Friday, July 6, 2012

In New Delhi, the birthplace of the Indian comic book superhero

A page from a Nagraj comic book, written in Hindi. (photo by Laura J. Nelson)
A page from a Dhruva comic book, written in Hindi. (photo by Laura J. Nelson)
NEW DELHI — Rickshaws, pedestrians and trucks jostle for position outside the building where Indian superheroes are born. On a garbage-strewn street, behind pastel yellow walls and action figure banners, Manish and Sanjay Gupta have built a comic book empire.
"Whatever you do as an adult, you always have a inner voice telling you to do the right thing, and that voice is your inner kid," Manish said. "Keep your childhood with you. Adhere to it."
Sleek, slim Raj Comic books have developed a cult following among Indians of all ages since the Gupta brothers introduced action heroes to the subcontinent in 1984.
The company boasts two dozen characters, releases four editions a month and sells up to 100,000 copies a pop – mostly in Hindi, with a smattering of English editions for Indian expats.
A lot has changed since 1985. The company has struggled to establish itself and weathered tumbling circulation. But staying current has never been a problem for Raj's 25 characters, all of whom battle bad guys in the most modern sense. Corrupt politicians. Mafiosos. Street criminals. Sex trafficking.
If Raj is India's Marvel Comics, then Nagraj the Snake King is its Spiderman. Nagraj shoots snake-ropes and snake-parachutes from his wrists. (And much like Spiderman’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, Nagraj works in the communications field during the day.)
Since 1985, Nagraj has focused on defeating global terrorism.
But unlike Spiderman, whose powers come from the strength of a non-human -- the spider -- Nagraj is fully human. His founding story and special powers are rooted in Hindu mythology.
"Snakes was an unexplored idea, but one that's very Indian," Manish said. "The myths of Hinduism come naturally to readers."
The name comes from the ancient Sanskrit word nagaraja, meaning King of Snakes. In Hinduism, snakes and snake-people (nagas) factor into at least a dozen legends. Nag panchami is a holiday dedicated to snake worship. The seven lowest regions of the Hindu universe are called Patala, or Naga-Ioka — land of the nagas.
And Lord Shiva, one of three main Hindu gods, carries a snake coiled three times around his neck. Each loop represents past, present and future.
The Gupta brothers say the allusions to Hinduism are more cultural than religious. And it's true that there are no allusions to the religion within the books. But in a country where four in five residents are Hindu, religion and culture are so closely linked that drawing that line proves difficult.
The exterior of Raja Pocket Books, the parent company of Raj Comics, north of New Delhi. (Photo by Laura J. Nelson)
The exterior of Raja Pocket Books, the parent company of Raj Comics, north of New Delhi. (Photo by Laura J. Nelson)
"Our themes are based on moral values," Sanjay said. "Anything that a good citizen would do, the characters are able to do it better."
American staple Richie Rich was a constant for the Guptas, who grew up in an old publishing family. When their magazine subscriptions didn't come, the brothers went 10 kilometer's to read Indian funnies at their aunt’s house.
But it was Spiderman on TV in the early 1980s that showed the brothers what India was missing: its own superhero.
So, as teenagers, Manish and Sanjay said they made one themselves. They created a character. They hired their first employees. The only snag? No one in India was familiar enough with comic books to have the artistic style they wanted.
The brothers looked for raw talent and a willingness to sort through every issue in teams, from the size of the speech balloons to how to select shots on the page.
Many of the artists they discovered were Muslim, from isolated communities known for artisanship.
Tension has run high between Muslims and Hindus since independence from Britain in 1947, when India splintered along religious lines and Pakistan formed.
But Manish and Sanjay wanted the best. Now, many on their staff of freelance artists are Muslim and have been working for them since the 1980s.
That theology is reflected in the comics too. Although some of the characters have Hindu parents or Hindu back stories, religion is never mentioned in the story lines.
"There are many pathways to God, none better than others," Sanjay said. "The idea that religions are superior – we don't believe this. India is home to a lot of religions. You don't want to promote one over the other."
A rare exception: After the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, largely believed to be masterminded by a Pakistan-based terrorist cell, Raj released a series of comics showing character Doga fighting Pakistani terrorists. The company took heat for being anti-Muslim. "
The harsh reality is, it may reflect badly on Muslims and Hindu-Muslim relations as a whole, but it's just a depiction of what happened," Manish said. "There will be criticism always, when one of your characters takes a stand."
As a response, Raj drew a comic, "Doga is Hindu," spelling out the character's religious beliefs— uncharted territory for a company that steers clear of religion and its sticking points.
Dealing with the backlash and hate mail from contemporary issues, like terrorism and the mafia, is enough to deal with, Manish said. The goal is to show moral behavior and to teach others to do the right thing.
Manish, who is Hindu, said sometimes he struggles to understand exactly what it means to follow his religion, because it lacks the guidelines and structure that other religions have. His answer, he said, is simply "doing the right thing."
His comics show the same ideas. Super heroes fight poverty, sex trafficking and violence against women and children. None of the heroes smoke, drink or eat junk food.
"We like to think that we're creating all these real-life super heroes," Manish said, "who will take on one issue at a time."
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