Graphic novelists shake up world of Indian comics

NEW DELHI Tue Mar 1, 2011 11:58pm EST

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - Characters from centuries-old myths and folktales have adorned the covers of children's comic books in India for decades, but a new wave of graphic novelists has emerged to shake up the art form.

Their quest for ultra-Indian superheroes has created new crossover comics aimed at both children and adults, while others have boldly gone further, tackling issues such as suicide and homosexuality -- taboo topics in much of India.

"We are the new recorders of history. That's how I consider myself," said Sarnath Banerjee, whose graphic novel "Corridor" is set in New Delhi and delves into politics and sex.

"I write, I see through my own eyes and I put it out."

Generations of young Indians have grown up with the Amar Chitra Katha series based on Hindu epics and mythology, and it remains one of India's best-selling comic books series.

But the success of Banerjee and others, such as the pioneering 1994 black-and-white "River of Stories" by Orijit Sen that dealt with the social and environmental impact of a controversial dam, are prompting changes even among such traditional comic publishers.

Some are also looking to create brand new superheroes that are quintessentially Indian to see off competition from the likes of Spiderman and Batman, who have gained popularity with the onslaught of American cartoons and movies on Indian TV.

Indian superheroes are not the "cape-flying, spandex-wearing guy who is flying about, but a guy who is practical, who has an Indian outfit, who can connect to an Indian," said Karan Vir Arora, editor-in-chief of Vimanika Comics, a Mumbai start-up.

Vimanika Comics aims to bridge the gap between historical narratives and graphic novels, giving mythological characters a 21st century facelift.

The company's "The Sixth" series shows Karna, a warrior from the ancient Indian epic "Mahabharata," in a modern light. The series starts as a high-flying businessman, suffering from recurrent nightmares, discovers he is the reincarnation of Karna.

Another such publisher is Campfire, based in New Delhi, with "Ravana: Roar of the Demon King," a graphic novel of a story retold over centuries in India but this time seen through the eyes of its primary antagonist -- the demon king Ravana.

"We're trying to mix it. People have always related to these characters," Arora said.

"The characters are being shown in a very contemporary fashion, a stylish fashion."

The new blends sit well with both children and adults alike, meaning higher sales. Demand for "Ravana" is also high, illustrator Sachin Nagar says, although it has yet to be released. The company declined to provide pre-sale data.

NEW SUPERHEROES

In a sign of how vibrant the industry has become, India's first comic book convention, Comic Con India, was held in February in New Delhi, drawing thousands.

The occasion was used to launch a number of comics, including "Uud Bilaw Manus: Back with a Vengeance" by 22-year-old Adhiraj Singh, which shows off a new Indian superhero: a half-otter half-human from the post-apocalyptic fictional place of "Beehar" in northern India, who fights corrupt officials, among others.

Although influences from the rest of the world have crept in, particularly on the drawing techniques adopted by new graphic novelists, the way stories are presented remains very local.

"The art is very European and American. The narration is very Japanese. But the stories are Indian. The feel is Indian. The motions, the drama - that comes from India. There's a spiritual feel to it," Arora said.

But while superheroes and mythology remain popular, reality and current anxieties also need documenting, many say.

One pioneering work was the 2008 "Kari" by Amruta Patil, a writer also known as India's first female graphic artist, which centers on a suicidal lesbian and has been dubbed India's first gay graphic novel.

Another is Naseer Ahmed and Saurabh Singh's "Kashmir Pending," seen through the eyes of a reformed militant in jail in the disputed region.

Overall, confidence within the industry is growing.

"When people think of Indian comic illustrators, they don't really think that they'll be able to produce good quality work," said Nagar, creator of "Ravana.

"I have to say they are completely wrong. We have arrived."

(Editing by Elaine Lies)

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