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A bhojpuri hero Saves Obama

A new breed of superhero comics shakes the genre out of its slumber.

Written by PiyasreeDasgupta | New Delhi |
August 21, 2011 3:55:17 am

A new breed of superhero comics shakes the genre out of its slumber

Odayan stares back at you with Hitchcockian resolve. Brows in a tight knit,deep furrows ribbed across a mossy green forehead and kohled eyes cold with fury. He doesn’t give you the luxury of a bird-plane-man-in-a-cape epiphany. Instead,he walks the soil of Kerala down the ages and becomes the hero whose exploits inspire Theyyams and Kathakali dance narratives. He is the superhero of an Indian comic created by the Bangalore-based Level 10 Studios,owned by Suhas Sundar and Shreyas Srinivas,which will be unveiled this October. It tells the story of the mercurial rise of this Kalaripayattu warrior in a Kerala divided by feudal violence. “He isn’t a stereotypically good man. Power is like a drug to him,” says Sundar.

Most Indian comic-book heroes come from a legion of Hindu gods and goddesses,but a new league of characters seems poised to shake the genre out of its slumber. There’s Uud Bilaw Manus,half-otter half-man,a Bhojpuri superhero who can save Obama from his sworn enemy “Kan Khajurah”. This quirky,satirical take is brought out by New Delhi-based Pop Culture Publishing. Or Daksh,the half-son of Yama,who is sent to earth to pick out sinners in a narrative that blurs the lines between good and evil. Or an unnamed RAW agent who will save Bangalore from zombies. There is also Batu, who inhabits an imaginary world in a Desi Manga series,where kingdoms don’t go to war,they fight it out over a game of Kree-Kaht (divine cricket).

“Personally,I don’t think we are a ‘superhero’ nation. The slew of culturally-endorsed mythological characters that have dominated comic books hasn’t really encouraged creation of original characters till now,” says Jatin Varma,founder of Comic Con and Pop Culture Publishing. He believes that is why readers have ignored Indian comics and found other ways to stay entertained. But new content from publishers like Level 10,Arkin,Pop Culture Publishing,Campfire,Holy Cow and Vimanika are changing that. “We wanted to showcase more diverse fare such as sci-fi,high fantasy,horror etc,” says Srinivas.

The new narratives are born out of an honest look at where we come from. Twenty-three-year-old Adhiraj Singh from Delhi is the creator of Uud Bilaw Manus,“a good son,an honest citizen,and speaker of (approximately) an Indian language” who roams the streets of “Beehar”. He says his creation didn’t stem from extensive cultural research. “It just came to me,” he says.

The curious confluence of populist Bhojpuri culture and the English comic book form makes it a foil to most other superhero comics. “It’s almost a spoof of the genre it represents,” says Varma,publisher of Uud Bilaw Manus,or U Bi Ma. Its “villain” Kan Khajurah belongs to the league of Bollywood villains with names like Kancha Cheena and Crime Master Gogo. And his cronies,true to Manmohan Desai’s Bollywood,are kiraye ke tattus. U Bi Ma flaunts his underpants alright and flies to the rescue of everyone from Obama to preys of petty Bihari racketeers. From popular cinema,gimmicky American leaders and India’s West-obsession,it feasts on everything that makes it to newspaper headlines,with a generous dose of humour.

The other comics also tap into a fascination with American pop culture and the lifeblood of youth — angst and dark humour. In the Rabhas Incident,one can see author Suhas Sundar’s affinity with iconic American zombie visual literature,from American director George Romero’s zombie fest films to recent box-office toppers like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. In a very New York-in-distress flavour,Sundar sends a RAW agent,a one-man army,to save Bangalore from a feral zombie-inducing virus.

Odayan,on the other hand,redefines the cultural relationship between myth and art. “We decided to give Kathakali dance a backstory instead through Odayan. He is like the heroes immortalised in those folk narratives,” says Sundar,who has collaborated with artist Deepak Sharma for the comic book. Arkin Comics’ Irith has hip youngsters with hidden superpowers fighting terrorism in the country. “The first issue of Irith starts with the Mumbai blasts and a team of youngsters being handpicked to fight terrorists,” says Arkin owner Rohan Kapadia. So instead of cape-swashing heroes you get a Dan Brown-meets-X-Men gang of sassy Bombay kids taking on the bad guys.

Author Shamik Dasgupta,who has worked with publishers like Virgin Comics,collaborated with UTV Spotboy and currently works with Arkin and Level 10,finds comic narratives a way to express cynicism,youthful misgivings and disillusionment. His works,mostly dark,are resplendent in visual violence with allegorical references to political gore and social frustrations typical to India. “My latest creation,Daksh,will possibly change the way we perceive superheroes in India. It is a mishmash of mythology,dark fantasy,historical figures,contemporary world politics brought alive with the macabre,and what might be considered blasphemous language,” says Dasgupta,whose graphic interpretation of the Ramayana for Virgin Comics was critically acclaimed.

The good-versus-evil battleground has also given way to an edgy exploration of the greys. “Most of our content consists of people blurring the line of good and evil with remarkable dexterity. Look at the Joker,Wolverine,the new James Bond,even the new Spiderman,” says Srinivas. The godly has made way for the good,bad and the ugly. The anti-hero is the new super hero,who admits to fear,jealousy,triumph and obsession.

Ravanayan is a case in point. It retells Valmiki’s Ramayana from the point of view of its culturally demonised antagonist,Ravana. “Ravanayan is a mix of traditionally endorsed mythology and imagination. We haven’t changed the storyline of Ramayana dramatically,but used our imagination to explain Ravana’s actions,his choices. Ravana in our book is a metaphor for the layman —the temptations he is faced with,his conflict,his desires and failures,” says Vivek Goel of Holy Cow,a publishing house based in Mumbai,who got together with artist Vijayendra Mohanty to create Ravanayan.

For all these attempts,distribution remains a stumbling block. “Lack of proper distribution channels as well as zero knowledge among many distributors and retailers of the genre is a very serious problem. It becomes nearly impossible to recover your investment. You have no idea where your copies are and how are they doing in the market,” says Varma.

That,and the misconception that comics are for children are something even superheroes are powerless against. Publications like Arkin’s Tikshna and Level 10’s Daksh come with disclaimers that they aren’t meant for children. “If we can overcome that mindset,superhero comics in India are absolutely ready to fly out of the niche,” says Kapadia.

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