Recognised for his satirical comics and allegorical graphic novels depicting dystopian worlds, George Mathen is a contemporary visual artist and musician better known by his pseudonym Appupen. Expressing sharp social and political commentary, his work is distinctive for its bold yet intricate visual style — often monochromatic — and minimal use of text. Famous as the creator of the alternate world Halahala, in which his books are set, Appupen often uses dark humour to raise questions on contemporary issues relating to capitalism and consumerism, political control over personal and artistic freedom, and human–machine relationships.
Born in Kerala, India, Appupen attended Corpus Christi High School, now called Pallikoodam, in Kottayam, where extracurricular activities were highly encouraged. He took a particular interest in theatre and cricket, and captained Kerala’s under-13 state cricket team. While studying for a diploma in 3D animation and graphic design at Xavier Institute of Communication, Mumbai, he took on various jobs including working as a tattoo and banner artist. He later worked at Greenpeace and several advertising agencies before moving to Bengaluru. Shaped by the early influence of Malayali comic books and publications such as MAD Magazine, his disillusionment with the advertising industry and mainstream trends became the motivations for his satirical and subversive work. Appupen’s comic art began to receive attention after he started publishing his work on the Internet around 2005. His pseudonym derives from the Malayalam word for ‘grandfather’ or ‘old man’, associated with someone who tells stories, and is also a play on his own nickname Appu.
Using popular comic book tropes such as superheroes and robots, combined with verbal and visual puns, Appupen critiques the power structures of government, corporations, religion, media and advertising through intricately conceived scenarios that raise open-ended questions. His first graphic novel Moonward, in which Halahala is introduced as a dystopian world of imaginary creatures and surreal landscapes, was published by Chennai-based Blaft Publications in 2009. Containing little text, Moonward features stark monochrome artwork that reflects the author’s characteristically cynical tone. Appupen introduced colour in his next two books, Legends of Halahala, a completely wordless graphic novel, and Aspyrus: A Dream of Halahala, published by HarperCollins in 2013 and 2014, respectively. His fourth book The Snake and the Lotus: A Halahala Adventure, published by Context in 2018, features richly detailed full-page black-and-white panels with red highlights, in a woodcut-style aesthetic. The allegorical and satirical approach developed in his previous work is used here to grapple with current concerns facing India’s socio-political landscape in a relatively direct way. The book’s woodcut-style artwork pays tribute to twentieth-century American artist Lynd Ward, known for his woodcut illustrations and wordless narratives, regarded as significant precursors to the graphic novel in its present form.
Moving away from sequential frames within a page and largely eliminating the use of text, Appupen’s books challenge the common graphic novel format. The motifs and scenarios often defy singular or linear interpretation, while the dense images invite the reader to examine the pages carefully for details that serve as narrative clues.
As the creator of unique characters that draw on ancient mythical figures as well as ordinary people and animals, evocative landscapes merging the natural with the man-made, and complex, interweaving stories that often run across different books, Appupen has often been regarded as a contemporary myth-maker. The term Halahala itself references the cosmic poison in Hindu mythology, which, in various versions of the tale, was consumed by Shiva or Vayu in order to save the world. While sometimes grouped with that of other contemporary Indian graphic novelists Sarnath Bannerjee and Amruta Patil, Appupen’s work occupies a distinct territory in terms of subject and treatment.
Appupen is also the author of web comic series Rashtraman and Dystopian Times, appearing on Brainded India, which he established as a collective platform for independent artists to make their work more accessible. The former series has culminated in the compilations Rashtrayana: Trouble in Paradesh, self-published in 2018, and Rashtrayana II: Divide and Fool, published online in 2020. His monthly comics Empyr of Rock and Diary of Rock have appeared in Rolling Stone India over nearly 100 issues. While diverging stylistically from his graphic novels, all of these comics maintain close links with the world of Halahala. In collaboration with Rahul Chacko, Appupen produced the serialised comic CRIK-X for The Cricket Monthly, a publication of sports media channel ESPN Cricinfo. He has also contributed comic strips and graphic art to publications such as The Hindu, Arts Illustrated, Mint Lounge, Tehelka, GQ and Elle India, as well as for brand marketing and for venues such as restaurants and retail outlets. Appupen produces most of his work using ink, pens and brushes on paper, with the occasional addition of watercolour or digital colouring.
Appupen was the recipient of an Arts Practice grant from the India Foundation for the Arts in 2014–15, and participated in a graphic novel residency at Maison Des Auteurs, France in 2021. His work has been exhibited at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2014, as well as the Indie Comix Fest, Gallery SKE and Gallery 545 in Bengaluru. As a musician, he has played as a drummer in various bands including Lounge Piranha, which he founded.
At the time of writing, Appupen lives and works in Bengaluru.
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