Saturday, January 11, 2014

India’s war stories get graphic

They don't wear capes and cloaks, or soar into the skies with a mission to save the planet. But their exploits are no less extraordinary than any superhero. Brimming with patriotic fervour and ready to lay down their lives in defence of the country, men in uniform are the latest characters to be discovered by the Indian comic book industry. 

"There is a lot of potential in this segment, especially among teenagers," says Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con India, an event where comic book creators and fans converge. "Some of the most popular video games like 'Call of Duty' are based on the armed forces. So it's obvious that any good comic that depicts a compelling action story in a war setting will find takers." 

However, in a market that has traditionally thrived on comics with mythological and historical themes — like the Amar Chitra Katha series — or desi superheroes like Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv etc, does space exist for true-life stories of modern warriors? "It's a gap waiting to be filled up," says Aditya Bakshi, son of a former Army general who took a break from his career in the merchant navy to start Indian War Comics a few years ago. Bakshi's first comic, on Kargil hero Capt Vikram Batra, titled 'Yeh Dil Maange More' after the battle-cry of the slain officer who killed five men during the 1999 Indo-Pak skirmish, sold a few thousand copies. This encouraged him to plan another on Ashoka awardee Col NJ Nair, who fought Naga insurgents. A third one was on Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan who lost his life fighting terrorists in the 26/11 Mumbai attack. "It's now becoming difficult for me to return to my old career," Bakshi says, with a laugh. 

Last month, the Air Force chief unveiled Bakshi's latest comic on Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the only Param Vir Chakra awardee from the Indian Air Force. Next in the pipeline is another Paramvir Chakra hero, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal. "We plan to ramp up and release one title every month," says Bakshi. 

So who's reading these comics? "School children form a bulk of the readership," he says. "Then, there are college students, especially those in the National Cadet Corps as well as armed forces personnel. A number of people interested in war history also wrote to me from other countries. That's why we have started an iPad version. Another platform is the Aakash tablet, where the comics are available for free." 

Most of those involved with war comics either have an armed forces background or are former officers. The newest entrant is Major General (retd) Ian Cardozo, who has authored a 21-part comic series on Param Vir Chakra awardees for Roli Books, the first two titles of which were published recently. Cardozo, himself a war veteran who lost a leg during the 1971 Bangladesh war, says he was inspired by the British Commando Comics which brought a number of stories — drawn from the two World Wars — into the public domain. "When I was young, I was fed a regular diet of Commandos," he says. "The way the plot played out and the manner in which action was depicted was at the back of my mind when I started writing the Param Vir Chakra comics. But while many of the stories in Commando are fictional, we were retelling true stories. Therefore, we had to be sure that facts were depicted correctly and historical accuracy was maintained." 

To ensure that the comics would stand scrutiny in any military mess, Cardozo says he pored over little things that would be obvious to a military man even though they might be missed by a lay reader — the colour of Indian and Chinese uniforms, or the direction of smoke from a fighter jet in air. 

While the defence forces have given a nod of approval to these comics — copies have been placed in unit messes, libraries etc — diehard comic fans are adopting a wait-and-watch approach. Abhijit Jadhav, a comic book collector, says that he finds some of the artwork good but the storyline is all too predictable. "You know how it's going to end. The military hero charging at the enemy, only to succumb to bullets after killing a few. Sometimes, the chest-thumping nationalism can be quite excessive." 

The creators, though, insist that the comics are largely inspirational. Col (retd) Anil Kaul, who is in the process of launching the war-themed Sabre Comics, says that people adapt the patriotic message in their own lives. "If you can see how a soldier fights and lays down his life, won't you be inspired to take up issues that can make the country a better place?"

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