What if Mahatma Gandhi was a pacifist because he knew that he if he got angry, he could turn into a big destructive giant like The Hulk?
In Gandhi: The Beast Within, a new graphic novel written by Jason Michalski and illustrated by Antonio Rojo, Gandhi gets exposed to a mysterious alien power source during his time in South Africa. Now, whenever he is consumed by uncontrollable fury, he turns into a raging monster. Even though he wants to stay committed to ahimsa, the Allied forces deploy him against Adolf Hitler. On the way to ending World War II, he faces off against monsters, Nazi dinosaurs, flying saucers, and killer robots.
Clearly, the creators of this eccentric storyline also unleashed a mad creativity within.
“They looked at me like I was crazy and laughed,” said Michalski, a New Yorker, about the time he told his friends about the concept. “But when they saw the book, they realised that Antonio and I have created something special.”
The concept for Gandhi: The Beast Within was inspired from Marvel Comics’ What If series, which explores the lives of Marvel characters if things unfolded differently from the way they do in the mainstream canon. Michalski wrote a one-page summary and sent it to Rojo. A response agreeing to the collaboration came almost instantly. “He asked me to draw it, ink it, and letter it too,” said Rojo, “It was a huge responsibility but I thought, ‘What the hell. All the money will be for me’, and I said yes.”
Gandhi: The Beast Within starts with Gandhi tied to a bomb in a plane flying over Germany. Also on board are Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin. The trio plan to drop Gandhi over Hitler’s secret base. Bapu pleads with them to desist.
“I have held up my end of the bargain by living a life of peace and harmony in order to keep this curse contained within me,” Gandhi says. “You clearly do not understand the consequences of what you are about to do.” Stalin rolls his eyes (“Bozhe Moi!”) on hearing the concern, and Roosevelt orders his man (“Give ’em hell, Gandy!”) to drop the Gandhi bomb. It explodes, releases Gandhi the beast, and Hitler looks on through a monitor, screaming, “Nein, nein, nein!”
“Everyone loves watching Nazi and SS heads getting crushed because Brad Pitt said so,” said Rojo. “Not everything has to be sad and dark comics.”
Michalski conceptualised Gandhi: The Beast Within as a hilarious narrative in the style of Mel Brooks’ and Robert Anton Wilson’s satire. References abound in the 110-page black-and-white comic book. For example, Hitler has a Bat-pole like the one Batman and Robin had in the 1960s television series starring Adam West. The Hulk is an obvious inspiration and so is Conan the Barbarian. “We even have winks to Bill Bixby’s David Banner from the television series,” Rojo said.
After completing the comic book, Rojo and Michalski launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise around $2,000 to print a few hundred copies and to book a booth at a comic convention—a target they achieved successfully. “Ideally, we would like the book to be picked up by a publisher and be made into a movie or an animated film,” Michalski said. “Self-publishing comics, at least in the United States, is a very difficult thing to do.”
Both Rojo and Michalski are comic book geeks. While Rojo, a Spaniard, converted passion into a profession as a comic book illustrator, his creative partner, Michalski, from New York, became a computer engineer though he continued to work on comic books in his spare time. They got together, five years ago, when Michalski was looking for someone to work as a letterer on his comic book Zoë: Out of Time.
Throughout the course of creating Gandhi: The Beast Within, the duo never met, or even spoke over the phone or Skype. “It’s been purely e-mail or Facebook messenger,” said Michalski. “I think the first time he heard my voice was in the Kickstarter video.”
Michalski used to email the scripts. Rojo would mail the artwork back. After a point, Michalski stopped adding details to his scripts because he liked whatever Rojo would do. “He knew how the book should look better than I did,” Michalski said, “It was like we shared the same brain across the sea from New York to Spain.”
Now that the book is ready for shipping, do Rojo and Michalski consider how it would be received in India, where Gandhi is a revered figure? “The truth is that while drawing Gandhi: The Beast Within, I did not think about it,” Rojo said. “But now, I think it might be liked in India. Maybe, Gandhi: The Beast Within can be a real superhero in a film made in India. That would be great.” Michalski added that there will always be haters but “that’s life” for him. He is hoping that a superhero Gandhi will win over doubters. “The core of Gandhi is still there,” Michalski said, “But it just so happens that, in this universe, he has a little extra motivation to become a pacifist.”