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.

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