The comics industry in India is animated by passionate creators, readers and collectors ready to shell out big bucks for vintage titles that hark back to a childhood love
Comic timing: Yearning for an all-Indian superhero, the Gupta siblings Manish (CEO), Manoj (president) and Sanjay (studio head) launched Raj Comics in 1986.
In the mid-1980s, when Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon — the dashing supermen from Indrajal Comics — ruled the hearts and bookshelves of children in India, three brothers in Delhi were busy dreaming up an army of all-Indian superheroes. Like their famous western counterparts, the home-grown superheroes too would effortlessly grasp falling cars, send villains and their cronies flying into outer space, kill the baddies and heal the victims of injustice.
Coming from a family that had been in the publishing business for two generations, the siblings Sanjay, Manish and Manoj Gupta didn’t need to think twice before entering the comics space in 1986. Research, brainstorming and meetings with designers and artists followed, at the end of which was born Nagraj — the longest-running Indian comic superhero. Despite the competing attractions of television and the Internet, each new issue of Nagraj comics sells at least half-a-lakh copies even today.
Cut to Bangalore; circa 2014. Arun Prasad zealously collects comics — old and new. He has over 15,000 rare comics, including the first prints of Amar Chitra Katha, Indrajal and Tinkle. These early editions are a prized possession today. In Mumbai, for instance, you can come across roadside vendors selling vintage comics for anything from ₹3,000 to ₹50,000 each, depending on the publication date, the buyer’s passion and the seller’s business acumen. In fact, for the higher-priced ones, the buyer is asked to deposit the money in the vendor’s account before the comic can change hands!
This, then, is the world of comics — dominated by passionate readers, collectors, sellers and creators. Yet, the one thing that stands out today is the age group of the readers. These are not kids, rather they used to be the kids and teenagers in love with comics in the 1980s and 1990s, who are now trying to rekindle the magic. Today’s children, on the other hand, find entertainment in mobiles and tabs, leaving their parents to fawn over the comics.
Splurging on nostalgia
At Comic Con India, the annual comics convention held in the country since 2011, the median age of visitors is 21 and children are hardly seen here. “People consuming comic books today are above 18. Some readers spend ₹50,000 a month to buy comics. They are no longer the domain of kids,” says Comic Con organiser Jatin Varma. Nostalgia is a major factor, he adds.
Yesterday’s comic-loving kid is today’s high-earning professional who thinks nothing of splurging on a cherished part of childhood. Sample this: a vintage lot of 47 Flash Gordon Indrajal comics is available for auction on eBay at a base price of $648.70 (₹39,000), along with shipping charges of $80 (around ₹5,000). And bidding for a Phantom Indrajal vintage set of 128 comics in Bengali starts at $1,038.70 (around ₹63,000).
“Collection of vintage comics is a global phenomenon, which is now visible in India too,” says Manas Mohan, Chief Operating Officer at ACK Media, which owns Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle publications.
The titles from Indrajal Comics, which began publishing in March 1964 and brought out its last issue in April 1990, are most in demand. Next in popularity are the vintage comics of Amar Chitra Katha, including the first title, Krishna, Shiva-Parvati and Nala-Damayanti, besides the early editions of Tinkle.
While the publishers look askance at those trading in comics at arbitrary prices, they are also happy to know that collectors are not willing to sell. “This renewed interest in comics impacts us positively by creating a higher decibel value for the brand,” says Mohan. ACK is growing at over 30 per cent annually in the ₹600-crore Indian comics industry.
But in all this mad rush for vintage comics, buyers often do not realise that what they think as the first edition of a comic might not necessarily be so. “The valuation process (of vintage comics) is still to be settled in the country. How do you make sure that a copy is from the first print-run of a particular comic? It is a complicated process,” says Mohan.
Varma points out that in the US, the Commercial Valuation Consultants (CVC) rates a comic book based on its preserved condition and its uniqueness — whether completely unavailable or signed by the creators and so on. On arriving at a valuation, it gives a stamp of approval specifying that the comic is of value and should be safeguarded.
“In India, some people sell comics dirt cheap and some sell at high premiums. I wish we had the wherewithal to regulate, so that people do not overpay,” says Varma.
Currently there is no information on the number of copies published for various titles decades ago, be they Indrajal, ACK or Tinkle. So ascertaining the real value of a comic book remains tricky.
Mohan believes buyers are largely punting right now, but adds that this “is a fairly short phenomenon and should be over soon”.
But that is precisely where the problem lies. If, and when the buzz around comics dies out, the publishers will be left at a loose end. Today’s networked kids prefer the live-action heroes to the 32-page-long battles that Nagraj typically wages.
Competing with TV
Observing that the demand for comics is not as robust as it used to be in the 1980s, Manish Gupta, CEO of Raj Comics, blames it on the declining interest in reading, as TV and the Internet emerge as the popular medium of entertainment.
The falling demand, in turn, leads to reduced space for comics at distributors’ warehouses. Ditto at the retailers. “Getting to the consumer is a challenge. Margins are high for distributors and small stores don’t even want to stock comics. And even if they agree, the payments are invariably delayed by up to six months, making it tough for publishers,” says Varma.
Despite the many challenges, Mumbai-based comic aficionado Karan Vir Arora went ahead and launched Vimanika in 2008. “Companies were not innovating. I thought it was time to do something different to regenerate interest,” he says.
His new-age comics brand derives its name from the Vaimanika Shastra, an early 20th century Sanskrit text on airborne vehicles. Vimanika’s superheroes are based on Hindu mythology — Lord Shiva, Kalki, Hanuman, Ganesha and the Dashavatars among others.
Unlike in Japan and Europe, comics in India have not mirrored the growth of the media and entertainment sector. “Comics here were not present in any other format. So we decided to take them beyond books,” says Arora.
The comics can be read online through a subscription. Moreover, Vimanika’s characters appear on t-shirts, posters, and other knick knacks, besides being available as sculptures and paintings. Today, 50 per cent of Arora’s revenues come from the sale of such merchandise. He has tied up with apparel firm Kapsons for the sale of Vimanika t-shirts in northern India. “We are also looking at a franchise model for selling merchandise and comics,” he says.
Old stories in new avatars
Like Arora, ACK, Diamond Comics and Raj Comics are trying different approaches to make their presence felt. The changes are visible at Landmark, Crossword and other organised bookstores that now have a few racks for Indian publishers, says Mohan.
The comics companies are also tapping the internet not just for selling books but also to attract young readers through apps for mobile phones and tablets. While some comics are available free with the app, others come for a fee.
Besides coming out with newer titles, publishers are advertising their titles, holding campaigns in schools and marketing them at public events. When ACK brought out a comic on the Carnatic musician MS Subbulakshmi, it tied up with the Chennai-based music association Narada Gana Sabha to launch the title at the association’s annual festival. “That brought us support from lovers of comics as well as music,” says Mohan.
Raj Comics, meanwhile, is making a feature film starring its superhero Doga. “It should be ready early next year,” says Gupta.
A hard copy of a comic book that was available for ₹5 in the mid-1980s is now priced ₹50. Adjusted for inflation, there is hardly any price increase. But publishers are anxious to keep prices low as they do not want to lose customers. Waging a crucial battle for readership, comics publishers will likely wish for some of the superpowers their comic heroes are so generously endowed with.