It was raining heavily when I walked, under leafy trees and through the neighborhood park, to pick up my copy of Priya Huq’s Mana: 1st Volume. Primarily available as a free-to-read webcomic, Mana follows Samudra, a young khandati (swordsperson) who must journey from her mountain home so that she may find what she saw in her dream–the ocean. Between dreams and memories that give context to her quest and background, Samudra travels through a rainy forest with a mysterious, jumpy companion who goes by Victor. It struck me, having just walked under rainy trees, how well Huq depicts the atmosphere of the forest. Her soft, dreamy watercolors create such a strong ambiance that I found myself completely absorbed in the comic as I was reading it.
Huq’s decisions regarding softness and sharpness throughout the comic are unusual and impressive. Instead of visually depicting dreams and memories as vague or very soft, as many artists have done, she makes them crisp, clear, and potent. She plays with expectation, and she subverts the typical. She also communicates the great personal significance these dreams and memories hold for Samudra, as well as the narrative significance. This especially applies to Samudra’s dream about the ocean, which is both the first scene in the comic and the sharpest, most visually distinct scene. It sparks the story; it’s a dream so vivid and powerful that it determines the path Samudra must take.
Everyone dreams differently, but it’s easy to understand Samudra’s dream as a striking, extraordinary dream, thanks to Huq’s approach with the visuals. Huq uses black ink for this and for the other dream of Samudra’s that we see in which a crow gifts Samudra its tongue to eat, thus allowing her to speak any language. The dark, heavy ink painting successfully separates these dreams from both reality and memory, while still communicating their importance through visual weight.
Memory, like dreaming, is also clear and defined, but Huq uses a softer, more airy painting style than with Samudra’s dreams. While walking with Victor, Samudra recalls a memory where she, under the supervision of a mentor, unknowingly chose a cutting of the hero sword, Yashmit, as her own sword. This memory, in the gentle pacing and the way it’s painted and paneled, has the feeling of a memory. It communicates the distance inherent in memory; we see, both literally and through a more intangible quality, that Samudra is different, in a different place, in a different time.
There’s an atmosphere to this scene, just as there is in the rainy forest. Huq accomplishes these things without losing focus. There are moments when Huq lets clarity take a back-seat to atmosphere, especially in the rainy forest, but those moments feel intentional. The natural qualities of watercolor are perfectly suited to create a sense of foggy or rainy weather, and the larger shots of the forest exemplify this.
It fascinates me that the scenes in the forest, taking place at the present moment within the context of the story, are the softest parts of the book. As I mentioned, it makes for an absorbing read. One spot broke the spell somewhat, though, more in the planning of the book than the contents. At the end of the book, Samudra and Victor notice some strange, shadowy shapes rising up out of the ground. It creates a moment of suspense, but the next pages are bonus illustrations. I found myself wanting one more beat in the book. That would bring it to a more natural and satisfying-but-intriguing stopping point, considering that it’s a volume. That said, it’s a minor aspect of the print version and not the story itself.
This book, especially the decisions I’ve discussed, makes me very curious about the narrative and visual future of the comic. Will the painting approach change when the rain stops? Are there exceptions to the visual potency of Samudra’s dreams? Is this just what reality, memory, and dreams look like in this story? If so, how does that tie into the narrative we’ll see as Mana keeps updating?
Huq’s subversion of the softness associated with dreams and memory has had me thinking about it long after reading her book. In a medium where pages take hours or days to create and are often read in less than twenty seconds, I would say that making decisions effective enough that they stay in readers’ minds counts as a success. Mana does that in a creative and unusual way, which is exactly what I want from comics. The rain may let up and wash away, but I have the feeling that Priya Huq and her work won’t.