• 'Brainwave': how it got started + some artwork from it + part 2 of comics I've made

    My cover artwork for a Brainwave issue that focused on movie special effects

    This is the post I've been dreading writing because there's so much to tell and I really don't know where to begin. It's the big fish, and this net ain't wide enough to contain it.

    [If you don't have the patience to read through everything, by the way, feel free to scroll down to the pretty images. If you do have the patience: as always, please pardon the many parentheses.]

    In January of 2010, I heard from a couple of my journalist friends from the New Indian Express (where I had previously served as editor of its daily general features supplement for a few months), that a children's publishing house was looking to hire a magazine editor. And I was invited to apply. As is the custom with statements of such disarming simplicity, there was a boatload more to it:

    The publishing house in question was Amar Chitra Katha, which has in many ways been India's Marvel since the late '60s. The pre-internet age in literate India was dominated by their comic books. Its founder-editor Anant Pai (known to all as Uncle Pai) was our Stan Lee. Most of my knowledge of Indian history, mythology and folk tales came from the comics that he'd helped create. My childhood summers were shaped by Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle (ACK's general interest children's magazine). A chance to work with them was a big deal for me, as you can imagine. I'd get to meet Uncle Pai, dammit! HUGE deal!

    When I first went in to meet the folks there, ACK had just been bought up from India Book House by a hotshot entrepreneur named Samir Patil. Samir, who has since gone on to start Scroll.in, had formed a company called ACK Media Pvt. Ltd., brought in a team of energetic young management types to help run it, and generally wiped a couple of decades worth of chalk and cobwebs off Amar Chitra Katha's venerable publishing slate. Fresh start, FTW! And while things were getting all shook up, one proposal that was tossed into the cookpot -- by the company's COO Ashish Goel, an IITan with a healthy scientific temper and a keen eye for opportunity (he now runs urbanladder.com) -- was for the institution of a brand new science magazine for young readers. Something fun and educational to get the country's kids thinking again.

    This is where I came in. I had a background in publishing and journalism as well as art and design, and I'd been a massive science and tech nerd for years. On paper, ACK and I were a match made in heaven. The ACK guys liked the idea enough to hire me as their new magazine's editor and art director (all rolled into one: double the lumbar spasms at half the price! Whee!). The practical lab tests, of course, were a different matter entirely.

    It took me several months of research, meetings and legwork to get the thing off the ground. COO +Ashish Goel and business head +Savita Pai helped a great deal in bringing structure to this process, while ACK editor +Reena Puri advised me right throughout. Uncle Pai -- who I finally met! -- told me to take it easy and take my time because beginnings are always disappointing and time-consuming and underwhelming, but that things eventually pan out given some patience and gentle hand-holding, which was great advice.

    I began by drawing up a mission statement and a rough content plan for the magazine. Then I had to get the right resources in place: a good editorial and design team, a reliable list of freelance writers and illustrators, and a scientific advisory board. I travelled around the country a fair bit at this time, meeting tons of people who could potentially get involved in the magazine. Children and Science being the key drivers of the magazine made it an easy sell among the scientists and educators who I met, and many kindly agreed to advise and contribute to the magazine (much to their credit, without knowing how the final product was going to turn out).

    My team of freelance illustrators and writers -- all exceptionally talented people who took a chance on us, often getting paid startup rates for top dollar work -- soon followed suit. Most of them came from a network that, having been a designer as well as a journalist in my career, I was greatly privileged to have access to. Meanwhile, we got a great in-house team going (hat tip and deep bow to +Aparna Kapur, +somesh kumar, +Rajita Gadagkar and +Anuranjini Singh, swashbuckling curators of the extraordinary). By the end of 2010 we had evolved a good working blueprint for the magazine: monthly themes, types of content, sections, its publication design, a tentative target audience based on various befuddling sales and marketing metrics (a source of much argument) and all other attendant nitties and gritties.

    In December 2010 we launched. Here's a Hindustan Times article about the launch:


    Our first volume (the first 12 issues) was going to focus on basic, everyday science, treated with a judicious amount of whimsy and lateral thinking. So the theme of issue 1 was 'Light', but the cover story was, appropriately, about how to turn invisible: the manipulation of light to make modern magic. This set the template for the rest of our output, where we tried, to the best of our ability, to tackle big themes in strange and off-beat ways so as to encourage imagination and questioning. Our readers were young, curious and hyper intelligent, and we had to stay several steps ahead of them at all times, so we had to out-think them without coming across as pandering or patronising -- a razor-edge walk at the best of times.

    Aside from each issue's theme-governed cover story package, we also came up with a bunch of regular sections that readers could look forward to, including a nice, juicy chunk of science fiction in both prose and comic form. Yum!

    Below are the covers of all the Brainwave issues -- 23 in all -- that I edited. (These covers were designed and illustrated by various people, including +somesh kumar , +Sameer Kulavoor , +Prabha Mallya , +Sunando Chakraborty+George supreeth and myself.) The themes of these issues were, in order: light, flight, the brain, energy, archaeology, space, conservation biology, robotics, chemistry, sound, the internet, food, water, geometry, evolution, gases, pseudo-science, transportation, dinosaurs, movie special effects, genetics, the weather, and explosions:

    Brainwave: the first 23 issues

    All in all I spent roughly three years at ACK shepherding Brainwave, in which time it (and I, along with it) grew and morphed and evolved in all kinds of wonderful ways. I left after a couple of volumes were in the bag, when the magazine had grown legs enough to stop needing hand-holding, so I could take a break and focus on some of my own writing and art (both had fallen by the wayside and needed resurrection). Happily, it remains in print and continues to build on all the early work that my team did.


    Right, now that I've set the bones in place, let's get to the tasty flesh. Being the editor and art director at Brainwave afforded me the unique luxury of assigning myself both writing and illustration work. Double the work, but also twice the fun!

    You can read a few of my articles here: http://porterfolio.net/vvarma

    And below is a brief selection of my illustrations and comics for Brainwave:

    Artwork and story excerpt from the Smarties series in Brainwave. I created the Smarties as a means to use child-friendly characters in fun SF settings to impart science. Over the course of the magazine's print run, these characters have taken on a life of their own, which is rather pleasing.

    Mixed-media illustration for a story on Archimedes and his death-ray-shooting parabolic mirror

    Mixed-media illustration for a story on a Darwin Award honoree

    Illustration for an article on synaesthesia

    Above: caricatures of a neurobiologist, a meteorologist and a lepidopterist respectively

    Above and left: illustrations for a top-ten article on eating

    A comic celebrating the awarding of the 2011 Darwin Prize to the human race

    Above: illustrations for a top-ten article on flatulence

    Cover illustration for the Brainwave issue on weather and meteorology

    Illustration for an article on wars that have seen the deployment of animals rigged with explosives

    Illustration for an article on the cloning and brief resurrection of the extinct Pyrenean ibex

    Illustration for an 'Evil Science' article on Thomas Midgely

    Comic on Georges Méliès, for an issue on movie special effects

    An original SF comic. Click on the image to read in full size.

    PLUS! Since you've stayed with me this far, you deserve a bonus. Here's a 2-page comic that I made for Amar Chitra Katha (not Brainwave) on the process of making a movie:

    Click on the image to see it in full size.

    9 comments → 'Brainwave': how it got started + some artwork from it + part 2 of comics I've made

    1. Nice . Vinayak. Esp. loved Barfi Lahiri and Wackie Shroff

    2. Thank you! :)

    3. Anonymous said... 6 June 2014 at 11:38

      And big hat-tip to you! -R

    4. :)

    5. Lovely work man!!! All of it looks super delicious!!! Totally burning with envy now :/

    6. Thanks da, Praveen! You're being too nice. I am not worthy!

      What news? All well with you? Back in Bangalore?

    7. Been following Brainwave since it began (on Facebook only though, think I'll amend this and begin subscribing as well). The covers are *lovely* and I looked at its combined JPEG in a greedy collector's item way! Also, the how-to-make-a-film poster is something I'm definitely sharing with my profs from film school :D. Look fwd to more of your work (text + image) :)

    8. Thank you for your comment, Shruti. I'm glad to meet a friend of Brainwave. Yes, do subscribe to it. I'm not involved in the magazine any more, but I can vouch for the team that is working on it right now. They're continuing the good work.

      Feel free to share the poster, yes. If it's for educational purposes, I don't think ACK would object to it being printed and displayed either. So if you like I can send you a printable version. Just say the word. Out of curiosity, which film school are you from?

    9. TISS (Bombay) media and cultural studies dept. Somewhere b/w JNU and FTII heh. Shared this piece + poster on my alumni list, passed out a year ago. But thanks a bajillion for the print's offer :)

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