What We Talk About When We Talk about Star Wars

This blog post might be subtitled “The Pretentious Ass Strikes Back.” Here’s a story we tell in my family.

In 1977, Cynthia Ann Benson, an undergraduate at Georgia State University, has signed up for a class on film theory and criticism, with some nervousness about whether it will take the pleasure out of going to the movies. On the first day of class, the instructor — Jack Creech — is late, and a group of students are gathered outside the classroom. This guy — you know the one — another undergraduate student  is standing around making assertions about gender, race, and technology in the recently released Star Wars movie to anyone who will listen and to many who would probably rather not be listening. She goes off after class and writes a letter to her best friend describing “this pretentious ass pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars” as summing up everything that made her fearful of cinema studies.  It took me several years to overcome that unfortunate first impression and get her to go out on a date with me. We’ve now been married for almost 35 years.

So, it was some ironic glee that I accepted the invitation of the media relations folks at USC to be put on a list of experts who could talk to the media about Star Wars. I found myself doing some dozen or more interviews with reporters all over the world in the week leading up to the release of A Force Awakens, filling them in about the impact which the Star Wars franchise has had over the past few decades.


If you have a low threshold for pretentious asses pontificating about the social significance of Star Wars, you may want to skip this post. If you are worried about spoilers, the first chunk will be spoiler free and I will give very clear signals when you should stop reading.

In the years, in between, much has happened. One thing my wife and I had in common was that we were not impressed with the first trailers we saw for the original Star Wars. I recall rolling my eyes and laughing it off the screen. In fairness, the original trailers were singularly bad, lacking John William’s music, and using a hooky pitch that we had felt science fiction cinema had overcome by that point.

Keep in mind that there were also trailers at this particular show for more serious science fiction movies such as Logan’s Run and Damnation Alley. (Okay, time has not been kind to these particular films).  I was a young reporter for the campus newspaper at the time. I was offered the chance to interview three unknown actors — Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill, and someone named Harrison Ford — and I turned it down. Some other classmate got to take what turned out to be a really plum assignment. By the time I saw Star Wars, for the first time, there was enormous press and I was pumped, but bad first impressions all the way around.

Cynthia and I would see every subsequent Star Wars film together, on opening day, with the latest one being no exception. We were dating by the time Empire opened, we were married by the time Jedi opened, and we had a son by the time we saw Phantom Menace. In fact, we had an adolescent son given the long wait between and we had practiced some miserable child abuse, because we had forbidden him to watch the Star Wars films on a small screen and they had not released them on the big screen in more than a decade. We did take him to see the digitally “enhanced” versions (he has never seen Star Wars in its original format). And this go around we huddled, as fifty-somethings, under umbrellas in the rain, waiting with all of the undergraduates, to see A Force Awakens for the first time. One of the reasons that I do not think Star Wars has been over-hyped, though God knows Disney and the media have tried, is that so many people have stories like this one, where this saga has become central to the ways they tell their family and personal history. More on this point in a minute.

Along the way, other things linked me with Star Wars. I curated a screening of Star Wars fan films at the Art Institute of Chicago; I wrote a chapter about Star Wars and its troubled relationship with its fans for Convergence Culture; I appeared as a witness for the prosecution in the documentary, The People Vs. George Lucas; and I ended up getting hired by the University of Southern California  (where Lucas was a film student) and teaching sometimes in a building where Lucas’s name is carved in marble over the entrance. So, Star Wars has, hell yeah, been an important aspect of my life since the late 1970s. And though I was nervous after my disappointment with Phantom Menace and its sequels, I went into this one with a new hope, sorry couldn’t resist, about the future of the franchise. For me, the best news about Disney buying and revitalize the franchise was that George Lucas was going to have nothing to do with the new films.

Don’t get me wrong. I will always value Lucas for giving birth to the Star Wars mythos. Lucas, like L. Frank Baum before him, set out to create an American Fairy Tale and he pulled it off with flying colors. We can make a number of claims about the origins of Star Wars. Joseph Campbell, the mytholographer, would credit Lucas with tapping into the “monomyth,” his model for the core themes and narrative elements of global mythology, and updating it for the 20th century. If Lucas did not intentionally tap “the Hero’s Journey,” he may have been the last writer in Hollywood not to have done so, since Campbell’s model, especially after Star Wars’ success, has been encoded into many of the core texts for training screenwriters and remains the template for most of the big budget blockbusters released each year. Lucas was inspired in part by his own childhood, watching serials at Saturday morning matinees, and especially by Flash Gordon, which he had intended to remake, but failed to get the rights to do so. So, he created an original story in the spirit of those classic serials, and crammed it with as many pulp genre elements as he possibly could. He also raided countless other films from around the world, including The Hidden Fortress and Battleship Yamamoto (Japan) and Dam Busters (UK), cutting together key sequences as a means of pre visualizing his movie (as Bob Rehak has pointed out). And out of this primordial soup of borrowed elements emerged what has become the most popular film franchise of all times.

Of course, Lucas did not get there without some real collaborations — with Marcia Lucas (his wife, the film’s editor, and what many believe to be the one person who could tell him no), the classic SF writer Leigh Brackett, the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and of course, the composer John Williams, each of whom played key roles in shaping the core DNA of the Star Wars universe, as did many others (auteur theory be damned). And yes, USC’s Cinema School deserves some credit: Lucas was one of the original “movie brats,” the first filmmakers in America to come out of film school. They had absorbed many classic films — including The Searchers upon  which one of the original film’s most emotionally compelling moments was based — and they knew how to think about the full range of cinematic techniques. Above all, they knew how to communicate with the various technical collaborators and create an audio-visual style that was intensified compared to any previous films to come out of Hollywood. For more of my thoughts on Star Wars‘ impact on contemporary Hollywood, check out this piece. 

Lucas made what turned out to be a key move when he rejected a higher salary of the film in favor of greater control over and more profit from the unfolding of Star Wars as a media franchise. From the start, Lucas saw the ancillary materials as a vital aspect of how he would build up this fictional universe, just as from the start he understood this as something which could unfold across multiple installments. I don’t believe, as is sometimes claimed, that he knew the exact shape of that narrative from the start. I doubt he would have constructed Luke, Leia, and Han as a romantic triangle in that first film, if he knew at the time that Luke and Leia were siblings. But the development of the extended mythology of Star Wars represents a major breakthrough in the emergence of today’s transmedia entertainment. Here’s a good piece tracing some of the contributions that the extensions have made to the Star Wars saga. 

From the start, Star Wars was conceived not so much as a story about the dysfunctional Skywalker family as it was a world with many movable parts that can be explored through a variety of different media — comics, novels, games, toys, animated series, radio dramas, etc. By the second and all subsequent films, we are given glimpses of different corners of the Star Wars universe on screen precisely so that material can be mined and developed through these other platforms. And these other creative developments sustained audience engagement across the long years when there were no new Star Wars films on the big screen and the original versions were not even available for VHS or DVD release.

And of course, the other thing that sustained Star Wars through the years was the intense fan activity it attracted from the get-go. If you trace the history of media fandom, Star Wars ranks alongside Star Trek and Harry Potter as perhaps the most influential fandoms. There’s so much one could say here about the role of SW fandom in the development of fan fiction, fan music, fan cinema, fan vidding, cosplay, role play, and model-building. But, as I wrote in Convergence Culture and testified to in the People vs. George Lucas, Lucas had, from the start, a contradictory relationship with his fan base. His personal mythology relies heavily on stories of his experiences as a Super 8 filmmaker, but he was openly hostile to most other forms of fan production, and his company has modeled a series of different strategies by which studios might bring fans more fully under their control through the years. 

The mainstream media has tended to read Lucas’s comments about the new film as positive. I read a bit more subtext behind them. Read them again in light of the history of animosity between Lucas and his fans: “I think the fans are going to love it. It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.” How we read this comment depends on whether Lucas wants the same things as his fans want and it is pretty well established by this point that they were opposed on almost every development around Star Wars 1-3.  

Moving Lucas’s hands off the reigns of the Star Wars empire is what needed to take place for the revitalization of the franchise we’ve seen in recent months. Ironically, the best way to return Star Wars to its core was to put someone else in charge. And in many ways, Disney, scary thought though it was when it was first announced, was probably the best studio to take control. There are plenty of bad things you can  say (and probably have said) about the Disney corporation. It’s record for fan relations is no better than Lucas’s, but they have made some decisive steps to turn this around in recent years, including sustained outreach to adult fans, rather than basing everything on an appeal to “children of all ages” or writing off the adult fans the way Lucas did implicitly and explicitly around The Phantom Menace. By the early sound era, Walt Disney had created the Mickey Mouse clubs, organizations at movie theaters across the country, which encouraged audience engagement and participation with its properties. These organizations would provide the template for the later Mickey Mouse Club television series. The creation of Disneyland as a theme park and as a television series helped to lay the foundations for transmedia entertainment, and the company has been in the forefront ever since in exploring how to extend and deepen stories across media.

In many ways, the plans for the new Star Wars franchise, with stand-alone films about individual characters sandwiched between contributions to the larger unfolding saga, comes straight out of the playbook that Disney has developed around the extended Marvel universe. All of this makes sense to me.

Putting J.J. Abrams in charge of the new film sent a mixed message. As a Star Trek fan, I did not like what has ultimately happened to the big screen reboot of Star Trek: I had mixed responses to the first film (in which I had an unrecognizable cameo role that is included in the dvd extras — look for the shadowy figure of the Klingon on watch) and HATED the second (another story for another day, but mostly having to do with his total lack of understanding of the core character relations and themes that make Star Trek into a distinctive SF franchise.) So, after Phantom Menace and after Into the Darkness, there were good reasons to be twitchy heading into this film, even though otherwise, there were plenty of great elements already visible in the trailers to set my fanboy heart at ease.

So, what did I think about the film?




It took me probably a good ten to fifteen minutes into the film before I could start to breathe in a normal fashion as the realization set in that this film met the first criteria for being the flagship for a major media franchise: It doesn’t suck. And by the time, Han and Chewbacca show up on screen, I realized that I was loving it. I have still only seen it once, so I am going to avoid making too many grand interpretive claims here, but I will say that the film did what it needed to do to set Star Wars on the right path for the next decade or so.  Here’s some of the things I think it accomplished:

The Force Awakens Revitalizes, but does not reboot, Star Wars. This goes back to the J. J. Abrams issue. I had no objection to Abrams recasting the leads on Star Trek, but I did not think he needed to spend the entire first film setting up an elaborate time paradox in order to explain why and how he did so. I also felt like if he was going to call these characters Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc., he needed to respect some core aspects of their personalities. It is one thing to provide a new interpretation of those characters, as happens whenever a new actor tackles Hamlet, say, but another to fundamentally shift who they are, and by the second film, he was showing a total disregard for those characters. If you can swap out Spock for Kirk in Wrath of Khan, and have it make no difference in terms of how the story plays out, you are not grounding your storytelling in the characters.

This time around, Abrams does show obvious respect and affection for the original characters, both big and small. Clearly, he reminded us of how central Hans Solo has been to the spirit of Star Wars, but there were also great moments featuring Chewbacca who has always been a personal favorite (the scene with the nurse was a highpoint of the film for me), and there are so many minor Star Wars characters hidden like Easter Eggs in the background of various scenes, suggesting a fully populated universe which continues on from the elements we valued from the original trilogy. This looked and sounded like Star Wars.

Lucas with Phantom Menace and Abrams with Star Trek had made a big deal out of needing to throw out the past in order to appeal to a younger generation . But this time, my generation of fans were not sacrificed to pave the way for the younger ones. That scene with Han and Leia, talking to each other about their mature relationship, and their troubles as parents, was directed straight at all of us who had led adult lives while still maintaining a fascination with this franchise. Our mastery over the mythology was valued, even if they did streamline much of the extended mythology built up through the transmedia through the years, and the film returns to classic themes that have made the Star Wars films work as a shared mythology. Some have argued that the film spends too much time looking backwards, not enough time looking forward, but when you compare it with the Star Trek reboot, it is clear that Abrams made a different set of choices this go-around (or was forced to accept them, given how much Disney had running on this one!).

A Force Awakens paves the way for the next phase of the story. There are a whole new cast of characters, each born of the archetypes of the original (literally or not — in some cases it remains to be seen), but each representing new energy and interests. Rey is the female protagonist that Star Wars fans have wanted for decades. Ironically, one of my claims when talking about Star Wars in that GSU hallway so many decades ago was that Princess Leia did transform the vocabulary of the female sidekick in SF adventure stories — she does pick up a blaster and proves a better shot than Han, she does deliver some withering one-liners which cut Luke down to size, and she does exercise some power over the rebellion forces. But, today, I think we would say that the roles offered to women in Star Wars are limited. I assume many of you have seen the recut of all of the lines across the original trilogy delivered by women other than Lea.

Rey ranks alongside Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road), as the archetype for the next generation female action hero. Lucas always saw the young boys as the true audience for Star Wars and had deep ambivalences about its appeal to women, so it is great to see women of all ages get the protagonist they deserve. I am outraged by suggestions that Rey is a Mary Sue character — certainly no more so than Luke himself — and it is not “political correctness” to think that we can have a broader range of characters front and center in these kinds of stories. It is also not “political correctness” to protest when the studio released a set of action figures which features all of the boy characters and does not include the chief protagonist. 

They get enormous credit for making a blockbuster where the white male is at best the third most important character, but come on, for all of the progress this film makes, it really still doesn’t have a clue of how central women have always been to the fan community around this franchise, or why many of us would want both our sons and our daughters growing up with admiration and respect for Rey’s mad chops and self-confidence.

I would argue that the film is still struggling with its racial politics — Finn spends far too much of the film in a state of utter terror and ends up coming pretty damn close to being another dead black guy in an action movie by the final credits. I know he overcomes his fears to be there for Rey, but come on, he doesnt need to hold her hands, but we also do not need to diminish him in order to make her look stronger.

Poe doesn’t spend enough time on screen — he’s got some real potential, but I need to get to know him better. I fell under the charms of Maz Kantana who is not a puppet like Yoda, not too cute like the Ewoks, not a cartoon character like Jar Jar Binks, but really does show the expressive capacities at the hands of contemporary CGI artists in creating alien characters. (I will note that this last is a split decision in my household: my wife and son think I am crazy). BB8 is legitimately cute without being cloyingly so and without relying on racist stereotypes.  And as for Kylo Ren, we have someone as compelling as Darth Maul who is allowed to last for more than one sequel, and someone who shows what a good actor  (and frankly a better director) could have done with the Anakin Skywalker storyline. I don’t love everything about him — the temper tantrums seemed to come from a different movie and one that I do not like at all. But, the emotional core here provides strong fundamentals that can sustain the series moving forward.  

The casting was across the board brilliant, including a deep back bench of performers who still haven’t shown everything they can do with these parts. I left the theater wanting to know more about all of these characters and above all, wanting to know what happens next (the true test of any serialized entertainment).

The Force Awakens was fun. That surely has to be the top criteria for evaluating a Star Wars movie. It is not going to provide overt social commentary — if you want that, go see Spotlight or any of a dozen other films released this Oscar season, with varying degrees of quality and impact. 2015 will go down as the year when Hollywood rediscovered its liberal core — as if the entire industry went back and binge watched the complete works of Elia Kazan and Stanley Kramer. But Star Wars has cool action  sequences, great character moments, witty one-liners, everything that felt so fresh when the original film hit the screen in 1977. The actors look like they are having a good time, even Ford, and the characters clearly like each other. There are enough mythic themes to make us care what is getting blown up next, which is more than can be said for many other big budget movies of the past year.

So, is this the best film ever made? Certainly not. As a Star Wars fan, there’s a lot to nit-pick and a few things that contradict core mythology: how exactly was Finn able to get Luke’s light saber to work for him? (Keep in mind it was previously –even in this film — suggested those light sabers need to be keyed to specific individuals.) What exactly did Han think Ryo was about to do? What nonsense about the maps!)  

Is it the best Star Wars film ever made? I am seeing fans debate whether it is the second or third best Star Wars film — the dust needs to settle and we need to dig around in the new elements before any of us can know — but I’ve seen few assert that it is the best.

Is it a worthy addition to a classic series that has sustained audience interest across multiple generations? Absolutely. It cleared the bad taste out of our mouths, and it paves the way for what promises to be a long run of Star Wars stories into the future. Keep in mind that there was a new Oz book released each year at Christmas time for the better part of the 20th century, a transmedia franchise which was valued by generation after generation.

I want to see Star Wars films that center on characters who are not named Skywalker. I want to see films which provide back story for Han and Chewie, that explore different corners of the Star Wars extended universe, that draw on different mixes of genre elements,  that push the story backward and forward in time. I want to see what happens to the new characters introduced in this film. And it sounds like I will get my chance.

More-over, this film is certain to generate new kinds of fan responses.  I’ve written here often about the amazing work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better in using popular mythology to inspire a new generation of young activists. (We write extensively about those efforts in our forthcoming book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism). Andrew Slack, the co-founder of that group, has moved onto a new campaign which uses the Star Wars saga to call attention  to the role of dark money in American politics. He’s asked me to serve on the Jedi Council, advising him on these efforts. Here’s an example of the early press coverage of these efforts and below, you can watch a video which explains about the Jedi pledge you can take to help fight to help reform today’s broken campaign finances system. So, yeah, social significance after all!

Your friendly neighborhood pretentious ass signing off for 2015. See you next year.

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part Three)

You draw some interesting connections between humor and other culture practices, such as amusement parks, fun house mirrors, photographic manipulations, and games, many of which speak to technological shifts in perception impacting China and the rest of the world during this period. To what degree were such devices a means of responding to the emergence of modern mass media and modernity more generally?

To a great degree, I believe. During the late Qing dynasty, especially during the 1900s, you have a lot of futuristic novels that include looking devices, like the “character-examination lens,” which is a kind of moral X-ray. These writers found China’s present to be unwatchable and preferred to look ahead. In the book I include one 1909 cartoon showing a hand-held X-ray device revealing that the only thing in an elected representative’s heart is money. This 1909 “allegorical illustration” from Shanghai’s Illustration Daily uses binoculars to represent Chinese and foreigners’ tendency to view each other as either larger or smaller than life (figure below).

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In the 1910s, you have the ha-ha mirror, as they called it, being installed in front of big-city amusement halls (figure below) to draw in passersby. And in 1920s films you have plenty of glasses, binoculars, windows, mirrors, lenses, and other optical devices. Not all of this play was comedic—some illustrations of flying machines from the 1880s are more fantastical than anything else—but I do see irreverence being connected to this modern mode of positive exploration, unconstrained by past ways of doing things.

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Postcard of Shanghai’s Great World amusement hall (est. 1917)

To what degree did these comic genres survive the Second World War and especially the rise of Communism and the Cultural Revolution?

Big question, which I hope to answer in a future book called The Unfinished Comedy. In 1957, the prominent filmmaker Lü Ban made a film, Unfinished Comedies, in which a pair of slapstick film stars from the Republican era—Han Langen and Yin Xiucen, playing themselves (figure below)—reunite in New China. In the film, they make a trio of film comedies, only to be berated at the advance screenings by a censor called Comrade Bludgeon. Unfinished Comedies was never released and the political backlash ruined Lü Ban’s career, but fortunately the film survives, and with it the comedian’s cri de coeur.

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To me, the film expresses the resilience of modern China’s comedians in trying circumstances…which are pretty much the only circumstances they’ve ever known. Each era had different constraints and opportunities, including the Anti-Japanese War (1937-45), the Civil War (1945-49), the early Mao era, (1949-65), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The early Mao era, for example, ushered in a new period of didactic comedy, in which satire and eulogistic comedy were the only two modes explicitly endorsed by the Party-state. Nowadays, the government censorship apparatus is more active, and by some accounts more effective, than ever before. But all of the comic genres survive in some form, even as new genres and terminology continue to appear.

Near the end, you talk a bit about forms of internet humor in China, which you connect back to earlier examples of “crowdsourcing” jokes for Chinese publications. To what degree were the styles of humor you identify a popular or grassroots phenomenon as opposed to one reserved to the literary elites? To what degree do you see contemporary web culture as introducing a new “age of irreverence” into China?
Well, people who could read and write were in the minority in China at the turn of the twentieth century. I did come across a few joke books compiled by scribes working with illiterate comic performers. But with the exception of amusement halls, photographs, and films, most of the types of humor I discuss are written, and thus were to some degree products of “elite” culture.

Of course, the Chinese literary sphere had its own pecking order. Most of what I would consider to be the best humor writers of the Republican era were scholars of the Chinese tradition as well as multilingual and cosmopolitan—writers like Lao She, Zhou Zuoren, and Qian Zhongshu. The “humor movement” of the 1930s was an elite one that ended up getting some traction in popular culture, and it’s the moment scholars know best. I make a point of also spending some time with the hacks, the amateur enthusiasts, and the entrepreneurs.

You once talked about “Web -10.0,” referring to earlier iterations of participatory culture—people using mini presses to publish ‘zines in the 1850s, amateurs staffing their own radio stations in the 1920s, and so on. An entrepreneurial ethos also developed in China ca. 1890s-1930s, which involved a lot of sharing. Tabloids, literary journals, cartooning magazines, and small film companies shared labor—moonlighting was the norm—and content, like jokes.

Xu Zhuodai, who became one of Shanghai’s most popular comic writers, founded a slapstick film company in 1925 with a second-hand camera and a bunch of buddies from his theater troupe (figure below). He called their opportunistic, shoestring approach to the business “cigarette butt-pickup-ism.” Wu Jianren, one of the most prolific joke-writers of the 1900s, claimed that people in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia kept retelling his jokes. So he republished his favorites. Cartoonists were even more welcoming of new talent, and solicited contributions from readers.

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A still from Cupid’s Fertilizer (1925), produced by Xu Zhuodai’s Happy Film Co.

My impression is that, as a whole, Republican Chinese humor, while relentlessly exploratory, was still nowhere near as egalitarian as contemporary web culture, if only because of the breadth and speed of access today. I’ve written before about online video spoofs known as e’gao or kuso, which became popular in the mid-2000s, and generated the most famous comic Chinese meme, the Grass Mud Horse.

I do think that the web has facilitated a new virtual age of irreverence in China (figure below). But the authorities have a chokehold on print publishing and mass media, so, at the moment, we’re hearing much less laughter out of China than we should.

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Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part Two)

Part of what brought us together was your recognition of some parallels between what I had written in What Made Pistachio Nuts? about the “new humor” in the American context in the early 20th century and the kinds of developments your book documents. So, could you say a bit more about the similarities and differences in terms of what was happening around jokes in American and China during this period?

Ah, the “new humor”—same marketing strategy! In both cases, there’s this sense that the modern era calls for a new comedic sensibility. I see a lot of parallels, including in timing. Some jokes stand the test of time and are endlessly circulated. But, even as they make new conquests, jokes seem to have a built-in obsolescence factor. So we promise that this “new” one isn’t stale—actually, it just has to be new to you.

One major similarity is an increase in the volume of published jokes by several orders of magnitude. You have a rising tide of publications that lifts all literary boats, including humor’s humble sloops and dinghies. Writing jokes and amusing “filler” material for various periodicals became a means of livelihood. One writer, Zheng Yimei, was known to his colleagues as the Fill-in-the-Blank King, bubai dawang.

Another is that the rise of the periodical press overlapped with the popularity of a vaudeville culture of variety amusements. The Chinese word for magazine—zazhi, or “assorted records”—resonates with the new focus on miscellany in literary culture, and the choose-your-own-adventure ethos of the new amusement halls springing up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s. Funhouse mirror, floor one. Magicians, floor two. Comedians, floor three.

Finally, joke books, live performances, comic strips, slapstick films, and other forms of amusement became cheaper in the early twentieth century thanks in part to technological advances and urbanization, which created economies of scale. As it became cheaper, humor became more democratic.

As for differences, the main one was language. A new vernacular style of writing was just taking hold in the 1910s and 1920s, so you have humor collections appearing both in a written vernacular close to everyday speech, and in classical-style literary Chinese. The actual content of the jokes was not terribly different, though my impression—having not done a rigorous quantitative comparison—is that you find more puns in Chinese, a language of homophones.

Much of the debate about jokes in America had to do with their ties to a new commercial culture where the desire to make people laugh was divorced from the desire for moral instruction or critical commentary (or so the discourse of the period argued). Are these same criticisms directed against Chinese humorists and jokesters of this period? Why or why not?

In What Made Pistachio Nuts? you describe religious figures and members of the middle class decrying a new cultural force that would see any situation “thrown into the cauldron and cooked into some fashion of mirth.” Chinese critics voiced similar objections. One in the 1930s reminded advocates of “the so-called humor” that “laughter is like tobacco and alcohol: a little is a stimulant, but too much is narcotic.” China had just woken up from its dynastic lethargy—and now humor was putting it back to sleep.

Moral instruction (wen yi zai dao) and personal expression (shi yan zhi) are the two main writerly impulses—so says traditional Chinese literary theory. Either you set the world straight or you vent your own feelings. The moralists of the modern age weren’t just old fogies satirizing modern women in short skirts; you also have progressivists mocking their peers for wallowing in nostalgia for the glory days of the Ming dynasty instead of making revolution in the streets. So, yes, you see the same antagonism toward a new entertainment culture of pictorial magazines, comic strips, amusement halls, and movies. I would add that the “serious-minded” critics also often envied the entertainers’ commercial success.

There are many references here to “western jokes” being popular in China during this period and you also describe various ways Chinese jokes and other humor got exchanged across a diasporic community in the early 20th century. How might we understand humor and laughter as part of a larger set of cross-cultural exchanges during this period? It’s often said that humor is one of the hardest forms of cultural production to translate across national and linguistic barriers. So, what survived and what got lost through these exchanges?

“Laugh, and the world does not usually laugh with you, because the world generally fails to see just what there is to laugh about.” T.K. Chuan, an American-educated writer, also claimed that “it is not laughter that brings men together.” But he did so in an English-language Shanghai weekly, The China Critic, which played handmaiden to a humor craze in the 1930s, translating jokes back and forth with a Chinese-language humor magazine called The Analects Fortnightly. His colleague Lin Yutang, one of modern China’s most influential humorists, was more optimistic. On the eve of WWII, he facetiously suggested that if each nation were to send a representative humorist to a Peace Conference, all war plans would collapse because each would claim that it was all his own country’s fault.

Chinese humor was as internationalized as the Chinese press itself. Chinese humorists drew from any sources they could get their hands on. They read Tokyo Puck, Russian satirical plays, American comic strips like Mutt & Jeff (figure below) and Bringing Up Father, London’s Punch magazine. They translated Mark Twain and modeled magazines on The New Yorker. One Beijing-based periodical reprinted Chinese cartoons with translated French captions. Playwrights wrote comedies of manners channeling Wilde and Shaw. Filmmakers adapted Lady Windemere’s Fan and replicated gags from Buster Keaton.

A Chinese version of Mutt & Jeff in Shanghai’s Eastern Times Illustrated (ca. 1910s). Having cooled down on a hot day by strapping a block of ice to his head, A. Mutt is beaten by a sweaty companion when he dons gloves.

A Chinese version of Mutt & Jeff in Shanghai’s Eastern Times Illustrated (ca. 1910s). Having cooled down on a hot day by strapping a block of ice to his head, A. Mutt is beaten by a sweaty companion when he dons gloves.

As for “western jokes,” that was often a lazy marketing device like “new jokes.” In the 1920s, one writer claimed that Chinese jokesters were cribbing from old dynastic joke collections, changing the names to foreign names, and passing them off as “western jokes.” But you do have lots of translation and bilingual humor, literary and pictorial (figure below).

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Vermin make their home in the newly-established Republic, spoiling the fruit of earlier labors. From Shanghai’s The True Record (Mar. 1913)

My impression is that pictorial humor traveled wider and translated more easily than wordplay, but even still, China—then as now—had some remarkably talented translators who were able to bridge the language gap.

You have very interesting things to say in the book about the reception of slapstick comedies by Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin in China and the ways they intersected with local slapstick traditions. Most of us know little to nothing about silent film comedy in China. Can you give us some glimpses into what was happening in Chinese cinema during this period and how it connected with the other kinds of humor you discuss?

The earliest extant Chinese film we have today is a slapstick comedy called Laborer’s Love (aka, Romance of a Fruit Peddler, 1922) (figure below). That’s pretty late in terms of film history, global or Chinese. But it’s no accident that it’s a comedy, which were then popular worldwide, or that it’s so fascinated with trick photography and gadgets. As Xinyu Dong has shown, the film was responding to American films made just a year earlier, like Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House (1921), which also features a staircase that turns into a slide.

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I show that trick camerawork in films like Laborer’s Love—such as a frame showing two images of a character dreaming of himself—can also be found in contemporaneous portrait photography. You could go to a studio and sit for a photograph in which you appear to be pouring yourself tea, driving yourself in a car, or begging yourself for money, thanks to the miracle of double exposure (figures below).

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Trick photographs using double exposure, ca. 1910s-1920s. The top one (with watermark) is printed on a postcard. The bottom one features a teenaged Puyi, the recently-deposed last emperor of the Qing dynasty.

These novelty photographs had been around since the 19th century, but their reception in China was unique. For example, in the Confucian Analects the Master twice advises that it is better to ask of oneself (qiu ji) than to ask of others—so they called the money-begging photo a “self-beseeching photo” (qiu ji tu). It’s a consumer product that’s at once allegorical, playful, and ironic.

Lloyd and Chaplin were extremely popular in China. Their films screened regularly, and they were both written about extensively in movie magazines (figure below). The handsome, friendly Lonesome Luke character was especially popular; Dong points out that the Laborer in Laborer’s Love even puts on Luke-style glasses at one point. Lloyd’s popularity plummeted in 1929 due to the Chinatown stereotypes in his first talkie, Welcome Danger (1929). Wisely, he apologized, and the brouhaha died down.

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Harold Lloyd on the cover of the first issue of Shanghai’s The Motion Picture Review (Jan. 1920)

Chaplin was revered as an “artist” and inspired local imitators as early as 1922 (figure below). His short visit to Shanghai in 1936 was a sensation. And by then, the Chinese film industry had been stable for about a decade, and you had actors specializing in comic roles, like the skinny Han Langen, who often paired with Liu Jiqun or Yin Xiucen as a Chinese Laurel and Hardy. Unfortunately, the 1937 Japanese invasion of Shanghai, where China’s film industry was centered, disrupted production for almost a decade.

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The King of Comedy Visits Shanghai (1922), a Chinese production starring a British expatriate


Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.


A New History of Laughter in China: An Interview with Christopher Rea (Part One)

Christopher Rea’s The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China offers an in-depth consideration of popular humor and popular culture more generally in China from the 1890s to the 1930s. This was a period of tremendous political and cultural change: many traditional forms of authority were challenged, and  various forms of westernization and modernization impacted the daily lives of the people. Comedy feeds upon such instability: as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has suggested, jokes provide us a way to say things that are widely recognized or felt but can not be expressed directly. Rea looks closely at a range of different comic genres as he describes the ways that Chinese culture entered “an age of irreverence.”

I should be clear that I am no expert on Chinese history or culture, but I have studied what was happening to American humor and comedy during this same time period. My dissertation and first book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, described the ways that the emergence of mass media and waves of immigration helped to shape what made Americans laugh in the first decades of the 20th century. Rea contacted me about his book because he saw some important parallels between the developments in these two different cultures at the dawn of the 20th century, and for this reason, I found myself drawn into this richly detailed, carefully argued, and theoretically nuanced account. I believe that the insights here have the potential to spark larger conversations about the cultural analysis of humor and comedy, so my interview here is designed to pull out parallels and differences between the place of comedy in China and the United States. We are planning to do a public exchange about comedy and cultural change at USC next term, so this is a good dry run for further explorations.

Let’s start with the title. Stereotypes of Chinese culture often include the idea of a deep respect for tradition, for seniors and for ancestors, which all grow out of the Confucian tradition. Yet, you talk across the book about “irreverence.” How and why did China enter an “age of irreverence” and how might we understand what “irreverence” means in a Chinese context?

Respect for tradition and convention was still a strong part of Chinese culture at the turn of the twentieth century, but the top of the social and political hierarchy was breaking down. Qing armies had been defeated by the British in the Opium Wars, routed in the south by Taiping rebels (whom it took them 14 years to eradicate), and, in the 1890s, humiliated by the Japanese. Han Chinese resented the Manchu court, which was increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Plus, you had a huge supply of frustrated, educated men who had trained for the civil service but had no chance of getting a government job. In the past they might have turned to tutoring for a living, but now many went to work for the expanding periodical press, which gave them a new platform to share erudite jokes, write doggerel verse, parody government proclamations, or trade insults. At the time, to express reverence for authority or for Confucian wisdom was anachronistic. You’d make yourself a figure of fun, cynicism, or even contempt.

The founding of the Republic of China in 1912 brought new hopes, but those soured immediately when the former Qing general Yuan Shikai pushed Sun Yat-sen aside and made himself president. Yuan sounds like “ape” (yuan) in Chinese, and a new crop of cartoonists and satirists had a field day with a strongman aping a statesman (figure below).

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“Dreaming of the Central Government.” Yuan Shikai as an ape reaching for a tablet that says “Long Live the Emperor.” Civil Rights Daily (ca. 1912)


This cover from the first issue of Free Magazine (Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the Shanghai daily Shun Pao’s “Free Talk” column, symbolizes a moment at which the press was celebrating the “freedom” (the word the boy’s holding) to be irreverent.

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Cover of Free Magazine (issue 1, Sept. 1913), a spinoff of the “Free Talk” column of the major Shanghai daily Shun Pao


Long story short, the outburst of irreverence was caused by a combination of disastrous national politics, uneven censorship, new mass media platforms, and people motivated to take advantage of these opportunities to change the tone of public discourse.


You talk about the book as a “history of laughter,” by which you seem to mean both a history of genres of popular amusement intended to provoke laughter and a history of the emotion and bodily reflex we call laughter. Can you say more about what it means to develop a history of laughter as opposed, say, to a history of comedy?


Xiaoshi, is a phrase I kept coming across while reading Chinese periodicals from the late 19th and early 20th century. “History of Laughter” is a literal translation of xiaoshi, which could also mean “laughable tale,” “funny story,” or just “funny stuff.” It was print industry shorthand for “Humor Here!” Editors called joke collections, novels, news items, stories, celebrity and political gossip all xiaoshi. They even applied it to a translated 1930s comic strip featuring the silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, who for a while was a bigger star in China than Chaplin. With “History of Laughter” we’re dealing with a genre of affect rather than of form. Part of my reason for using that term is to call attention to this Chinese convention, which predated but got a big boost from a boom in periodical publishing that occurred during the early twentieth century.


My subtitle is “A new history of laughter in China” because modern joke-writers tried to give their products a leg up in the print market by slapping on the term “new” or “modern.” (figure below) Be New was the big modern imperative, though a lot of the jokes that appeared under the New History of Laughter banner were recycled. This is no big surprise—you find the same thing going on in 19th-century Europe and America.

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Utterly Brilliant and Delightful Modern Jokes (1935)


But it does mark a cultural shift. Now you had a broad print culture that thrived on emotional payout. Historians of the era have tended to emphasize the prevalence of tears, sympathy, and other forms of catharsis. In China, this is partly because the Communist Party has, since the success of its revolution in 1949, promoted the Republican Period and the late Qing era before it (roughly, 1890s-1949) as an Old Society of pain and suffering. The era is also replete with laughter, much of which I see as expressing a modern attitude of open, even mocking, skepticism.


My main goal is not to answer the question “why do we laugh.” It’s to identify Chinese genres (including some we might call “comedy”) and sensibilities and show how they changed in the modern era. I focus on five Chinese terms that dominated the humor market in the early twentieth century: xiaohua (joke/humorous anecdote), youxi (play), maren (mockery/ridicule), huaji (farce), and youmo (humor). Starting with this basic lexicon, I show why, for example, the humorous curse became such a conspicuous part of 1920s literary culture, when the promise of a cultural renaissance was eroding due to warlord violence. Or why foreign-educated Chinese promoted a tolerant, worldly, empathetic sense of humor—they saw it as a way to purge their countrymen’s deep-seated cynicism. The Age of Irreverence is partly a history of the Chinese language, so I do pay close attention to semantics, but it also goes beyond that to look at the politics of being funny in a modernizing society.



Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. He is author of The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015); editor of China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters (Brill, 2015) and Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays by Qian Zhongshu (Columbia, 2011); and coeditor, with Nicolai Volland, of The Business of Culture: Cultural Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia. He is currently translating, with Bruce Rusk, a Ming dynasty story collection called The Book of Swindles.

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Four): In Orjit Sen’s Studio

This is the fourth and final installment of a series of posts dealing with the current state of comics and graphic novels in India. It is based on my experiences in Dehli last summer, hosted by Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej India Culture Lab.

Cynthia and I parted company with Vartikka and head out to the outer suburbs, where we are going to visit Orijit Sen in his studio. I introduced Sen in passing a few posts back, but let me take a moment to give this man the props he is due. Sen’s The River of Stories is often cited as amongst the first important graphic novels to come out of India. It is currently out of print but will be coming back soon, so I am personally looking forward to engaging with it more fully in the near future.

Sen offered an account of its creation in the special issue of  Marg on “comics in India.” This is some of what he had to say:

“The universe is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories. Landscapes tell tales, geographies contain histories, trees express emotions, houses are characters, and rocks can be moody…When in 1991 I started work on River of Stories, my first graphic novel project, I travelled to the Narmada River Valley where my story was to be set. I had no clear notion of what I was going to do there but I knew I wanted to experience the land, meet the people who belonged to it, sit on the banks of the ancient and storied river, and watch it flow….Over several visits, I stayed variously at rest-houses, with Andolan activists in their offices in small market towns, with Adivasi families in their village homes, and sometimes in remote ashrams and schools managed by Gandhian organizations. I attended Baghoria festival fairs, wedding feasts, religious ceremonies and political rallies, journeying on trains, buses, jeeps, bullock carts, bicycles, and on foot. Everywhere I sketched, made notes, took photographs and listened to people’s stories. Gradually, the people, the river, the hills, forests, streams, roads, bridges, plantations, hamlets, houses, tools and objects became internalized as part of the visual vocabulary with which I sought to fashion the story of the Narmada Valley and the struggle of its people. I laboured to not just capture slives of life, but to absorb entire chunks of lived experience in the Narmada Valley. I felt this was the only way one could tell the truth about a place and its people.”

What emerged was ethnographic in its focus on a people and activist in its attention to their struggle for social justice.




Sen runs the People Tree shops from the front part of the studio, so it is piled high with fabric and clothing in various states of preparation, and there are people sewing away.

In the back of the shop, he has a team of young artists working on a very interesting project. They are designing a set of murals depicting the history and everyday life practices of the city of Hyderabad on commission for a local art gallery owner. The work is intricately detailed, combining aspects of the miniature painting, street murals, and especially comics. And there are surprising and compelling shifts in perspective which force you to continually reposition yourself in relation to the work.

I was fascinated by what he was producing, since it includes so many details of street life we had observed during our time here, but also manages to move back and forth through time, showing the layers of that city’s history and culture. These images are being developed digitally and will be printed out in huge sheets for the gallery space, but the hope is to use those images to pitch the city to hire his team to paint them onto actual walls and incorporate it into the geography of the city itself. Below are a few images I’ve found online depicting an earlier and similar mural project Sen oversaw, and they give you a sense of the scale and representational strategies involved with this project.






His team includes a Japanese manga artist who is otherwise trying to produce manga with Indian content, a woman who is a children’s book illustrator, and two guys, both of whom are part of the emerging generation of young comic book artists here. One of them mentioned having run the local 24 hours Comics event (this is a practice created by Scott McCloud where lots of artists pledge to produce a comic book in 24 hours). They are spending weeks at a time wandering the streets of Hyderabad taking photographs and drawing sketches – mostly sketches since Sen believes the simplification involved in drawing leaves more useful impressions for comics work.

We have a great conversation with Sen and Vishwajyoti Ghosh, both tracing the emergence of a graphic novel scene in India. Sen described how he had read and loved comics, but could get no interest in them as an art student, until Art Spigelman published Maus and this suddenly sparked an intense dialogue about graphic storytelling, out of which emerged, a decade later, River of Stories.

Ghosh was part of the next generation who was inspired by Sen’s work and together, they have edited several important anthologies of comics by contemporary Indian comics producers — most notably, PAO.


They seem to go around recruiting young talent and trying to connect them with publishers.  Sen explains in the book’s introduction:

“The Pao Collective is a self-funded and self-propelled group of very disparate individuals who have managed to work together over a very long time and put in a hell of a lot of collective effort to conceive, drink beer, create, drink beer, mentor, share smokes, edit, eat mutton rolls, agree to disagree, drink beer and put together this anthology involving some twenty artists and authors.”

Pao‘s contributors represent the core of the contemporary graphic storytelling movement in India, and the entries represent a range of visual styles,  from the highly cartoonish or dream-like, to the photorealistic, from photo-collage to more text-centered works, and from modernism to very traditional folk techniques, all of which convey the possibilities of what sequential art might become in this country.

This piece, contributed by Raj Comics, borrows from the Japanese manga tradition and captures something of the dynamic movement of people and vehicles across India’s densely packed urban areas.

anthology 1



anthology 5

The above image comes from Sarnath Banerjee, whose work, Corridor, we discussed last time: it suggests his keen observation of the details of everyday life.

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“The Pink,” written by Salil Chaturvedi and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan, is a surrealist story about a business man who unexpectedly turns into a flamingo (albeit one who still wears a tie and is still stuck in his established ways of thinking).

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“The Afterlife of Ammi’s Betelnut Box,” Story by Iram Ghufran, Art by Ikroop Sandhu, with additional illustrations by Mitoo Das, gives us a glimpse into the Islamic culture of India.

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Lakshumi Indrasimhan and Jacob Weinstein’s “Tattoo” focuses on the expressive potential of ink and men’s bodies.

In Pao‘s introduction, Sen also discusses there the properties of his medium:

“One could talk about ‘engineering’ comics in the sense that there is a lot of planning, craft, precision and labor involved. First, the superstructure of the narrative arc needs to be constructed with the raw materials that contain a mix of characters, locations, rationales and perhaps some random ideas and images. I try to make this strong yet flexible — else the whole thing might collapse after I begin loading all of the other elements onto it. Then there is the building up of the chapters or sequences that determine the ebb and flow of narrative drama. Planning these bits is not unlike the way one would go about scripting a movie or a novel, I imagine. It is in the page planning and layouts that I feel I really begin to engage with the nitty-gritty of the medium. In comics, the turning of the page is the key act in the unraveling of the narrative. Hence, page break-ups and layout, text placements, etc., are aspects to which I pay a lot of attention. The final stage is the detailing of each frame, choosing angles and points of view, color, and light and shade. Though the entire process doesn’t usually unfold in such a net way, I rely heavily on a hands-on understanding of this inner engineering of comics to respond to the unique challenges posed by each project.”

Thinking of comics as a form of engineering strikes this former MIT faculty member as a very constructive way of thinking through both the production process and the challenges of conveying a narrative across words and images.

As an editor and community organizer, Sen clearly plays a central role in fostering the creative community in Delhi and in advocating on behalf of his medium across larger conversations in the arts world. I saw him struggle with what might be the best way for these artists to break out from their current ghettoization and command the kind of respect and impact enjoyed by their counterparts amongst alternative and independent comics creators in America or Europe. Sen argues that what they need to do is to produce a series of graphic novels, one after another, which can really put their scene on the radar of Indian readers. Right now, there are 1-2 books published per year on average, and so they are not getting the critical attention they require to become more firmly established. We joke about a “season” of comics, something that sustains the conversation across works and builds momentum and publicity over time.

They describe to me some of the comic-cons and comics festivals here in India, that place a strong spotlight on Indian comics.  Sen and his collaborators seem very well connected with other international artists, describing, for example, being visited by R. Crumb who came to India to acquire more early 20th century records for his collection, and they seem to go often to international comics events but not yet to San Diego. We have a great time, sipping chai, and talking about our mutual love of comics.

During the conversation, I also learned more about the grassroots comics movement in India. Here, artists work to help students, farmers, local residents, anyone who wants, to translate their insights about the world into visual stories that can be reprinted and shared with a larger community.  The emphasis of the grassroots comics movement is to help everyday people find their voice, to foster conversations around local problems and issues, by encouraging your friends, family and neighbors to look upon them in new ways.

The grassroots comics movement started in the 1990s and today, the World Comics Network, based in Delhi, runs training sessions and publishes some of the most promising output in newsprint for subscribers around the world. To date, the network has conducted more than 1,000 plus workshops in Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America, involving well over 50,000 participants, all of whom were empowered to draw the world they wanted to see.  This video gives some sense of the energy and excitement they bring to this work

Another glimpse into the cultural life of Delhi:

Parmesh, Cynthia, and I are joined by journalist Nikhil Pahwa, who I had met eight or nine years ago when he visited MIT. He has been at the helm of the campaigns here in support of net neutrality, working alongside AIB (the comic troope whose video was widely circulated across India). So far, they have been very successful at mobilizing the public here to write the regulators in support of Net Neutrality. He says that because they were following the debates in the U.S., they got net neutrality into the conversation quickly and they have largely been able to frame the debate with the result that few directly oppose the principle but many corporations are nibbling away at the edges looking for ways that they can charge different users different rates and provide them with more or less bandwidth while seeming to support a broader grassroots access to the media. We have an animated discussion as we drive comparing tactics used in the U.S. and in India to get the public educated about what’s at stake with these issues. He says the sharpest critiques leveled at his group is the idea that the public is supporting these policies without really understanding them or knowing what the alternative arguments are, so they are making real efforts to educate their supporters so they can respond to questions from others.





Nikhil is taking us to Old Delhi – the original city which was here before New Delhi was built. If New Delhi is highly ordered, a planned city, Old Delhi is one of the most chaotic and noisy places we’ve been in India (and that’s saying a lot). We hire two human-peddled rickshaws and we are ferried at a rapid pace down the street, weaving in and out of flows of traffic, involving motorcycles and auto-rickshaws, past little shops, piled high with goods or food stuffs.   I am impressed by these incredible tangles of electrical wires which hang all over the buildings, basically a jerry-rigged infrastructure, constructed – mostly illegally – on top of crumbling ancient buildings. Nothing here would pass a code inspection in the U.S., that’s for sure.




And then we climb up the stairs, shed our shoes, and enter into the Jama Masjid, what we are told is the largest functioning mosque in contemporary India.




IMG_8642By now, it is late afternoon and the mosque is teaming with activity. There’s a large pool of water in the center, and people are gathered around to wash their feet and socialize. Over head, we see kite battles taking place and every so often, a kite gets severed from its cord (thanks to the success of a rival) and goes drifting off into the sky. We see such a wide array of different kinds of clothing here as Muslims come from all over the country and beyond to worship here. We are not here at prayer time, but we are told on high holy days that the courtyard will be completely full of worshippers bowing towards Mecca. We exit the Mosque and walk around the shop district a bit, but we are running out of time and still have several more stops to make today, so it’s back to the rickshaws and then down the street as fast as our poor guys can peddle, weaving in and out of traffic.

In Search of Indian Comics (Part Three): I Mean, Really, Where Are They?

This is the third part of a series about my adventures in Delhi, which were largely structured around my efforts to learn more about comics publishing in India.

Here’s a bit more about my lunch with the comic artists at the Delhi Craft Museum, drawn from my travel diary:

“There are NO comic stores here. Comics are available through multiple other channels depending on what kind of cultural production we are discussing. So, there are comics in many of the regional languages which even people in other parts of India do not know exist. Amongst English comics, there are pop or low brow titles (such as the locally produced Raj comics which have the most sustained history of adventure comics in the country) which are sold only through news-stands.


On the other end of the scale, there are the ACK comics – essentially the Indian version of Classics Illustrated, mythological tales or stories of national heroes; these are sold mostly through the children’s section of bookstores. Unfortunately, most of the graphic novels with more mature content (not sexual, never sexual, but, as we saw last time, often highly political content) are also most often sold through the children’s book section at bookshops, because there is still a perception that comics are aimed exclusively at children, even when they are not. There are certain bookstores whose managers get graphic novels and treat them appropriately – they gave me the names of several – but these are few and far between and the most reliable place to buy comics would be through online bookstores such as Amazon or its India-based rival Flipkart. The creation of graphic novels in India, accordingly, moves in fits and starts.

One of the folks at lunch – Orijit Sen – published River of Stories which is credited as the first graphic novel to come out of India (now  out of print). There have been a smattering published since, mostly by traditional book publishers, especially those which deal with art books. None of the folks I met live off of their work on comics per se, each works in other corners of the graphic arts world, including doing advertising work or commissioned art pieces. They are seeing shifts in the cultural status of comics, though, as parents and educators have come to accept that “at least the kids are reading” and that these visual forms may be effective at reaching those who the system might otherwise leave behind. Sen talked about being commissioned by a textbook company to create graphic stories about the history of India that would be part of the textbooks; he jokes that it was the same publisher that produced the textbooks he used to hide his comics within when he read in class as a child.

And then there is a new wave of comics being produced for the web, and so they were especially interested in the web comics movement in the west and intrigued by the role Kickstarter now plays in crowd-funding the production of independent comics here. They seem to be familiar with many U.S. based artists – Aparajita told me that she learned to draw as a child by copying pictures from Mad magazine (and we both wax nostalgically about the glory days of Mad). I am invited to come to their studios for more conversation and so they can show me more of their work, an invitation I have accepted for Monday.”

What follows are some segments from my travel notes for that following Monday, a day spent somewhat fruitlessly trying to track down contemporary graphic novels via local bookstores, following the suggestions we had received.

I had met Vartikka Kaul, a PhD student doing work on Indian superheroes, after a talk I gave at Jawaharial Nehru University a few days before. Vartikka grew up in Kashmir, an area which is on the border between Pakistan and India, and has been contested space, basically a war zone, for decades, and her ancestors come from  Central Asia.  Here’s a picture of Kaul and myself exploring Hamayun’s Tomb.


Her project straddles film and print versions of these characters, though she says that nothing like a franchise system has emerged here. I am reminded of the curious history of the export of American comics in this region: how American superhero comics were slow to be imported but that some U.S. comic strips, such as The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, which have long fallen from view in their home country, continue to be published and avidly consumed in India and across Asia. These stories offer some of the core building blocks of the superhero tradition, but most of the DC and Marvel characters only became visible here through film and television, belatedly creating a market for the comics themselves. I was amused that during my stage in Delhi the local paper showcased a cosplay party on the Society page, where various local celebrities came dressed as American superheroes.


With the exception of Raj, Indian publishers of pulp comics are short-lived, so few characters have developed much continuity or history, and the films have tended to be one-offs, at best with a sequel, often star vehicles for particular performers and thus the superhero becomes an extension of their larger star persona (in an industry which still has a star system much like Hollywood in the 1930-40s). She is interested though in shifts between mythological origin stories  and more scientific/rational explainations of the sort more typical of western superheroes (i.e. scientific experiments gone awry). She’s interested in the superhero as a focus for transmedia storytelling and to some degree, on the gender dynamics of male and female versions of the superhero.

We discuss the phenomenon of regional filmmakers who actively remake western superhero stories for their local markets, a theme beautifully explored by Superman of Megalon, a 2012 documentary by Faiza Ahmad Khan. Here, a young Muslim man and his friends put all of their money and creativity into making their own Superman epic,  localized to respond to the tastes and experiences of the residents of his economic depressed area.

I had been told by Orijit Sen that People Tree may be the best place in Delhi to buy graphic novels. (I learn later that this is because Sen is the owner of this particular shop). It is a small little boutique where the entire front half is taken over by clothing, nick-knacks, and local crafts, while there’s a very small back room area dedicated to books.


When I ask the staff about Indian comics, they refer me to the children’s book section, though there was not much to be found. I did find two newspapers full of what are called here “grassroots comics,” that is, educators go to work with children in the villages or the slums, and help them to translate their experiences into comics. So, these are amateur comics, produced through charity organizations.


And then we continued on to Oxford Books, where we have lunch in the café (highlight was a sweet beverage flavored by almonds and pistachios) and then some more searching for graphic novels. Here, the selection is almost entirely international – they have all of the volumes of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, and they have a large selection of French comics (Tin Tin and Astrix), far fewer American comics, and almost no Indian comics – I get a graphic novel version of a popular children’s cartoon series and a book by an Indian cartoonist designed to help visitors from the Indian diaspora make sense of the local culture (Indian by Choice).

We go to several other book shops – most of which are very narrow stores, where books are piled into floor-to-ceiling mounds, and only the proprietor can help you find anything. What they have in stock at any given moment is almost entirely random. No wonder online book dealers have had such a huge impact here, even despite the desire for cash-based transactions. This is not a very good culture for book lovers.

Ironically, these Connaught Place book dealers are the focus of one of India’s most acclaimed graphic novels, Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor. Here’s how the stores are depicted there — more or less accurately.






The graphic novel’s protagonist Jehangir Rangoonwalla is described on the book’s cover as “enlightened dispenser of tea, wisdom, and second-hand books,” and there are memorable panels of him groping around amongst the mounds of books and putting his hands on just the right title for the right customer. The graphic novel sprawls outward from his shop, developing glimpses into the lives of various book collectors and wisdom-seekers, who are trying to make meaning of contemporary life in Delhi through sexual discipline, obscure collectibles, Marxism, religious sects, and vegetarianism, among a range of other world views. Banerjee’s subsequent books, The Barn Owl’s Wonderous Capers and The Harappa Files show a consistent fascination with contemporary and historical print culture, and seem designed to introduce the graphic novel (in various permutations) into this same book culture. But, ironically, the dealers depicted in Corridor did not, on this particular day, know how to put their hands on any of Banerjee’s books.

Vartikha tells me about a chain called Leaping Windows, with branches in Banglore and Mumbai, which is set up like the comics cafes in Tokyo. You pay an entry fee and then can come inside and read any of the comics they have on the shelves, as you sip your coffee. This store also home delivers comics – but again, on loan rather than for purchase. We’ve since learned that the shop has closed in Banglore and perhaps in Mumbai, so even this is endangered. Vartikha asks me about the comics specialty shops we have in the U.S., like she’s seen on The Big Bang Theory, as if this possibility was beyond imagination, and shares her dreams of making it to San Diego Comic Con some day.

So, here’s the bottom line: India has a new generation of gifted graphic storytellers, who are doing comics that speak in direct and powerful ways to the country’s politics, comics that experiment with new visual languages for comics, often drawn from the country’s rich and diverse folk traditions. These artists are slowly but surely producing work that people should be paying attention to. But, you can’t really find them in Indian bookstores when you go looking and they are not making their way into comics specialty shops in the United States. If you want to find India comics, you have to look online.

Next: Inside Orjit Sen’s Studio