published Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Bam! Pow! Indian comics clamor to make their mark

By KATY DAIGLE

Associated Press

NEW DELHI — The superhero — bulging legs stuffed into tight pants, broad chest adorned with a symbol of power — has vowed to fight the enemies of humanity. He is not Superman. He is not Batman.

He is Shaktimaan, protector of all humanity — at least in India.

In the cartoon skies over India soar a host of comic book superheros that have little to do with the leotarded titans of the West.

Instead, the green-skinned and venomous Nagraj fights evil with snakes, widely worshipped across India, while three-eyed Shakti, clad in clingy leopard skins and skull ornaments, channels the Hindu death goddess Kali in waging her battle against the local scourge of female infanticide.

It’s heroes like these — drawn from India’s culture and mythology, and endowed with powers from Hindu gods — that the $65 million Indian comic industry hopes will launch them into new media like animated TV shows, action films, advertising and digital Internet distribution.

Indian comic producers insist homegrown characters are best at connecting with the national public and diaspora — and even crucial for educating them about their culture. It’s a formula they say has allowed them to compete with more sophisticated Western and Japanese comics since the 1960s, when the first Indian comics were launched with the Amar Chitra Katha series based on the ancient Sanskrit epics Mahabarata and Ramayana.

“We have no need for new superheros, we have so many of our own. The idea is to use the Indian stories, Indian mythology, in comic format to teach children about their history and culture,” said Rushabh Sanghavi, marketing manager at ACK media, which publishes the Amar Chitra Katha as well as the wholesome children’s series Tinkle.

Though the industry suffered during the 1990s as Western comics and Hollywood films invaded India’s newly opened market and took hold, Indian comics have seen a revival in the last decade thanks to new funding and technologies for printing, animation, digitizing and distribution.

India saw its first feature-length animation in 2005, the story of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, and several comics including Shaktimaan have been made into TV series.

Animation schools and production companies have multiplied, drawing students away from the traditional tracts for medicine or engineering. The Picasso Animation College, which unleashed its first graduates last year, has five applicants for every $11,000-tuition spot at its schools in Delhi and across India, placement director Shelly Walia said.

Comics are increasingly being used to advertise everything from bubble gum to noodles. The Indian army has serialized the triumphs of its real-life heroes for its recruitment drive, while banks are turning to cartoons for easy-to-read staff instructions.

Reflecting the excitement, India hosted its first-ever Comics Conference in February, drawing 16,000 visitors — a modest number compared with the more than 130,000 who mobbed last year’s four-day Comic Con in San Diego. But for India’s fledgling industry, it exceeded expectations, recovered organizers’ investment of about $40,000 and even inspired some to wear costumes, said Jatin Varma of production company Twenty Media Online.

Dressed as Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, Varma said his production company Twenty Onwards Media wanted to get people “to take the comics industry seriously, because comics influence a lot of things in pop culture.” So in three months they put together the two-day Comic Con at New Delhi’s Dilli Haat crafts exhibition complex, allowing publishers to meet freelance artists, story writers to hear fans’ feedback, and distributors to search out new products for the market.

“This industry is pretty scattered around India. There are a lot of startups, and they face a lot of problems in terms of distribution and getting enough publicity,” he said, while around him children and adults alike flipped through comics on display, posed for photos with people dressed as the Joker or Harry Potter, bought up T-shirts and posters, or tried their hands in drawing workshops. Production houses launched new graphic novels and comic series. Nearly everyone sold out of their stock.

But there are widespread misconceptions about Indian comics, Varma said, including incorrect notions that Indians prefer Western heroes, or that Indian comics aren’t complex enough for film. Even many in the industry don’t realize the value of their work, that it can be spun into movies and be hugely profitable. “We wanted to break down those misconceptions ... We need to widen our scope. Right now people aren’t being very innovative.”

Others at Comic Con had different ideas about how to be inventive while maintaining heroes that are recognizably Indian.

Daanesh Anand, a 21-year-old economics student dressed in the black turban and robes of Aladdin’s arch-nemesis Jafar, said he wished Indian comics indulged more in the dark side. “Western superheros seem to have a weakness that makes them and the stories unpredictable, you know, Superman has kryptonite, Batman’s really just a guy so he could get mind-controlled by an alien or something,” he said. “Indian superheros don’t have dark pasts. They are just super all the time.”

His friend Vivek Singh chews the end of a pipe and carries a mock can of spinach as he surveys the Comic Con crowd. “This is exciting,” he says. “Indians don’t dress up. It’s not every day that I get to be Popeye.”

Comic creator Karan Vir Arora — who manned the booth for Vimanika Comics, which he helped launch in 2008 — agreed the industry needs to “rock the boat.” His company decided the best way to do that is to tap the same Indian trove of ancient immortals, such as the mighty four-armed Shiva, but to pit them against modern villains in a 21st century world.

“I have a lot of expectations for the next five years,” Arora said, convinced by his visit to the San Diego’s convention last year that he is seeing the birth of comics as a new religion breaking social, caste and old religious barriers. “Everyone comes together because they have comics in common. ... We want that religion, that atmosphere here in India.”

Diamond Comics, one of India’s most established companies with a yearly turnover of about $5.6 million, has kept its foothold in the industry by maintaining characters that are the Everymen of India — wily mustachioed uncle Chacha Chaudhary, mischievous school children Pinki and Billu, or the meddlesome fat woman who lives next door Channi Chachi.

“You will never find any murder, mystery or ... blood” in our comics, Diamond’s founder and managing director Gulshan Rai said. “We have got fantasy, fun and culture. We maintain the grace of Indian culture.”

But comics, he said, are also the best way to educate — whether about ancient literature, voting in elections or seeking treatment for venereal disease. With this didactic mission, Diamond has put out religious comics aimed at teaching people about the 10 gurus of Sikhism or the history of the Jains. It published a series in the 1970s for a government-sponsored campaign chronicling the rural travels of midwife Sudha as she answers widely taboo questions about hygiene, family planning and sexual health — all illustrated with “very decent” and easy-to-understand pictures, Rai said.

Each month Diamond puts out 2 million comics, on nine of its 80 rotating characters, and translates them into 21 languages before distributing to even remote villages across the country. It’s a huge chunk of an industry where most players are lucky if monthly sales cross 1,000 copies, and most stories are followed only by niche communities.

Diamond’s success, Rai said, comes from recognizing that each of India’s 28 states is its own country. In southern India, they prefer action adventures, while the northern Hindi belt is more concerned with lifestyle and tradition.

Know your audience among the masses, he said, and keep the comics cheap, cheerful and crammed with color and comedy for guaranteed sales in India.

“The foreign characters, they are not accepted by most Indian children,” Rai said. “It’s not easy to sell comics in India. The American comic companies don’t understand the market.”

Diamond sells its comics for 20 rupees, estimating each of its monthly 2 million copies is read by at least 10 different people. “My reward is not money, it’s that I get to educate an entire generation of Indians.”

Now 60, Rai is now looking for how best to continue his legacy when. Diamond has begun digitizing its library and selling online. It is in final talks on a $6 million contract with an American artist to see one of its characters made into a 3-D animated film, Rai said, and next year it will help launch India’s first 24-hour TV cartoon channel.

“We should have the guts to explore the market,” Rai said, suggesting Indian film and TV have been slow to grasp the comic industry’s potential to make serious profit. “Comics never get old, only you get old, but you never stop loving the comics you grew up with.”

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