‘If I'm Going to Write a Suicide Note It Will Be Illustrated’

Artist Sumit Kumar’s workshop taught us how to make a comic strip out of our own lives.
Making a comic is child's play, even for a 52-year-old. Image: Anup Tripathi. 

Cartoonist Sumit Kumar of Kashmir Ki Kahani and Bakarmax fame, held a workshop at Indie Comix Fest in May to teach participants how to create comic books. As he put it very kindly, “All of you know how to draw. We used to draw but we stopped after a while, especially during that horrible 11th and 12th [standard years], which were torture.” The workshop was an effort on his part to help revive people's passion for drawing. “This is not an attempt at objectivity, but a perspective, [through] my journey with comics,” he said.


The creator of ‘Delhi Doodle’, a brand collaboration with Airbnb as part of their Experiences programme, excels in channelling his inner child in his work. His craftsmanship is simple and yet it takes on heavy hitters like Bhutan’s financial crisis to takes pot shots and subverts the way we speak colloquially.

The secret to a good comic strip? Simplicity. Simple tools, simple story line, simple graphics. Images: Anup Tripathi

This workshop was meant specifically for people who didn’t know how to make comics. At all. He defines a cartoonist as a “writer and illustrator, combined”, and therefore his workshop revolved around these concepts. His own writing chops are well documented in his graphic novel The Itch That You Can’t Scratch. It started out as a suicide note as he explains, “I decided if I'm going to write a suicide note it will be illustrated.” The rough draft of his life story was a three-page long comic at the time, and was called Dimag ek khaj or ‘Brain, an itch’.

Explaining how he reconnected with his passion for doodling, he described how he researched different equipment usually used to make ‘art’. In the end an old “forty-rupee potty smelling notebook” and a “ball pen” were what he settled on. One of Kumar’s slides showed what he had achieved by frantically filling that notebook. “The fear dissipated from the work here. I was afraid because there was an established way of doing things and I couldn't do that. But as soon as I moved to this point, all that came undone,” he explained. He added how he would distinguish between styles using the term dhamkau or ‘threatening’ art, citing an example of a detailed Batman comic by Jim Lee. He compared it to a relatively less dhamkau representation of Batman by Bruce Timm, pointing how he belonged to the latter’s school of execution. “Both are the same, but the one by Bruce is done with fewer lines.”


Ideas come from… everywhere. Grassroots Comics is an organisation that travels to remote villages to teach people how to draw simple four panel comics. This exercise serves as an outlet for the villagers, and helps them externalise their thoughts with ease. On a trip to a village in Uttarakhand with them, Kumar was told about the daily routine of the women. “One of them made her own comic, with the first panel stating that she woke up at 5 AM. ‘My husband said go back to sleep, I've made the tea; then I woke up at 8 AM, my kids said that ‘we're ready for school, you go back to sleep, we'll have breakfast and leave on our own.’ I woke up at 11 AM and the cow had milked itself. I went back to sleep, and then I woke up in that panel.’ This is someone who has never written and drawn before. You can gauge the level of creativity that's in all of us.”

Similarly, Kumar added, “Our mothers spend their life raising us, and they often mimic popular opinion, but hide their true feelings.” He spoke of his own mother, who at 52 decided she too wanted to draw. Her comics are now lovingly displayed on a blog that Sumit maintains Motherly Comics. Some of these use him as the subject, and are meant to act as warnings for him to change his ‘bad habits’.

For those of us struggling for our own lightbulb moment, Kumar’s final exercise provided light at the end of the tunnel. It involved hitting the workshop with a barrage of facts on sewage workers, finally inviting us to create our own two-panel comic on the topic, with comic undertones. “Instead of looking at it from the point-of-view of the cleaner, look at it from the perspective of an army or nation of bacteria living in the sewers who want to protect their territory. So, they try to spread their disease to all the 'invaders'.”

I came away from the workshop understanding that a comic cannot come from a place of over-complication, obsession, or an effort to try to find the right tool or right kind of style. It has to be as simple as it can be. You just pick up a pen and draw.

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