“The comic is the most basic thing - you have a writer, you have an artist. You find a good artist, and you can do anything on the page,” says Pratheek Thomas, author of the comic book Hush.
In the first panel, a high school blackboard receives a shattering bullet and we see blood splatter everywhere. The focus shifts from the chemical equations on the board to linger instead on the blood. Through alternating panels we move between the horror on the faces of the students in the classroom and the collapsed body behind the desk. There are no identifying features or characteristics drawn in this framing, only the torso and legs are depicted. The perpetrator is identified as a young girl, who stares blankly ahead at the scene of violence with the gun raised in her hands.
Hush is a black-and-white, non-textual comic written by Kochi-based writer Pratheek Thomas, illustrated by Rajiv Eipe, and published by Manta Ray Comics in 2010. The short comic spans just over fifteen pages, telling the story of sexual abuse and its effects on the psyche of a young girl. It is through Maya’s memories, that the reader views her story, hinting towards her past trauma and its climactic culmination in the public killing of her abusive father, as is described in the first panel of the comic. While sexual abuse has often been portrayed with the distance of a fictive, supernatural, or dream-like world, Hush is a dark twist on a story that does not mince words on the effect of abuse on a survivor.
Pratheek Thomas is a writer who attributes much of his work to collaboration that takes shape between his symbiotic projects, Kokaachi Studio and Kokaachi. Since the publishing of Hush, Pratheek Thomas has co-founded Studio Kokaachi, an animation studio, and Kokaachi, an independent publication house, both based out of Kochi, Kerala. Pratheek and his partner Tina Thomas work closely with artists, illustrators, designers, and animators towards a series of projects, fleshing out and telling stories that resonate with them. Pratheek is a writer who is interested in the art of the story as he continues to collaborate with a variety of different creative practitioners, exploring different mediums and methods of storytelling. The couple have been innovative with their financial models, to fund their independent projects -- much of the publication house’s funding comes from the income they generate as a result of their animation projects that tend to be more profitable, at Studio Kokaachi.
Over a phone conversation, Pratheek tells me that the nature of sexual abuse in Hush is deliberately left ambiguous so as not to qualify or quantify the violence, dehumanisation, and the impact of such on survivors of child sexual abuse. He also relates this characterisation of sexual violence with stories from the women in his life, who have experienced varying forms of sexual harassment. Instances from their childhoods include being held in a hug for too long or being groped by older men; their intuitive knowledge as a child of the inappropriateness of the conduct and the extreme discomfort that came from it, lies central to the story.
Hush goes back and forth between the past, through Maya’s memories, and the present where she publicly kills her abusive father, only to be cornered by the police resulting in her shooting a bullet through her own forehead. Through Maya’s memories and her mother’s perspective, an abusive home environment is suggested. In moving between the past and present in Maya’s mind, the incident is replayed through different vantage points, where the face of the abuser is revealed later in the story. The complexity of telling a story is effectively negotiated in the detailing that occurs between memory and the present, pushing the reader to engage in rereadings as a form of discovering the narrative as a whole.
When Maya takes up the gun, she simultaneously takes her story into her own hands, seeking to regain agency after years of abuse that eventually becomes unbearable. Her younger sister is depicted as unaware of the tension in the family. This prompts the reader to infer that Maya possibly took on a responsibility to save her younger sister from the traumatic home environment that Maya was subjected to. One can surmise that the abuse has occurred repeatedly, and when the father walks up the stairs towards Maya’s room late at night, her mother lays awake in horror seeming to know exactly what is about to happen, but powerless to intervene. Since things are quite literally left unsaid, one wonders if the mother has tried to intervene previously and received retaliation. How long has the abuse gone on for? How did this impact the relationships within the family? The choice of creating a non-textual comic is effective on several levels, and one wonders if these questions are even necessary to confront the actual horror of the trauma.
Hush, is an exceptionally jarring story told simply through a black and white visual language that sympathises with the experiences of the young girl. Silence plays a multifarious role within the comic. It carries the weight of grief, sorrow, horror, solitude and alienation. Speaking about the wordless form of the comic, the author says that it was a creative decision and that the story demanded it, one “could not put words in her mouth”. The reliving of trauma could not have been in dialogue or conversation and that limitation allowed for the story to be told solely from Maya’s perspective. The black-and-white treatment of the comic art also lends a dignity to the subject that is being dealt with, where colour might have been “lurid”, Pratheek explains.
In the harrowing depiction of a complex traumatic subject, there were certain parameters that Pratheek imposed on himself. The role of suggestion, rather than depiction becomes key to the story resonating with an audience without sensationalising it. The subject is not unfamiliar; an Indian audience is almost hyper-aware of sexual harassment, violence and misconduct in the context of public spaces. However, it is in the exploration in the private sphere of the home that becomes an important depiction. It also becomes necessary to dissect and confront the nature of violence, whether physical or not, as continuing to live on long past the “incident”.
Following a socially relevant line of inquiry that informs their collaborations and explorations through Kokaachi, Pratheek Thomas and Tina Thomas publish visual storybooks and comics, focusing on contemporary issues such as creating awareness around the Aadhaar biometric identification system, and addressing bullying in school. Currently underway is a fantastical story on climate change. Unlike popular comics, they are not interested in mythology and superhero sagas instead choosing to tell realistic stories, some of which have a “darker leaning”. Functioning at a smaller scale than a regular publishing house,Kokaachiisexpanding to include Malayalam stories, bringing out tales reminiscent of the eclecticism of pulp comics, besides adapting poems into illustrated storybooks, that adds to their oeuvre of experimentation with forms of storytelling. They will also be bringing out English translations for these in a digital format, a first for Kokaachi. The form of the comic resonates personally with Pratheek, an avid reader of graphic novels from a young age. He says, “[Compared to films] There is no boundary to what you can make in a comic.”