On an ordinary day Dilli Haat is a good place to buy handloom saris, pashmina shawls, perhaps stop by the food section for momos and fruit beer or (if it’s that time of the year) kahwa . Had you been there last weekend you might still have done all of these, but with some unexpected fellow-shoppers; the venue was playing host to the Delhi leg of India’s Comic Con, a celebration of Indian and international comics. A large area at the back was given over to a stage and a number of stalls displaying or selling comics and comic-related merchandise.
One thing that was immediately clear was the sheer diversity of the ways in which the comic form is being used in India’s nascent industry. Vimanika Comics and Holy Cow Entertainment’s Ravanayana series both draw on Hindu mythology, as do many of Campfire’s titles. Campfire also reinterprets a number of literary classics in graphic form. Some comics spoof or play with classic superhero tropes. One of these is Munkeeman, created by Abhishek Sharma and written by Anant Singh, which takes up a Delhi urban legend and runs with it. Singh also collaborated with illustrator Abhijeet Kini on the animal fable Chairman Meow and the Protectors of the Proletariat. Vidhyun Sabhaney’s Mice Will Be Mice is about a failed science experiment on the rampage, with multiple references to Frankenstein and King Kong. Prominently displayed at the Popculture Publishing stall were the Timpa books, created by Jhangir Kerawala and featuring a young, Tintin-like hero who solves crimes in Calcutta. A stall put up by Chennai-based publishers, Blaft, displayed prominently Kumari Loves a Monster (with a special pre-Valentine’s day discount) in which short poems in English and Tamil describe the love between a series of beautiful women and monsters.
But a large section of the hall was devoted to World Comics, whose aim is to use the medium to disseminate information, and whose display table featured a number of anthologies and posters. Sufi Comics used the comic form to educate people about Islam. Ari Jayaprakash and Anisha Sridhar’s Kuru Chronicles , a vast project that includes some stunning artwork, drew attention. On a panel session on the art of writing comics, Campfire’s Jason Quinn declared that India would shortly be outstripping the West in the quality of the comics it produced. It was rather too obviously a crowd-pleasing statement but the amount of talent on display at events like these is heartening. Sharad Devarajan, the Co-Founder and CEO of Graphic India and Liquid Comics, is convinced that India “has the potential to become one of the biggest creative exporters in the years ahead.”
Despite all this there were some conspicuous absences. Among the missing were Level 10, creators of the excellent Odayan series, and Libera Artisti whose comic Autopilot was one of my favourite finds last year. Also missing were the prodigiously talented team from Manta Ray.
A great deal of the art shown here wasn’t in the form of comics at all. A booth from B.I.T displayed sample prints of its students’ artwork, including a miniature pair of superheroes and a wonderful image of Krishna plaiting Radha’s hair. Elsewhere, a number of interesting t-shirts were on sale. On offer at the Chimp stall were a confused Batman at the crease and a veshti -clad “Supermaniam” (of which my father is now the proud owner). At the Popculture publishing stall, one saw a growing stable of superheroes, desi versions of their Western counterparts. SuperKudi, WonderBai, WolverAnna and SuperMummy don’t seem to have starred in any stories yet but can be found on a range of mugs, cushions and similar merchandise. One counter even offered superhero cupcakes. In many cases the products seemed aimed less at comics’ fans in particular than at people who simply followed popular culture; at least two stalls were selling t-shirts based on popular Internet memes.
In earlier editions of the Comic Con, there appeared to be at least as much of an effort to market the event to children as to adults. Last year, in particular, the Chhota Bheem theme song seemed to provide an inescapable and often irritating soundtrack to the festival. There were still a number of children present this year — including a girl in a purple tutu and Spiderman t-shirt, and two small superheroes sharing a dosa outside the Tamil Nadu restaurant — yet things seemed far more geared to the adults who accompanied them. The t-shirts that were on offer in many places came in adult sizes only, and even the hugely popular Amar Chitra Katha stall seemed less crowded than in previous years. Last year’s event also included big promotional displays for forthcoming movies from Disney and Marvel. These were missing this time.
What all this seems to indicate is that the convention’s organisers and participants are beginning to feel more confident that there is an audience of adult comic book fans who are willing to come out and participate in events like these. Graphic India’s Ashwin Pande, who has attended the comic con for the last three years, notes that it has become “nerdier and more fan-friendly with each successive Con.”
That this is true is clear from the sheer number of people crowding into the Random House and Hachette stalls (these two publishers distribute DC and Marvel comics respectively in India). It’s clear from the growing number of international publishers at the event; this year saw display booths from Top Cow, Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics, First Second, and Vertical.
And it’s certainly clear from the cosplayers. The first Comic Con, held in Delhi a few years ago, could boast only a very few people in costume, and those who were there were dressed as relatively mainstream characters. This year saw a conspicuous absence of Batman and Superman costumes; though there was, as always, a full complement of Batman villains. Instead, we had Lady Loki and Spider Jerusalem, Doctor Who and a number of manga and anime characters (the city has also played host to an Anime convention for quite a few years now). But a convention implies much more of a sense of community than is easily felt at the event in its current form. At the moment there’s little space for fans and artists, or for fans and other fans to interact with one another.
In part, this may be because of the venue. Dilli Haat is, after all, designed as a series of small stalls, whether they are selling papier-mâché boxes or superhero mugs. In the last couple of years the convention has moved to other cities; Mumbai has had two comic cons, and Bangalore’s Koramangala Stadium hosted a “Comic Con Express” in September 2012. It’s possible that in different venues the imbalance between comics and merchandise sorts itself out. As Swati Moitra, a fan, pointed out, this year in Delhi “the merchandise seemed to outnumber the artists presenting their work”. Fans might adjourn to the food court for friendly conversation, but the crowds there, at least on the weekend, were more conducive to blood feuds than to the creating of communities. The single stage might provide a focus for initiating discussion, but it was rarely used for this purpose.
A panel held on Friday, during which writers Samit Basu, Anant Singh and Jason Quinn discussed the art of writing comics, was one of the few exceptions. The majority of the stage events seemed purely informative allowing writers, editors and artists to introduce their work on the assumption that they were speaking to an audience unfamiliar with their work. In most cases this was true, particularly the upcoming Indian artists. At the moment the goal of the convention seems to be to showcase the work that is being done; it’s only when we get past this stage that we’ll be able to have exciting panel discussions about the role of women in Indian comics, or even see fans costumed as Munkeeman or SuperKudi.
Yet it was also clear that many of those gathered at Dilli Haat wanted to find and develop a community. People looking over the shoulders of strangers to comment approvingly on the books they were buying; people screaming and running up to cosplayers who were just as excited to have their costumes recognised. As crowded as many of the stalls were, artists and writers still seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about their work with people who knew where they were coming from. Fans will find each other and forge a community for themselves even in the most harrowing of situations, but the comic con could provide a little more help than it currently does.
The Comic Con is a hybrid beast at the moment, suspended halfway between a fan convention and a family outing. And while there’s something rather nice about being able to wander off in the middle of a talk about superheroes and have a look at saris, I suspect at some point the organisers are going to have to pick a side and move on, possibly to a more conventional (no pun intended) venue. But the work that the comic con has already done for the fans and the industry is wonderful, and I have a pile of new things to read.