Whatever happened to the comic superhero? The vanishing tribe is gradually being replaced by relatable heroes set in identifiable milieus. But will they save the world? Amrita Madhukalya reports.
The comic superhero is a dying breed. For those enthusiasts waiting for the next mega production of superhero movies like Captain America and Batman, this might be a bit of an overstatement. But look around, the graphic panels that were the staple of many growing up years have changed, from the good versus evil trope where the conflicted hero must save the world to relatable stories with real-life protagonists reflecting everyday angst.
Eventually, any genre must bow to the tirades of time. And Indian readers are also evolving, with a growing fan following for relatable characters set in identifiable times. "How long will a superhero save the world? People today are curious and willing to invest in newer characters rooted in reality," says Jatin Verma, a self-confessed comic enthusiast and the man behind India's Comic Con.
As Verma says it, he and his friends started their own event in Delhi to avoid the expense of travelling abroad to a comic convention. Within four years, the turnout has gone from 25,000 to over a lakh, apart from smaller conventions in Mumbai and Bangalore.
"It is not easy to compete with established characters, some with a history that spans over seven decades. But this is a growing trend and holds huge potential. In India, we were never entirely obsessed with superheroes. The Indian reader is open. This encourages the experimentation to come out with something different," says Verma. Manas Mohan, CEO of ACK Media, the publishing house that manages the Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle titles, could not agree more.
"A story of conflict usually depends on the good-versus-evil trope where humankind needs to invent a superhero who will take care of the dirty work. In our stable, the thought process has been to make the story relatable to the younger generation."
"Whenever the Indian comic reader needed a superhero, we came up with a mythological character with superpowers. You cannot disagree that Shiva's third eye is more powerful than Cyclops'," he adds.
ACK's titles are today available on various digital platforms, and Mohan says they are now selling more titles than ever. "Kids are consuming a lot of comics. But circumstances have changed. Suppandi today will not be found near a bullock cart, but with a mobile phone. As long as people read our titles, we will adapt to the medium," he says.
Apart from mythological characters, everyday mundane characters are drawing in readers. At this year's Comic Con, despite the presence of stalwarts like David Lloyd (V for Vendetta) and Mark Waid (Captain America), one of the most crowded sessions was the one moderated by Faisal, the creator of Garbage Bin, a comic that depicts everyday issues seen through the eyes of a middle-class Indian family. The massively-popular comic, which comes out in Hindi and English, has more than 6,08,000 followers on Facebook. There are also indie productions like Campfire, Holy Cow and Orange Radius coming out with characters such as the blood-loving Aghori, Parashu and Angry Maushi.
Nitin Singh, 27, is one comic reader who's had it with superheroes. "Superhero comics today are overpriced and develop upon plots that have been around for decades... Characters don't age and plots do not evolve. Why should a reader pay?"
Though comic artists are creating fresh characters, more experimentation is needed, insiders admit.
"The general decline of the superhero is because there is very less on offer. Artists must try and make more memorable characters like the immortal Tinkle characters," says Sumit Kumar, author and comic-columnist with News Laundry.
"With the historical comics that I am working on, I try and keep the comic entertaining and fluid. Characters must be relatable to the reader. More importantly, a comic must tell stories and create content that is identifiable. That is the only way to reach out to a bigger audience. Superheroes can be humane too," he adds.
The comic industry in India is itself in a state of flux, says Kumar. "We must agree that this is no longer the Golden Age of comics where home-grown comics sold lakhs of copies every month. Yet, apart from Western comics and popular Indian characters, there are many indie publishers that are doing interesting things in comics. There's Grassroots/World Comics that travels to small towns and cities and holds two-day comic workshops," he says.
Verma, too, feels comics must reflect contemporary issues. "The business strategy of indie publishers is to break away from evident tropes and focus on unique characters. This will subsist only when creators come out with unique, issue-based comics that are ideally set on a mundane backdrop. There is so much potential Indian creators are sitting on," he says. According to Manish Dhingra of Readwhere, a digital platform that retails comics online apart from other publications, old characters like Chacha Choudhary and Suppandi (from Tinkle comics) are still popular but "largely, traditional characters are on a decline".
The other problem is one of fresh talent. "Youngsters barely take up comic art seriously. After droves of children waste years chasing an engineering or medical degree, there will only be a tiny trickle who might take up comics seriously," says Kumar.