Thursday, April 12, 2012

Of creative heads and delivery boys - the many faces of a growing comics industry

[Here, somewhat belatedly, is the full text of the essay I did about Indian comics for The Caravan. Have added a few images here, as well as links to some of the comics mentioned in the piece]

The crafts bazaar Dilli Haat is spacious and conveniently located, making it a good outdoor venue for a cultural event in wintertime Delhi. But it’s a good setting for an annual comics convention on another count too. In a place defined by its variety — handicrafts from across India on sale, food stalls plying cuisines from different regions a few paces apart — it doesn’t feel quite so strange to turn a corner and find Suppandi, the simpleton from Tinkle comics, walking about with Rorschach, the embittered vigilante from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, while Jughead Jones and Supergirl pose for photos nearby. Anyone familiar with these characters will know that they belong to very different fictional universes, but at the second annual Comic Con India those universes and many others met.

At this point, let me confess to not being any sort of expert on the comics industry, though I am a fan of some of the medium’s masters—Moore, Eddie Campbell, Art Spiegelman, Osamu Tezuka, Craig Thompson among them—and have followed developments in Indian ‘graphic novel’ publishing in the past few years, particularly the work of fine artist-cum-writers such as Sarnath Banerjee, Amruta Patil, George Mathen and Vishwajyoti Ghosh. Stepping into Comic Con 2, I knew very little about the current state of Indian comics – at least the ones that usually take the form of a continuing series and aren’t typically brought out by big-name publishers. The result was something of a sensory overload.

Arrive an hour before the official opening of the event and it looks busy enough: groups of publishers, editors, writers and artists unpacking their wares and setting up stalls. By the time the first set of visitors begin trooping in, it’s hard to keep track of everything that is going on. As you’d expect, hundreds of comic books are up for sale at stalls run by long-time players like Amar Chitra Katha and Diamond Comics as well as by relatively new companies such as Campfire, Level 10, Pop Culture Publishing (started by Twenty Onwards Media, the company that organised the convention), Rovolt and Libera Artisti. A small indoor stall houses Sufi Studios, which has on offer a book of benevolent spiritual teachings (with some faces depicted featureless in keeping with the Islamic tradition of not representing holy persons pictorially). The Chennai-based publishing house Blaft, known for its offbeat and imaginative publishing of pulp fiction, has a terrific-looking anthology of graphic stories titled The Obliterary Journal (the title comes from a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that visual storytelling should “obliterate” conventional literature). Sporting a green mohawk and a shiny red jacket, Blaft co-founder Rakesh Khanna looks very much into the spirit of things.

Comics aside, there is plenty of merchandise—T-shirts, bags, mugs, posters—as well as workshops, impromptu drawing sessions and magic-trick demonstrations. And, in true lit-fest style, a programme of events—book launches, discussions—held on a small stage, though they rarely last for more than 15-20 minutes each, and microphones routinely malfunction. Over the weekend in particular, there are large crowds, and much of the visitor interest is in the side-attractions: a stall noisily running round-the-clock promotions of the forthcoming film John Carter, photo opportunities with comic characters, or just the fun of walking around, gawping at things and being part of something unusual.

It’s one thing to have an outsider’s view of the Indian comics industry—to be told by people in the know that it is at a fledgling stage, roughly where comics in the US were 70 or 80 years ago. It’s quite another thing to see it up close and realise just how much work is being done by scores of enthusiastic writers and artists all over the country. When I did online searches for the people and companies I had encountered, nearly every writer’s blog or publisher’s website led to a dozen other links about projects in various stages of completion (or abandonment). As you’d expect, there is plenty of depressingly mediocre work as well as some that is highly promising.

There are large variances in quality, a range of subjects and styles, and completely different attitudes about what comics can or should be. To understand this, it is important to remember that comics is not a “genre” (which is how graphic novels were frequently described by reviewers when they first became popular in India) but an expansive medium, throbbing with ideas, ideologies and objectives.


Sipping coffee at a stall, I have a conversation about form and content with Suhas Sundar, creative director, Level 10 Studios. Many readers new to the world of comics tend to be literal-minded, Sundar points out; they have no real understanding of an abstract narrative where (for instance) text flowing across a panel might not function as explicit commentary on what is being depicted. “Comics as art are not … where you have a panel of a man looking out of a window and the text that goes with it is, ‘He looked out of the window’.”

As a reader, I endorse this view; the graphic novels I admire most are the ones with layered narratives, where text and drawings work with—or against—each other in complex ways; and where it takes two or three readings before you can fully appreciate the many levels of storytelling. But a short while later I come to the World Comics stall where a much more egalitarian philosophy is being expressed. “Anyone can draw,” Sharad Sharma is telling reticent visitors. “Your experiences and opinions are more important than your illustrations.”

For about 15 years now, Sharma and his movement, Grassroots Comics, have been holding workshops in small towns and villages, encouraging people to use drawings to express the issues that are troubling them. Reading the bulletin A Tool for Democracy, which collects some of these narratives—simply told chronicles of injustice and discrimination, a few of which show emerging visual flair—one is reminded that comics, like any other artistic medium, can have a strictly utilitarian function as well, especially in places where underprivileged people don’t have a voice of their own. It doesn’t just have to be about artists honing their talents, practising fine lines and shading for the love of creativity. Something similar might be said about Zubaan’s recently published Our Pictures, Our Words: A Visual Journey Through The Women’s Movement, which collects pictorial representations of the many issues facing women across the country. Though this isn’t primarily a book of comics, it is a reminder of the power of pictures—even unsophisticated ones—to spread information about important issues. As a Zubaan representative told me at an exhibition of posters included in the book, these weren’t made by trained artists, “they were put together by ordinary people who were moved by a cause”.

There are just as many conflicting approaches to content as well. At the Vimanika Edutainment stall, company head Karan Vir Arora talks in a way that make me feel like I’ve stepped into a time machine (perhaps the creaky thing in the sci-fi story I flipped through at the last stall) and travelled back to 1967 and a key incident in Indian comics history: Anant Pai being disturbed to find that youngsters knew more about Greek myths than Indian ones. Pai went on to establish Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), which introduced at least two generations of Indians to their mythology and history (and permanently fixed in their minds images of what gods, rakshasas and apsaras should look like). Companies like Campfire and Vimanika have been revamping many of these stories for newer readers. “We are confused about our past,” Arora says, sounding older and wiser than he looks. “Discovering our heritage is a way of instilling pride in our country.”

Personally I feel some of us have too much pride in our ancient culture and in the fantasy of a rosy past. Vimanika’s website proclaims that each story in its comics “will have a moral in it” and refers to “virtues that were considered common during that era but which are now looked upon with amazement and fear in today’s world”. In these comics, mythological figures like Shiva are given a look that draws on Western fantasy while not straying too far from the template established by ACK. Bright colours are the norm, but as Arora points out, “We are careful to make sure that the proportioning of the figures—the body and head sizes—are true to life. We don’t want to give it a cartoonish, anything-goes feel.”

Other artists and writers take a different position on mythology. “Many of us are tired of doing the same old devotional stuff,” says Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, one of the brightest, most prolific artists currently working in Indian comics, while Pratheek Thomas—a former engineering student who co-founded the independent publishing house Manta Ray two years ago—says his company isn’t interested in turning mythological characters into new-age superheroes. “We’d prefer to produce new material and become a platform for original creative talent.”

There is another, more practical consideration in shying away from the mythological-retelling bandwagon: since you don’t have copyright on these characters, someone else with a better design and more money could make a couple of minor tweaks to your Hanuman and usurp your space. “The downside of working with original characters is that it takes longer for readers to become familiar with the stories we are telling,” says Level 10’s Sundar, “But the payoff can be big with a new concept that really catches on.” Everyone in the industry is familiar with those international fairytales about entire franchises built around one little character. Everyone can dream it might happen to them one day.

The attempt to create fresh, contemporary content often means inventively juxtaposing the real world with the supernatural, so that the latter becomes a commentary on the former. “If you look at our festivals and crowded public events, this is a country begging for a zombie apocalypse,” deadpans novelist Samit Basu, who has written the online series Unholi (about a zombie infestation during Holi) for Graphic India. An early passage in The Hyderabad Graphic Novel (a work about the city at various points in its history, intelligently written by Jaideep Undurti and drawn with fine attention to detail by Chattoraj) shows a time-travelling autorickshaw in the Cretaceous period, the driver telling a potential passenger “Jurassic Park mein savaari nahin milta”. Another auto-driver becomes Yamaraj’s chauffeur in the Trivandrum-based company Libera Artisti’s Auto Pilot: Meter Down, one of the most impressive new comics I saw at Comic Con (and the first in a 10-volume series).

There are, of course, explicitly realist (and creatively illustrated) scenarios too: vignettes from an old-folks’ home presented in austere black-and-white (Roney Devassia’s ‘Karuna Bhavanam’, included in Blaft’s Obliterary Journal); Charles Sobhraj’s escape from Tihar Jail, told in rich colours in Manta Ray’s ‘Year of the Snake’ (published in Motherland magazine’s ‘Prison’ special). Manta Ray’s goal of “amplifying the voices of interesting people” is being played out in the forthcoming ‘Twelve’, a black-and-white 12-part series about young Indian adults and the choices they make. They have also been producing a witty weekly strip on current affairs, ‘The Small Picture’, for the newspaper Mint.

Elsewhere, tropes from Indian pop culture—especially cinema—recur, as in Widhwa Maa, Andhi Behen (Widowed Mother, Blind Sister), about a crime-fighting duo who get their names from staple characters in melodramatic Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s (and who try to stop Bollywood from “losing its soul” to cerebral, new-age directors like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee!). Or Munkeeman, conceptualised by Abhishek Sharma (director of the film Tere Bin Laden) about the Delhi-menacing ‘monkeyman’ who wants to lose his bad reputation. While the writing in some of these strips is uneven and the narrative leapfrogs all over the place (perhaps in imitation of a masala Hindi movie), they do provide a sense of what a good home-grown comic series might look like.

There is, in any case, a natural relationship between movies and comics—not least because of the large number of creative people who work in both media—and this sometimes translates into graphic stories being used as inexpensive advertising. For his still-to-be-released thriller The Blueberry Hunt, starring Naseeruddin Shah, director Anup Kurian developed a strip that was published in instalments on the film’s Facebook page. More often than not, film-based comics are shoddily assembled works that end up dying quietly on the movie’s website (try Googling “Ra.One official comic” and you’ll see what I mean). A rare example of an official film comic put out by a major publishing house is the 80-page Agent Vinod strip for the yet-to-be-released Sriram Raghavan-directed Saif Ali Khan-starrer. “We are treating it seriously, as a publication in its own right,” says Westland’s Paul Vinay Kumar. “It’s based on the characters and script, but it isn’t slavishly faithful to the film.” If the strip does well, more such tie-ups can be expected in the future. But of course, the movie-comics relationship can flow in both directions: director Anurag Kashyap has given Westland the go-ahead to turn his unfilmed script ‘Allwyn Kallicharan’ into a graphic novel, after which he might consider filming it.

Understandably, given the rich global history of comic storytelling, many Indian illustrators, even the really talented ones, are strongly influenced by the drawing modes of the international comics they grew up with. “Many artists become skilled copiers of other people’s styles and don’t push their own idiom,” says Sarnath Banerjee who (along with other established comic artists like Orijit Sen and Parismita Singh) co-founded the Pao Collective to help promote originality and independence in the field.

But there have also been pleasing instances of indigenous art being used to tell stories. One of the pieces in The Obliterary Journal, ‘Memories of the Nayagarh Incident’, uses the Odia style of pata chitra to present an apparently straight-faced account of extraterrestrial sightings in Odisha in 1947 (among the depictions are a “yantra-purusha” with pincer-like hands and a spacesuit-wearing alien raising its palm in the “ashirvad stance”). This is the work of Sri Pachanana Moharana, who runs his own workshop in the Puri district and specialises in palm-leaf engravings. The Rajasthani miniaturists Shankar Lal Bhopa and Birju Lal Bhopa didn’t get the canvas they deserved in the satirical Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India (a book that prioritised ideas over artwork, to its own detriment), but the Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam brought a distinct vision to last year’s Bhimayana: Experiences of Untouchability—their surreal flourishes (a water tank given the shape of a fish; train wheels drawn as serpent heads) turned what could have been a textbook-like account of BR Ambedkar’s life into a richly imaginative work, one where strangeness of form created its own commentary on social injustice.


Given all this variety—and the strong sense of an industry on the brink of big things—an event that brought comic creators and aficionados together was long overdue. Jatin Varma and his team at Twenty Onwards Media have reason to be happy about the success of the convention’s first two editions. “There has been definite progress from Comic Con 1 to Comic Con 2 in terms of smaller players taking more initiative,” Varma says. “Everyone was a little uncertain last year, but this time they have shown more promotional savvy and have come up with some good ideas to draw in readers.”

Most of the mainstream publishers and bookstores did not participate, which may have been a missed opportunity. One of the exceptions, Random House India (RHI)—which has distribution rights in India for DC Comics, Vertigo and Archie comics—found itself in the happy position of having to replenish its stock four times. “We were left with fewer than 400 titles of the 1,700 we stocked—it was a huge success,” says a thrilled Ritesh Singh, who manned the RHI stall. To put this in perspective, though, most of the comics sold at this stall were works by international superstars such as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. That doesn’t necessarily say much about the prospects of the indigenous comics industry, which is still trying to build awareness and find a foothold.

Speaking with participants, the chief impression I got was of small start-ups with not more than five to 10 employees each: groups of artists, writers and entrepreneurs (including people who are some combination of all three) on the fringe of mainstream publishing. There was an appealing artlessness to many of these conversations. As a literary journalist, one is used to hearing self-aggrandising spiel from editors at big publishing houses who are convinced they know what they are doing (even if the quality of many of the titles they produce every month suggests otherwise). It’s refreshing, then, to hear young comic publishers admit that there is a shortage of good content, and that it’s pointless to expect profits in the near future. “I tell people, don’t think you’ll do five comics and then find an investor” says Level 10’s Sundar. “You have to be in it for the long haul.” Similar sentiments are echoed nearly everywhere else. Even Varma, who has worked hard to make the convention a reality, candidly admits that for all the footfalls so far, there is a basic lack of awareness. “Robert Crumb [the renowned American comics artist] was at our awards show the other night, and some people didn’t know who he was.”

Here, then, is a world of people—including those with important-sounding designations like “Content Manager”, “Creative Head” and “MD” printed on their business cards—who haven’t yet learnt the self-assured language of the marketplace. Speaking of visiting cards, I saw one (for the founder of the company Bombay Merch) that read: “Founder and MD. Packaging Boy. Delivery Boy. Chai-Coffeewala.” That isn’t just wry humour—it reveals something important about the workings of an industry where young entrepreneurs don’t expect to sit in high-backed chairs ordering minions about. Most participants at the convention manage companies, and are here strategising and trying to strike publishing and marketing deals not because they went to B-schools but because they are essentially comic-book geeks pursuing a passion.

“I spend much of my time at events lifting jute bags filled with our comics, because we don’t have labourers to do it for us,” one of them tells me. While dignity of labour is always a good thing, this points to a larger problem faced by the industry: the fact that too many of its young talents have to constantly multitask instead of focusing on their field of specialisation. “We need a culture where writers have the freedom to do their work without worrying about things like marketing,” says Sundar, citing the example of leading Japanese manga companies, where the division of labour is as neat as the arrangement of food items in a bento box.

But lack of finance and sponsorship makes this difficult: the advent of the Richard Branson-founded Virgin Comics a few years ago seemed to have heralded a new era of professionalism—good production values and decent salaries—for the industry, but Virgin pulled out and the company now operates in a more low-key avatar as Liquid Comics. Meanwhile, indigenous companies—including the ones that run small studios with their own contracted artists—know that the future lies in digital content, but that much work needs to be done. Internationally, the major comics are available online and on Apps—for a price. But in an industry where creating awareness is the first step, companies must put some free content on their websites (such as Level 10’s Odayan series) to gauge interest levels. Print versions are brought out subsequently.

A running theme in nearly every chat I had at Comic Con was that the artists and writers working on comics were not in it for the money. But how far can passion alone take you? The savvier and more talented freelancers earn a living by working on multiple projects (and across media) simultaneously, but this raises another question: should a serious artist spread himself so thin? “We receive portfolios all the time,” says Blaft’s Rakesh Khanna. “But we haven’t met enough Indian artists who are fully committed to one big, continuing story, which is how the comics industry really took off in the West. We need more nutcases who will spend ten years just drawing and trying to realise a grand, integrated vision.” This creates a circle: quality can suffer when artists, to avoid sinking into a financial pit with a single long-term project, either keep day jobs or have their fingers in many different pies.

Other problems include lack of proper distribution and display, and the chariness of big publishers to deal in comics. “I approached a major newspaper group five years ago with an idea for starting a comic,” says Chattoraj, “but they have been reluctant to take the initiative even though I said I would bring my expertise to it.” There is a feeling in the industry that big publishers are more open to doing stand-alone graphic books than to commissioning a full-fledged comics series.

But there are also signs that this is changing. Westland will soon be publishing a Local Monsters series (written by Samit Basu, featuring a yeti and a rakshasa, among other characters) and is also partnering with Level 10 Studios to bring out print versions of the latter’s online comics. At the International Comics Festival at Angoulême, France last year, Jaideep Undarti and the team behind the The Hyderabad Graphic Novel struck a deal with a French company to publish the book in translation—which means the French version will probably be out before the English one. The Obliterary Journal has an optimistic ‘Volume 1’ on its cover, suggesting that there will be sequels. This summer, Penguin India is publishing an anthology of graphic stories put together by the Pao Collective. Also in the works is a Partition-themed graphic anthology edited by Vishwajyoti Ghosh and published by Yoda Press. “The stories include contemporary and historical reportage and political documentary,” says Ghosh, “and the visual style is diverse too: from notebook doodles to photo comics and comics out of film grabs.”


Prominently represented at Comic Con this year was the popular online store Many in the industry agree that with physical bookstores reluctant to set aside much space for comics, Flipkart has been a boon for publishers and fans. (“Their display is the best too, because e
very book gets its own page!” says Varma.) Fittingly, the very first ad in The Indian Comics Journal—an industry magazine launched by Twenty Onwards Media—portrays the online store as a caped crusader for the comics world: “Whatever the Comic. Whatever the Odds. Flipkart Man will deliver.”

It’s a silver lining to be sure—one of a few that are beginning to reveal themselves—but one can’t help feeling that the Indian comics industry will need more than one superhero to pull itself into the mainstream. For now, they can only help their own cause by carrying on trying to strike that all-important balance between good artwork, inventive content and intelligent writing—and hoping to get lucky along the way.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more.

    There are also problems because, in India, it's usually the parents who make the choices for their children. And, if they have to spend Rs 250 on a 'comic', they'd rather go in for something like a biography, or maybe history/mythology than anything else. Nobody wants to spend that much on a book that the child will finish reading in, say, fifteen-twenty minutes.

  2. This reminds me of DIY culture and 80s indie/hardcore subcultures in the US a lot - the idea was that the production, marketing and distribution of culture/musical artifacts, whatever, would remain tehtered to afficionados,fans,arbiters of taste, geeks, connoiseurs and not greedy A&R corporate types and explicitly NOT determined by parameters on the marketplace. Hence ostensibly non-mainstream, sophomoric or amateurish sounding bands like Beat Happening could exist and flourish alongside more conventional sounding REMs or Replacements. To my knowledge no such thing existed when i left India a mere 4 yrs ago. It's a little sad that no one knew who Robert Crumb was, but then in India these things are a function of people's economic realities as well. A really tiny minority has home internet. And not everyone is conversant with the shibboleths of Comic Con culture either.

    Also I wonder if you are using "comics" and "graphic novels" interchangeably here? Maybe a distinction would be useful? Or an explication of your rubric for categorization or lack thereof.

    I kind of think Sarnath Banerjee is a twit. He is ok I guess, but maybe what bothers me is the soft bigotry of low expectations, because the large majority of comics on the scene is so bad. I don't know. Also the conceit, that "original art" uninfluenced by western artists should be desirable or aspired to, is rather silly and somewhat patronizing.

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  4. A wonderful article Jabberwock. I really wish Indian comic industry becomes a mjor hit.


  5. I needed to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it. I've got you saved as a favorite to check out new things you post…