When I first came to India five years ago, there was very little in the way of literary comics publishing. When I came a second time three years ago, I was excited to find a spate of quality graphic novels by people like Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Sarnath Banerjee, and Gautam Bhatia. These are all from established presses, and they got displayed prominently at bookstores. Banerjee had published a few books through his own company, Phantomville, now dormant. But it has only been in the past year or two that independent comics publishing in India has visibly left the tarmac.
For new artists, the example of the aforementioned graphic novels has surely been galvanizing. Venues like Comic Con India, begun in 2011, and Comix.India, inaugurated in 2009, have been important incubators. The maturation of blog and social networking sites have given creators greater and more sophisticated opportunities to share their work, building on the discussion boards and mailing lists that first emerged only at the end of the noughties. If independent comics have a future in India, that history begins now. In five years, a lot has changed.
It was only recently, after a chat with Kailash Iyer at the Barista near Sterling Cinema, a standby café of mine down a side street from Victoria Terminus in south Mumbai, that the size of this burgeoning scene, the personal and institutional links that have shaped it, and the timeline of their evolution began to come into focus for me. Kailash, a freelance designer, was co-founder of Comix.India. That was the reason for the interview. I wanted a rounder picture of the magazine. Bharath Murthy’s name is most associated with Comix.India, and indeed it seems that the original idea for a regular amateur comics anthology was his. But whereas Bharath disengaged after the first couple of issues to pursue other goals, Kailash has been actively involved up to (what appears to be now) the magazine’s end. Which is not, however, the end of his involvement in indie comics. He and a friend are in the final stages of organizing a new comics magazine called Pulp Quarterly.
What was instructive about the interview was not just the added perspective on Comix.India, but also the sketch Kailash provided of the landscape of independent comics in India today. What he offered might be a Mumbai-centric view of things; I am not sure. Indian comics seem to be a fairly regional phenomenon, the internet and roving Comic Cons notwithstanding. What he shared, at the very least, indicates where to start surveying if one wants a fuller map.
The other thing I thought illuminating was what Kailash had to say about something I stumbled upon on my way to the interview: copies of Diamond Comics at the Wheeler bookstall in VT station. As cheap, mass-produced, low-quality, sensational fodder for kids, these are the akahon of Indian comics. Wheeler, a bookseller that dates back to the late nineteenth century, with outlets at train stations across India, has served a similar function as that of the American drugstore magazine rack of yore, or of the Japanese convenience store. These are all general-purpose entertainment stations whose ubiquity has provided comics with a distribution wider than proper bookstores ever could. Maybe the comparisons are misleading. To what extent, for example, might one legitimately describe Leaping Windows as an Indian rental kashihon’ya? But maybe there is something to the way comics culture lines up in various countries at comparable points in the development of their national economies and entertainment markets.
Barista cooked the coffee. Kailash served food for thought.
What is your relationship with Comix.India?
I have been working with Comix.India pretty much from the very beginning. Initially my involvement was as a designer, as I knew nothing about how to put a magazine together. I worked with artists, made sure the files they sent in were the proper resolution, and coordinated with Pothi [a print-on-demand publisher] to make sure the files we sent them were the proper format. Down the line I took up the reins of co-editor, and talent coordinator, meaning that I sought out talent, putting the word out saying that there was a new volume, please send in content. I also handled the Facebook page and maintained the website. At the moment, you can say I am handling the entire operation.
What was your level of involvement for the first issue?
Bharath and I brainstormed together at the beginning about the direction Comix.India should go. But at the time we had separate duties. At that point, I didn’t know many people in the comics scene. Bharath knew a lot of creators, so for the first issue he was the one who contacted everyone to send in pages, and because they knew him, they were willing to send in work. I designed the cover, put the book together, and put together the website. For the first issue, I didn’t give any editorial input. From the second issue onwards, I stepped in further. I knew some people who wanted to draw, so I got them on board. From the third issue, I was handling most of it. Later, there were a few issues that had guest editors. My job was to guide them, let them know what their responsibilities were, and then take a back seat.
In your view, what was the concept behind Comix.India?
Four years back, when Comix.India started, there weren’t really any independent comics in India. Sarnath Banerjee had released Corridor a few years earlier , which was the first mainstream, independent graphic novel released in India. The only other comics were mass market comics, like Raj Comics, Diamond Comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, and so forth. There was nothing like what Fantagraphics or Top Shelf does. Bharath wanted to give a voice to creators who were doing things like that, but without any kind of financial risk involved, as this was a totally unproven market. His idea was pretty unique at the time, and that was to get people to contribute work and then sell the package online at Pothi. It was a chance for creators to get their work out without any editorial interference. Raj Comics or places like that have very specific guidelines, the story has to appeal to the masses. Or Tinkle, it has to be friendly to young readers.
Do those companies accept submissions?
I’m not sure if they have a formal policy. A friend of mine pitched a few Doga stories to Raj, and they commissioned him to write some short stories. Most of these companies have strong editorial control, whereas we were completely open. Our only editorial policy at the beginning was to check for grammatical errors and language. Content-wise, there were no restrictions. Humor, genre, autobiographical, journalistic, we were open to everything. That was one of the ideas behind Comix.India. There are a lot of people who don’t want a career in comics, but they might have that one story that they want to express. We wanted to be the outlet for that creative voice.
What was your prior involvement with comics?
Only as a fan. One of the first comics I remember buying was the recolored Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles published by First Comics, by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. A friend of my mother’s owned a distribution company, and was having a distress sale. With my brother, I had gone to his warehouse. He told us, you guys go ahead and take twenty or so books for free. I ended up with a bunch of those TMNT comics, and some Batman and Superman comics released by South Africa’s BattleAxe Press.
How old are you?
I was born in 1983. I was in middle school at the time. I must have been fourteen. That was probably my first exposure to mainstream comics. Most of my teenage years were spent reading that sort of stuff, and then I got into Indrajal Comics.
That means you must have read Indrajal as second-hand comics.
Correct. I believe Indrajal had stopped by that time. [Note: The last Indrajal issue appeared in April 1990.] I picked some up at used booksellers. But my uncle had a humongous collection of Indrajal, and of Mad. Mad was one of the first comic books I read.
Mad was distributed in India?
My uncle got them used. Flora Fountain [in southern Mumbai] used to be filled with roadside booksellers. It used to be a reader’s paradise. Anything you wanted, you could find for dirt cheap, ten rupees, fifteen rupees. My uncle used to go there and buy the small Mad digests. He had a collection of eighty or a hundred. As a kid, I used to go to my grandmother’s house, open up the cupboard, and it was a treasure trove. I inherited that collection. When he decided to go abroad for work, they were going to throw the comics away, which I didn’t want them to do! So that’s how I started building up my own collection.
What does a comics collector really mean in India? It seems like there has been limited material published and even less is available. The market seems really disorganized. Are they collecting mainly Indian comics?
There aren’t many Indian comics aside from Raj and Indrajal, et cetera, so people collect everything, your typical pathological hoarders. They hear that there is a sale happening, they rush to the place, buy everything, regardless whether they’re going to read it or not. I would rather have things that I like to read and reread. Everything I have I’ve read at least two, three, four times.
This is the late 90s you are talking about. That’s ten years before Comix.India starts. Did you read comics in the interim?
I did. The way I got involved with Comix.India was through a Yahoo group called the Indian Comics Club, or Mumbai Comics Club, something like that. I was like the fifth or sixth person to join that group. It’s defunct now, but it was through them that I met Bharath. Internet was only just taking off in the country. There was no broadband, it was all modem. We would trade comics over the phone line, which took forever. That was the first time I had heard about CBR files. That blew my mind. A lot of people I know in comics I met through that club. And Bharath had just started this new forum, the Comics Discussion Board of India. It was on that forum that he floated the idea of Comix.India.
Were there many online comics clubs?
Those are the only two that I know about.
What did people discuss through those forums?
Putting together an online database of Indian comics, talking about what’s happening in comics. It was a new thing. It was the only outlet for talking about comics. We had occasional meetings, but didn’t really discuss comics at them. It was just like-minded people meeting up at a bar, chill, meet for dinner. This is about seven or eight years ago. So I knew Bharath for about a year before Comix.India started. These groups don’t really exist anymore. Facebook has become so dominant that everything that used to operate independently as a mailing group or a forum has now shifted to Facebook. I am not a big fan of Facebook taking over to such an extent. I don’t think it’s the best way for group interaction.
Is there such thing as a Mumbai comics scene?
Not really, not that I know of, but like I said I am not really involved with these Facebook groups. I think Delhi has a more active scene.
Do you draw comics?
Sometimes. In the third volume of Comix.India, the “Third World Fantasy” volume, which is the first issue that I edited, I have a comic titled “The Moon Graveyards.” It looks pretty terrible to me now. It actually began as a short science fiction story, which I decided to convert into a comic. It’s set in the future. Land has become super valuable. A big status symbol is being rich enough to buy land to bury your dead. So the moon has become a mass graveyard, because that’s the only affordable land. Then the dead on the moon come to life. I had the title in my head first, and then started writing a story about how the moon could become a massive graveyard.
Do you read science fiction?
I love it. Right now I am reading Neal Asher’s complete works. I’m not a fan of most of the old masters though, because the language sounds a little dated to me. I’ve given them a try, but it’s just not my cup of tea. I like hard sci-fi, dealing with hardcore science.
Hardcore science like zombies on the moon?
Ha! That’s different. There’s no escaping zombies. My comic was a twenty-four pager, but then I realized that drawing those many pages would kill me, so I cut it down.
Is there such thing as Indian science fiction?
Not really. There’s a couple of writers out there, Samit Basu, Rimi B. Chaterjee, but the Indian market is not really open to genre fiction. A lot of the people in India getting into genre writing prefer to explore mythology, with their own spin on the Ramayana, for example.
It seems like Indian superhero comics also tend that direction, like those from Raj or Virgin.
The problem is that a lot of people in India are fans of mainstream U.S. comics. Nine out of ten readers are fans of DC or Marvel. So if those readers want to start drawing or publishing comics themselves, they want to do Indian versions of that. There are very few people who are interested in exploring alternative content. If you’ve been to Comic Con India, you probably saw that a lot of the vendors have superhero material.
Have you done other comics?
There’s this Calcutta-based magazine called Kindle Magazine. It has nothing to do with Amazon. It’s not a comics magazine. I had sent in a short comic for some special edition, and my submission was printed. A friend of mine, Aditya Bidikar, used to do a comic for them every month. After he quit, they contacted me, so for six months I was doing four-page comics for them, political spoofs, robot comics. This was two years back. They’re all on my website now. But after getting back to a day job as a designer, I didn’t have time to continue. Also, drawing doesn’t come naturally to me. After a while, I thought, rather than doing substandard or rushed work, might as well pass on the baton. For some of the stories I ended up collaborating with artists anyway. I also edited a special issue for Kindle, a comics supplement on the theme of the end of the world. Twenty-four pages with six artists.
No, there was a variety. Some people did very moving and personal biographies, some people did slice-of-life, some people had a more hardcore sci-fi approach.
Going back to Comix.India, how would you describe the evolution of the magazine over its six issues?
As far the quality of the comics, I don’t think there has been an evolution as such. Even in the first issue, we had some outstanding comics and some rubbish comics. And in the last issue, it was the same thing, some really good comics and some really bad comics. One editorial difference between Bharath’s time and mine was that I am not a fan of comics that don’t have an ending. In the first issue, there are a bunch of comics that are more like chapter ones. When I became editor, one of my personal rules was that all stories have to be self-contained. People are paying money for the book, and we’re not necessarily planning on publishing subsequent chapters, so I didn’t think it was fair to have readers pay for a sampler. But as far as the quality of the comics goes, there wasn’t much change, because like I told you, we were never into hardcore curating. We published whatever people were able to send in.
What was the best issue, in your view?
I like the third issue, because it was closer to my interests. I love science fiction, as I said, so I had fun working on it. I thought some of the content of the first issue was also outstanding. A lot of people had comics on their blogs, but by having them in a book, they were able to tell people that they were now published creators.
I hadn’t thought of this before, but maybe Comix.India was the first home for science fiction comics in India.
Possibly, yeah. One of the problems with doing comics like this is that you don’t get a lot of feedback. The comics I have done, I don’t have much of an idea whether people think they are good or bad, whether it has promise or whether I should stop altogether.
Part of that problem is that so few copies sold.
That is true. I can tell you why that happened. We didn’t have hard curation, so a lot of comics that came in probably shouldn’t have been published. If we had recommended a round of polishing, they would probably have been better. The more important point is that, because it was print-on-demand, the price for the individual volumes was on the higher side. The fatter issues are in the range of 350 rupees [7 USD, at the time]. For someone in India to spend that much on unproven talent was a hard sell. Because neither Bharath nor I was doing this full time means that we couldn’t spend much time on marketing. Only some of the artists were getting royalties. Others were happy ordering a few copies for themselves, and weren’t going out pushing the magazine. The idea was there, but the execution could have been better. Bharath had asked a couple of established publishers whether they were interested, where we would be editors, but that didn’t work out.
Issue six came out last year. Will there be a seventh?
I don’t think so. The books aren’t selling well. Indie comics in general in India don’t have much of a market, and even within that context, Comix.India hasn’t sold much. We are not seeing a return on the investment of even the effort put into getting the books out. Secondly, we are having a problem with Pothi. The first two issues are out of print. Despite being a print-on-demand, you can’t order them anymore. I am not sure if it’s a printer issue or whether Pothi is no longer interested. If there is going to be another issue, my plan is to put it up as a free download. Since it’s not selling, you might as well give it away for free, so at least the contributors get exposure. I will check with Pothi again whether there is a chance that the books will be made available again. If there’s not, I want to release them as free pdfs, if the contributors are willing.
It seems that today, unlike when I first came to India five years ago, or even three years ago when I first read Comix.India, there are a number of groups doing indie comics, like Manta Ray in Bangalore, or the Pao Collective in Delhi. New artists potentially have other venues now.
Yes, artists and writers do have more options, but most of the Indian labels are still rather small, so they only have limited openings for unproven talent. I also believe most publishers source out and invite people to collaborate, rather than having open submissions, because most of them have a specific focus.
Manta Ray does a lot of real world, slice-of-life comics. Their roster of artists is fantastic, with most of them having an established presence outside of comics as illustrators. One of the big guys is Holy Cow Entertainment. Their big title was Ravanayan, which is the Ramayana told from the perspective of Ravan. They did a horror comic called Were House. Right now they are publishing Aghori, which is broadly like the Indian version of Constantine. They are starting a crime series titled That Man Solomon, drawn by Sudeep Menon. So they prefer genre submissions. Then there is Pop Culture Publishing. They run the Comic Cons and have their own line of comics. I like their comics quite a bit. Their output is very eclectic, slice-of-life comics, surreal humor stuff. The comics also have a very strong Indian flavor, as in Uud Bilaw Manas [Otter Man], a superhero from the desi heartland, and Widhwa Andhi Mass Behen [Blind Mom Widowed Sister], a Bollywood spoof comic.
These are the three major venues open to submissions, but they all have very specific guidelines and audiences. The Pao Collective is a group, a collective of artists, and not really a publishing label. They scored a good deal getting Penguin on board as the publishers, so they can focus on the comics while Penguin takes care of the marketing and distribution. Most of the people in the Pao Collective are established artists, known names, so they got a substantial amount of mainstream coverage. The other labels, which come across a pure comic book companies, don’t get a lot of attention or reviews. I suppose it’s a matter of perception.
Is there anything comparable to Comix.India?
I don’t think so, and there probably won’t be. What is happening is that a lot of artists now are looking into self-publishing. Some of the artists that had done work for us are moving into self-publishing.
Print or digital?
In print. They have digital versions too, but I don’t think digital really sells in India. I don’t know of anyone in my network that buys digital comics.
How do they sell their books?
Word of mouth, direct order through their own sites, or through Comic Con.
Who from Comix.India is now self-publishing?
Sudeep Menon, he contributed to a number of Comix.India volumes. He’s getting his own creator-owned series from Holy Cow called That Man Solomon. It will start next year I think. In volume one, there’s a story called “Push Snooze for Freelancer,” a seven page comic by Vidyun Sabhaney and Pia Alize Hazarika. Pia is now doing some work for Manta Ray. Vidyun just set up her own comic label called Captain Bijli Comics. Bijli is Hindi for “lightning.” She came out with a comic called Mice Will Be Mice, drawn by a Japanese artist named Shohei Emura. And Chaitanya Modak set up his own label called Won-Tolla Comics.
So Comix.India will have a legacy in giving these artists their start.
Perhaps, hopefully. Even Vivek Goel, who runs Holy Cow, he did some work for us. In fact, the back cover of the first issue is by Vivek. Initially Bharath had contacted him to do the front cover, but Bharath thought ultimately that the style doesn’t really reflect the indie look that we were going for. Vivek contributed a number of comics to Comix.India and is proud of the fact of having been a regular contributor.
Was there ever a conscious decision to keep that kind of Hindu superhero material out of Comix.India?
No no, we had no rules. If that’s what people wanted to draw, we were open to it. We actually received very little of that kind of thing, just one or two submissions.
On the other side, on the unpolished drawing side, I had always thought Comix.India stood in pretty stark contrast to what big publishers were doing in India. But then, while I was waiting for you at VT, I found these Diamond Comics volumes at Wheeler, the newsstand in the station.
The thing is, this stuff really sells. First of all, it’s in Hindi. The English volumes occupy a far smaller percentage. With Hindi, the size of the audience bursts open. It becomes pan-Indian. Wheeler has outlets at every second or third station in the country. Even if you head out on some obscure train journey, you’d probably find these. And they are only 30 bucks [50 cents USD] for forty-some pages. That’s fantastic value for money. These are impulse buys. Like, a family is travelling with a kid. You get down at some station and spend 30 rupees to shut the kid up for a couple of hours.
Is this recycled material? Hard to believe a mass publisher would create something like this now.
I think most of these comics are created under very rushed timelines. The language, especially in the English, is totally bizarre. But this is what sells. They probably have monthly distribution in lakhs [hundreds of thousands], whereas the indie guys are happy with a hundred copies at Comic Con. Each of these Diamond Comics probably sells a lakh or two every month. So honestly, if you were to give me a choice of doing Hindi or English comics, I would do both. I would do the mass market comics so that I could subsidize the indie stuff.
Why doesn’t someone try to do that?
Well, to do something at this scale, with color printing, you would need eight or nine lakh rupees [12-14,000 USD] for each comic, which most of us don’t have. And these guys, Diamond Comics, I suppose they are not really interested in English. The Hindi comics sell, so they don’t care about the poor translation. It’s fun as a kid, but for an adult the language and grammar is quite ridiculous. Hindi comics are great business, but you would need to invest seriously into getting a distribution deal. You would have to crack into the mass market.
In closing, what do you think is the future of indie comics in India?
I think it’s picking up. Whatever your personal opinion is of the content of what exists, the very fact that there are people who are taking the effort to put out indie comics locally is very encouraging. Content is a matter of taste. What you like, someone else might not like. What you don’t like, someone else might like. At least now there are options. Instead of going online and ordering something from Drawn and Quarterly or other foreign publishers, you can go to Pop Culture Publishing and buy local Indian comics. Do I see sales picking up? I am not really sure, because most people with disposable income would prefer to buy something mainstream from DC or Marvel. And folks who like indie comics, when they have money, they would prefer to spend it on something from Top Shelf or Fantagraphics. And only after that would they consider spending on something from an Indian publisher. One reason I buy everything from Indian artists is that I want to support the scene. But if I had limited funds, and there was some really kickass book by Jason or someone, I might veer toward them rather than Indian authors, because I know for a fact that the work will be good, whereas with the Indian artist, you don’t know what you’re going to get. It’s still a risk. Sometimes you want to support the scene, sometimes you just want to be entertained.