In an event as colourful as the Delhi Comic Con, it is hard to single out a particular corner as more vibrant than any other. And yet, for the past few years, the Artists’ Alley had managed to be just this. An easily identifiable hub of diverse art styles, narrative techniques, and craft media, the myriad colours of the Artist Alley had been a prominent marker of the Con’s recognition and endorsement of aspiring indie artists. It is no wonder then that many devoted pilgrims of the annual were baffled by the absence of this dedicated cluster of artists' stalls. Ratul Munshi, a 23-year old Deadpool fan who has been visiting the Delhi Comic Con religiously for the past three years, points out how the absence of the Alley could be potentially damaging to the ‘little guy’ among the more visible giants: "Where are the artists? As you can see, most of the crowd is at the big stalls – Raj Comics, Amazon Prime, One Plus or the big merchandise and collectibles stores. The Alley was a clear destination where one could find original and innovative artwork. Now with the tiny enclosures scattered across the ground, it is hard to locate the ‘little guy’ at the Con. This year, the big names in merchandise, publication, and entertainment are clearly dominating the floor." The artists themselves, however, are divided on what the effect of a more dispersed arrangement of artists' stalls could be. Shailesh Gopalan, the artist behind digital comics Brown Paperbag, opines that an appearance at the Comic Con is in itself a major opportunity for the indie artists to showcase their talents and the probability of getting noticed by the comic book publishers, ad agencies, NGOs, and animation studios is quite high. However, he also points out that with the lack of a specific marker, the crowd is hardly ever interested in the art itself and is instead drawn to it as a commodity. "If there is no clear pointer that everyone sitting here in these stalls (gestures at the row of enclosure surrounding him) are Indian independent comic book artists, people often come in believing I am just another trader selling collectibles for another merchandise," Gopalan says, adding, "They rarely recognise me as the artist, much less understand what my art is all about and what is the message behind it." ALSO READ: Return of the 'Con': Step over to the corporate side of Comic Con Tanzeela Husain, however, has a different opinion.
The hijab-wearing art graduate and film-maker from Jamia has been drawing on the issue of women in the veil – hijab, ghunghat, burkha, etc. Her presence at the comic con, as she mentions, is therefore driven towards an exposure of her art as much as the message behind it. Incidentally, Hussain had been attracted towards presenting her art for the first time in Comic Con this year after witnessing the colour and vibrancy of the Alley in the previous editions. However, she points out that the release from this clustered approach gives the artist space to talk more freely about their own art, and a greater opportunity to attract the crowd towards the specific message that they want to convey.The debate, however, is not a simple question of exposure to the art itself. Speaking to Business Standard, Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con India, brought to light the fact that even with the Artists' Alley, a large number of artists had wanted to sell their art as merchandise. "We, therefore, offered them the paid booths. In fact, from this year, we have offered free stalls to only those artists who have agreed to create comics for us or hold sessions around the creation of these comics," he said. ALSO READ: Comic Con: Archie's dark avatar works as well as classic, says Dan Parent This inclination to sell their artworks as merchandise and collectibles is indeed the dominant trend among the artists at Comic Con this year. As is evident from the stalls of Tathya, Aswhole Ideas or Curiosity Kills The Cat, the focus is to bring out products – hand-made or machine produced – which cater to the particular tastes of the Comic Con crowd. This includes references to popular fandom characters and places, dialogues and one-liners from Hollywood and Bollywood movies, and other pop-culture bites printed onto mugs, badges, door magnets, pillow covers, and much more. ALSO READ: Comic Con India: Travel-weary but alive, Archie is back in the country The larger picture thus produced is quite interesting. It is, on one hand, a most blatant and magnified example of the daily commodification of art. On the other hand, it also highlights a presupposition on the part of the artist himself, that their art entails an inherent need to sell.
Debarghya Sanyal is pursuing a PhD in Comics and Graphic Novels from the University of Oregon, US