“I’M NOT INTERESTED IN TELLING THE TRUTH,” Bishakh Som says. It’s not a declaration of evasiveness. It’s an acknowledgment that all life stories come with embellishments.
Som is talking me through an autobiographical strip of his own, embellished to the extent that it features a stand-in protagonist, a substitution that may allow, paradoxically, for a more accurate memoir. He’s invited me into the cluttered studio-room of his cozy, stylishly cramped Brooklyn brownstone to talk over the surreal landscapes and sensitive character studies he’s created for independently published comics anthologies like The Graphic Canon and alternative press publications, including The Brooklyn Rail. He’s also published the work of others, in the Hi-horse comics anthology series, alongside co-publishers Howard John Arey, Joan Reilly, and Andrice Arp. And he was given a Xeric Award in 2003 to self-publish his graphic novel Angel. But until now, he’s largely stayed away from autobiography.
The memoir comic is Anjali & Ampersand (titled after the protagonist and her cat), and it’s currently being serialized on Som’s website (www.bishakh.com). He’s not interested in the self-absorption of many autobiographical comics, but in the persona of Anjali he allows that he’s “distilled aspects” of himself, including, he says, “a sadness that I would never admit to.”
Som shares a past with Anjali that might give cause for nostalgia. Both are recovering architects. We see Anjali quitting her job at the beginning of the series, and in 2011 Som quit the firm he worked for, after 15 years in the field. (“I enjoyed the fantasyland of academia” as an architecture student, he says, but not the business, which he describes as “80 percent bureaucracy” and “a toxic environment.”) Both Anjali and Som make their homes in America but have relatives they miss in India. And both Anjali and Som have cared for parents succumbing slowly to dementia and other illnesses.
Som is focused and well spoken about these personal experiences, about his philosophical influences, and about his art-making techniques. In the course of our conversation he grabs a laptop to look up the Le Corbusier project on which he based a certain painting, now hanging upside down against a wall as punishment, he says, for the dissatisfying composition. He pulls bound volumes from shaky piles to flip through a coffee-table book on Bollywood posters, and rummages through boxes to withdraw models of proposed buildings he put together in architecture school. He’ll sit on a couch, stand next to me excitedly, fold himself up to discourse from inside a narrow window frame. With his string-bean physique, a small gallery of tattoos of cats and Art Nouveau designs on his arms, a cascade of straight black hair, and dark, alternately clingy or flowing attire, Som gives the impression of a fairy-tale goth.
Anjali, in contrast, has close-cropped hair and functional garb, but there the differences end. Anjali frets over the progress of a graphic novel she’s taking a year off to complete, just as Som worked for a year on his 200-page, as-yet-unpublished graphic story collection, Apsara Engine — a series of emotional dramas about fragile love and complex friendships. Anjali speaks often to her cat, Ampersand; Som affirms points in conversation by asking for the assent of his own, always nearby, felines.
Anjali feels out of place both when she visits an India whose locals find her unacceptably Western, and at hipster dinner parties where she is lectured on her privilege, someone who can suspend work to pursue a dream; Som’s biography includes similar moments of exile, as seen in another comic that is purely autobiographical, if more intermittent: the webcomic F Train Follies. In Follies, Som (as himself) encounters hostile macho drunks and cluelessly well-meaning white Hindu wannabes on the subway. The prominence of South Asian, female, and queer protagonists in his comics is still rare in a medium (and society) where whiteness and heterosexuality are normative, and people of color, and sexual and gender nonconformity, are considered novelties at best.
The diverse perspective he employs is a reflection of the reality Som encounters every day. “It’s memoiristic, so it will have a set of references specific to me,” Som says of the Anjali series, although it could apply to many of his comics. “But it’s not as if I have an agenda to spread the South Asian gospel. The characters are recognizably of a certain background, but that’s not so much the point of the stories; it doesn’t have to be a polemic.” Som’s stories are replete with people you’re not used to seeing in comics — because they are part of his daily life — as well as personalities you immediately, instinctually know.
Som has known many kinds of people. He was born in Ethiopia to parents employed by the United Nations, relocated with them to New York, and enrolled in the international school at age six, and traveled to their native India every two years, with stopovers in places like Moscow, Paris, and Madrid. It’s easy to imagine this palette of cultures running as a continuous track of sensory and social context during the formative years of his artistic development. Som’s characters to this day are a kaleidoscope of ethnicities and identities, and his comics often feature the strange, biomorphically designed cities of some implicit future, combining elements of Victorian, Deco, space-age, and rustic styles.
Som, who always has a pop-culture touchstone at the ready, turns to the cityscape of Blade Runner as a model. “Even though it’s a mishmash, with elements taken from different cultural referents, it’s all of a piece — I like the idea of everything, if not working as one ensemble, at least being choreographed,” he enthuses.
The personified, dance-derived term applies; strips typical of his earlier work, from 2004 (in the Xeric-funded anthology Angel) to 2011 (in the Florida-based arts and literature journal Specs), set characters in fluid architecture that holds a life of its own. Undulating metallic landscapes suggest a sci-fi topographical map, and the narrative “panels” consist of circular inset images blown up from points along the terrain.
The fanciful design goes hand in hand with inventive composition; in one typical strip from the tabloid-newspaper-format comics anthology pood (2010-’11), a protagonist is swathed in strips of serpentine cloth that lift off from the walls around her like a mummy’s wrappings, and then fly back off like a shredded cocoon. She is revealed, her Western clothes transformed to more traditional Indian garb, in which she meets a Hindu divinity. A single ribbon-like caption snakes its way down the page to verbalize the story, threading between panels in a manner that echoes the strips of cloth.
pood was published at 2×3 feet, so “the format allowed me to experiment a little more,” Som says. “What could you do with a page that big that wasn’t just panel-panel-panel?” he asked, prodding himself to experiment. But Anjali and his unpublished book Apsara Engine — a sedate but charged latter-day romance comic not unlike Love and Rockets in its cultural tensions, melancholy longing, and occasional supernatural undercurrents — again employ standard rectangular panels. “I’m going back to conventions inherent in comics, and the innovation happens in the narrative. I wanted to tell stories that people will recognize as having some relationship to their lives, even if that means retreating a bit from phantasmagoria,” Som explains of his current work.
Som’s surreal leanings and sense of the dramatic do find regular outlet even now. He has done an Escher-esque large-format page for the Dream Another Dream anthology homage to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (coming from Locust Moon Press in October 2014). For the third volume of the Graphic Canon series of comic transformations of classic literature (Seven Stories Press), he adapted the poem “Sea Iris” by H. D. Som morphs this meditation on the beauty of aquatic foliage into a dreamy narrative of a siren-like character swimming out of the sea and through the air to connect with an androgynous young figure whose awareness the water-spirit awakens. The text is inscribed on seaweed-like strips that unfurl from the two characters’ mouths. Even Som’s single-image work — paintings — informs and reflects on his sequential fiction. A series of small (5×5 inch) watercolors seen in his studio and posted on his website, Mere Humsafar (roughly, from Hindi and Urdu, “My Life Companion”), draws on the melodrama and intrigue of Bollywood movie posters he would see in India on childhood trips. The images are packed with narrative and feel like lost panels of longer stories.
His interests are varied, indeed. Bishakh Som flips through sketchbooks to show me drawings he’s preparing for a collaborative poetry performance in a Chicago art gallery and muses over the design of a new tattoo, a permanent henna pattern. “Strangely,” he says, “the idea of impermanence bothers me.” He connects this thought back to his work. “It’s why I use a lot of ink,” he says. It’s a curious statement from someone who left the concrete world of architecture for the ephemeral one of paper, but Som’s already warned us of his disinterest in unembellished truth.
We say goodbye at the subway, and his reedy frame and long black hair disappear down the staircase. I wind my way back through the antique spindles and spacey boutiques of his chic Brooklyn neighborhood. At every corner there is some better, newly made-up thing, reminding me to appreciate permanence as well as the absence of truth.