Exclusive: Sumit Kumar on Naxalites, Sabji Mandi and Tatti!

Posted on 27 January, 2016 by Team Wishberry

Image Credits: The Hindu
The brains behind some of the most satirical comics in India, Sumit Kumar, shares his journey on mainstream success as well as covers topics ranging lesser talked about Indian issues. Based out of Delhi, Sumit published his first graphic novel 'The Itch You Can't Scratch' back in 2010 and gained a strong cult following since. He’s known for his graphic novel Amar Bari, Tomar Bari Naxalbari, webcomic Bakarmax, Aaapki Poojita and Kashmir Ki Kahani.  

From engineering to making comics - how did that transition happen? 

Sumit: It was in 2007 that I began taking cartooning a bit more seriously. I was pursuing engineering at the time. I was drawn to illustration, animation, any form of visual art really, where real photographs weren’t being used. Visually appealing and catches a reader’s eye was something I wanted to work on. I liked to read and write stories as well and wanted to weave in humour in one way or the other. People began taking me seriously after my first comic was published. So it all sort of came together. Sumit Kumar Interview - Bhaag Milkha How did the concept of a comic book set against a backdrop the Naxal movement occur to you? Sumit: This first appeared as a webcomic on Newslaundry.com. It began with a webcomic called Kashmir Ki Kahani. After which I just kept exploring and talking about lesser known Indian issues. Once, the Naxal comic took off, the managing editor of Newslaundry made me realise that this topic had a lot to write on, and that I should pursue it full time.  

What kind of research went into making this book?

Sumit: Pure reading, and of course, meeting people. The biggest handicap for my comic is the fact that I haven’t actually visited the place. But, I’ve read copiously, made chronological timelines, found characters that were interesting and just told the story. I went and met people like Nandini Sundar, on whose petition the militia Salwa Judum was banned (in 2011). I also went through a lot of visual material like Sanjay Kak’s documentary Maati Ke Laal which helped me get a sense of the place, what the trees looked like, etc. Once the research was complete, the writing, rewriting, drawing roughs on my register, composing a first draft with roughs, then inks - completely digital, and colouring began. This was the process for the webcomic version which took 9 months - which was a classic webcomic - vertical scroll only. When it came to designing the book, Shikhant Sablania - the designer for the book- took the content and redesigned the flow for print reading. It took one long year to redesign the book for print.   Sumit Kumar Interview - NaxalBari

What challenges did you face throughout the process - right from conceptualizing to publishing and distributing?

Sumit: Conceptualising, writing, drawing, publishing online, redesigning for print was all breeze. Difficult parts were - printing size, selling point, platforms to sell from, tactics for promotion - I guess that's why the people who deal with numbers get paid. It’s difficult to sell - especially books. The Indian audience, despite of how urban they might seem, think the same way - Sabji Mandi - how much is it for, does the weight justify the price, etc. The quality, content, creativity don’t matter. Also, when selling online - books have taken a back seat, for every sale the online market places take more than 40% from you. In a situation like this, Instamojo is a God sent platform – it charges only 5% as long as you can drive traffic to your book. As Newslaundry was a partner, they directed traffic from their homepage to the book.  We’ve sold around 950 copies, so far. Also, I will be touring to the cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata to promote the book. Workshops and book signings will be organised too in all the cities. It'll be exciting.  

Did you face any flak while talking about a subject that's considered controversial by many?

Sumit: Not really. But, we have mentioned many influential people in the book. I’m afraid the day the book would get noticed by them, I’d have to retract it.    

How did you go about with the marketing of the book?

Sumit: Initially I began with simple online posts, soon, Newslaundry dedicated a homepage banner. Slowly, influencers helped by retweeting and writing about the book. Reviews began coming in. I got a stall at Comic Con Delhi and promoted it amidst stalls with fancy printed T-Shirts. The comic received immense coverage, and sales picked up.  

Any advice for aspiring comic artists?

Sumit: Don't try and be Sarnath Banerjee. Don't think that comics need to be about superheroes and graphic novels are supposed to be black and white boring bubbles of fart. If you are a graphic designer and can’t draw, please don't draw to add another line in your resume. Remember:
  • You cannot make up for the lack of story by drawing!
  • Comic is all about the story and the sequence of art!
  • Stick to what your gut tells you. If drawing about tatti makes you happy - draw tatti (Like I did. Read: Icchadhari Tatti)
Sumit Kumar Interview - Ichchadari Tatti

What are you working on next?

Sumit: I am growing crazier day by day, with the numerous ideas that are already cooking on simmer, and new ones that keep popping up. Literally my storage space is full. I am vomiting all my ideas on Bakarmax.com. There is no concrete plan, just an ongoing one.

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