April 30th, 2012
12:36 PM ET

The Indian comic book industry: Comic Con and beyond

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.”

Beyond 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?”

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soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Suksh

    Vimanika Comics actually do stick to the age old stories as you call them. Their Shiva and Vishnu series retells the texts as they are. I think the new age artwork they have created works very well. and don't forget, the indian readership doesnt only lie in villages and smalll towns within India, but all over the world. Parents like myself have to battle with western peer pressures and culture with our children that these books actually help with. It connects their everyday growing up with Western Superheroes to start thinking about our own superheroes. If this small though then plants a seed of exploration for them into our history, then I think people like Vimanika Comics UK have fulfilled the job in ever sense.

    February 25, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  2. Vidya R

    You should also check out http://www.umachibooks.com.

    The SuperSavers are a bunch of 5-8 year olds out to "save" the planet with some help from mythological characters. There are other fun comic books and very eye-catching illustrations as well. A great read.

    September 7, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
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    May 11, 2012 at 4:55 am |
  4. Batul The Great

    Nice..also check Batul The Great..it is really funny :)

    May 3, 2012 at 5:22 am |
  5. Hemanth

    Can someone also tell , which are the best book shops for comics ? I have see a few in Landmark in Bangalore but not enough. I know railway books stalls sell a lot of those. My son is 5 now, I want him to grow up reading comics :P

    May 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      From what one of the main Comic Con India organizers, Jatin Varma, told me, a good place to start is online at Flipkart. Apparently a lot of new and old comics are available there. Raj Comics also recently announced that their stuff is now on Flipkart.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Vidya R

      There is this option of buying books at flipkart, they deliver them home. And there is always e-books, which is what I prefer, so easy for travel and no limitations as to what books I should be reading when.

      September 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  6. Hemanth

    Thanks Umika.While I was reading this article, all the comics that I devoured as a child in the 80s just flashed through my mind. Chacha Chaudhary was the best, pinky , Billu, Nagaraj (my dad would get one whenever I fell sick and it made me feel better instantly). Ah..the good old days :)

    May 2, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      Hey Hemanth, You are welcome! Glad you liked the story and it brought back good memories for you!

      May 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • utkarsh joshi

      u r right bro, nagraj is the best along with other raj comics heroes like dhruv and doga. no superman or batman can beat nagraj's popularity among indian comics fans.

      May 20, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  7. implicate_order

    No one mentioned the classic Indrajaal Comics. Although they were reprints of american comics like The Phantom, Mandrake, Rip Kirby etc there were some authentic Indian characters too - Bahadur the Brave, Aditya the Himalayan Yogi etc. In the 70s and 80s these were as staple in Indian households as were the Amar Chitra Kathas.

    May 1, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      Hey implicate_order, you are definitely right, those comics are certainly classics and shaped Indian comics today. But because of space constraints I had to remove Indrajal from the text. But thanks for pointing them out!

      May 2, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Batul The Great

      Where can I "Aditya the Himalayan Yogi" comics..couldn't find any link on google.

      May 3, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  8. Aman Saxena

    OMG you nerds !

    April 30, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  9. Die Die

    "Please don't send me back to India, it's so crowded! It's like the whole country is one endless Comic-Con, except everybody's wearing the same costume, Indian Guy!"

    April 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm |
    • Sheldon

      You're in my spot.

      May 1, 2012 at 9:18 am |
  10. cs

    Amar chitra katha ofcourse, also chandamama, regional ones. Ah the days of kalia, shikari shambu,anwar, suppandi...and there was one series..chacha chowdury! good'ol days.

    April 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  11. Elle

    As a kid who grew up in the late 80s and 90s in India, I remember reading the comic magazine called tinkle. Suppandi, Kalia the crow are some of the regular characters that I can remember! Are those magazines still in press?

    April 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      Yes they are! And you can order them online here: http://www.amarchitrakatha.com/special-collections/suppandi-collection

      April 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
      • Rajat Mishra

        Actually the one you are talking about is Tinkle the magazine which was a sort of digest released with short stories featuring all these characters.

        April 30, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  12. Galactus999999

    I would be interested to know if there are any Indian comics published in the English language. It might be interesting to see some of their stories.

    April 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      Hey Galactus. Most of comic books mentioned like "Amar Chitra Katha," "The Rabhas Incident," "Chairman Meow" "Devi," "Corridor" etc. are in English.

      April 30, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • Rajat Mishra

      There are several more actually.
      Level 10 publishes everything in English
      Vimanika Comics deals with mythology primarily, all in English
      Campfire Comics publishes graphic novels based on classics adopted from all across the globe. They also have graphic novels based on biographies of great personalities and have recently started publishing original content as well, apart from simple adaptations.
      Holy Cow Entertainment has come out with India's first horror digest in form of WereHouse. They also have an ongoing series – Ravanayan – the story of Lord Rama from the point of view of the antagonist Ravan.
      Random from 20 Onward Media publishes several books on varied subjects. Some brilliant and funny – like Chairman Meow and even better UBiMa – Udd Bilaw Manus – which is a mix of English and er.. Hindi, if you can call it :D – MUSTread, if you like humor. Some are dark, like Monkeeman. Then bollywood satires like Andhi Ma, Widhwa Bahen or Bollywood Zombies.

      Then there are several inde publishers who have come with some really good stuff.
      Then there is Comix.India that publishes independent anthologies.
      If you need any more details, you can also check out comicaddicts.com or comicology – both have decent amount of info about Indian Comic industry.

      April 30, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
      • utkarsh joshi

        comics like vimanika and liquid have good art work. but the problem with that they publish their work in english and this may restict their growth in many areas. people in rural areas and small towns still love to read hindi comics.
        one more thing, these comics show western stories in indian background. even if they make stories based on indian mythology they can never ever be as popular as amar chitra katha because indian people love their age old stories as they are. they may not enjoy americanization of them. i think only raj & diamond comics are successful to make comics which the indian mindset can relate to. as far as american comics are concerned they are generally dark tonned. indians also love american heroes but they generally watch their cartoons and movies and most of them don't even know that which hero belongs to dc and which to marvel.

        May 20, 2012 at 2:13 am |
    • DarthBobTarkas

      Yes. Most comics are actually originally in English and then translated to Hindi. Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha are all English. Do check out Ramayana 3392 AD. That still is one of the greatest indian comics ever. And it's in English.

      April 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  13. Dave Reeder

    Interesting stuff, but amazed you don't mention the Times of India's Indrajal Comics that brought over American strips like Mandrake and Flash Gordon from 1964 and then, in 1976, introduced Indian hero Baladur. From those and the ubiquity of Archie Comics, my Indian friends tell me, they began to understand the medium...

    April 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Umika Pidaparthy

      Good point Dave! In my original copy, I did mention Indrajal but because of space constraints, I was forced to cut it out and give a really summarized version. This is definitely far from a full history, but I tried to give as much background as possible. Although, there is enough material out there for someone to write a book :)

      April 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm |