29-year-old Sreejita Biswas works in advertising and occasionally writes. However, her heart lies in reading, writing and creating comics – which is exactly what drove her to start StripTease, the online magazine.
“StripTease the Mag was conceived out of our love for comics. Three years ago we wanted to write about comics from all over the world, even those that moved beyond the realm of superheros,” says Sreejita. “We started making comics last year, but we still love geeking out about comics so we're doing both now!” she adds.
However, why is a web magazine about comics called ‘StripTease’?
Funnily enough, Sreejita explains, the name is not an innuendo at all but a play on the words 'strip' taken from ‘comic strip’ and ‘tease’, which was added because they never post full-length comics. “Our longest comic is like, 13 pages,” she muses.
Now, for a person who knows nothing about the world of illustrated comics and graphic novels, StripTease is quite the shock, but in a good way. A glance at the homepage reveals vivid detail, intricacy and variety like you have never seen in conventional Indian comics. To make this feat possible, Sreejita has all of three people as her core team, including herself.
“Ojoswi is the head of art and brings to life our comics. Karn is in charge of tech and also does storyboard and lettering for our comics,” she says. She adds, quite modestly, that she is in-charge of the “boring part” of editing, deciding articles and some writing too.
StripTease not only accepts submissions but also conducts interviews and reviews comics. It remains from its inception though, a not-for-profit venture. When asked as to how the platform has managed to sustain itself in a place where graphic novels are yet to pick up, Sreejita response is quite simple.
“Karn, Ojoswi and I have day jobs. That helps.”
Image: Clockwise from top - Ojoswi, Sreejita and Karn
She maintains that she would not want to monetize it, even though she has a steady reader base now. “I firmly believe that whatever is on the internet – at least to read – should remain free. Besides, we want the Indian audience to know about the world of comics. That can’t happen if they have to pay for it right,” she offers. She adds that she wants to prove wrong people who say that it is not possible to make comics in India without money.
When asked about the scope of the comic market in India, she says that there is a graphic novel boom in the sense that they are being published more; but it still leaves plenty to be desired.
“We don’t have a benchmark to look up to. Many times, there is great writing with sub-standard illustrations and lettering. Other times, brilliant illustrations are accompanied by really bad writing. You have to team up with a person who has what you lack because making good comics is not as easy as it looks,” she explains.
However, it does not mean that India did not have a graphic novel or comic culture of its own. “Go back to the retro comics and Mayukh Chowdhary created a comic series in Bengali about an alien whose nails grow when he needs to defend himself. This was much before Wolverine. But everyone knows who is celebrated more.”
She admits that her own website records more traffic from places like US, UK, Japan, Pakistan and Africa. “The problem is also that parents don’t really encourage children to read comics. They are still regarded as picture books, meant for younger kids.” For Sreejita though this was not the case. “My father loved comics. I guess I took after him since I was a toddler,” she recounts happily.
Now that she’s all grown up with an online magazine dedicated to comics, she says that she is still trying to break the stereotype around Indian comics. The perception around them is that they either tell mythological stories, are political or humorous in nature. “While we have also created comics around social causes, most of our work pertains to fiction,” says Sreejita.
Image: Snippets from Master Muscle - a comic written by Karn and illustrated by Ojoswi in collaboration with Dystrophy Annihilation Research Trust (DART) to create awareness about muscular dystrophy in children
Speaking of fiction and breaking stereotypes around Indian comics, the conversation steers to the likes of Sabitha Bhabhi, or porn comics. However, it appears that India is lagging behind here as well.
“The concept of underground comics is almost non-existent in India. There are a few like ‘Adarsh Balak’ and ‘The Girl Who Smoked Pot’, but we need more of these too. We need comics to depict drugs, violence, sex because these things happen too.”
In the three years since its inception, the StripTease team has collaborated on various other projects as well. In 2015, Ojoswi and Sreejita worked with Gaysi Family’s graphic anthology, India’s first queer graphic anthology. This year, the trio has contributed a story to Bangalore: A Graphic Novel. This coming July, a yet to be named graphic novel will be published by Fablery and will feature two stories by Sreejita and Ojoswi in collaboration with another illustrator, Priyanka Tampi.