Sunday, 6 March 2011

A PEEK INTO COMICS

A PEEK INTO COMICS
Tintin joins hands with Tipu Sultan and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to free India of the British rule. Ditto for a certain Asterix who can easily outsmart Lord Clive or Lord Curzon. Pardon my childhood reverie and blame it all on the comics books that I hankered for shamelessly every time I passed by a bookstall in Calcutta years ago. And trust me, even in last week when I was doing my usual rounds at the local bookstores in Pune, I was once again tempted get hold of Tintin and Phantom, just like good old days.

Nothing then seems to have changed except that the comics book have become glossy; and the prices have gone up ten fold. But has the interest in the comic books increased ten fold? Or has it declined among the modern kids who have all that I didn't have as a child: Internet, video games and cartoon television channels.

Narendra Chandan, the proprietor of the Book World on the FC Road in Pune claims that “everything is fine” with the comics books. “There is a steady demand for them,” he says pointing at the stacks of Amar Chitra Katha, DC Comics, Archies, Dilbert, Phantom, Tinkle, Calvin and Hobbes and the rest of the colourful comics books that can keep us engrossed across the pages just like any other page-tuner. Mark the word 'us' as Chandan admits that the “buyers are mostly adults” and not the kids. “The parents, say of your age group, come to buy the comics that they themselves grew up reading, and now want their children to read them as well,” he says. “Children do not show much interest, sadly”.

Agrees Louis Fernandes, the editor of the Tinkle magazine that has remained popular across the decades. “It is a sense of nostalgia that plays among the adults today. They had no access to the Internet or video games when they were growing up. So, magazines like the Tinkle or the comics strips of the Amar Chitra Katha were the attractive options for them to entertain themselves. And that is why they want their kids to go through those experiences,” Fernandes says from Mumbai. But it is not easy attract the modern kids, he adds. “They are smart and sharp, and they may not prefer the printed comics over the moving images on the television and computer”. Therefore, Amar Chitra Katha and the Tinkle (which is part of the ACK stable) have “consciously made efforts to keep the stories shorter” than the earlier versions of the Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle comics. Additionally, new characters have been introduced to make the comics interesting. “One of our noted additions is the character of 'Defective Detectives.' The stories are set in modern context to which the children can relate,” Fernandes explains.

But, even a veteran like Fernandes sounds a bit sceptical when he says that in the “foreseeable future there has to be some drastic step to compete with the cartoon animations”. According to him, the Indian animation is “not that great to compete with those from the West or from Japan”. “We cannot afford to make costly animations like them,” he adds with a sigh when I ask him about the recent effort to turn the Amar Chitra Katha comics into animations.

Aditi Ray, senior editor of the Campfire Graphic Novels, however, doesn't think that the animation on television channels or on the Internet or even the video games can threaten the dedicated readership of graphic novels. “It all depends on the attractive visuals, and simple storyline. The moment the visuals become monotonous then children will lose interest,” she asserts from Delhi. “I would say the animation of the comics actually foster the interest in the graphic novels and get the otherwise reluctant reader into the habit of reading. An Animator need to stick to the original illustrations of the graphic novels and that will lend them credibility”. Ray then confidently rolls out the list of titles from Campfire --- mythologies (Ekalavya, among others), classics (Merchant of Venice, among others), biographies (Conquering Everest, among others) and the originals --- that have been received well by children in India and in the USA.

According to Pran Kumar Sharma, who created the famous characters of Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu, there is a symbiotic relationship between the printed comics and animation. “The animations of Chacha and Sabu boosted the popularity of the characters and sales of the printed comics shot up. That in turn enhanced the popularity of the animated series,” Pran confirms from Delhi.

Similar view is echoed by Jatin Varma, founder of the Comic Con India that recently organised the First Indian Comic Conference in Delhi. “Printed comics and graphic novels are here to stay. There can be attractive comics in the applications in the gadgets like the iPad or the Tablet, but not many among us use such gadgets. Publishing graphic novels in print is always the better option,” Varma points out, adding, it is a “long way” before comics on iPad or Tablet or even the Internet becomes the usual platform for publishing comics. “There can be slight competition from the comics that are put on the web, but then though they are easy to put on the Internet and are easily accessible, the commercial viability of such efforts are questionable,” he adds. “It is not easy to make money from the comics on the Internet. So, we do not see comics on the new media as the rivals to the printed comics. Personally, I would prefer to own and hold a comics book, rather than viewing it on a Tablet or on iPad”.

Lalit Pawar, a young entrepreneur and father of a four-year-old child, says he would like his son to read the mythologies and the biographies first from the comics books, because he did the same when his parents introduced him to the ACK titles. “Sometimes, old things are better than the new things,” he says. Also, the “colourful graphics will be interesting for the kid and he can pick up some of the values that these stories offer,” Pawar adds. While his wife Sneha has nothing against the books or the gadgets, she sounds a bit doubtful about the “authenticity of the stories” that are told in the comics books. “They may not be all that credible and I will remain sceptical whether my son will learn correct history from these comics,” she says. To this, Fernandes refers to the “mammoth task of consulting the scholars and using the most credible resources to gather material for the mythological and historical titles”.

But comics is not just about history and moral values. They are also about thrilling stories, the daring acts, the mind games: be it Tintin or Gordon Flash or my dear Feluda. Noted illustrator Tapas Guha, who has been illustrating the comics books on Feluda adventures (originally created by Satyajit Ray), mentions the international competition that has been challenging the Indian comics. “Today's kids are exposed to international stuff. So they always compare with what we offer them. So we have to be conscious about the storyline, the crisp text and very attractive visuals,” he says from Delhi. “One of the disadvantages of Feluda stories is that there is not much of action, if compared with say the Transformers,” Guha elaborates in this context. True, 'private investigator' Pradosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda depends more on his 'brain power' than ammunition and fists. “Now, to deal with such passivity is not easy in comics books where the children look forward to action. Therefore, I try to add lots of colourful backgrounds, like trees, flowers, cars and shining building to retain the young readers' interest,” Guha explains.

Moreover, he mentions how in the Feluda stories that he illustrated, modern gadgets like the mobile phones, laptop computers have been added though they were not mentioned in the original stories written several decades back. Indeed, today's kids must feel that the stories are recent and not written decades ago. That then, in a way, compensates for the absence of constant chase of the villains and the fights, he adds. But despite these constraints, the artist thinks that the Feluda comics will attract the children. “I also see that the comics books on mythologies are still very popular among the kids,” he says. The only problem area, Guha admits, remains the stories with plain narrative of morals. “That can be a tad boring. Children want modern stories”.

However, modern stories may not always work. As I check out the other bookstores in the city, I come across Amar Chitra Katha title on the late astronaut Kalpana Chawla. “But that one didn't do well,” informs Fernandes. Even then, the media group is introducing new titles to keep the flag flying. “What we have seen is that our titles in Indian languages don't do that well as compared to those in English. And financially too it is not viable as the costs for translation into different Indian languages is quite a lot”. And when that cost translates into Rs 40 for one slim book, many may not like to spend that. “In fact, I have also seen that many parents scold their children if they want more than one title of the comics books,” adds Chandan. “Not many would like to spend Rs 885 for one volume of Tintin compilation, or Rs 250 for a slim volume of a Phantom title,” he explains as I browse through the books. Heroes do come for a price, more so if they are from the West.

“I do not counter the superheroes of the Western comics with heroics,” says Pran. “I wanted the Chacha Chaudhary to be different when I launched him in 1970... I wanted him to be simple. Later, I added the character of Sabu who brought in power punch in the stories,” he says. “Also, I think humour is a great way to entertain,” Pran adds. This is then the simple formula for this veteran to reach out to more and more youngsters: Make the characters simple, just like any other common man in this country; and add dash of power and humour. Plus, the plots must have connection with the recent happenings so that the target readership of children and young adults can understand the context. Pran says this formula works pretty well. “You see, there are television news channels and the Internet. But the newspapers are still very much around. So will be the printed comics,” Pran assures. “All is well in the comics world”.
 
(An edited version of the article was published in Sakàl Times, Pune, India)