The form of the graphic novel basically arose from the genre of the comic which combines the text narrative with pictures and is usually funny and humourous. However, the graphic novel differs from the comic in some important ways. Firstly a graphic novel is usually a longer narrative than a comic, and is the length of a full book in itself. It is usually one long narrative, although it may also be split into several sections as we see in Bhimayana. Secondly, a graphic novel combines text and visual in a way similar to the comic, but the narrative is more serious. It is not funny and humorous like a comic. Thirdly, the protagonists or the main characters of comics are generally cartoons or superheroes. The main characters in graphic novels are usually the underprivileged or people marginalised in some way or the other. A better precursor of the graphic novel than the comic is perhaps the Amar Chitra Katha in India. However, the heroes of Amar Chitra Katha are usually kings or gods and are from the majority community, whereas the graphic novel tries to focus on the marginalised and to narrate their story.
Many graphic novels, both Indian and international, have tried to create social awareness about downtrodden communities through a popular medium in order to engage a wider audience. Some of the most famous international ones are Art Spiegelman’s Maus which focuses on the Holocaust (World War II). This book also shows symbolic animal imagery like Bhimayana as Spiegelman has portrayed Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice. Joe Sacco has a graphic novel, Palestine, about how the Palestine region is being wrecked and exploited by Israel. Marjane Satrapi has a graphic novel, Persepolis, about her years of growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution. In India too, we fine some examples. Malik Sajad has has a graphic novel Munnu: A Boy From Kashmir which depict the reality of Kashmir. Amruta Patil’sKari focuses on lesbian experience. There are other feminist graphic novels also. In fact, Navayana publishing house has published a graphic novel on caste before Bhimayana. It is called A Gardener in the Wasteland and is based on the life of Dalit activist and educationist Jyotiba Phule, and his wife, Savitribai Phule. It is authored by Srividya Natarajan, who has also co-authored the narrative of Bhimayana.
Bhimayana as a graphic novel is quite different from some of the other graphic novels that use cinematic photographs, or very realistic mimetic sketches by artists professionally trained in academies. This is mainly because of the tribal Gond art that has been used by the Vyams. We will discuss more about this in the next section. The main difference between this and other graphic novels is that the Gond art is symbolic, and not always realistic. It is suggestive and metaphorical. The animal imagery plays a very big role here and is often allegorical and suggestive. The other way in which Bhimayana is different from other graphic novels is that it does not follow a sytem of rectangular boxes separated by thin gutters, as is the system in other comics and graphic novels. This is because the Vyams did not want their characters to be boxed in. They said that it stifles them and they wanted their art to be “khulla”. So they came up with an alternative system of signals which we will learn about in the next section. Most graphic novels are in black and white, but Bhimayana employs four colours. This is also because of the traditional colours that the Vyams used in their tribal art. Using various colours also makes the art more symbolic and suggestive.