Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartooning 201: the Importance of Chinese Food

I am currently in the process of completing my first graphic novel, 3 Knights in India, where the setting is currently Bangalore, India. 3 Knights is a comic strip that runs weekly in India Post, and is just about always down to the wire when it comes to deadlines. Imagine, then, my dilemma when I suddenly found myself with a pressing question about how Chinese Takeout is managed in Bangalore! For the record, I am not in Bangalore, and haven't been for a year.

My deadline was threatened, and I found myself wondering just how important was the design of Chinese takeout containers in Bangalore? Unfortunately for me, it was an important detail to the plot. You see, I was bringing together 2 secondary characters who the casual reader might not have known very much about. Although Sunny Day is the catalyst of the story who drives every event within it, she hadn't made an appearance since chapter 1, which was over a year ago to the newspaper readers! And although her ex-boyfriend Oz is a major player in Chapter 4, some of his bigger moments in 3 knights in India were not in the newspaper at all, but were exclusive to the first comic book.

So here's the scene. I wanted to bring the two characters together for a parting scene. You see, this is my second book with these characters, and after 5 years of writing them, it is actually me who is saying good bye to them. I am hoping that my own parting feelings will come across to the reader and give them a feeling of completeness to the story. The problem is, again, that these are secondary characters. The actual script I wrote called for a few more pages than I can afford to give secondary characters, so I needed to make each moment count; hence the Chinese food.

Oz is a gentle devil may care character, so to have him sitting by himself in a crowded Bangalore market is the perfect setting for him. Casually eating Chinese take-out completes the scene, while at the same time hinting at his character. This is India, after all, so the incongruity of the Chinese food should hopefully give the reader an oddball feeling about this character, and of Sunny as well. The two of them are definitely my two most off the wall characters, and I wanted to show this somehow.

Also, to have her show up and start eating Oz's food, with his chopsticks, should hopefully get the reader's immediate attention. I gave this much thought, and believed that this was the best way to convey the intimacy between the two characters in a way that words couldn't. I needed that intimacy conveyed within seconds, and hopefully it works, at least on the subconscious level.

Believe it or not, but this is typical of the behind the scenes thought that goes into a 'cartoon'. It may seem excessive to some, but there's a whole lot of backstory that the reader never sees, and it's this extra thought that hopefully makes the story seem so real and smooth and seemless.

So there I was, with a script that I was happy with, but no knowledge of what a Chinese take-out container in Bangalore looked like. And yes, it was important. It took nearly a week, but finally the first answer came in from Sujatha at, and I want to thank here again for her response. White plastic containers was the answer, and a big shocker to me, since the India I know was always big on recycling. Take out used to come wrapped up in banana leaves, which were not only fragrant, but naturally biodegradable, which brings us to our next lesson in Cartooning: research!

It's not easy writing a story that takes place in another country... especially one like India, which is changing beyond recognition at the speed of light! So... I better get back to work.



Sujatha said...

You're welcome John! I'm pretty impressed with your Kannada handwriting. Just the right amount of the local touch. Good luck!

John said...

Thanks, Sujatha!

I'm trying to learn Kannada, but the writing is difficult to grasp. I'm doing better speaking it, but understanding is another matter altogether, especially when the Desi crowd that I hang with mix Hindi, Kannada, and English.

Ayo Rama, what's a boy to do?