This is the first of a two-part series exploring the Indian comic book industry. Look for the second part of the series - about the dilemma of being a geek in India - on Tuesday.
By Umika Pidaparthy, Special to CNN
If Batman and Superman ever packed their bags and moved to India, they would find that they have a bit of competition.
The superhero turf already belongs to figures such as Super Kudi and Pavitr Prabhakar.
They're the Indian equivalents of American mainstays Supergirl and Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, but they're just a small part of the growing Indian comic book industry.
That industry is more than mere translations of American comics. It’s a multilingual fantasyland, with themes ranging from mythology to humor to horror. In fact, Indian comic artists and graphic novelists say that there is hardly any room for Western superheroes today. This is clear to anyone who took in the comic offerings at February’s Comic Con India in New Delhi.
[Editor's note: Several of you inquired about the language of these comics in the comments. These comics are published mostly in English, while some are in Hindi and other local languages.]
Comic Con India, which is in its second year, was the brainchild of Jatin Varma, a comic book fan and the founder of alternative media house Twenty Onwards Media. Attending the more well-known San Diego comic book extravaganza came with a hefty price tag so Varma decided to bring the convention to him in 2011.
“We said let’s do something here,” Varma said. “Let’s do something for fans here despite comics being (a) niche in India.”
Comics may be a niche, but this year Comic Con India managed to draw 35,000 attendees and 80 participants, including comic vendors and creators, and it made more than $97,000. In addition to workshops, panels, cosplay (or costume play) and screenings, the event drew speakers such as “Fritz the Cat” creator Robert Crumb, The Comics Journal editor-in-chief Gary Groth and Drawn & Quarterly founder and publisher Chris Oliveros.
Though the convention is still in its infancy, the Indian comic book industry is certainly not new.
The reign of 'Amar Chitra Katha' and Hindu mythology
Indian comic books geared mostly toward children started to take off in the 1960s with titles such as “Amar Chitra Katha” ("Immortal Picture Stories") and "Chacha Chaudhary" ("Uncle Chaudhary," about an old man who uses his wits to fight crime) flying off the shelves.
Following a brief slump in the 1990s, a revival of sorts has happened in the last decade. More mature comic forms emerged, and domestic and foreign publishing houses are expanding into multiple genres, according to a recent report in the The Wall Street Journal.
Liquid Comics (previously known as Virgin Comics and owned by Richard Branson’s eponymous group) has released Indian fantasy titles such as “Devi,” which follows the adventures of a warrior goddess and is based on the mythological stories of the Hindu goddess Durga. Meanwhile, “The Rabhas Incident” by Level 10 Comics is a zombie tale that takes places in Bangalore (Bengaluru).
The king of the market is still “Amar Chitra Katha.” Founded by former engineer Anant Pai in 1967, these comics come in around 400 titles and have sold more than 90 million copies. According to Reena I. Puri, the current editor, Pai wanted to educate and “familiarize Indian children with stories from their heritage” in a format that would stick.
Why comics? “(T)here were lots of pictures, fewer words and the stories (were) communicated so much easily,” Puri said.
ACK Media’s best-selling and most profitable section is still mythology. These comics usually recount folklore from Hindu scriptures and include fables about the gods, their powers, their encounters with humans and their battles with evil.
Take the Sanskrit epic “Ramayana” ("Rama’s Journey"): In it, Prince Rama is an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu whose wife, Sita, is abducted by a demon king Ravana, whom he (spoiler!) eventually kills.
Since these tales are considered moral and philosophical compasses for Hindus, Puri said it’s not surprising that mythological titles are in demand.
“Indian mythology belongs to a religion which lives,” she said. “It is not a dead mythology.”
There is a debate brewing between Indian comic book and graphic novel artists, young and old, about whether to move beyond the old-fashioned mythological themes.
Abhijeet Kini, a Mumbai-based comic book illustrator and animator who released his graphic novel “Chairman Meow and the Protectors of the Proletariat” (a Garfield-meets-Mao Zedong hero) at Comic Con India this year, said, “The problem here is that everyone is stuck in the mythological rut, every second comic that comes out is of a God, demons from our mythologies who are these superhuman beasts.”
Kini’s work mostly mines humor (he frequently draws for the satirical magazine Random), and for him, Indian society and its corruption, fanaticism about cricket and Bollywood are all comic book gold.
Other comic artists are keen to make Indian comics a force to be reckoned with internationally by releasing unexplored genres.
Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, a graphic novelist and illustrator whose works “Munkeeman” and “Widhwa Ma and Andhi Behen” ("Widow Mother and Blind Sister") were released at the convention, has also collaborated with Level 10 Comics on “The Rabhas Incident” series and worked with Joseph Calabrese on “The Eyes of Mara” graphic novel.
Chattoraj, who is based in Kolkata, said that urban Indian readers are more than ready for mature comic content, thanks to the changing media landscape. The infiltration of TV shows such as “The Walking Dead” and the rising acceptance of grown-up themes in Indian movies and TV have opened up all kinds of possibilities for comic artists.
“That is what ‘The Rabhas Incident’ tried to do,” Chattoraj said. “It was looking at zombies - something you did not associate India with.”
Some graphic novelists such as Sarnath Banerjee are interested in a more intimate portrayal of India. Banerjee is the author and illustrator behind the popular “Corridor,” which was released in 2004 and revolves around the interactions between the residents of Delhi and a shop owner. While Banerjee said that he does not have a problem with mythology, he feels it’s time to end the monoculture in comic books.
“A certain understanding of how society works within the tension of change will become a primary part of Indian comics,” he said.
What about the comics’ take on quintessential costumed superheroes? Nagraj (Snake King), by Raj Comics, probably comes the closest. Created in the late 1980s, Nagraj is a terror-weapon-turned-crime-fighter whose main power is hosting mystical snakes that can attack his opponents on command; his bite is filled with deadly venom.
Nagraj is a relatively popular character, but Varma said it is not easy for Indian superheroes to gain the same kind of following as the ones do in the United States.
“Superheroes are not possible in India,” he said. “Our reality is (so) stark for superheroes that it becomes unbelievable. That is why contemporary stuff, surreal stuff, abstract stuff is happening right now.”
And so the grass-roots movement for the Indian comic book industry grows. Artists, writers and publishing houses continue to experiment with some degree of success, which was clear with the appearance of a respectably sized horde of comic book aficionados at the latest Comic Con India.
For Varma, it’s a start.
“Our aim is to improve the comic culture in India, to have more comic fans because this is a country of (over) 1 billion,” Varma said. “When I say we had (for instance) 20,000 fans show up, that means nothing compared to the size of Delhi.”
Kini said that as an artist, a venue such as the convention, is a jumping-off point for harnessing the potential of the Indian comic book industry. “The new artists are great and you just wonder - what if it there was no Comic Con, no publication houses? Where would all that talent go?”