Most people tend to think of comic books in a nostalgic vein, as a juvenile form of entertainment that transports us back to childhood. But this idea is as outdated as a worn-out copy of Archie or Amar Chitra Katha. Contemporary connoisseurs of the form celebrate it for its complex weaving together of narrative and visual elements, and today’s comics creators are among the vanguard artists of our time. Sneha Gohri writes about India’s evolving comics scene.
Aghori, a comic-book series published by Holy Cow Entertainment, remains the most groundbreaking example of this form in India. The story deals with an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Myth and ordinary life collide in the narrative to create mayhem. But Aghori is extraordinary beyond its narrative strengths. The illustrations in this series are on a par with some of the best international titles. Aghori can hold its own against any “professionally” done series by any big-brand publisher in the West.
It is written by Ram Venkateswan, an Indian comics writer who now works with the top American publishing company D.C. Comics. It was after finishing his creative writing course in London that Venkateswan s tarted working on his first graphic novel, Black Mumba, a surrealist crime noir set in Mumbai, which won him some recognition in the West.
Sometime in 2018, after the publication of Black Mumba, Venkateswan ran into the D.C. editor, Jaimie Rich, at a comic art festival in the UK. Rich was acquainted with Venkateswan’s work, and offered him a dream job at D.C.
About his meeting with Rich, Venkateswan says, “Two weeks after the fest, he asked me if I’d like to do something in the Batman group type of books, and I said sure. If at all there is anything to take from that, it is that the best way to get into companies like D.C. or Marvel is to just do good work and make sure the work gets out in front of the editors.”
Yet not everyone is as lucky as Venkateswan. The community of comic-book writers and illustrators in India is only beginning to find its footing. Since the emergence of the scene around a decade ago, it has been a constant struggle for publishers, writers and illustrators looking to establish themselves in a fledgling industry. And for most freelancers—the lifeblood of a comics scene anywhere—the struggle continues unabated.
According to Venkateswan, India’s comics scene goes through cycles of highs and lows—a cycle that is more or less tied to big cultural events like Comic Con India. “I do not think the scene has evolved much since I last worked on Aghori. A few more titles have come up but I do not see publishers pushing to do something interesting or new with those. But that said, there is definitely no dearth of creative talent and definitely no dearth of people willing to support and read work by those creative talents,” says Venkateswan, who is now co-writing Justice League Dark Annual for D.C. Comics.
Owing to a lack of publishing outlets and distribution network, most comic-book artists here are choosing to self-publish. Rahil Mohsin, who has been working as an illustrator for eight years, has recently turned to an online self-publishing platform in a bid to reach a bigger audience. “The Indian comic book industry,” he tells Guardian 20, “is not ready to be termed an industry yet. But if you talk about evolution, there has been a steady progress, in the sense that I’ve seen a lot more people willing to be a part of this scene.”
The general interest in comic books in India owes a lot to the inroads companies like Marvel and D.C. have made into this part of the world, mainly by way of Hollywood franchises. But equally significant has been the advent of the Internet. Easy to access digital platforms have made life simpler not only from the consumer’s point of view, but also for thousands of creators like Mohsin, who don’t have to depend on a cost-intensive distribution framework anymore.
“Digital platforms have made the scene a bit more welcoming. Also, things have become easier for people who are just starting out. In print you need a lot of monetary support. Putting up your comic online is much simpler,” says Mohsin.
More and more these days, comic books are distributed and even created using digital tools. It may be the liberating touch of technology, or just the fact that we live in a more enlightened age, but Indian comic book creators of late have broken new thematic ground as well. They have shattered the age-old templates set by Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, and are making comics that are in tune with the contemporary age. Socially-inspired narratives, touching on gender issues and power politics etc., are getting some space in Indian comic books these days. As are other everyday themes that were once eclipsed by mythology and superhero fantasy.
Shailesh Gopalan is the creator of Brown Paperbag, a digital comic based on Indian families and their atypical attitudes. “Indian comics for a long time have occupied a certain niche, dominated by Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha and Raj Comics etc., which have been popular for ages. And now there’s this whole web comics thing which is entering the industry and through their evolving themes and subject matter, attracting more readers,” Gopalan says.
Despite the great strides made by comic-book creators here, the larger scene still seems to be stuck in a rut. Piyush Athwale, the owner of Comics and Brics café in Bangalore says, laid out for us some of the weaker points of India’s comic-book culture. “One major thing is the quality of comics published here. 90% of them are low-quality products—the binding is poor, the print quality varies with each issue, etc.—yet they are priced significantly… I think the dearth of regional language comics is also a problem. Every Indian publisher printing in English should also focus on regional language translations to expand their base,” Athwale says.
Though regional markets remain largely untapped in India, comic creators have constantly opened themselves to foreign influences besides the big American comic-book brands. In recent years, Japan’s manga culture has revolutionised the comic-book aesthetic around the globe. And India is no exception.
Vishesh Chopra, a graphic designer with Graphic India, a publisher of comic books headquarted in Mumbai, believes that manga has made its grand arrival on the Indian comic-book scene. There’s a cultural lesson to be learnt here. “India as a country hasn’t focused that much on arts as a career, whereas manga artists and animators in Japan have professional lives even as freelancers. The Japanese people also support them by consuming all the manga produced there,” Chopra says.
The example of Japan teaches us that artistic movements can only succeed in a conducive cultural environment. Manga was a tremendous success in Japan because it was an expression of an existing comic-book culture, which was vibrant and allowed a diversity of styles to flourish.
The question of diversity is important. In India, the mainstream comics industry is very thinly represented by regional and marginal voices. It also remains a regrettably male-dominated area.
Tina Thomas is one of the co-founders of Studio Kokaachi, a comic publisher in Cochin who believes “in publishing real stories rather than mythological ones”. She says, “There are a lot of women illustrators in India but few are working in the comics industry, as it’s not a financially reliable stream.”
There’s little diversity when it comes cultural events, too. The annual event calendar is dominated by the one big name, Comic Con India, the biggest forum in the country that brings together creators, distributors, publishers and consumers.
“When I started this, it was more of a personal whim and led by my passion with comics and all things pop culture,” says Jatin Verma, founder of Comic Con India. “But as I look back, I certainly feel India needed its own Comic Con. There were all these fans and communities out there, in need of a common space to celebrate their passions.”
Comic Con India also supports independent publishers and creators, bringing out new content and giving them global exposure. “It’s a small community and we are here to ensure it sustains. It always has a platform through us to showcase the amazing Indian content,” adds Verma.
But more than any other factor, the future of India’s comics scene will be determined by the creators. By their willingness to experiment with the form and push the boundaries of their narrative content.
“I am very optimistic that Indian comics will reach far and wide into the world and their market base will expand gradually,” says Hasan Mithiborwala, an emerging comic-book publisher from Gujarat. “Every country has its unique comics tradition. And India is no different. What we need is to make more people aware of the diverse treasure of new and old comic books we have in India.”
Despite all the challenges, the treasure trove continues to grow.