GeekOut

Indian geek uprising: Comic book fans, artists come into their own

This is the second article of a two-part series exploring the Indian comic book industry. On Monday, we explained the growth of the Indian comic book industry. Today we look at the dilemma of being a geek in India and the status of comic book artists.

By Umika Pidaparthy, Special to CNN

Abhijeet Kini, a Mumbai-based comic book illustrator and animator, did not think there were other comic book enthusiasts like him in India.

“There are a lot of comic book collectors who have blown their salaries on comic books, and I thought I was the only one around,” he said.

In fact, the artist was pretty clueless about Indian geek culture in general.

That is until Kini attended the first Comic Con India in 2011.

He said he was amazed to see not only a big crowd at the convention, but people actually participating in cosplay (short for costume play). Kini was even more surprised to see people dressed as lesser-known characters from edgy Vertigo Comics and Image.

That scene repeated itself at the second Comic Con India (CCI) in February. Not only did many comic fans show up as the Avengers, the Joker and Freddy Krueger, there were also a plethora of new comic books, screenings, workshops by local artists and publishers and even an appearance by “Fritz the Cat” creator Robert Crumb. In all, there were around 80 participants and 35,000 attendees.

(For more about the history of Indian comic books and the state of the industry, read Monday's article.)

Jatin Varma, a comic book fan who organized CCI through his company Twenty Onwards Media, said that the event’s aim was to create a stronger comic culture and bring Indian comic nerds under one roof for the first time. He said that the main obstacle is the lack of identity for the Indian geek, and the goal now is to establish what sets Indians apart in the world of comics.

“A lot of geeks and brothers in this community are confused,” Varma said. “Like, are they going to be like the geeks in U.S. or UK? … We don’t live that lifestyle, neither do we have those hangouts. We do not have comic book stores where we can connect, so we are not like them.”

Kini, who released his graphic novel “Chairman Meow and the Protectors of the Proletariat” at CCI this year, said that although it provides a venue for Indian geeks to be free, there is a still a bit of hesitation among fans.

“People will say ‘Hey this guy’s son was dressed this way, green powder and torn underpants,’” he said. “They will not get that he is dressed like the Hulk. If you are in San Diego or elsewhere, they know where you are headed.”

Both Varma and Kini said that activities like cosplay and reading comic books are still associated with children in India. In fact, according to Varma, the sponsors for CCI are by and large targeting kids younger than 16 because they are considered the biggest market.

“Sadly in India, comics are still a children’s medium,” Kini said. “They are story books for kids … a waste of literature is what they see it as, which is very unfortunate.”

Déjà vu for American geeks

Not long ago this was the situation for American geeks and nerds, as well, according to Jason Tocci, a writer, designer and researcher who wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania on geek culture and identity.

“Once upon a time, you had to play video games and read comic books in the privacy of your home,” he said. “There’s now legitimacy in reading comic books as an adult. Video games have gone through the similar ‘oh games are just for kids.’”

Tocci, who also examined the evolution of geek and nerd labels, said that this “legitimacy” in the United States came from the rise of developed geek communities and the mainstreaming of certain elements. He found that pockets of geek culture have existed for years, though it is only recently that the term “geek,” once used as an insult, is now being reclaimed by the group.

“I don’t think it is a fad,” he said. “When I first started doing the research … I [had] a lot of people asking, ‘This is just a fad, right?’ I don’t think it is one little subculture … it is a bigger identity.”

Some Indian comic book artists are also feeling the lack of recognition and regard for the work they do.

Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, a graphic novelist and illustrator, said that Indian society remembers comic book pioneers like Anant Pai, creator of “Amar Chitra Katha” (or Immortal Picture Stories, a series of Indian fable and mythology comics), and Pran, creator of Chacha Chaudhary (Uncle Chaudhary, an old man who uses his wits to fight crime) from the 1960s. But it is not as fully aware of its present comic artists and graphic novelists.

“You talk about Stan Lee for instance and Olivier Coipel. … We think of them with respect, we revere them as gods,” he said. “We are nowhere near gods, we have [in] no way got cult status. Facebook has had a lot to do with pulling us from the gutters.”

Chattoraj, whose works “Munkeeman” and “Widhwa Ma and Andhi Behen” (Widow Mother and Blind Sister) were released at CCI, wants to spread the word that “India is not completely lame as far as this art form is concerned.”

Kini said he always knew he wanted to be part of the comic book world. He grew up reading popular Indian comics like “Tinkle,” a children’s magazine which features characters like a bumbling hunter called Shikari Shambu. Kini has produced a respectable body of work, but to anyone besides his family and friends, his occupation is still viewed as more of a hobby.

“Looking back, people still do not get what I do,” Kini said. “I say I draw for comics and they say, ‘Yeah, but what do you do for a living?’”

Tocci said that this might be because of the lingering stigma that starts from childhood where being called “geek” or “nerd” is “social assassination.”

“Even though comic books are becoming much more part of everyday life, there are some people who feel that social isolation and ostracism are at the core of geek identity,” he said. “There’s still a sense of insecurity among fans and some creators.”

That’s why gatherings like conventions are important, Tocci said, because conversations happen, new fans are made, and those not in the community gain a better understanding.

“Conventions allow [people] to engage in these activities in a socially insulated space. You get people going all out and saving their nerdiest T-shirts,” he said. “It gives you an opportunity to embrace your geek identity.”

That’s the purpose of CCI, according to Varma, and his ultimate goal is to set up more places like comic book stores for Indian geeks to unite and for comic book artists, writers and graphic novelists to thrive.

“It has become a great platform for people who experiment to showcase it,” he said. “It has given a lot of hope to people to get into the industry, to think of something they can do as their bread and butter. And they do not have to do it [only] over their weekends.”