Is This The 2nd Golden Age of Indian Comics?
When India Today gave me a word count of 800 words for a story on the Indian comics scene, I knew I'd end up writing more and would have to cut it down to size. However, I hadn't anticipated that I'd write about 2,000 'extra' words. The ruthlessly-edited version of this article is out in this week's India Today and you can read it online here. Even if you don't have the patience to read the whole thing, scroll down because I've got some rather winsome images from the people I spoke to for this article.
On November 30, 2017, DC Comics dropped the trailer for Batman Ninja. Directed by Jumpei Mizusaki, this the first full-length anime adventure for Bruce Wayne and gang, who are transported to medieval Japan thanks to an “unexpected chemical reaction”. Katanas gleam, the shogun armours get elegant ruffles that flutter with quiet menace, Batman likes green tea and he must save Japan from the Devil King of 6th Heaven, Lord Joker. There’s no mistaking the classic DC characters and yet, drawn in the distinctive style of Japanese anime, they’ve been reinvented.
Try imagining a desi Batman adventure. How would he and his entourage be transformed?
And that’s when it strikes you — despite a long history of visual-led storytelling that can be traced back to centuries-old folk art like patachitra, in the 21st century comic book arena, India hasn’t developed a distinctive, contemporary Indian aesthetic. “It’s a bit all over the place right now,” said illustrator Pia Hazarika. “But it is something to aspire towards – the ‘scene’ here is just starting to pick up,” she added. Ram V, who wrote the successful comic book series Aghori, said, “A language of comics that is distinctly our own can only evolve when we stop trying to mimic comics from other places.”
If you’re looking for good Indian comics, you’ll have to look beyond the printed strips and the commercial volumes. Far away from bookshelves and in corners of the internet, a vibrant scene emerges, full of new artists and innovative voices who have their own niche but loyal following. And yet, when we think of Indian comics, what immediately comes to mind is the kitschy art of the 1970s and 1980s.
Often described as the golden age of Indian comics, the Seventies and Eighties saw the first creative sparks when homegrown heroes like Bahadur, Nagraj and Chacha Chaudhary held their own against the likes of Mandrake, Phantom and Tarzan. Even when they resembled the forms of their American and British counterparts, as Nagraj and Bahadur did, they were distinctively Indian in terms of their stories and backgrounds. Bahadur, for example, was from a village in the Chambal region. He wore a kurta and jeans — traditional on top, modern below. He also lived with his girlfriend, which is a whole lot more adventurous than any commercial comic book hero today.
Unfortunately, the storytelling in these comics wasn’t consistently good and publishers focused less on talent and more on how to print them at the cheapest possible cost. Indian comics lost both momentum and readership in the 1990s. in the past decade, it’s revived, fuelled by the international success of Hollywood’s superhero franchises as well as Marvel and DC Comics’s plans for world (market) domination. The market for comics is still small in terms of percentages, but with a population like India’s, the potential of big numbers dangles like a carrot on a stick.
One barometer to track the growing interest in India is Comic Con India. “The first Comic Con I ever went to was in one corner of Dilli Haat, with 20 stalls and five people dressed in Superman t-shirts,” said Neel Debdutt Paul, group creative director of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK). Comic Con India has since expanded to five cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru) and consistently fills giant exhibition centres with thousands of visitors. For big players like ACK as well as indie artists like Abhijeet Kini, who illustrates for Tinkle and runs his own publishing studio, these events are a blessing. “Comic Cons have brought everyone closer,” said Kini. “It’s building a community with the focus on the independent artist.”
Not everyone is quite as enthusiastic about Comic Con India. Some lament that the event is all about film and TV show merchandise, not comic books. As far as Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con India, is concerned, the problem is in the comics scene rather than his events. “Comic Con only takes place a total of 10 days in a year,” said Varma. “In order to make comics industry successful, there has to be a plan to make the rest of the year fruitful, which is what everyone is struggling with.” With few established players, the convention needs the indie set to be prolific. In the past, Comic Con has given out grants and still tries to feature individual creators prominently. “The complete lack of proper retail and distribution system makes it [the comics scene] worse,” Varma said. He also readily accepted that comic books couldn’t compete with film and television merchandise. “With respect to being overshadowed, it’s not a fear, it’s a fact,” said Varma. “That happens pretty much anywhere in the world.” Varma’s advice to publishers: “Create your own space and, with our support, stand out so that audience at the show gets to experience their work.”
Varma is right about the ascendancy of film, but the Indian scenario has its own peculiarities. Ever since the 1960s, comics have been slotted as infotainment for kids in India. ACK, for instance, was founded to educate Indian children and make Hindu mythology and history easily accessible to them. Characters in traditional, mainstream comics regularly preach to their audiences, assuming kids need instruction. Readers are expected to outgrow these simplistic stories and artwork, which follow formulae co-opted decades ago from the West. While they’ve clung to outdated aspects of Western comics, Indian publishers have ignored how their foreign counterparts have evolved their comics in the present and carefully cultivated adult readers.
Looking to fix that mistake is Graphic India. Recently, Graphic India created a book and an animated series based on the Baahubali universe. Artistically, it’s not particularly impressive, but it’s a franchise designed to be commercial, mass market and for older audiences too. The same is true for the backstory for Gabbar Singh published by Graphic India, in an effort to build a franchise around the legendary Bollywood film, Sholay.
Alongside their film-inspired projects, Graphic India also has original series like Chakra and Mistry PI. The illustrations in these comics is elaborate, meticulous and different from the standard kitsch of mainstream comics. “Indian audiences have begun to reassess what they perceive as a comic book and start taking the medium as a serious platform to explore very contemporary themes way beyond the ‘Tights and Capes’ of the traditional superhero genre,” said founder and CEO Sharad Devarajan, who hopes that the next Stan Lee is hiding somewhere in India and will be found by his publishing house. “Finding that unique Indian aesthetic isn’t suddenly a magic light switch that we can know today – but rather a dimmer that will slowly take years of experimentation, risk taking and passionate pursuit by creators,” he said.
Everyone agrees there is no dearth of talent in India and providing concrete evidence of this is Kochin-based Studio Kokaachi, an independent publishing house and design studio founded by Tina and Prateek Thomas. While most in mainstream comics hope their books will open doors to the film world, in Studio Kokaachi’s case that’s actually what happened, though with a twist. “Comics actually got us projects in film,” said Tina Thomas. “We placed Mixtape in a café owned by the film director Aashiq Abu. He saw it and liked it, and then asked us to do the opening and closing sequences of his Malayalam film Gangster.” From this followed the animated bits in Mani Ratnam’s Ok Kadhal Kanmani and its Hindi remake, Ok Jaanu. The most recent film project for Studio Kokaachi is the Saif Ali Khan-starrer Kaalakaandi. Commercial projects like these help fund their comics, which are meant only for print and are expensive to produce because the Thomases are perfectionists. “We could go for cheaper paper or a cheaper printer, but that’s like killing ourselves,” said Tina.
Unshakeably in love with the printed comic book, Studio Kokaachi produces some beautiful indie comics ranging from the conventional book to the “matchbox comics” that are part design object and part comic. Their bestseller is the Mixtape series, which is an anthology of short comic stories, but the Thomases (along with Prabha Mallya, who designs their comics) also publish individual stories like Monsieur Fly. Their list of titles is select (read: small), but they’ve showcased some of the brightest and most talented illustrators. Plus, the storytelling in these comics is inventive.
Place ACK’s recently-released Ramayana next to Graphic India’s Ramayana 3392 AD, and you glimpse the range available to an Indian comic book reader today.
Yet the ACK style, which has been embraced and churned out by countless mainstream comics, remains the most recognisable ‘Indian’ comic while other artists’ attempts at refashioning illustration styles languish in relative and complete obscurity. It doesn’t help that big players like ACK are resistant to trying new artistic styles and would rather stick to formulaic stories because they are safer. “Yeah, sales have been dropping,” admitted Paul. “Having said that, there are lots of issues with marketing and with placement, and with bookshops shutting down. All of that leads to the question of whether people are reading less, but as far as ACK is concerned, we’re doing better than we did a decade ago.”
While ACK won’t mess around with its pantheon, Paul hinted there were plans to experiment a little in 2018. If this pans out, it’ll be a welcome move. As illustrator Pia Hazarika said, “There are the bigger houses, who’s work look like their foreign counterparts with a loincloth and some gold thrown on, there’s the smaller houses who put together AMAZING books that end up being buried because of funding issues, not enough publicity, not enough…something at any given time.”
Fortunately, there is the internet and it’s become a wonderful platform for Indian comics and its creators. Personal websites and social media pages offer a glimpse of works that are diverse and enchanting. They're are usually grounded in reality and use visuals and comic storytelling to articulate personal narratives and make sense of the world around us. It’s starkly different from the fantasy that mainstream publishers are selling and the online popularity of these artists and their work makes you wonder whether the big players need to widen the scope of their publishing.
Painterly in style and richly coloured, Susarla’s personal projects weave her feminist viewpoint into her art. The bodies are real, the eyes are bright and the lines are as bold as the colours. Here’s one letter from Susarla’s The Feminist Alphabet:
You can see the rest of The Feminist Alphabet (and explore Susarla’s site) here.
The versatile Priya Kuriyan is in her element with a style that contains elements of cartoons, but with graceful linework and fantastic detailing. A hunter of quirk, like the legendary Indian cartoonist Mario Miranda, Kuriyan’s work has a warm sense of giggly humour running through it, which is evident in every page of What’s Neema Eating Today? If her Instagram is any indication, Kuriyan is constantly sketching and one of the more fun projects is #gardenvarietyhumour. She takes a flower and transforms it by sketching around it. The effect is just pure delight.
Edgier are Prabha Mallya and Jasjyot Singh Hans. Mallya is perhaps best known for her book covers and illustrations for novels like Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings. Her style is all sharp lines, contrasts and dark colours (her use of black and grey spectacular), tied together with a determination to not be pretty and smooth. Hans’s style, on the other hand, is full of swooping curves and flowing lines. The stories he tells almost always have a theme of secrecy running through them, with characters hiding aspects of themselves. Particularly in the women he draws, there’s beauty that turns the other cheek at conventional demands of grooming and thinness. They’re often voluptuous, fat, unwilling to pretend happiness for the viewer’s gaze and drawn with tenderness.
In stark contrast to mainstream comic books, Indian web comics are a treasure trove of quirk and creativity. The Brainded project by George ‘Appupen’ Mathen (author of the Halahala series of graphic novels) serves up biting satire and wicked humour. His Rashtraman is the perfect hero for our present times. Using miniature paintings, Royal Existentials by Aarthi Parthasarathy and Chaitanya Krishnan offer hilarious (and beautiful) perspectives on everyday sexism, caste, class and sexuality. “It's fun because it’s a medium I love and as a filmmaker, thinking in a sequential storyboard form comes naturally to me,” said Parthasarathy.
Custom Cuts, by Hazarika and Malathi Jogi, is another example of using comics to process current affairs issues. “I only work on comics that I’m interested in, that talk about subjects that I care about and have substance to them, and with people I want to work with,” said Hazarika. “I learn something from them, and if I’m not being commissioned to work on things that I like, I try and create that sort of content myself, much like it happened with Custom Cuts, or the work I produce for The Health Collective, or even the little doodles I do about life.”
While some, like Kini and Studio Kokaachi, are unconvinced about making their work available online (and for free), others like Hazarika have embraced the internet enthusiastically. “It’s given comics creators in India a worldwide platform to showcase their work, which ideally should result in more work,” Hazarika said, listing her reasons to love the internet. “It’s given consumers a massive base to pick and choose from, and it’s showing the foreign market that the ‘scene’ here exists, which is encouraging them to branch out as well.” The faith that Hazarika has reposed in the internet has paid off. Custom Cuts caught the eye of Ad Astra Comix and is on its way to becoming a book that will published and distributed in North America.
Ram V, who wrote Aghori and whose new book Paradiso will be released by American comic book publisher Image Comics, said, “What the Indian scene sorely needs is a publisher that understands the medium, has a passion for telling new stories and seeks to empower the creator to tell their story in the best way they can.” The art in Paradiso is by Dev Pramanik and the lettering is by Aditya Bidikar. This is a book that should arguably have found an Indian publisher, but Bidikar, Pramanik and Ram work almost exclusively with American and British publishers. “I would like nothing more than to have an entire career in Indian comics,” said Bidikar. “But it’s incredibly frustrating because you need an environment, and it isn’t here.”
“We should be making comics that stand proudly beside books from international publishers on any retailer’s bookshelf. But that's not the case, yet,” said Ram. Bidikar also lamented the lack of vision in Indian comics publishing and its efforts to build an audience in India. “Comics are being sold to people who like reading comics and that’s not how the industry gets built,” he said. “If somebody is already interested in superheroes why would they buy a cut-rate version of superhero made in India? They would just buy a Marvel comic or a DC comic.” For Bidikar, the solution lies in storytelling. “Comics should be sold to people who like reading crime stories or other such genre fiction,” he said. “Look at Japan. The manga revolution happened in about 40 years. Manga started after American comics and now it’s left American comics way behind. Because readers don’t care about the medium that the story is coming through. They care about the story that they’re getting.”
If the first golden age of Indian comics was one marked by more comics publishers entering the arena and success in terms of sales, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we’re seeing a second one unfurl in the present. This time, we’re seeing a burst in creativity, diverse artistic styles, and growth in terms of the kind of subjects that are tackled by comics. Frustratingly, despite talent and interest in the medium being in place, comics in India aren’t an industry and the scene has struggled to gather cultural momentum. As novelist and comic book writer Samit Basu put it, “Nothing’s happening and it’s nobody’s fault.”