Shreyas R Krishnan and Kruttika Susarla are illustrators and comic makers from India, living in St. Louis and New Delhi. They make non-fiction comics and zines on gender, identity, travel and feelings.
STL SPEX (Rachel): What are your artistic influences?
Shreyas: Maira Kalman, Alan Fletcher, Marjane Satrapi, Amruta Patil, Christoph Niemann, and a very off the grid Indian illustrator Prabha Mallya have been some of my biggest influences, and ‘permission givers’. Their work has allowed me to be more assured in the how I illustrate, my desire to focus on non-fiction, and the way I narrate. I also take inspiration from 1900s illustration and design work – there is a treasure of work by anonymous (sadly) makers around the world that amazes me in how they manage to be simple and complex at the same time.
Kruttika: Marjane Satrapi and Kate Beaton for how unapologetic the voice of an illustrator as a storyteller can be. I admire the way in which they use humour and satire in their work to tackle difficult subjects like war, displacement and world history. It feels very effortless. Elanor Davis, Craig Thompson and Indian illustrators Priya Kuriyan and Prabha Mallya for their beautiful work, sketchbooks and ability to find stories and draw attention to the unexpected and overlooked.
STL SPEX: What are your favorite tools and how do you use them in your art?
Both: Currently we’re both juggling paint markers, crayons, a stash of papers collected over time to collage with. We’re a little impetuous in sketchbooks, but tend to be more calculative when it comes to commissioned illustration.
Shreyas: I also use gouache and acrylic inks. have a compulsive need for my work to have the feel of analog, and I’m almost never happy with trying to replicate it digitally. I have some experience with printmaking, so my commissioned work is always a mix of analog processes and digital editing/assembly, and tend to get made and set up the way printmakers make positives. It gives me room to make edits quickly, because commissioned work almost always has edits that come in.
Kruttika: Shreyas taught me to never throw take-away paper bags. Anything and everything can be a surface to draw on and it helps me draw differently each time! I do a lot of my commissioned work digitally, on Photoshop. While, I’d love to do commissioned work in analogue, it sometimes becomes impractical to make revisions within deadlines. To compensate for this, I use a brush that replicates the roughness of a crayon when I’m drawing digitally. This allows me to bring in the carefree quality of the line-work in sketchbooks while also allowing me to efficient with how I use my time.
STL SPEX: Both of you have done some projects that include editorials or political commentary – what are the benefits and/or challenges of conveying these ideas through sequential art?
Shreyas: Historically, we’ve all known how to understand pictures, before words. Considering the kind of content the Kruttika and I handle in our illustration and comic work – critical writing, politics, gender, language, cultural memory – we’ve realized that images just have the ability to communicate in a way only text cannot. It’s a great way to cut across the noise and make information more instantly accessible to different audiences. At the same time the challenge is in the ways we share work on the internet and how we respond (or don’t) – Instagram interactions are limited to the double-tap, and if you’re lucky, a comment. There’s an inundation of illustrations that are clever, but are not really keen on putting across much apart from their cleverness. Content is most important to me, so it’s hard to gauge over social media if what I’m trying to communicate is being understood beyond its appearance.
Kruttika: I see comics as a medium to make work about things that I’d be talking about anyway. As someone who finds writing an extremely excruciating task, sequential art makes sense because images make up where text cannot. One of the challenges I face is the medium through which I share this work. Instagram is designed to show you content that you already align with ideologically. This leaves little room for discussion, debate, and learning. I’ve observed that, in my comics, if I was critiquing an abstract entity like a ‘policy’, there’s little to zero engagement on them. On the other extreme, putting a ‘face’ to this and holding a political leader accountable invites trolls.
Then, there is language. Because I mostly make comics in English, it reaches a very urban, moderate-liberal identifying population and doesn’t have a life outside of social media. Recently, I’ve been trying to translate some of these comics into regional indian languages and figure out means to put this work outside of Instagram.
STL SPEX: Along the same lines, on Kruttika’s website, she states that she is seeking “to understand how visual imagery can make or break stereotypes to form perceptions of what is culturally normal” – why are comics such an apt art form for this kind of exploration? Or, more generally, what are some things that comics can accomplish uniquely well?
Kruttika: Since the boom of advertisement and global scaling up of commercial arts, we’ve seen how government entities, people in power and societies have used culture as a reason to, in the best case scenario—bridge borders and in the worst case, create them. In an increasingly polarised world, I find it important to think about how the art I’m making contributes to notions of what is normal or acceptable and what is not. Who decides this, and who do we seek permission from? Sequential art like films and comics have shown us time and again that they have the ability to move us, and make us think and empathise. Comics, especially, allow you to tell stories that are non-linear, give room for multiple interpretations and also allow the reader to imagine parts of the story without rushing them to a conclusion, in the way that a film might not. I like that you can pace a story in panels and talk about something in as much depth or as little detail—like a film except this is playing out in someone’s imagination. This is why I’m drawn to comics as a format.
India has a history of comics by publishers like Amar Chitra Katha, Diamond Comics, and Chandamama comics that largely draw from Indian Hindu mythology. All the characters conform to the same tropes: heternormative and upper-caste fair-skinned men, women and gods(!). Having the advantage of being the first and the oldest publishers of comics and a large distribution network, these stories have been passed down generations. When images and stories are passed down in this scale, and seen repeatedly without questioning, they become the norm, and therefore, the culture. This is slowly changing now with the rise of independent indian comics and this is what I intend to question through my comics work as well.
Shreyas: Ditto on everything Kruttika said! I joke a lot that I’m on a #comicscrusade. I want to equip and encourage more people to not just read comics, but to actually make them. Comics are an amazing tool to process and communicate complex ideas. On an individual level it could be navigating personal emotions, or responses to external events. At a community level comics have helped report and break-down societal issues, documented ways in which people want change to take place. I teach comics at the college level, I’ve noticed a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of it when they start (because of assumptions about what comics need to look like). But once they get past that first apprehension, it’s hard for them to stop thinking in comics. We experience time in very specific ways, and so our brains are wired to follow sequential narratives very easily. When more people make comics, we have more voices heard, more representation, and more normalization of the diversity that is constantly around us. My comics have travelled to places in the world that I’ve never been to. I’ve had people send me images that connect to what I talk about in my essay-comics, because they now understand them in a different light; or people who are happy that I have articulated a common experience in a way that they are unable to. I can’t imagine that kind of access and response across communities and audiences for papers that I write, or for work I share on Instagram.
STL SPEX: Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourselves?
Both: The way we work together and the fact that we collaborate in the first place, is a great testament to finding and building a creative community for oneself. We have independent practices and don’t actually work on many projects together, but we’re very comfortable in seeking feedback and input from each other. We live in different parts of the world now (and have managed to meet in person twice so far), but it’s amazing how far mutual respect and interest in each other’s work and lives can take a friendship and creative partnership.
We’re using this interview to announce (for the first time!) that we are starting to create collaboratively under the moniker Same Same but Different. The name is a nod to a widely-used South Indian colloquialism. We’re from neighboring states in this region (Kruttika from Andhra Pradesh, and Shreyas from Tamil Nadu). We found that because of this shared cultural history, our work bears similar sensibilities while we take on subjects like gender and power and handle it in wholly different approaches.
Our first project as Same Same but Different, is an upcoming comic on coffee and our relationship to it culturally, ritually, and personally. We’re hoping to have it out next year!