Thursday, March 28, 2013

Barbarian meets his creator in Conan comic

Worlds of Wonder

While Conan’s popularity and longevity can be attributed to a continuous comic book run dating back to the 70s and three silver screen appearances, it is sad that his creator, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), never got to enjoy the success of his greatest creation. At least, not until the release of this milestone anniversary issue that unites both creator and creation in an offbeat adventure.While Conan’s popularity and longevity can be attributed to a continuous comic book run dating back to the 70s and three silver screen appearances, it is sad that his creator, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), never got to enjoy the success of his greatest creation. At least, not until the release of this milestone anniversary issue that unites both creator and creation in an offbeat adventure.
Our columnist pays tribute to his late father by reviewing a Conan comic in which the Barbarian meets his creator.
I WAS a lucky kid growing up – my dad didn’t want me to drown myself in literature, and decided to substitute it with comics. I started out withNova, then on to an amazing wall-crawler, which opened the floodgates for every major character the Marvel Universe has spawned, killed and resurrected.
Back then, quality time with dad meant late nights reading comics together, accompanied by constant banter on comic plots and character development.
In most eyes, all this would not have qualified dad as an educationist, but it was this priceless exposure to the creative world that has moulded me into the individual I am today.
My father passed away two weeks ago (on March 15) at the age of 69, and I miss those moments where we would share our passion for comics.
He always had a contrasting view of epics such as The Dark Knight Returns to Kingdom Come, which could never meet his “benchmarks”, which comprised the likes of 2000 A.D.Warrior (from England) and a certain barbarian named Conan.
It took me a while to get accustomed to dad’s creative tastebuds, especially Conan (no thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies as well).
Back then, reading dad’s Savage Sword Of Conan collection was like taking bad medicine, especially with its colourless façade and spandex-less setting.
However, as I grew weary of mindless mutant gatherings, a chance reunion with his collection gave me a whole new perspective of the barbarian.
I have been a regular visitor to the Hyborian Age since, and here I would like to review the issue that best pays tribute to my father: Savage Sword Of Conan #200.
Thanks for always being there, dad.
Savage Sword of Conan #200 (1992)
Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artists: John Buscema and Joe Jusko (cover)
MENTION Conan and two celebrities come to mind – one a popular talk show host, the other, a former California governor.
However, in the world of comics there is only one Conan, also known as The Barbarian, The Cimmerian, The Destroyer and King of Aquilonia.
While Conan’s popularity and longevity can be attributed to a continuous comic book run dating back to the 70s and three silver screen appearances, it is sad that his creator, Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), never got to enjoy the success of his greatest creation.
At least, not until the release of this milestone anniversary issue that unites both creator and creation in an offbeat adventure.
Set in two different eras, we see a middle-aged Conan slashing his Turanian enemies in the Hyborian Age, while his creator travels to Rio Grande during post-Depression times (1932) in search of creative inspiration.
Despite the differences in era and environment, both men shared the same determination in getting what they want, albeit with a different approach.
For Conan, it is another day on the battlefield, as he unleashes his steel against King Yezdigerd’s troops.
It takes a mage’s spell and a giant bat to whisk Conan off on a one-way trip to the Zamorian Border.
Obviously, having its main character devoured by flying rodents would not befit the Nemedian Chronicles, so it comes as no surprise that Conan manages to stage a daring escape.
He recuperates at a nearby tavern, only to cross paths with a mage who plans to sacrifice him and seize his fierce vitality.
Ultimately, it takes the betrayal of a woman, and enough lotus powder to fell a regiment, to finally capture Conan.
At the sacrificial ritual, the mage shares visions of Conan’s past achievements and those from days to come, all gradually dissolving like the Barbarian’s life essence.
Conan manages to free himself, and kills all his enemies and their hellspawn.
In true barbarian fashion, he seeks out the treacherous wench so she can pay for her transgression – by keeping Conan warm after his fiery escapade!
Fast-forward 12,000 years, and a perspiring Robert E. Howard departs for Rio Grande in search of inspiration for a character that could rival his existing creations, which include King Kull, Solomon Kane and Bran Mak Morn.
With his contribution to the “pulps” (inexpensive fiction magazines) hitting a dry spell, Howard needs a fresh hero to revive his career.
A chance encounter with an Indian trader named Ranjit Topi not only provides the writer with the impetus towards creating that character, but also gives him the adventure of a lifetime.
Howard also encounters danger and betrayal at the city’s cantina, and is captured by the conniving Ranjit.
Although he is not armed with cold Hyrkanian steel, Howard’s fists are enough to protect him from the man’s thugs until a wild slash sends him plunging into a murky river.
Howard returns for Round Two, and gets his payback in spades by bushwhacking Ranjit and his men.
With both creator and creation victorious in their respective adventures, the nexus is established between them via a premonition that Howard receives after his escapade, in which (to quote Howard’s first Conan story The Phoenix On The Sword, 1932) “Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet”.
Ever since Buddy Baker aka. Animal Man met his creator Grant Morrison in 1990’s Animal Man #26, I have always been fascinated by these “meta” meetings between creator and creation.
I certainly got more than I bargained for here – in addition to the usual sword and sorcery that accompanies Conan’s adventures, it beautifully presents the Barbarian’s origins from his creator’s standpoint.
Prior to this book, I knew nothing about Howard’s personal life and contributions to the world of fantasy.
Considering how his creations have withstood the test of time, Howard’s revolutionary ideas have left an insurmountable legacy in the sword and sorcery genre.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Recreating The Magic

Recreating The Magic
It’s a tiny category by any stretch. But, going by the excitement around comic books and graphic novels, this is one story you wouldn’t want to miss
The resurgence of Indian comic books is best understood through Vivek Goel’s experimentative journey. The 31-year-old founder of Holy Cow Entertainment worked for 14 years as an artist for various comic book brands before deciding to launch his own label with a bunch of illustrators, writers and colourists in May 2011. “Our industry is full of flaws and no one respects independent ideas,” he says.
“We went with three boxes full of comics [to the Comic Con] and by the third afternoon, we had nothing left to sell"—Vivek Goel, Founder, Holy Cow Entertainment
How independent? Well, for one, Holy Cow’s first offeringRavanayan retold the classic mythological tale from the point of view of its ‘evil’ character Ravana, instead of Ram. Its Aghoriseries is about a city dweller, who while searching for his missing son, enters the world of Aghori sadhus (believed to indulge in cannibalistic rituals), takes up their powers, and encounters the supernatural. These are serious, often dark, subjects that aim for an adult audience, and a pretty niche one at that. With nine titles out in about 19 months, Goel claims to have sold over 5,000 copies per title and could break even by June 2013.
Like those of his contemporaries, Goel’s success may be surprising but it’s no fluke. Built around evolved tastes and a maturing audience, this is the emerging face of a business that was once nearly wiped out by cable television and video games. New, independent comic labels such as Vimanika, Campfire and Holy Cow run with small teams and tight budgets, publish only in English and sell online, to overseas as well as Indian readers. In that sense they complement the second coming of traditional children’s comic book brands such as Amar Chitra Katha (ACK), Diamond Comics and Raj Comics, while steering clear from their territory.
Reading Up
“Different art forms are being explored and the audience base is broadening,” agrees Manas Mohan, chief operating officer, ACK Media, citing a 30% growth in readership in the past two years. At Delhi-based Raj Comics, too, things are looking up. “We are doing roughly 60-80,000 copies per issue in print today,” says founder Manish Gupta. Its hugely popular character Nagraj, introduced in 1984, sold up to 500,000 copies per issue during its peak according to Gupta, before dropping to 30,000 copies in 2000-01.
“One page costs Rs 10,000 for writing and artwork. With printing and distribution costs, a 32-page comic book can cost Rs 3-4 lakh to create—Manish Gupta, Founder, Raj Comics
The business of comic books is estimated at Rs 100 crore today. Yet, folks like Jatin Varma are confident of exciting times ahead. The 27-year-old Varma runs Twenty Onwards Media, an ‘alternative media house’ that produces TV shows, a humour magazine and comic books, among other things. Among them is Random, a monthly humour magazine with irreverently named characters like Ud Bilaw Manus (UBiMa), Col. Chikara, Kiraaye Ke Tattu and Slutty Savitri, who speak a language laced with Bhojpuri overtones. Varma is better known, however, as the person who started India’s first comic book convention — Comic Con — staged across Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
An annual affair now, ComicCon hosted its third edition at Dilli Haat in India’s capital recently. Around 50,000 people — publishers, artists and fans — flocked to this three-day gathering where comics, graphic novels and merchandise worth Rs 1 crore were reportedly sold. “It gives comic book makers, especially new and smaller ones who don’t have a strong distribution network, a platform to reach customers,” says Varma, who plans to take it to other cities and increase global participation. Goel couldn’t agree more: “We went with three boxes full of comics and by the third afternoon, we had nothing left to sell,” he says.
“In large cities, comics will sell more over the internet whereas in B and C towns, the physical distribution will continue to dominate"—Manas Mohan, COO, ACK Media
Among the formats that Comic Con has helped popularise is the graphic novel — essentially a longer version of the comic book that tells a single story. Campfire Graphic Novels is a key player in this category. Its promoter Keshav Thirani has engineering units in Noida that make railway equipment and LED lighting, clocking hundreds of crores every year. “Today there is lack of reading (among young children) due to distractions,” he says. Campfire Graphic Novels launched in 2008, and revenues touched Rs 50 lakh in the first year alone. This year, Thirani is gunning for Rs 1 crore in sales. At Rs 195 a copy, Campfire’s graphic novels on Steve Jobs, Lord Krishna, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela find more takers abroad than at home. “40% of our revenue comes from the US and 25% from the UK,” says Thirani, who has roped in professionals like Jason Quinn, a former writer with Marvel Comics in the UK.
Labels like Holy Cow depend almost entirely on online channels for sales. “We sell only through Flipkart, Readwhere and in comic conventions,” says Goel. Varma explains that while there are enough potential readers for new age comic books and graphic novels, few magazine and book retailers are interested in stocking them. “They charge 50% margin and don’t take responsibility for damaged and unsold copies,” rues Thirani. Fortunately, there’s enough demand for non-fiction graphic novels elsewhere. ICFAI University recently bought hundreds of copies of Campfire’s graphic novel on Steve Jobs for its graduate and post-graduate students.
Old order, New Designs
For Gulshan Rai, who launched Diamond Comics in 1972, distribution is hardly an issue. At 62, Rai is a veteran of the industry, much like Anant ‘Uncle’ Pai, the iconic creator-founder of ACK who passed away in February 2011. “Even today, I sell 800,000-900,000 comics per month,” he claims. These are published in Hindi, Bengali, and English. Rai banks mainly on reprints from Diamond’s vast library of 5,000 titles, a network of 1,000 distributors and retailers, and continued demand for children’s comic books from tier 2 and tier 3, Hindi-speaking markets to generate Rs 10 crore in annual revenues. “Creating a comic book is no big deal. Selling it and recovering money is,” says Rai. “You can buy Diamond Comics at all railway stations, bus stations and newspaper vendors, even in smaller cities.”
“Creating a comic book is no big deal. Selling it and recovering the money invested is"—Gulshan Rai, Founder, Diamond Comics
Comic book makers aren’t really worried about competing media like television, cinema, the internet, and smartphones anymore — they, in fact, want to leverage these to move ahead. “In large cities, comics will sell more over the internet whereas in B and C towns, the physical distribution will continue to dominate,” says ACK’s Mohan. Comic book makers are, therefore, reaching out to new and different reader segments on various platforms. “We plan to take all our stories on to the digital medium. We’ll be launching about 250 titles on iOS, Android and Windows 8 mobile platforms this summer,” says Mohan, adding that revenues from online and digital now account for 10% of ACK Media’s revenues.
“Print will probably remain where it is, and online will overtake it in the years to come,” feels Gupta, who’s bullish on rising tablet and smartphone user numbers. Raj Comics set up a comics portal on Airtel Live where users with GPRS could purchase its titles. Gupta says he is now doing the same with Tata Indicom. Raj Comics still depends on physical copy sales in north India and does not carry any advertisements.
“Comic Con gives comic book makers, who don’t have a strong distribution network, a platform to reach customers"—Jatin Varma, Founder, Twenty Onwards Media
Diamond Comics has been working to adapt comic books for smartphones and PCs. “We have agreements with 40 companies for digital delivery of comics,” says Rai. These include Micromax, Lava and Idea. “A speaking comic [video clip with pictures and voice over] is available for Rs 5 on mobile and we deliver an e-comic that lasts 45 days on your computer for Rs 20, against a print copy price of Rs 50,” says Rai. It’s not just in the delivery. Gupta plans to introduce a rebellious Nagraj in a high-school setting, “to make him more contemporary and acceptable”.
Some are going the TV way. “Last year we released Sons of Ram and this year our TV serial Suppandi Suppandi is being aired on Cartoon Network,” says Mohan. Anurag Kashyap plans to make a movie on Doga, another Raj comic superhero, and the script has been finalised. Varma says he looks forward to the Doga movie. “It might kickstart an unlocking of potential of the comic industry in India.” Games based on comic book characters are another route to milk the value of popular characters. But that’s still some time away. “Indian comic characters are not well known and new kids will not recognise old ACK characters. The reverse may happen, though. Angry Birds has become popular and is followed by merchandise and books on it,” says Alok Kejriwal, founder, Games2Win.
All in a name
Building a popular character, therefore, becomes all-too important in this business. Rajesh Kamat, CEO, CA Media, invested recently in Graphic India, a comic and character company founded by Sharad Devrajan, Gotham Chopra and Suresh Seetharaman — the founders of Liquid comics in the US and India. “We don’t look at it as a book or comic venture investment. Rather, it’s a character entertainment space for us. Successful characters can generate huge franchisees. So, we are investing in Graphic India as an investment in a character company,” he says. Graphic Media is coming up with Chakraa — the invisible superhero — developed by Stan Lee, the creator of Superman. This will be an animated TV series or a movie, adds Kamat. The power of strong characters is something Rai understood a long time ago. Over the years, he picked up the rights for regional characters from various publications in the North — Chacha Chaudhary in Lot-Pot, Billu in Parag, Motu-Patlu in Diwana Tez and Vikram-Betal inChandamama. “Today we have 40 live characters,” he says.
Apart from internet and television, games are another route to cash in on the value of popular comic book characters
These characters bring in the advertising for Diamond Comics, some of which is cleverly integrated into the storyline. For instance, one story has Sabu walking on the roof of a newly-built house and it collapses. Chacha Chaudhary advises the owner to use ACC cement the next time. Another one talks about intellectual property laws, while one has a message on SBI’s mobile banking. “Real Juice had taken 5 million [in 1999] from us when they launched; Sunfeast biscuits took 45 million mini-comics in 2003 during launch; and we distributed 4 million units of Big Babol with our comics when it was launched,” recalls a proud Rai as he rattles off names of top Indian consumer brands that have advertised in his comic books. “Parle has been advertising on our back cover for 35 years,” he adds.
Producing a comic book doesn’t come cheap. “One page costs Rs 10,000 for writing and artwork. Then there are printing, paper, and distribution costs. A 32-page comic book can cost around Rs 3-4 lakh to create,” says Gupta. Finding good illustrators and writers is becoming increasingly difficult, agree most people in the business. Diamond Comics has only 45 full-time staff and gets most of its work done from freelancers. “They do more work and deliver on time as compared to permanent employees,” says Rai.
But even with such challenges, they are now dreaming of resurrecting the comic book culture in India. “We were able to touch generations in the past and want to do it again,” says Gupta.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Insane Moments in Indian Comic.

The 5 Most Insane Moments in Indian Comic Books

1980s Indian comic books were the best. Sometimes the English translation was baffling, other times the plots were inscrutable, and -- if you were really lucky -- these twain did meet, and you were transported to a realm of semi-unreadable fantasia. Here are five such glorious occasions.

#5. Superman Goes to India, Gets Casual About Murder

The greatest comic ever published is neither Watchmen nor The Annotated Hi and Lois. It's Nagraj vs. Shakoora the Magician. How come? In this comic book, Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man visit India, where they're vexed by a dwarf wizard from outer space (and some spotty Hindi-to-English translation).
I hope Supperman also has Supper-Vision, so he can shoot casserole out of his eyes.
In this issue, the Indian superhero Nagraj fights alongside these paragons of justice, as well as a random circus ringmaster that the translators (for reasons unknown) designated as the now-deceased WWF wrestler Captain Lou Albano.
Every panel in this comic is magic, particularly the deus ex machina in which -- I couldn't make this up -- the heroes are saved from a burning child-sized locomotive by an 11th-century Hindu yogi who flies out of the sky.
The guru is summoned by the power of prayer. Again, 100 percent serious.
Did Marvel and DC Comics sign off on this crossover? Well, no, as this tremendous team-up received zip fanfare stateside, and Superman happily craps all over his no-killing policy within the first five pages.
After that, the Last Son of Krypton's behavior grows even more erratic. At the comic's climax, the extraterrestrial magician transforms Captain Lou into a psychotic giant. Nagraj's pachyderm-murdering bite proves fruitless, so he improvises and launches thousands of cobras from his wrists into Lou's cyclopean pie-hole.
Once Captain Lou succumbs to cobra venom, Nagraj and pals enjoy a big belly laugh around his bloated, decomposing corpse. Superman, ever the insecure jock, incorrectly assumes that he punched Captain Lou to death.
The Caped Crusader relishes the bloodshed, knowing damn well that the GCPD has no jurisdiction here.
But why would a superhero as lauded as Superman be so eager to impress Nagraj? The translation adds a dollop of accidental subtext. Compare Nagraj's behavior on a hot date ...
Ah, the ol' "bring a gal to the circus and tell her to shut up for two hours." Women adore that.
... with his tender interaction with Superman, who ran afoul of some mystical hoops.
Mind you, the only people Superman calls "dear" are Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, presumably during those many escapades Jimmy went undercover in drag. (Remember, Superman's ever the farm boy. Even with his X-ray vision, he remains ignorant to the erotic caprices of big-city life.) But who is this Nagraj joker anyway?

#4. Nagraj Sort of Blows at Being a Superhero

The truth is, Nagraj is pretty godawful at this whole crime-fighting business, for the simple reason that he can't stop murdering his nemeses (or at least accidentally consigning them to oblivion).
In one of his capers, Nagraj defeats a terrorist named Zebra who has been poisoning schoolchildren with tainted chocolates. In lieu of notifying the authorities, our hero slings Zebra over a Delhi overpass, toodles off, and allows a vengeful mob to do the rest.
This is what happens when a superhero has to take a dump the entire comic.
Another issue saw Nagraj square off against an ogre so fearsome that he cows everybody into speaking in produce-related similes.
And unlike his pitched battle with Captain Lou Albano -- whose tough hide stymied his toxic chomp -- Nagraj's hickey o' death immediately disintegrates the ogre into liquid pastrami. The sheer barfosity of this spectacle shocks his colleague into silence (and his internal monologue into hysterical illiteracy).
Fortunately, Nagraj's mighty mouth has utility far beyond giving bystanders the meat sweats. His serpentine maw also works in reverse. Let us not forget the time he vacuumed venom out of the mouths of an entire herd of elephants. That's so heroic that I don't even want to think about it.
Bosh, Nagraj. Given your track record, everything about this scenario is blissfully normal.
I suppose this is a good time to mention that if you ever become trapped in a Nagraj comic, you'll probably be mercilessly pancaked by an elephant.
See, this lady knows the score. She's handling her impending doom like she's waiting for the bus.
She's so pro that she had time for a comma.

#3. Super Commando Dhruva: Like Robin, But Balls-Out Macho

Let's move on to another superhero who knows a thing or two about elephant stampedes: Super Commando Dhruva. His origin runs parallel to that of Batman's sidekick, Robin -- both characters were raised in the circus by trapeze-artist parents who were murdered by criminals, prompting their sons to mete out justice in pastels.
His bon mots are catchier than "Holy [insert noun here], Batman".
But the Boy Wonder was whisked away to stately Wayne Manor, as the Gotham YMCA didn't offer Krav Maga for Orphans. Dhruva had no such luxury. In fact, he began his crime-fighting career at the tender age of 14, with an equally tender murder spree. Growing up with the Jupiter Circus, Dhruva was hardened by years of executing songbirds and running headfirst into brick walls.
Ornithologists, please identify the bird whose death scream is FUR FUR FUR.
But not everybody was enamored of Dhruva's feats of child endangerment. No, an unsuccessful rival circus grew jealous of his success, so they hired a heavy to torch Jupiter's big top. Can you handle the dramatic tension?
To be fair, FUR FUR FUR carries greater dramatic import than OOUCH.
The gangster celebrates his arson by burning Dhruva's surprisingly flammable father alive in front of him ...
... and incinerating a clown for good measure. Note the man getting fresh with a rhino, their forbidden passions ignited by imminent death and thrown petrol:
Once the fires die down, Dhruva grabs a pile of his father's ashes and vows his revenge, unaware that he's probably running his fingers through charred clown intestine.
Dhruva races over to the enemy circus. He promptly electrocutes an assortment of henchmen and big cats, which is maybe the least auspicious way to kick off one's superhero career.
I take it all back, I'd rather devote my dying breath to OOUCH over ASSS.
With 1,500 pounds of circus hooligan and genus Panthera left smoldering in his wake, Dhruva is then captured and left to the mercy of an abused lion named Shaitan. And thanks to some imperfect translation, we are left wondering if he honed his mental steel by romancing apex predators.
SUPERHERO PROTIP: Unnerve your opponents by admitting to banging lions. Unprompted.
Despite the fact that all of Dhruva's foes end up dead, our hero waltzes away scot-free. Perhaps the best part of his 1987 debut issue was the cover, which sported Dhruva unhelpfully waving to a random old man being devoured by Shaitan.
Also, that motorcycle is the size of a tractor.
The second best part? The evil circus kingpin's muted reaction upon eavesdropping on unsatisfied customers. Remember, this is the bad guy who had zero problems immolating a clown.
At least it's not "UFF."

Read more:

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Clyde Fitch Report

The Clyde Fitch Report

The nexus of arts and politics

“Timeless Picture Stories”: Historical and Religious Comics of India


What do you get when you combine the world’s oldest continuous culture, a society recovering from the aftermath of centuries of colonial occupation, and all the benefits and pitfalls of modern times?
If you’re India, one thing you get is a company that produces comic books about the subcontinent’s cultural heritage.
Divine form: Amar Chitra Katha's interpretation of a pivotal moment in the Bhagavad Gita.
Divine form: Amar Chitra Katha’s interpretation of a pivotal moment in the Bhagavad Gita.
Amar Chitra Katha (loosely translated, “timeless picture stories”) comics are, for many who grew up in India, a fixture of youth. Sometimes gaudy, often surprisingly nuanced and touching, always sanitized—half the fun was reading between the lines of some gory or bawdy episode—these comics are something uniquely Indian, yet also oddly modern in both their execution and intent.
The story goes that in 1967, Anant Pai, the founder of the Amar Chitra Katha endeavor, was watching a quiz show on Indian television. He was shocked to discover that students were able to answer questions dealing with Western classics, including Greek mythology, but had practically no clue about Indian epics and history. Such was the result of a British-originated school system. But how to get young people to absorb the stories of their own culture? And so, they say, Amar Chitra Katha was born.
It’s pretty well established that this story is apocryphal. No doubt, some similar chain of events inspired Pai to create the comics, so perhaps this is merely a neat paraphrasing and not a total departure from what actually happened. It isabsolutely true that, in the decades after Indian independence, there was a seesaw of changes in Indian values as the newly independent country found its footing in the modern world after being, for centuries, a site of colonial plunder and meddling.
The basic quandary was a Gordian knot: get rid of everything Western, and reclaim the proud heritage of India? (Not so fast: India, as a modern political construct, existed mostly because of British colonialism, having previously been a shifting collection of skirmishing kingdoms, ethnicities, languages, and religions—a state of perpetual disunity that the Brits used to their political advantage.) Or embrace Western ideas, education and language, and become a world power? (But at the cost of losing, in just a few generations, a cultural identity going back into ancient times, and of progressing too fast into a commercial, industrial age at odds with the reality of how most people in India, even now, live.)
A personal favorite: one of many ACK stories of Birbal, a minister in the Emperor Akbar's court.
A personal favorite: one of many ACK stories of Birbal, a minister in the Emperor Akbar’s court.
Amar Chitra Katha comics hit an empty niche, serving up stories from Indian history and mythology (or in any case, relevant somehow to ancient or modern Indian identity) in a format designed to appeal to the young. ACK comics come in many stripes: fables and folktales (like Panchatantra,Jataka Tales, and Monkey Stories); mythology and epics (like the Ramayana and Mahabharata); humor and wit (including one of my childhood favorites, stories of the cleverness of one of the 14th century Mughal emperor Akbar’s ministers, Birbal); and biographies. This latter category includes prominent Indians like Gandhi, but also people of some significance to Indian culture, like Mother Teresa.
Best of all, ACK titles are going digital: you can buy them for reading on an iPad—talk about the ancient meeting the modern. The stories were first published in Kannada, a South Indian language, but were quickly translated into other languages, most importantly English. However anyone may have wanted it to be after the British vacated India, English had become—and was to remain—the lingua franca of India, amidst so many mother tongues and dialects (hundreds or thousands of each, depending on whom you ask). This also made these simplified Indian fables, mythologies and biographies consumable by other cultures.
To me, there is something poignant about these stories, their presentation and what the comics contain. Collections like “People Who Fought for Freedom,” a cross-section of both ancient and modern freedom fighters, speak to me of an attempt to put a single definition around an idea like oppression. There’s an attempt to frame it all in a very positive, inspiring light and send a message of a hopeful future. Some episodes of history, unfortunately, don’t fall into so neat a formula, and the comics necessarily resort to the trope of presenting good guys and bad guys, the latter often as exaggerated caricatures.
The story of the epic heroine Draupadi.
The story of the epic heroine Draupadi.
And so ACK, with its basic premise of “everything Indian is good,” is not without its controversies, although surprisingly few for an effort that attempts to take ancient ideas and values and bring them into today’s world. Indian book critic Nilanjana Roy lambasts the comics as an example of “the stereotypes and prejudices of mainstream Indian culture: pink-skinned, fair heroes and heroines, dark [demons] and villains, passive women drawn as in Indian calendar art from the male perspective.” In other words, Roy says, the comics perpetuate two troubling aspects of Indian culture that stubbornly refuse to go away: Indian society’s inherent racism, or preference for lighter skin, and its misogyny, carrying forward a traditional view of women as powerless chattel, obedient playthings.
Other critics point out that episodes of jauhar and sati (two types of ritual suicide, the latter being too often less than voluntary when practiced outside the epics) are presented without adequate discussion and are shown to be acts of honorable piety. Then there’s the comics’ rather uneven portrayal of Muslims. Generally speaking, Islamic folk are okay if they appreciate, respect or are converted over to Hindu ideas (like the syncretist emperor Akbar), but villains if they in any way opposed Hinduism or Hindu rulers—no talk of “freedom fighting” there, you’d be hard pressed to find too many negative portrayals of Hindu culture or individuals except within a completely Hindu framework, like the epics.
That sensibility is a pretty accurate reflection of how this issue plays out in India among the masses, but nevertheless, it gets concentrated in comics form. And whatever ACK founder Anant Pai’s jhansipolitical orientation or motives, Indian historical and mythological figures have definitely been adapted in the comics to serve the rhetoric of a united India proud of its (predominantly Hindu) cultural heritage.
In fairness, though, Indian culture and its depiction in these comics do give us powerful goddesses and figures like the Rani of Jhansi, one of my favorites, a sort of Joan of Arc character built around the story of a royal lady who rode out to battle in trying times.
Still, critics point out that the goddesses’ stories perpetuate female stereotypes, and that the foes the Rani went up against—tribals and British soldiers—are portrayed in a racist, oversimplified manner; so you truly can’t please everyone. Not to let anyone off the hook, but it really could have been a lot worse. India’s version of affirmative action is still (anachronistically and rather insultingly) called “Welfare of Scheduled Caste & Backward Classes” (the “schedule” being a list of unfortunates drawn up by their presumed betters, and the “backward classes” having been previously referred to as “backward tribes”).
Controversies though there may be around the way such issues play out in Amar Chitra Katha titles, the comics do provide insights into the Indian psyche, in a very accessible form. For me, there’s nothing like the memory of the strong-scented printing ink (a bit like kerosene), the rough paper, the flat colors—and the artwork that transported me into the worlds of legendary heroes, both ancient and modern. In every important respect, they served their intended purpose, to connect me to my Indian heritage at a young age (and even now, as I carefully collect them out of nostalgia).
Creatively, these comics, as an early influence during formative ages, definitely shaped me as a writer working in this medium. I wonder how many others like me they also inspired. I’m curious to see how Amar Chitra Katha’s titles evolve over time.