Raj Comics : A brief overview

Recently in an interview with comic book illustrator and writer, Anupam Sinha, a curious chain of thought began when he spoke about his notion of ‘100% Comics’. I began to think about where does the notion of PURE COMICS come from ..what is its inheritence.. and how did it start. In India atleast.

And so… when did the ‘comic’ book culture in India begin?

Was it with the late 19th century satirical magazine ‘The Oudh Punch’ (inspired from ‘The Punch’ being printed in England around the same time). Or was it Daastan-E-Aamir Hamza (otherwise known as the Hamza Nama),  the illustrated manuscript commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar? Whats the difference between a comic and poster..or a hoarding board? Is there a stable idea that binds this form together.. or maybe the notion’s binding what a comic book is or is not are changing and evolving and what is a comic today is not a comic tomorrow? Or vice versa.

In this light, how fruitful would it be to hold on to an imagination of the ‘puritan’ or an ‘original’? Is there an accepted stereotype of a comic book? Is there something called ‘100% comics’? Something with the same sense of measure as 70% cotton- 30% denim.

The task becomes a lot easier when the query is restricted to ‘When did comics begin in independent India?’ . From various different sources, a search for the answer leads us to a lone figure, credited (and not without debate) with bringing ‘comics’ to India and making it an integral part of our popular cultural landscape –  Anant Pai . With a head full of ideas and heart thumping with patriotism (not unfamiliar with the youth of the 1960’s. This patriotism was the Catch 22 in thsi case, leading to the most scathing critique of Pai and his work), Pai began to charter a territory with a form that was otherwise unrecognised in India. His efforts yielded in the introduction of Phantom comic strips[1] in The Times of India, one of India’s largest circulating dailies, and subsequently culminated in an effort with IBH (Indian Book House) called Amar Chitra Katha.  Amar Chitra Katha was Pai’s way of (re) telling the youth about India’s culture and mythology. The series met with stupendous success and is now a phenomenon of sorts with as many as four generations (including mine) growing up on it. The trajectory of commercial ventures being such that with the risk paying off, The Times of India group (who were Pai’s former employer’s and had rejected his proposal to launch the Amar Chitra Katha series) now launched a comic book series of their own- Indrajaal Comics. Indrajaal is credited with bringing an entire galaxy ‘foreign’ comic characters to India. Characters like Flash Gordon, Phantom, Mandrake captured the imaginations of the readers then. This could probably also be credited to the bilingual language approach adopted by the publishing (probably a lesson learnt from Amar Chitra Katha’s popularity, which had versions in 38 different languages). With the advent/import of the superheroes in India it was only a matter of time before Indian comic book creator’s went out looking for one of their own to don the mantle. The result was Bahadur, a vigilante in the tradition of Phantom and Mandrake who went around solving crimes when the police asked for his help. His appearance was the perfect symbol of India’s appropriation of western into traditionalism- he was tall, moustachioed and always wore a denim pant with a Saffron Kurta.

The reader turns creator and is directly informed from what s/he is exposed to and in the early 80’s the only material for the potential creator were the aforementioned comics. Add to that a dash of ‘Commando’ comics and a sprinkling of Archie’s. D.C and Marvel comics were really not easily available to a middle class Indian. Tin Tin and Asterix were a novelty and usually reserved for birthday presents or a ‘prize’. The sources of information and inspiration were limited to the Amar Chitra Katha and the Indrajaal comics. For the developing critical mass of comic book aficionados, readers and fans most of the understanding and criticism of the form was based on the availability of these cultural forms.

Sanjay, Manish and Manoj Gupta were three such individuals who had been bitten by the ‘comics bug’ and couldn’t get enough of the reading material. As Sanjay put it  “We were passionately in love with comics and with fantasy comics in particular. So my brother, Manoj, and I would read Amar Chitra Katha and the other comics that were around at that point of time. What happens is that once something fascinates you, you begin hunting for it. We had read all the Amar Chitra Katha’s and then went to Indrajaal comic titles like Bahadur which were monthly then became fortnightly and then weekly. But even that couldn’t quench our thirst for comics.” Their father opened a publishing house called Raja Pocket Books[2] in 1982-83. And soon enough his son’s decided to pursue their passion with comics by crossing the threshold from a to reader to a creator, “So we read and read and read.. and one day we felt that we should make comics. Indrajaal would mainly have characters that weren’t made in India.. like Phantom etc. We thought that we needed to create a special character from and of India.” , says Sanjay. This led to the creation of Raj Comics.

From the exposure that the creators of the current crop of popular comic book creators had, superhero and comics were synonymous with each other. And the absence of a Indian superhero from the Indian comics horizon was one that disturbed the emerging crop of comic book artists. The three wanted to create a Uniquely Indian Superhero along the likes of the Indrajaal line of superheroes. But inspiration came in the form of Spiderman that was aired on the national television (Doordarshan) on Sunday’s. They decided to create a superhero in the Spiderman mould, but with a uniquely Indian background. It is interesting to note that for a nation whose cultural narratives is dominated by the fantastic and unreal, peppered with mythical and supernatural legends, the quest for a superhero had taken the form of a search that began from zero, with no reference whatsoever from existing historical and mythical text.

Someone who existed in that space and time and was instantly relatable.Someone who was ‘modern’.  Was that the superhero?[3]

The late eighties were also a tumultuous time in India. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, had been shot dead by her body guards, there was trouble in Punjab, there were riots in Delhi, and the Kashmir issue was just rearing its ugly head. The stage was set for a saviour, a super hero who would rid the world of crime, corruption and the newly formed word in the Indian psyche- terrorism.

And so Nagraj was born.

Based largely on the Hindu myth of the shape shifting snake, Nagraj derives most of his powers from microscopic snakes that live in his bloodstream (in lieu of white blood cells) and has numerous powers like superhuman strength, poisonous breath and bite, instant healing powers and of course, snakes who come out of his wrists separately or make shapes like ropes, parachutes etc. He is set in the standard super hero mould , with a lean , muscular body, a clean shaven face and a snake-hood like puff on his head.

By this time Amar Chitra Katha and Indrajaal Comics were on their way out and had stopped printing newer issues. Indrajaal was completely closing shop and Amar Chitra Katha had stopped creating new stories and was printing re-runs. In the apparent void created by the absence of these staple comic book publishers, Nagraj was an instant rage. The adventures began with a ‘James Bond meets Spiderman’ Nagraj being used as a killing machine by various terrorist organisations. He is eventually saved by an Indian mystic called Baba Gorakhnath and dedicates his life to the benefit of humanity by stopping crime and criminals. He later spreads his wings and his activities take a global route and he destroys crime rings in Japan, Spain and America. Sanjay Gupta puts it this way, “We wanted that international image.. We didn’t want to show him tied down to one place. He could go anywhere; any crime happening anywhere in the world would be stopped by Nagraj. His crusade was against crime in general and not against crime in a particular area or territory.”

But soon there were other changes in the Nagraj narrative. The locally oriented villains were replaced by a brand of miscreants best called the ‘super villains’. With moves that could match any superhero, the laser gun, magic stick wielding villains had nothing but world control on their agenda. These were usually Kingpins that were the cause for all corruption and crime in the world. As Sanjay Gupta says “When we began Nagraj’s quest against terrorism.. the question that stared at us was that if we wanted to show him fighting terrorism-someone making a bomb, someone hijacking a plane-  there had to be a reason or a figure behind everything.  A person who is the prime villain behind everything. Someone makes a bomb-a liquid bomb- creates communal tension.. but who is behind this? That person is the main villain. He is the super villain who can’t ever die. And this super villain in some senses is Nagraj’s alter ego. To show him as a super hero we need a super villain.” Nagraj was subsequently seen fighting the likes of Miss Killer, a Japanese scientist with ambitions of world control and Thodanga, an African warlord amongst many other ‘super villains’.

With the success met by Nagraj, Raj Comics  launched an entire ensemble of super heroes like Super Commando Dhruv, Doga, Tiranga, Bheriya, Parmanu, Inspector Steel, Anthony, Bhokal ,Fighter Toads, Gamraj, Shakti.

The term ‘superhero’ is quite often confused with ‘super natural’. With Super Commando Dhruv, the creator Anupam Sinha tried to break away from this staid imagination. Dhruv is as normal as normal can be. No snakes coming out of his hands, no cape, no flying in the sky. No inner angst or evident anger. “Children see the world very differently, and there is a reason for it. Every person seems like a giant to them and people can do something that they cannot. Like taking out a jar of toffees from the cupboard. And the adult is thus a superhero, because they can do something that the child cannot do. Kids see every person as a super hero . They are heavily dependant on other people. Tell me, when do you move out of reading comics? When you are an independent human being. Fantasy does not interest you all that much. The psychology of being dependant, of ‘I must have a person along with me to protect me from any impending danger.’ is essentially a child’s psyche. That’s why I wrote this character Super Commando Dhruv.”, points out Anupam Sinha.

Dhruv is known to defeat the villains with his brains rather than an exhibition of power and force. As Anupam Sinha puts it,” I can stop the metro by jamming its door with a pencil. The door wouldn’t shut and the metro wouldn’t move. Why would I want to use strength to do something that could be done with my brains?” Dhruv is also identified with a very strong morally correct image. He has well kept hair and manners, would never hit a woman and has sworn never to kill anyone in his life. “I wanted to show that you could be a super hero without being cool or macho. These day’s soft and well-mannered children are mocked at. I wanted to show that a well behaved and well brought up child should not fear being called a wimp.” It’s a far cry when this image is seen with reference to another super hero in the Raj Comics pantheon- Doga.

Doga (Dog- A, or vice versa) is the embodiment of the simmering rage and raw strength that creates the imagination of the self righteous, vengeful hero. Destroying criminals is a personal agenda that he executes brutally. “Doga does not solve the problem, he uproots it.” says Sanjay Gupta with a grin.

Left by his parents in a dustbin, he is abducted by a dacoit who leaves him to the mercy of his wild dogs. Doga is brought up by the canines and is taught his essential lessons of life by them. A member of the dacoit gang teaches him the human language and Doga finds his way to adolescence. He soon also finds his way out of the dacoit gang and suffers a personal tragedy when the dacoit leader kills the girl he falls in love with. Doga swears revenge and runs away to Mumbai. He joins a gym there and masters the disciplines like boxing, karate, shooting and bodybuilding. He then sets out to kill the dacoit and carries on his crusade against crime after that. He dons a Dog’s mask and cleans up the street’s of Mumbai from unwanted criminal’s. Doga brings to the fore the debate about the legitimacy of the super hero. In the comic books, he is an outlaw with a heavy bounty on his head. Seen from a certain perspective, the figure of a super hero decides to take matters in his own hands and dishes out his own brand of justice, which in Doga’s case is extremely violent and often lethal. “What happened is this, if there is any mishap the government doesn’t really tackle it well. The law really harries and bullies people.. and the entire process is extremely inconclusive. Doga is a like a parallel structure, or like a parallel government. He will give justice to the people. He doesn’t wipe out crime he uproots it. Doga cannot stand the delay in justice..” says Raj Comics editor, Vivek Mohan.

The character of Doga is also an entry point to understand the distribution of super heroes in Raj Comics. The anti-hero in Doga’s case is usually a locally oriented and the crime’s are not ones that threaten humanity or any large unit. As Sanjay Gupta points out, “There are crimes of various types. There are a few high intensity crimes and then there are the low intensity crimes… and so we distribute the crimes according to the powers of the super hero. Some crimes are meant for Doga and others for Nagraj. If there are crimes in the society they go to Doga. Like the Nithari Killings[4] is something that only Doga could be a part of. There is no space for a Nagraj. I mean, Nagraj will come, punch a few goons and then throw Pandher into the prison. Nagraj is not supposed to unearth the entire episode and work on a smaller scale. There are bigger crimes for him. Doga basically deals with crimes that take place within the fold of the society.” A perfect example of this is the way one incident is turned into two separate comic book plots with the two different super heroes at the helm. The much in news U.K car bombing plot suspects, Dr. Mohammed Haneef and his cousins, finds its way into both the Nagraj and Doga comics.

Doga goes after suspected Indian terrorists and tries to tell them the importance of living in a society and how “their parents expected so much from them. That they would become doctor’s now and would finally settle down. So many dreams must’ve been woven around them. It’s so tough for a Muslim Community to come through in India, and after everything their parents come to know that they are terrorists. All their dreams are shattered..”*. He asks them to come within the fold of society and subsequently hunts down the people who had turned them into terrorists. The same terror plot is the backdrop for a Nagraj comic book where he goes to London on being called by the British Government to tackle the terror plots and this spirals into a quasi intergalactic battle with the mastermind or super villain inevitably turning out to be Nagpasha , his evil immortal uncle.

When I had started my conversations with Raj Comics I had certain assumptions about the anxieties that they would have regarding their practice. Primary amongst my assumptions was their concern with the idea of the ‘original’. Most readers and non-readers often dismiss Raj comics as being nothing more than a watered down, poor quality imitation of the American superhero comics. Nagraj is a version of Spiderman, Doga of Judge Dread and Super Commando Dhruv of Batman. I approached this tangent a few times and after constant prodding and pushing , Sanjay Gupta remarked,” We had to devise a character from our own imagination that didn’t have anything to do with them ( Superman and Batman). Because if we had kept in mind how powerful Superman and Batman are.. we would’ve reacted to it and somehow allowed that to play a part in our creative process. Our first goal was to make a total Indian character. We didn’t want to copy. That wasn’t going on in our heads. But we were definitely inspired by them. We are still inspired by them. Even today we don’t copy.. we are inspired by them. After all, everything has an origin.” And so when the conversation turned to the recently launched Virgin comics, I was left wondering about what the ‘inspired’ would say about being an inspiration. I was waiting for either an abject refusal to talk or an aggressive accusation and was left a little disappointed when the editor Vivek Mohan said, “Shekhar Kapur has just come out with his version called Snake Woman. We really don’t think about it all that much. Shekhar Kapur himself wants to join hands with us. He wants to meet us. But we really haven’t thought much about this.. We really don’t have too much time.”

So what plans do Raj comics have for the future, which direction is it heading? How do they see themselves evolving?  “Comics has a different role to play in the future.. you have to link comics with other media’s like cartoon’s, movies and video games.” Says Anupam Sinha.  And that is exactly what Raj Comics is doing. They have a film on Doga in the pipeline and a team of writers from Raj Comics are finalizing the script. “We have been writing Doga’s story for the past four months now. When we finalize it, we will have a meeting with the filmmaker and his team and tell them the plot and starting and storyboarding strip. We also have an animation unit here and some people are also developing a game based on Nagraj. Our mobile games are already out…” The comics are taking shape in accordance to this development. The new Doga comic’s will be made keeping in mind the eventual film and will be more ‘cinematic’ in their feel. A two hundred-page Doga anthology has already been prepared and will come in short episodes. New steps and strategies are being deployed to win back old reader’s and create new one’s.

The comic book plots are reverting back to their older modes of narration with Nagraj once again going around the globe cleaning up the world of terrorism and crime. Just that this time around, with the influx of technology and newer blood and ideas the approach is slightly different. The themes and places are well researched or atleast an attempt is being made to understand the space that they are representing. And so if the story being conceived is ‘Nagraj in Rome’, then you will find the editors table stacked with Mario Puzo’s novels on the Italian mafia and a detailed image search being carried out by it’s research unit. And an elaborate ‘cinematically styled’ fight sequences will be designed with the Colosseum in the background.

Raj is also trying to get newer readers to its already expansive base. They have adopted the strategy of dedicating the first four pages of the comic to the history of the character. The logic is to build a certain point of identification with the reader by informing them about the origin of their superhero. Plans are being made to invade the southern India market by getting high quality translations of their comics in English. Kshitish, a research and marketing specialist working for Raj comics points out “We are planning to enter the international market in a big way and have designed a three step process to facilitate this. The first step is to consolidate our primary product, which is the existing pantheon of Super Heroes. The second is to cater to certain niche segments like the upper middle class english speaking, convent school educated child. We plan to launch a soft detective series in English very soon for this market. There are certain other niche markets, like young girls, that we also want to tap into. The third step is to market our products through films, animations and video games. This too is underway.”

Raj Comics stands today as the biggest and the oldest comic book publishing house in India with their ambitions getting more expansive. I wonder about the route that Nagraj and his snakes are trying to charter, how they will engage with \ diversity and the resulting vernacular languages? Will the plans be realized and if so then where do they go? How will they engage with emergence of the Graphic Novel and the rise of the independent comic book artist in India? When will I see a copy of Nagraj in a Khan Market bookstore? And as I am slowly getting lost in my ruminations and trying desperately to find quick and easy answers, I catch Sanjay Gupta telling me a smile, ‘What defines Nagraj is whether he is attracting fans or not. If he does so then he automatically succeeds in creating the image of a superhero..’.

To know more about Raj Comics : http://www.sarai.net/publications/occasional/raj-comics-for-the-hard-headed

[1] Phantom Comic strips: The editor of Times of India wanted to bring in the much more popular Superman strips in its daily editions.But Pai interviewed potential readers and recommended Lee Falk’s Phantom comics as the series to be published.he decided that the Phantom series set in the steamy, tribal Africa would probably be a good bet as the milieu might seem familiar to Indians.

[2] Began in 1982-83 and publishes novels , magazines, religious books in Hindi.

[3] “By modern day I mean living with man made objects, not with those made by god (i.e. natural objects). He might have a mythical aura surrounding him, but he is still a modern person. He can use a cell phone and cars. He can live in an ultra modern building but will still have the aura of a myth surrounding him. He is living in two worlds.” – Anupam Sinha, writer and illustrator (Nagraj & Super Commando Dhruv).

[4] One of the most macabre tales of child cannibalism. The incident came to light when by chance human bones were discovered in the backyard drain running across the sprawling bungalow of the main accused, Moninder Singh near New Delhi in India. His domestic help, Surendra Koli, confessed to killing and eating 17 persons, including children.

(written in 2007.)