academy, who have some amazing resources online and still help me out with storytelling. I really enjoy writers like Eiichiro Oda from One Piece and J.K. Rowling, who manage to tell beautiful, long stories set in amazingly rich worlds.
So when did Bonabyl start taking shape in your mind?
During my time at art school, there was a story in my head that I turned into a five-page comic and showed to close friends, who thought it was really cool. So I started working and implementing all the new things I was learning about storytelling, plots and themes. And eventually, the story of Bonabyl emerged. It was motivating for me to see a story come together like that. I felt like this is something I wouldn’t mind dedicating a big chunk of my time to.
With the ideas I had initially, I imagined it would take at least 5000 pages to tell the story! But I’d need to be immortal to finish something like that. So I started editing it down, keeping only the things that the story required and estimated around 1000 pages, which is still a ridiculously long project. Every author I listened to said “Whatever you do, don’t start a long project because the way to get good is by finishing many different things”. There’s also unknown authors who spend years working on singular projects in isolation and when they finally release it, if it’s not good or well received, it crushes the spirit. If I spent some 10 odd years working secretly on Bonabyl and at the end, it was only ‘kind of okay’, that would be terrible for me!
So I decided that the only way to diffuse that pressure was to show people pieces of the Bonabyl world as I create more. That’s how most webcomics work. This way, it could become like an open draft where people tell me things and give feedback and I’m never at a point where I feel too much weight to deliver. With this page-by-page release, I also get the experience of finishing many things rather than just one thing. I’ve slowly generated a cozy but very encouraging audience over the years.
What are some of the themes you’ve explored in the comic?
Thematically, Bonabyl is about fear. One of the premises of the story is that the things you are afraid of materialise into tangible, physical monsters. Usually, the biggest fear is darkness and so, the main character being blind makes it more interesting because he’s in a state of permanent darkness. His level of fear is often based on what other people are telling him.
While the themes are mature, the treatment is quite fun. I didn’t want to make a story where some high-brow moral overshadowed the fun of it all. Of course I want my story to be meaningful and let the reader think about their own fears. But at the same time, my goal is to just have fun in the process. I feel that the idea of literally just making something fun and enjoyable for the reader is missing from a lot of modern Indian comics.
How did you arrive at this particular style of illustration?
A lot of illustrators and artists have one style. They find their visual voice and stick to that. However, since I have worked in the world of design a fair bit, I adopted the mindset that style is not about you, it’s about what the project requires. So while I do have some styles I like to use, I’ve kind of given up on trying to find a singular style that is distinctly Manek’s. I just enjoy the process of considering what would be best for every project, searching for influences, learning about new styles and executing. Style is the vehicle for the message your art and story need to convey. If you need to change your style or learn something new, you just do that.
But yes, my work does tend to be influenced by the things I watched as a kid. It’s colourful and exaggerated. Even if I’m drawing something fantastical, I still want it to feel like you can touch it.
The premises of the webcomic is that the things you are afraid of materialise into tangible, physical monsters
In your experience, what’s the current state of India’s comic scene?
I went to one of the first Comic Cons in India, and was somewhat disappointed because I expected to see crazy cool Indian comics and series, but got there to find comics that were just 12 pages long. Of course, short comics have a role to play – they’re easier and cheaper to make and buy and help spread awareness. But I was just annoyed that not enough creators were committing to bigger stories. I wanted to know where the Pokemons and DragonBallZs of India were!
To be fair, there are a couple of comic series with long running, deeper stories but the number of projects of that scale are very few. I feel like maybe we don’t have a culture around comics because there’s just not that much content. I get it - something like Bonabyl is a big time commitment, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, after all the long series I’ve seen and read, I needed to at least try to make something comparable.
What does the future hold for you and Bonabyl?
I collect a lot of high-production value books – novels, art and design books, comics – where a lot of care has gone into making them. You feel a sense of joy when you hold them. Somewhere along the way, I realised that I want to make beautiful, desirable books to the best of my ability.
Bonabyl is now online for free, but when I make it into books, I’d like it to be something that people would want to keep for a long time. Something worthy of a spot in the library.
Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.