Sunday, August 24, 2014

5x5 Graphic Novel: Ali Baba

1. So, the actual title of this graphic novel is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Reloaded, written by Poulami Mukherjee and illustrated by Amit Taya, and produced by Campfire, a New Delhi publishing house whose mission statement is to entertain and educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books to recount stories of human values, to arouse curiosity in the world around us, and to inspire by tales of great deeds of unforgettable people. Yeah, I can get behind that. They have lots of other great-looking titles I am hoping to check out, based on how good this book was.

2. Mukherjee has taken the traditional story of Ali Baba and updated it totally while staying faithful to the story structure and keeping all the character beats. The story is usually set somewhere in Persia (although the tale may have originated in Cyprus), but Mukherjee places it in Mumbai with no trouble at all. Modernizing the story turns woodcutter Ali Baba into a minicab driver, magic incantation "open sesame" into a security password, and slave girl Morgiana into part-time housekeeper Marjeena. It all works, because the characters and their motivations and conflicts ring true to the original: Ali is still blandly earnest, the leader of the thieves still dangerous and revenge-obsessed, and Marjeena still the clever one who repeatedly saves the day. Mukherjee's writing gives us an action story that is both contemporary and accessible and yet which will deliver the same emotional experience as the original folktale (with the gore dial turned down just a bit).

3. Amit Tayal's art is the perfect vehicle for the story: realistic enough to capture the feel of a teeming urban environment and yet cartoonish enough to retain the sense of whimsy and wonder that comes with a fairytale, the illustrations can strongly convey action or menace when necessary. Kudos also to the letterer and especially the colorist.

4. Only one misstep from my perspective: Mukherjee and Tayal rely a bit overmuch on narrator caption boxes. Take these two panels, for instance - Ali Baba is picking up one of the thieves for the cab ride in which he will overhear the password:

It seems to me that this panel would have been much more effective had it been drawn so that we could see the bank robbery headline on Ali's newspaper - no captions would have been necessary, since we could have figured out the connection, given that we just saw the passenger hiding from a police car. It's a small nitpick, since the traditional structure of fairy tales calls for a very intrusive narrator, and the target market for the book could be considered young adult, but I think more experienced creators might have handled this balance more deftly throughout the work.

5. On of the most appealing aspects of the story was its multiculturalism. We see characters wearing Sikh turbans, Muslim skullcaps, and Arab headscarves, western dress and traditional garb. The sometimes confounding multi-faceted society of modern India is on view in very matter-of-fact way, and it is a refreshing change from the homogeneity of most American pop culture.

Pick this book up if you run across it; you'll be glad of it.

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