Thursday, April 21, 2016

Reliving the golden era of comic books

Reading comic books is a pretty much dead trend nowadays in India. The number of people who read comics today is quite miniscule to the number that used to exist about twenty years back. Our entire childhood and early teens went away in the pursuit of collecting as many of the best comic book titles that were available back then.

Comic book reading as a hobby thrived throughout the 90s decade and died a slow but gradual death in the 2000s with the advent of internet and wider medium of entertainments along with it. In the last one decade, I have not come across one child who reads comic books. The few ones who do only do so because they happen to have a few stray copies in their possession or they came across older issues that were preserved by their parents or older siblings. But in my opinion, active comic book reading as a hobby has pretty much died out in India. Comic book reading exists today among a small group of enthusiasts throughout the country. Most of these readers are familiar with American titles from publishers such as DC and Marvel. The yearly holding of Comic Cons in various metropolitan cities does help keep the spark alive. But it is no longer the rage it used to be.

Most of the classic comic book characters have died out from public memory and the newer generation is pretty much unaware of them. Characters like Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Garth, Rip Kirby, etc used to be widely popular among the masses during the 70s and 80s due to the publications of the legendary Indrajal Comics. Once that brand died out in 1990, these characters faded away. Diamond Comics continues publishing Phantom and Mandrake issues during the 90s, but the others just vanished after that. Along with these, the advent of the 90s saw the death of certain comic book characters that were indigenous to our country. Two of the most popular characters in this category are Inspector Vikram and Bahadur. While the inspector’s adventures centred on combating dacoits in the notorious Chambal valley, Bahadur too battled dacoits and other forms of organised crime as well. It is safe to assume that because of the existence of these characters, we saw the emergence of more popular comic book heroes such as Nagraj, Doga and even Chacha Chaudhary in the 90s.

While characters from DC and Marvel may be the favourites during the 90s and today as well thanks to Hollywood’s current infatuation with them, back in the 70s and 80s, most of the Indian youth rocked to the adventures of the Indrajal heroes. These comics were the first foreign origin ones to be translated into vernacular languages such as Hindi, Bengali, etc. While famous cartoon characters like Tintin and Asterix also got translated into vernaculars around the same time, they never reached out to the mass readers the way the Indrajal heroes did. Their reach extended to far flung areas of the country and influenced youngsters into being a part of the greater pop culture that Indian youth was experiencing back then. In several areas of the northeast, Indrajal Comics sold like hot cakes upon their arrival. The English, Hindi and Bengali versions were big hits in the towns of Assam and most of the older generations who grew up in the 70s or 80s identify solidly with Phantom just as 90s and today’s youngsters identify with characters like Batman or Superman.

The effect of these comics in remote areas such as northeast was immense. Back in the 70s and 80s, communication was quite backward in most of the region. TV had not yet made a dent into the homes here and radio was widely popular but lacked in the visual medium. These comics became the source of entertainment for millions of youngsters who sought adventure and icons among characters such as Phantom and Mandrake. When I browse through the old issues of these comics, I find that there are several instances where letters of fans from states such as Assam, Manipur and Mizoram appear in the ‘letters to editor’ sections. This clearly shows the wide reach these comics did in even remote areas of the country. Sadly, this open indulgence of fans from India’s remote northeast quite vanished once Indrajal shut down shop in 1990.

These comics also began the trend of introducing their heroes in vernacular languages. The one character that benefitted the most from this translation game was Phantom, who became famous in most households as ‘Betaal.’ Most of the non-English reading masses made Betaal a cult figure that many of the older generations still remember. In the 90s, Diamond Comics translated most of the Phantom and Mandrake issues into vernaculars. Thankfully, Assamese made it to the list as well and we no longer had to do with the Bengali comics any more.

The comic trend that was kicked off by Indrajal in the 70s and 80s was picked up by other publishers such as Manoj Comics, Kiran Comics and most notably, Amar Chitra Katha, which reintroduced Indians to Hindu mythology and Indian history in illustrated comic format like never before. The AMC’s Tinkle comic book magazine was an absolute rage during the decade of 90s and it was a weekly affair for every child to covet the latest edition of the magazine.

The 90s saw the rise of the Indian superheroes with the advent of Raj Comics in the late 80s. Their characters such as Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga and Tiranga ruled the roost in the 90s among Indian comic book fans. While there is no denying that most of these characters were just rip offs of some of the world renowned superheroes from the DC and Marvel comics, Indian comic book fans finally got a range of home bred superheroes. The Indian comic book superhero reached a stage of maturity where writers and illustrators did not shy away from showing matured content and complex storylines in their issues.

Diamond Comics also sparkled the 90s era with beloved comic characters such as Chacha Chaudhary, Sabu, Billoo, Pinky, Raman, etc. They also had their own range of superheroes such as Fauladi Singh, Agniputra-Abhay and Tauji. The brand became the only source for the older generations from the 70s and 80s to read Phantom and Mandrake comics in the 90s after the demise of Indrajal.

The deep rooting of TV throughout India during the early 90s and also the coming of cable TV brought Indians into newer avenues of entertainment. Children were exposed to various cartoons from foreign shores and also foreign comic brands like DC and Marvel began to aggressively push sales in a vast country like India. The onslaught of this foreign assault was too much to be borne by our Indian comic book publishers. The new millennium saw a spark in the sale of foreign comic books in comparison to the Indian ones. Characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man took centre stage among Indian comic readers rather than the home bred ones. Somehow I feel Indian comic book makers could not reinvent themselves to the needs of the changing times that the new millennium brought in with it.

While Raj Comics and Diamond Comics still continue to publish their titles, they are no longer the rage today anymore among the youngsters. Sadly, the comic book reading culture among young Indians has died out today after the advent of internet and various options available in the visual medium. Comic book reading is an almost dead hobby in India today, much like stamp collecting. Though a sizeable number of comic book readers still exist, they are nothing compared to the huge numbers that once existed throughout the country about twenty years ago.

Comic book reading culture saw a rising phase throughout the 70s and 80s and reached its golden climactic era in the 90s. The comic books we see today are but remnants of that bygone era that we have lived as children during the 90s. It is rather difficult for me to explain to today’s youngsters how important characters like Phantom and Mandrake mattered to young Indians once. Or how cool it was to own comic book issues of Indian superheroes such as Nagraj and Doga.

Today’s youngsters mostly call themselves fans of characters like Batman and Superman only after watching the movies or going through their animated series on the TV or internet. But most of them have sadly missed out the larger fun of picking up their comics and discovering them panel by panel in an illustrated comic book format.

Post a Comment