In the bustling middle-class neighbourhood of Kolkata’s Beleghata, if you go looking for Pracheta Banerjee, it’s Ai Enma — protagonist of the Japanese anime series Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl) series — who answers the door. With her hair streaked with red highlights and styled in a fringed bob, red hair extensions going down to her waist, a dash of red on her lips and bat-wing eyes, Banerjee, styled like one of her favourite anime characters, is a bit of an oddity in the eastern suburb of the city. She speaks in an even-pitched drone, lapses into brooding silences in between, and just when you are set to label her as an “otaku” — a young person obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills — she is magically transformed. The reason? Her artwork for animation has now received a major international endorsement — Banerjee, 21, an anime illustrator, is among 13 writers and artists who were sieved from a pool of over 1,500 applicants from across the world by comic heavyweight Mark Millar to take forward the stories of his iconic characters from his series, Starlight, for a new charity comic book to be published this year.
Millar has a prodigious legacy in the comic and graphic novel universe. The writer of successful books such as Kick-Ass, Jupiter’s Circle, Kingsman and the recent Huck, the Scotsman owns the Millarworld franchise, and has worked extensively with Marvel Comics and DC comics. In addition, he is known to be terribly protective of his brands. His decision to throw open a contest last September to find and promote new talent in the industry, therefore, was an instant magnet for comic and graphic novel artists across the world.
A friend and fellow anime artist coaxed Banerjee to send in her sketches for the contest. “I sent them late and didn’t hear from them afterwards. I thought I hadn’t made it and that was that. It was only in December that I heard from Deniz Camp, the writer that I am to work with for the comic book, saying that we had won. The official intimation came later,” she says.
Over a decade ago, in the early years of the new millennium, when anime, in particular manga, was fast gaining a cult status in Japan and gradually, across the world, a quiet technological revolution was also taking shape in India. The rise of information technology institutes ensured a proliferation of VFX technology and other digital tools to enhance art and animation. It was around this time that Banerjee and her elder sister, both art enthusiasts, “discovered Animax”, the Japanese anime television network that broadcast English feeds in southeast Asia and south Asia.
Banerjee found her interests piqued by the burgeoning Japanese pop art, in particular by the art style. On a visit to Starmark, one of the few bookstores which stocked manga comics in the city at the time, her sister had picked up a copy of Love Roma for her on a whim. “It was a light romance manga. I was surprised that I had to read from right to left — the traditional way of reading manga. I was questioning myself the whole time about the materials that were used to produce such a work. I was perhaps 11 back then,” says Banerjee, who is doing a graduate course in animation from St Xavier’s College.
The sisters watched films and read the few manga comics they could lay their hands on. “My favourites are Inu Yasha, Jigoku Shoujo (Hell Girl), Flame of Recca, Yu yu Hakusho, Detective School Q, Ginban Kaleidoscope, Kino’s Journey, Full Metal Alchemist, Ranma ½, and from movies, Paprika, Vision of Escaflowne, Blood: The Last Vampire. My sketchbooks used to be filled with anime doodles. I wanted to make my very own artbook/manga,” she says. In November 2014, she went on to self-publish Cirrus: The Artbook.
Banerjee soon realised that her interests lay in unconventional manga, particularly in supernatural anime. “It can be the art style, story telling, anything that’s different. Junji Ito’s Tomie, and Hiroaki Samura’s works are incredible — it’s easy to fall in love with their art. 0.0 MHZ is one manga that covers all my supernatural interests,” she says.
The transition from hand-drawn art to computer-generated ones took time. Mastering the softwares and the digital techniques were a laborious process. “Some softwares mimic the traditional painting techniques, and it’s cool enough to watch the paint drying on screen. There are infinite techniques and there’s no right or wrong way to get things done. I started traditional painting when I was 11; five years later, I switched to digital painting. It took me at least a year of daily practice to get used to drawing on the tablet, while staring at the screen. There are few drawing tablets that give you the luxury of drawing directly on the tablet with an in-built monitor. But ultimately, it all comes down to practice,” she says. Over time, Banerjee has had her hands full with freelance assignments and contract projects and is one of the most well-known amateur anime artists in the country.
In the last few years, anime and comics have made huge inroads in India. There are informal associations such as Animatsuri India, which organise cosplays (costume play) and maid cafes from time to time and engage in online discussions on new techniques and digital softwares. Events such as Comic Cons and cosplay conventions bring together fans of every shade. Banerjee herself is a huge fan of Inu Yasha, the chief character of the Japanese manga series Inuyasha, a feudal fairy tale, written and illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi, and in the online anime universe, she goes by the name of ‘Inu Yasha’s real wife’. “I wouldn’t have been drawing if it weren’t for him. I actually watched every episode a minimum of 42 times. I came across the manga a few months after watching the anime. However, I prefer reading physical copies, and treasure the ones I have,” she says.
Getting selected for the Millarworld project has been an unexpected boon and a long-awaited breakthrough into the international circuit — Camp’s initial script is ready and Banerjee has been assigned five pages of sequential art. “I am working on the thumbnails for now, the final deadline has not been announced as of yet. The print should be out next summer,” she says.
Over the years, as she has grown more confident of her art, Banerjee has become at ease with cosplay, that other holy grail of the anime universe. Even though her parents do not wholly comprehend the nature of her work, they have been quite supportive of her choices and Banerjee has learned to ignore the curious stares from neighbours and strangers. “I have quite a collection of wigs and dress up as my favourite characters from time to time. I got into cosplay around three years ago. At first, I was really shy, but later I got used to it. Right now, it has become a part of me, and I feel great when I dress up as my favourite characters, I feel like myself,” she says.
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