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Drawing Rama: A Comic of Epic Proportions

By Scott Kirkwood

How to summarize the stories contained in the Ramayana, or the Rama epic? Considered by many people to be one of the world’s greatest works of literature, the 2,500-year-old Indian poem (composed of almost 24,000 verses) has been reinterpreted in countless ways by generations of artists and writers—including, for decades, classic, cliffhanger comics. In keeping with this tradition, and in an effort to explain the Rama epic for people unfamiliar with it, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum invited five Bay Area illustrators to re-imagine the Rama epic’s main characters in their own visual storytelling styles.

Through mid-January, an exhibit of classic and contemporary artwork will celebrate this ancient tale at the Asian Art Museum; the exhibit, titled The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe, depicts “sacred stories that are as old as the Bible, longer than The Odyssey, and a source of creative inspiration from India to Indonesia.”

Artworks included in The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe, an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum (photos courtesy of the museum).  

The complicated story of the Rama epic has many layers, but here’s the basic narrative: The Hindu god Vishnu takes the form of a human prince named Rama, depicted in blue to show his divinity. When Rama’s wife Sita is abducted by a demon named Ravana, the god Hanuman and his army of supernatural monkey warriors come to their aid; after a long and bloody battle, Ravana is killed. Sita is brought to safety, but before Rama takes her back, he questions her loyalty during their time apart. Sita submits to a trial by fire, emerges unscathed, and returns home with Rama, who is crowned king.

That outline represents a small fraction of the complete tale. Explaining it all to an audience who might be unfamiliar with even the mythology behind it is a daunting task. That’s why the museum’s communications team decided to leverage the many comic-book parallels: they invited San Francisco Bay Area illustrators to put their own modern spin on the story; then they assembled that work into a booklet that’s somewhere between a brochure and a zine with killer production values. The goal was to start a conversation with the region’s creative community, and to entice people to visit the exhibit, which features 135 sculptures and paintings, masks, puppets, and examples of temple architecture from Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand.

 

Drawing Rama was created by five San Francisco Bay Area illustrators, for the Asian Art Museum.

TELLING THE STORY OF RAMA EPIC

“The Rama epic is one of the most important works of literature in terms of the cultural production that it’s inspired over the centuries,” says Zac Rose, the Asian Art Museum’s manager of communications. “Although few people in the West are familiar with it, hundreds of millions of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims look to it as a source of stories and moral models in the way Westerners might return to the Bible or ancient Greek literature to answer moral or philosophical questions.”

Rose continues, “Comics and illustration really resonate with many different communities in San Francisco, and it seems like half the people you meet here are graphic designers—so we really liked the idea of telling the story through a contemporary medium.”

Rose reached out to local artists while his colleague Zejian Shen scoured her alumni network at RISD in search of San Francisco illustrators who could bring their own unique vision to each character’s moral arc.

WESLEY ALLSBROOK

Wesley Allsbrook was tasked with capturing Ravana’s abduction of Sita. An illustrator whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Wired, and McSweeney’s, she spent a year at Oculus Story Studio focused on virtual-reality animation before returning to the world of freelance illustration.

“I like that Ravana's character is so problematic,” she says. “He has many virtues—he's intelligent, accomplished, pious, wealthy, powerful—but his pride ruins him.” Allsbrook’s treatment of the villain is unexpected, with a collection of lighthearted emoji that manage to convey a sinister tone, especially when paired with colorful flames and cyclones of energy that set the stage. “Because the project was designed to give an epic work modern context, and because I was working in tech at the time, I [envisioned] Ravana as a tech prince with many emoji faces. And because he's a demon king, he can become anything—a homeless man, a car, even an entire city.”

Wesley Allsbrook starts every illustration by blocking in major color movements on a single layer before moving into detail work. She recently moved from to ink to a digital process, using Astropad and Clip Paint Studio on her iPad Pro and Wacom 13HD.

JON ADAMS

Jon Adams tackled a key plot point—Rama’s battle with Ravana. He portrayed the collection of demons in his surprisingly offbeat and beautifully detailed style, which you might find in his work for Dark Horse Comics, McSweeney’s, MTV, and Lucky Peach, among others.

“In the story, Rama is practically flawless, and Ravana is a really desperate figure who is certain to lose,” says Adams. “So I tried to juxtapose the two, showing Rama’s perfection in a rather sterile environment with a geometric pattern and no real background; meanwhile, Ravana is at the other end of the of the spectrum, pulling out every trick in the book. The museum gave us so much freedom to add our own vision to the project; I saw it as a great opportunity to show him fighting alongside bizarre demons that weren’t at all traditional in their appearance, just to have some fun with it.”

Jon Adams uses pencil and paper to draw his figures much larger than the final product, so that the line work is rendered with even more detail once it’s reduced to a smaller size. Adams draws each figure independently, then he scans them and assembles them in Adobe Photoshop, using the BPelt plug-in for multi-fill and flattening. He renders some elements in Adobe InDesign, and he uses Photoshop to create textures and half-tones.

ANDREA NGUYEN

When Illustrator Andrea Nguyen was contacted by the Asian Art Museum, she was already vaguely familiar with the story, thanks to her love of Sanjay Patel, a Pixar illustrator who had tackled the epic himself. A full-time in-house designer and illustrator at AirBnB, she found inspiration for Hanuman’s escapades in Hollywood, of all places.

“When I started to work on the project, I thought about the themes throughout the text and all the dramatic moments, and it spoke to me in a cinematic way,” says Nguyen. “There’s a love story, there’s action…. So I took the five most popular cinematic genres of our times, from James Bond to sci-fi, to film noir and westerns—all of which have been dominated by actors and actresses of Western descent. I thought it would be a nice gesture, if not a little ironic, to feature a character like Hanuman, a half-monkey, half-man of Southeast Asian roots, and turn him into the leading man—all a little tongue in cheek.”

Andrea Nguyen starts her illustrations with simple pencil sketches, and she takes inspiration from Google Image searches—in this case finding ancient art and tapestries inspired by the Rama epic. She then opens Adobe Illustrator, re-creating the same geometric shapes from her sketches, using the rectangle, ellipse, and pen tools, and identifying a color palette early on. When the composition is nearly complete, she opens it in Photoshop and adds custom textures she’s scanned from old pieces of construction paper; then she separates the file into channels, applying the Dissolve blend mode to vary the level of shading and saturation in each shape.

SOPHIA FOSTER-DIMINO

Sophia Foster-Dimino, a former full-time Google doodler, tackled Sita’s trial by fire, taking her inspiration from paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and Thailand’s version of the Ramayana, as well as work within the Asian Art Museum’s archives.

“The Rama epic has been interpreted in so many different ways by so many cultures—a television show, a musical, a stage play, a comic book—every form that you can think of. So it was an ideal project to have such rich source material and the complete freedom to put my own spin on it.”

“Some of my early influences were French cartoonists and Belgian Georges Prosper Remi [known as Hergé], the creator of the Tintin series, with their clean lines, but I’m really drawn to patterns, too, so as I was reviewing Indian miniatures from 400 and 500 years ago, I noticed that they rendered characters pretty realistically, but the backgrounds were like those you might see in textiles like weaving or rugs. I tried to integrate those sorts of details into the landscape—combining a decorative object with a narrative object as a way to infuse my style, to meet the epic halfway.”

Sophia Foster-Dimino begins every project in a sketchbook, using reference images as she creates individual elements. Then she shares a thumbnail sketch with the client or art director, for approval. From there, she moves to a pen and tablet, making use of various Photoshop brushes created by Kyle Webster, and occasionally using Adobe Illustrator to create simple geometric shapes or as a guide for hand-drawn elements.

SANAA KHAN

A painter and printer, Sanaa Khan is closer to the fine-art end of the spectrum than most of the other illustrators working on the project, and she was tasked with a poster and book cover to accompany the publication.

“Working on the Rama epic was an amazing experience, so rich with illustration opportunities—from the demon Ravana, with all ten of his heads, to the lush jungle setting, ” says Khan. “It was a real creative challenge to create the poster wrapping all four of the stories together into one narrative illustration, because in the actual epic, all four central characters never appear in the same place at the same time. For the booklet’s cover, the museum wanted something a little more decorative and abstract, so readers might pick it up and be intrigued enough to read the story.”

In that second illustration, Khan portrayed Rama as a blue snake, suggesting that although he’s the hero, his character is questionable, as evidenced by the way he challenges his wife’s fidelity. The bloody arrow references Rama, the monkey symbolizes Hanaman, and the jungle setting reflects the tone of the epic, without revealing too much of the story.

A TALE WELL TOLD

So what was the response, once the illustrations were assembled, the pages designed, and the results shared with the wider community?

“It’s been overwhelmingly positive,” says the Asian Art Museum’s Rose. “So much of our mission is to bring creativity to as many people as possible, so we’ve held events at Mission Comics, California College of the Arts, and a local art gallery, all of which brought the museum out of our building and into the community…. We believe that cultural empathy that can inspire others is at the heart of everything we do, and that cultural empathy can be based on your heritage or the experience of one artist connecting with another artist, working in a different medium. Using art as a way to bring people together is a wonderful thing.”

The San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum’s exhibit The Rama Epic: Hero, Heroine, Ally, Foe will run through January 15. If you can’t make it to San Francisco to see it, you can enjoy exhibition highlights and more on the museum’s website.

Sanaa Khan primarily uses watercolors to create her illustrations.