By Arjun Raj Gaind
In his path-breaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell explains, “It has always been the prime function of mythology to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.”
In many ways, that was why the first super-heroes came into existence. As America struggled to cope with the economic hardships of the Great Depression, it was only natural that its citizens hungered for hope. It was to slake this very need that Jerry Siegel created Superman, perhaps the most iconic superhero of all. He was intended to be a symbol, a visitor from another planet who used his powers not for profit but to uphold moral values like truth, liberty and the pursuit of justice. And that was what has made him such an enduringly popular figure, not merely because he has abilities that far eclipse ordinary mortals, but because he represents something more than the mundane, an infinite possibility unfettered by the dusty restraints of reality.
Comic books are more than pictures with words. They are the prism through which a society's myths are refracted, reflecting the transformation in the Zeitgeist of a people. Sadly, in India though, the superhero has always struggled to find his face, to cement his place. It is ironic but in a country of a billion people, the only semblance of popular culture that prospers is Hindi Cinema. There is lamentably little science fiction here, almost no epic fantasy. Perhaps the reason for that is because of the weight of mythology which permeates every facet of our lives. In a country where gods are omnipotent, omnipresent, what need is there for beings that fly, that fight crime, that leap tall buildings in a single bound?
The earliest comic heroes in India were mainly imports like the Phantom, Mandrake, Garth, Tarzan and Flash Gordon, syndicated mainly by Indrajal comics. An exception was Bahadur, created by Aabid Surti in 1976, a hero who was not a super-human but rather a quintessential everyman, a son of the soil who fought the dreaded dacoits of Chambal while wearing a saffron kurta, accompanied by his buxom karate-chopping love interest Bela.
By the advent of the 80s, the Indian super-hero world was booming. There were superman clones galore, from Diamond Comics' Fauladi Singh to the much loved Shaktiman on Doordarshan. For a brief while, even Amitabh Bachchan was the face behind a superhero, Supremo, who wore a silly mask and fought crime accompanied by his pet dolphin and falcon in the eponymously named series published by Star Comics, a subsidiary of India Book House.
The next great leap forward came when Raj Comics was launched in 1986. It targeted mainly Hindi readers and some of its best known characters were Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruva and Doga. Nagraj's blood was filled with microscopic snakes instead of leucocytes gave him superhuman strength, venomous breath and instant healing powers, not to mention the capacity to fling snakes from his wrists, including laser snakes and explosive serpents! Doga on the other hand was darker, an Indian Batman, who shot down criminals while wearing a fearsome dog mask. For a brief while, Raj Comics enjoyed phenomenal popularity, selling thousand of copies each month, but sadly, this waned with the arrival of satellite TV, much to the dismay of their loyal fans.
This lull lasted until 1998, when Gotham Comics was founded, which licensed many popular Marvel and DC Comics titles for local distribution. In 2004, Sharad Devarajan, one of the brains behind Gotham, teamed up with Marvel Comics to create an Indian version of Spider-Man, where a young boy named Pavitr Prabhakar is given the powers of a spider by a yogi. In 2006, Gotham Comics metamorphosed into Virgin Comics, and the Indian comic renaissance began in earnest. Over the next few years, under the guidance of Gautam Chopra and Devarajan, Virgin would publish such seminal titles as Devi, The Sadhu, Project: Kalki and Blade of the Warrior: Kshatriya, not to mention their tour de force, Ramayan 3392 AD, with the express purpose of bringing Indian mythology to a global audience.
Sadly, with the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the resulting recession in the United States, the Virgin experiment fizzled prematurely, but not before it had catalyzed a creative spurt in India, spawning a new generation of writers and artists committed to creating original content. One of the most interesting of these was Vivek Goel, whose Holy Cow Comics entered the market with Ravanayan and Aghori, and who is presently poised on the brink of introducing Indian readers to an entire panoply of original characters later this year.
Late in 2012, Chopra and Devarajan returned with Graphic India, hoping to resurrect their vision of innovating a new Indian mythology. This time around, they decided to focus on creating a more secular pantheon, not merely mythological, but a new generation of character driven stories inspired by Indian themes, intended to reflect the issues endemic to Contemporary India.
The first of these heroes was Chakra the Invincible, created by the legendary Stan Lee. Raju Rai, a young boy from Mumbai, dons a suit that weaponises all seven chakras in his body and gives him fantastic powers. He decides to use these powers to be a superhero and vows to defend the city from a cavalcade of super-villains.
Additionally, I had the pleasure of creating two unique superheroes for Graphic India. The first was The Mighty Yeti, where a teenager named Satya Nanda discovers that he is descended from the bloodline of Abominable Snowmen, and can thus turn into a giant furry creature with immense strength and a mystical third eye in the midst of his forehead that allows him to see magic. The other was Reincarnation Man, which narrates the saga of Raman Lamba, who dies while trying to save a young girl from kidnappers and is resurrected after being given a mysterious device called a Kaal-Chakra by a celestial being which lets him turn into any of his past incarnations and utilise their powers and abilities as if they were his own.
Amongst the other interesting titles soon to be released by Graphic India are Avatarex, created by Grant Morrison, and Astra Force, where Amitabh Bachchan makes his grand return to the world of comics as a mythical superhero who is roused from hibernation by a pair of 8-year-old twins just in time to rescue the Earth from an intergalactic threat.
Given what a bewildering, often quixotic place Modern India is, it is quite easy to dismiss comic books as little more than American-inspired fluff. Faced with a constant clash of ideologies, of tradition pitted against innovation, not to mention rampant poverty, overpopulation, communalism, endemic corruption and unchecked consumerism, critics are only too eager to dismiss superheroes as irrelevant. Ironically, it is these very things that make them so exigent.
With Graphic India's exciting new pantheon and the relaunch of Raj Comics' iconic characters, soon to be rebooted and revamped by some of India's most accomplished talents; with a Bahadur movie poised to reach a screen near you and the advent of characters like Super Singh and Pakistan's Burka Avenger, it seems that Indian children will finally have a new breed of inspiring heroes to emulate. The Golden Age of the Indian comic book has begun to dawn at last, an epoch of homegrown Supermen and Wonder Women, symbols created to evoke and encourage hope, to remind the average Indian that corruption and apathy and violence and crime are not insurmountable, and that Tagore's heaven of freedom is still palpable, being awakened slowly but steadily, one pencil stroke at a time.
Arjun Raj Gaind is the writer of graphic novels like Empire of Blood and Reincarnation Man