In Rashtrayana’s second instalment, Rashtraman has a big problem. The beefy superhero doesn’t have the people’s support, without which he could lose his powers. A coterie of lesser superheroes comes to his rescue. They hatch a plan to take over some forested areas, annex the land of Cowrashtra and quieten “a few pockets of dissent” to protect Rashtraman’s superpowers.
Thus begins Appupen’s latest work, Rashtrayana II: Divide and Fool (on http://www.brainded.in). The dizzying superhero universe of puns and campiness is ruled by Propagandhi’s ideological warfare, saffron-clad Vigil Aunty’s moral policing, Cowboy the gau guardian, and, the leader of the pack, Rashtraman, with his horseshoe moustache, ego pumped by jingoism and a wardrobe inspired by the Phantom’s.
Appupen, or Bengaluru-based comics creator George Mathen, 41, grew up in Kerala’s culture of satire, amid libraries packed with the subversive MAD magazine. In 2016, following the sedition case slapped on students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who were protesting against the hanging of Parliament-attack convict Afzal Guru in an event on campus, Appupen published Rashtrayana on brainded.in to make a satirical commentary on Indian politics. Relentless in its ridicule, the series featured the city Rashtrapolis, in the country Rashtria, with its poster boy Rashtraman — the “rashtra” reiteration mimicking the fervent sloganeering.
It is set in an alternative world, Halahala, named after the poison thrown up from the ocean-churning in the Hindu creation mythology. While he locates his other graphic novels (Moonward, 2009; The Snake and the Lotus, 2018) there, a superhero series in Halahala had been the last thing on Appupen’s mind. “I don’t like superheroes. I never thought I’d make a superhero series. But the whole thing is about power and how it’s used or misused. To give a superhero this much power is my mistrust of the superhero,” he says, citing Captain America, who was created as a World War II soldier, to fight the US enemies, the Nazis and the Communists. “In the readers’ minds, war is okayed because even Captain America fought in it. When we buy the superhero idea, we’re swallowing a lot with it,” he says.
Since 2016, there have been two seasons of Rashtraman’s adventures and a take on partisan news in the mock newspaper, The Dystopian Times. In 2018, he self-published Rashtrayana: Trouble in Paradesh, in which the superhero is tasked to bring back the Great Leader’s “abducted” wife from Padostan. In the latest adventure, Rashtraman recruits the bat-wielding Bat-Manu, who looks like the love child of Skeletor and Moon Knight, and whose agenda is to divide people by doling out free bats to some, turning the “batlings” against the hockey “sticklings”.
In the meanwhile, Rashtraman makes headway into Rashtria’s forested lands, where, much to his surprise, people couldn’t care less about him. Magical spirits like Pachu the elephant-man keep his bullying in check. Joining him is Rhinosara, a girl raised by hoolock gibbons. “Rashtraman faces resistance from different pockets when the rebels come out. These are no Stan Lee-kind, genetically-engineered beings, but those who’ve closely bonded with their animal spirits,” says Appupen.
Whether the Peter Parker principle (“With great power comes great responsibility”) or the near-impossibility of destroying Superman, superhero comics often come with disclaimers about the corrupting influence of power. With Rashtraman, Appupen turns the trope of the all-powerful superhero on itself. Not “some leader with a donkey face” but “a muscular guy who, for the most part, makes you feel you want to be like him,” says Appupen, recalling how when “unpatriotic” theatregoers were thrashed/trolled for sitting during the national anthem, a version of Rashtraman was shared on social media posts. Those posts weren’t being ironic. Rashtraman is less Phantom, more menace. Is he, then, a superhero or a supervillain? “There are no villains anymore. Only heroes. They are all superheroes,” he says with a laugh.
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