Bengaluru-based animator and designer Jyotsna Ramesh likes to joke that she has verbal diarrhoea. “I have always been a storyteller, and found it hard to contain myself in just one frame,” says the freelance creator, who teaches art and design part-time at a Bengaluru high school. She’s been making comics since she was a child, but it wasn’t until 2018, when she participated in a comic-making elective as a student at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, that she developed a whole new appreciation for the potential of the form. “I love the idea of sequential narratives, of creating something that you can build and add layers to,” she explains.
Over the course of the elective, she developed Noodle Schmoodle, a short comic about family, adolescence and coming-of-age in an Indian metropolis, styled as a love letter to spicy egg-chicken noodles. It was well-received by her peers at NID. So a few months later, when she chanced upon an Instagram post about the artist-run Indie Comix Fest where self-published creators convene to share their work with new audiences, she thought to herself, “Why not?”
She was one of 45 creators who had a stall at the open-air Rangoli Metro Art Centre. Heeding her parents’ advice, she had gone with just 80 printed copies that were priced at ₹40 (because, as her parents said, “nobody would buy comics”). She sold out within a couple of hours.
Speaking up for the indie
Ramesh is among a growing number of Indian creative professionals who use comics as an artistic outlet, and are pleasantly surprised to find an enthusiastic, paying fan base. Even as they make money through careers in animation or advertising, they find that comics are an economically accessible means of self-expression. For one, it is far less cost- or time-consuming than adjacent visual narrative mediums such as filmmaking or animation; for another, it allows for a more nuanced interplay of text and imagery.
“Comics drawing is very idiosyncratic,” says graphic novelist and filmmaker Bharath Murthy, who co-founded Indie Comix Fest with producer-screenwriter Aniceto Pereira and graphic designer Kailash Iyer. “It is an aesthetic of imperfections. If you’re too good at drawing, you can’t draw good comics.” Murthy has been an advocate for independent comic-making ever since 2010, when he was commissioned by the national broadcasting corporation of Japan, NHK, to create a documentary about the local sub-culture of amateur manga creators from the perspective of a foreigner. The film, titled The Fragile Heart of Moé, primarily documents Comiket, the world’s largest comics convention that takes place in Tokyo.
“That was a life-changing moment for me,” he says. “I saw, first-hand, how creators were expressing themselves freely through the medium, and that was something I wanted to try to bring to India.” He was keen to create an alternative to the commerce-driven Comic-Con, which is monopolised by mainstream publishers and audiences looking to buy branded merchandise. What India sorely needed, he believed, was a place like Comiket, where independent comics creators were free to express themselves and audiences convened for the pure love of comics. Forty-three creators participated in that first edition, which saw a humble audienceship of 300. “It wasn’t much,” admits Pereira, “but everyone who came was interested in comics.”
Two more editions were held in Mumbai the following year, while other members of the network carried it to Goa, Kochi, Kolkata, New Delhi, Pune and Bengaluru. The festival went on a brief hiatus due to the pandemic, but was back in earnest in 2022 with editions in New Delhi, Kochi and Bengaluru. By the time it returned to Mumbai last month, it had expanded to include 130 creators. Murthy estimates that there are now close to 1,000 independent creators across the country.
Beyond young readers
The Indian comics market has been fairly skewed towards content for young audiences. The continued success of Amar Chitra Katha and Champak, which have been book store staples since the 70s, is indicative of an avid comics readership, albeit in a niche market: educational and mythological stories for children. Homegrown superheroes like Nagraj, created by Raj Comics, have struggled to excite audiences as much as their Marvel and DC counterparts because of a combination of uninspired storylines and increasingly derivative artwork. Still, a privileged few who had access to western literature were watching as artists abroad employed the medium to tell nuanced, compelling and very political stories.
In the early 80s, Orijit Sen was a student at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, defiantly creating comics even as his teachers attempted to discourage him, when Art Spiegelman received critical acclaim for Maus (the graphic novel about the Holocaust later won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992). “I felt really vindicated,” Sen recalls. But it would take a long time for the country to catch up.
When Sen’s River of Stories — considered to be the first graphic novel of India — was published in 1994, it was funded by a small grant, and printed only about 800 copies in its first run. (In 2022, it was reissued by Blaft Publications, Chennai.) Since then, creators have continued to push against the mistaken belief that “comics are for children”, with varying levels of success.
In 2004, artist and graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor was published by Penguin, suggesting mainstream publishing had embraced the medium, but till today, the book remains one of few publishing success stories. In 2006, Virgin Comics launched in India with the intention of making the Indian superhero happen, but funding was pulled within two years during the market crash and the company had to rebrand and relocate to Los Angeles. By then, the internet allowed Indian readers to access content from far reaches of the world, and budding creators had all the inspiration they needed to experiment with the form.
“The kind of experimental stuff that’s happening is leading the way to subjects and themes that have not been explored through other mediums. We still have a long way to go, but I am really excited by how far comics has come in India, and very hopeful in terms of what we can expect.”Orijit SenGraphic artist and founder of ‘Comixense’
Looking to the West
Sunando C. remembers how, as a teenager in Kolkata, he would draw pencil sketches of his favourite superheroes. “You never heard of anyone doing this full-time for a living,” he admits, although he would make it a point to send his fan art to the DC office and occasionally heard back. He went to art school and eventually got a job as a scenographer, designing exhibitions, but continued to draw in his own time and share his work on social media. In 2018, he was contacted by a writer who worked with Image Comics, to draw an eight-page extra for The New World series. One international project led to another, and today he is working on End After End for Vault Comics and the Stranger Things comics for Dark Horse Comics.
Sunando is part of a small but slowly growing number of comics artists who have succeeded in making a full-time career out of the medium; and they have managed to do so mainly because of patronage from the West. Publishers like Marvel and DC have been going through their own reckoning for representation, which means we’re seeing more South Asian characters drawn by South Asian creators. Anand Radhakrishnan, who made headlines in 2021 when he became the first Indian to win the prestigious Eisner Award (the Oscars of comics), worked on DC’s Vigil series with fellow creators Ram V., Lalit Kumar Sharma, Mukesh Singh and Sumit Kumar.
Fresh off another assignment for DC Comics (fans of the Dark Knight will recognise him in the credits for Batman: Urban Legends #12, which came out in February this year), he now has the financial security to dedicate time to his own passion project, Chaavi. A story about a key-maker who gets caught up in an anti-establishment movement, it deals with themes of repression and atheism, and has been brewing on the back burner since Radhakrishnan’s college days. “The idea is to get the eyeballs and the money from making superhero comics, and putting it into independent work,” he says. “My plan for the next five years or so is to be able to sustainably put those projects out.”
Where’s the money?
A time for creators
The lack of a full-fledged comics industry in India could be seen as an advantage as the space grows: there are no algorithms deciding what creators should create, in the vein of what data-mining via OTT has done to film and TV. Nor are creators forced to churn out content at an artistically-damaging pace, just for the paycheck.
What we’re seeing is a growing number of creators, empowered by social media and independent initiatives like Indie Comix Fest, telling personal, political and nuanced stories purely out of passion. It is one of the few mediums that has remained unadulterated by corporate interests, and one could argue, is closest to the idea of art for art’s sake. “When young creators bring out their own comics, priced at ₹100 or ₹150, and they get sold out, it’s the start of something that’s going to expand. It’s like small pockets of change that will come together, and there will be a larger readership for comics in India in the coming years,” says Tina Thomas, co-founder of Kochi-based animation and graphic narratives practice Studio Kokaachi. Some might recognise them as the studio behind the Matchbox Comix series, which packaged short comics by independent artists. “But bigger publishers will need more time to see how the readership is changing before they invest a lot of money into paying the artists.”
Sen is optimistic about the future, too. “I would never have expected to see the situation as it is now,” he says. His quarterly comics magazine, Comixense, launched in 2021, has a dedicated subscriber-base of 5,000; Sen himself was invited to speak at the recent Comic Conclave at IIT Gandhinagar. “The very fact of IIT hosting a conclave on comics is a pretty surreal thing, but that’s the level of academic acceptability that comics have achieved,” he says. “The kind of experimental stuff that’s happening is leading the way to subjects and themes that have not been explored through other mediums [singling out the recently-published graphic anthology, Famine Tales, which documents the lesser known Bengal famine of the 18th century]. We still have a long way to go, but I am really excited by how far comics has come in India, and very hopeful in terms of what we can expect.”
“In our little niche community, there’s a good interest in comics and it’s been growing steadily. I just went to the Mumbai Indie Comix Fest, and there were more people doing more interesting things than I’ve ever seen before. So, definitely the creator community is growing, and the people who are interested in comics.”Rakesh KhannaEditor-in-chief, Blaft Publications
Passion projects and self-publishing
Ramesh, now an Indie Comix Fest veteran, has had her share of success thanks to the festival. At the 2022 edition in New Delhi, Sen bought her work and invited her to contribute to his quarterly comics magazine, Comixense. This year, Bengaluru-based book store Champaca offered to stock her work, and it sold out quickly. What she is most proud of, however, is how her comic about body image and sexuality, I Bought a Negligee, which includes unapologetic illustrations of the naked body, has sparked important conversations between friends, partners, and even mothers-and-daughters.
She also loves the freedom that self-publishing has offered her. “When you work with an established publisher, they will try to anticipate what their market base wants, and don’t have much of an appetite for risk,” she says. “It can be very restrictive, creatively. When you publish independently, it’s always a gamble, but you will try to represent yourself in the realest sense. That is how groundbreaking work happens.”
The freelance writer and playwright is based in Mumbai.