Perhaps it could have been something else. Another medium of expression, another art of story-telling that might have coalesced such a startling range of human emotions—innumerable versions and degrees of envy, greed, hope, inspiration, melancholy, redemption and so much more. Some chose to segregate good and evil in the way life never could; others choosing to focus on the complexities of our own emotions and our own strength of spirit. Superheroes and super villains, anti-heroes and anti villains. Instead, we were left with a comic-book-shaped hole in our cosmos when we first discovered them, and nothing’s really been able to fill the mould since, let alone overshadow it. Pre-internet or post-internet, comic books and graphic novels have become an indomitable part of our narrative as a species, combining the power of both the written word with powerful visual imagery and they have become as telling of our existence as literature, music or any of the other arts, despite a cartoonish exterior that often deems it childish. Still, unlike its storytelling predecessors before it, comic books and graphic novels are a far more recent development, especially in a country like India, which means their history and evolution are still entirely traceable.
So despite being overwhelmed at what might have been a gargantuan task, we consulted with Alok Sharma (read his tribute to RK Laxman here) a writer/ director/ filmmaker/ illustrator who’s become something of an expert on the history, evolution and socio-cultural significance of indian comic books, to give it a shot. And as iconic characters, cartoonists, writers and publishing houses weaved themselves together, the fabric that is the indian comic book industry today came together more easily than we expected. So without further ado, here it is - a conclusive history and timeline of the evolution of comic books in India, divided by a phase-wise segregation of decades as opposed to individual years, documenting almost a century of Indian comic books and graphic novels. Comic enthusiast or not, we can guarantee this article is of interest to just about anyone who might feel nostalgic at the mention of a certain Chacha Chaudhury, a Shikari Shambu, or even a Tinkle digest.
I. The Pre-1950 Era
Pictures speak louder than words.
Classic Hindi and Urdu comic magazines for children such as Baalak and Honhar began to be published, with Baalak’s run lasting decades all the way from 1926 - 1986. Chandamama, another pivotal children’s monthly magazine kicked off in 1947, and continues to exist today in multiple avatars. Created and edited by Kodavatiganti Kutumba Rao, something of a literary colossus in the world of Telugu literature, the series of illustrated stories focussed on telling mythological and magical tales, often steeped in a sense of morality for the times.
More interestingly still, despite comics being a relatively new medium for storytelling in India, the creator chose to narrate these stories in a typically Indian third-person narrative form otherwise known as grandparents’ style of storytelling. Today, Chandamama’s existence has taken a post-internet turn for immortalization post its acquisition by a technology company, Geodesic Information Systems and has had its stories digitised since 2007 in the hopes that it would “cater to readers who demanded information and content beyond the printed publication.”However, all of these were simply magazines with the additions of stories and illustrations rather than out-and-out comic strips. A dedicated approach to this art form was yet to rear its head in the country.
II. The Late 1940s - 1950s
Syndication and translation makes international comic strips available to Indian audiences.
“The evolution of Indian comics can be broadly divided into four phases,” Alok Sharma enlightened us. It would appear that syndicated strips of international comics like The Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and more began to be translated for Indian audiences, largely published in Illustrated Weekly of India, the same magazine that was edited by well-known personalities like Khushwant Sing, A.S. Raman and Pritish Nandy to name a few. It had one of the longest runs as a publication in Indian history only becoming defunct as late as 1993 but towards the latter half of its existence, it even featured cartoons by now legends, R.K. Laxman and Mario Miranda, making it one of the most important chapters in this anthology.
III. The 1960s
Comics enter the realm of the mainstream.
With the advent of Indrajal Comics (A TOI imprint of King Features which included the syndicated comic strips we mentioned earlier) edited by one of India’s ultimate pioneers in the comic book space, Anant Pai otherwise known as Uncle Pai. As the eventual creator of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle, needless to say his entry into the framework of comics in an Indian context is an undeniably massive milestone.
“People were crazy about Phantom in the 1960s, when these anthologies came out as comic books. I had interviewed a book seller who has been around from that time and he told me that all the books would be sold in an hour,” - Alok Sharma to The Hindu. Early issues of Indrajal Comics was also the first to feature indigenous Indian talent with strips penned by Anant Pai and illustrated by several first generation Indian artists. Some of the more symbolic happenings in the decade included: - Deewana Magazine, India’s hitherto emulation of the world-famous and supremely influential MAD magazine, was also founded.
Interestingly, this was one of the first to touch upon the more serious side of comic books, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Most of the content in here touched upon social satire, “using parody of Indian films particularly to poke fun at politics and occasionally, even at religion.” As such, Deewana was a revolutionary entrant into the space at the time.
- The government of India’s publishing of a comic book based on Mahatma Gandhi’s life. Immortalizing a national figure in the form of a comic was a sure fire way to demarcate that this new form of visual imagery and storytelling was here to stay.
1967 : India’s largest selling comic book series, Amar Chitra Katha, is born. “With more than 400 comics in 20+ languages that have sold 100+ million copies to date, Amar Chitra Katha is a cultural phenomenon.” Created by none other than Anat Pai, whether or not you consider yourself a comic book enthusiast, chances are you’re more than a little familiar with this flagship brand of Indian comics which went on to become (in their own words) “synonymous with the visual reinvention of quintessentially Indian stories from the great epics, mythology, history, literature, oral folk tales and many other sources.”
Several of India’s first generation writers and illustrators became known through ACK right from authors like Kamala Chandrakant, Margie Sastry, and C.R. Sharma to illustrators like Sanjeev Waeerkar, Ashok Dongre and Pratap Mullick. Joining the ranks of these acclaimed artists was none other than Ram Waeerkar, particularly renowned for having sketched and coloured the very first Indian issue of Amar Chitra Katha—Krishna. Ironically, Krishna was actually the 11th published issue from ACK, the first 10 having been based on Western Fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio. Till date, Krishna remains their best selling title since. As such, ACK has remained largely dedicated to releasing stories within the Indian context ever since, right from myths to history however, they have also been known to publish comics based on international scientists and characters from world mythology like Jesus Christ and Zarathustra.
One of India’s most popular comic characters, Chacha Chaudhury was conceptualised and brought to life. For a frail, middle class, old man, Pran Kumar Sharma’s creation Chacha Chaudhury managed to capture the imaginations of an entire nation. As many as 10 million to be precise, if we’re taking book sales into account! Originally seen in the Hindi magazine Lotpot, Chaudhury managed to blur the line between adults and children, creating a unique space wherein everybody enjoyed the intelligent anecdotes he provided, not to mention the scuffles he found himself in the midst of. With an unmistakable uniform and his faithful dog rocket, Sharma’s stories went on to be translated in over 10 different languages.
You can read a wonderful interview with Pran Sharma, conducted by Alok Sharma here for more information on how this iconic cartoon character came to life.
IV. The 1970s
Competition begins to heat up.
Inspired by the success of ACK in India, even publishing houses like Indrajal Comics, which were known to syndicate inter nation strips became compelled to come up with indigenous titles of their own. Think Ramcharitmanas, Mahabharata and war comics based in india such as the ALA Commando Series. Similarly, other endemic publishers also began to emerge across the spectrum. Some particularly successful ones included Goyal Comics, Manoj Comics and other Pulp Fiction publishers from Meerut and Delhi, while many became synonymous for their own distinctive Indian cartoon characters, that appeared within their pages exclusively.
A good example would be Diamond Comics (founded in 1978) that became known for Fauladi Singh—a space cased superhero with a typically Indian moustache while Lambu Motu and Rajan Iqbal were other exceedingly popular characters. Chacha Chaudhury also went on to be featured as a guest in Diamond Comics series, and according to a press release from the company, Indian kids in the age group 10–13 years ranked Chacha Chaudhary as their most recognizable comic book character. The publishing house also went on to be one of the longest lasting indigenous comic publishing houses in the country.
Comic Strip Magazines like LoT Pot and Madhu Muskan also entered the market and made a killing with their sales what with seriously successful creations such as Chacha Chaudhury and Motu patlu striking a chord with wide audiences across the subcontinent. Madhu Muskan was owned by The Gowarsons Group, who also held the Indian rights to Archies and Asterix, amongst innumerable other titles.
The golden era of original Indian comics.
“The comic book industry was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s and during this period, popular comics easily sold more than 500,000 copies over the course of its shelf life of several weeks.” - Alok Sharma
The latter part of the ‘80s saw the entrance of several unforgettable and original characters, magazines, and publishing houses.
1980 - Tinkle Magazine was founded. It goes without saying that the 1980s were a special era indeed for the Indian comic book industry but perhaps first and foremost, it was the founding and first appearance of Tinkle Magazine in 1981 that really shook things up. Though published in English, it wasn’t long before its stories were syndicated in a multitude of Indian languages right from Malayalam to Assamese. Over 600 issues have been published thus far and many of its characters such as Shikari Shambu, Ramu & Shamu, and Suppandi have achieved nation wide recognition. Suppandi was also created by legendary artist Ram Waaerkar. More recent characters include Kaalia the crow, a particularly witty and sharp crow who comes to the aid of every small animal in the forest and Pyarelal, a kind villager who lives in Hastipur with his wife Lajo and is always ready to find a solution to any problem that presents itself to him. Interestingly, a huge volume of these characters find the pioneers of India’s comic book space right from Anant Pai to Margie Sastry as their original creators.
Other landmark moments included:
1980 - Chacha Chaudhury’s entry into the world of Diamond Comics.
1986 - The advent of Raj Comics, the longest lasting Indian publishing house for comics along with Diamond Comics. Through the late ‘80s, Raj comics was responsible for launching a lineup of fan favourite superhero characters, a genre that hadn’t been too deeply explored in India, with indelible figures like Super Commando Dhruv (creator: Anupam Sinha) who had a similar story line to swarms of western superheroes of vowing to fight crime due to witnessing an early injustice in his childhood; Parmanu, who had to fight against the law enforcement that betrayed him in a twisted tale of revenge and redemption; Doga (creator: Tarun Kumar Wahi) India’s only vigilante/ antihero character; and Bheriya (creator: Dheeraj Verma) the cursed wolf-human hybrid who starts a new life in the jungles of Assam and is dedicated to protecting his native forest with a passion, to name a few. Most importantly however, was the creation and launch of Nagraj through Raj Comics, a superhero with the powers of a snake that changed the scenario forever, especially in the superhero genre.
Late 1980s - Well known Indian cartoonist, Ajit Nina’s Detective Moochwala and his pet dog pooch also became something of a cult favourite all the way until 1991 when the magazine the strip was being published in (Target, an Indian youth magazine) underwent a renaissance of sorts and reimagined themselves with a more text-heavy avatar. Still, for the few years of its existence, the fictional detectives stories of solving crimes with high-tech equipment and more than a little chutzpah became a favourite of Indian audiences all over.
Equally popular in Target magazine was the brother-cartoonist duo, Neelabh and Jayanto Banerjee’s creation of Gardabh Das, a truly comical singing donkey who was always depicted to be wearing a kurt a and pyjamas, not to mention being constantly at loggerheads with his landlord and others for disturbing the peace with his terrible singing.
VI. The 1990s
Cut-throat competition and the advent of India’s first graphic novels.
The golden era both rose to its zenith, only to fall within the same decade. By now, there were as many as 20 publishing houses for comic books spanning several genres right from superheroes to thrillers, horror comics and the original mythological, legend-based content that made comic books so popular here in the first place. In fact, as Sharma himself put it, “Many consider the period between 1986-1996 the Golden Decade of Indian Comic Books.” Some of the most important moment from the decade included:
1991 - The tragic folding up of Indrajal Comics who were unable to keep up with the burgeoning competition in a field they once dominated almost entirely on its own.
1992 - A Raj Comics issue titled Nagraj air Bughaku sold more than 6 lac copies within 3 months of its launch, becoming the best selling Indian Comic ever. Manoj Comics, another one of India’s leading comic book houses, also published more than 365 comics within a year in the ‘90s, thereby implying that there was a time in the era readers actually had one new comic book to read every single day.
1994 - Indie comic book creator Orijit Sen published River Of Stories, what many refer to as India’s first Graphic Novel. Loosely based on the politically charged Narmada River Valley Projects, he was the first of so many ‘comics with a conscience’, using the seemingly child-like medium to tell a deeper story and we were so inspired by his work, we even featured it in our story about Indian graphic novels people should invest in. He cleverly weaved traditional elements into it using characters like Malgu, the village gayan – or singer – to reinforce the age-old tradition of oral storytelling in rural India. Malgu also acts as an omnipresent moral compass throughout the novel, where the story culminates in a farcical confrontation between Malgu and a diabolical politician – a climax few bother to aspire to, let alone achieve. You can download the graphic novel here.
However, unbeknown to most, the tradition of Graphic Novels had already been prevailing in India by the time River Of Stories had been published. In fact, Bharat Negi’s ‘Kissa Ek Karod Ka’ could also be rightfully labelled as one of India’s graphic novels. As a political satirist and cartoonist himself, Negi created this highly politicised work based on the Harshad Mehta scam of 1992.
1997 - The Indian market was finally seen as a viable or lucrative enough option to warrant international interest. With comic sales higher than they had ever been thanks to the golden era of Indian comics, Gotham Comics, a US-based company was established in 1997 to establish a leadership position in the Indian comic magazine and children’s book market. They brought with them the publishing rights of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Mad Magazine for the Indian subcontinent and there has been no looking back since.
VII. The 2000s
A brand new era, fuelled by new technology.
Unfortunately, thanks to mammoth foreign companies and the advent of video games, home video, internet and other major technological leaps affecting our interests and lifestyles, this also meant that there was a major decline in the sales of comic books by the late ‘90s and most Indian comic book companies were forced out of the game. The last ones standing? For the large part, only Raj Comics and Diamond Comics, who continue to exist today, attempting to remain dynamic in their pursuits, with the times. Still, as the landscape changed, new opportunities arose. Some of them included: 2002 - San Jose, California-based Slave Labour Graphics published a minor cult comic based on contemporary Indian culture titled ‘Bombaby The Screen Goddess.’ No, the irony of the publishing house’s name is not lost on anyone, but created by Antony Mazzotta, based upon an avatar of the hindu goddess Mumbadevi, it ended up being featured in Time Magazine and garnering a lot of international attention towards the state of the Indian comic book industry.
2004-2005 - Grant Morrison (an international force to be reckoned with in the comic book world) released Vimanarama comic while Marvel launched its Spider Man: India Project, which went on to become the first major release by a comic book company in India and eventually published by Gotham Comics in india. However, the real impression they both made was by introducing Indian artists to the mainstream.
2006 - Indian comics received the ultimate injection of vitality int he form of a collaboration between Virgin Comics (now Liquid Comics) and Gotham Comics of India. They put their forces together to create endless, epic series based on Indian mythology and ancient history; some of their most popular titles including Sadhu, Devi, Snake Woman and Ramayana 3392 AD.
Says Alok on the advent of Virgin Comics into the Indian market, “they inspired numerous other publishers to try their hands at comic book publishing but none of them could sustain the competition thanks to the lacklustre derivative.” Unfortunately, graphic novel creators were still struggling a fair amount, especially the independent ones who couldn’t necessarily turn to the comic book publishing houses available for their work. Artists/Writers like Sarnath Banerjee and Naseer Ahmed all tried their hands at sequential art but the market was never favourable to them. Interestingly, one of the more (moderately) successful attempts came from a woman—Amruta Patil’s dark and intense graphic novel Kari, which centred around an alienated young woman, working in an ad agency in Mumbai, forever mourning the separation from her soulmate Ruth post a suicide attempt together.
2008 - And then came Campfire graphic Novels. Quickly becoming one of the biggest players in the market they not only launched Graphic Novels on some of the best-known world classics such as Tom Sawyer, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Wright Brothers to name a few, but they also became a hub for young, independent artists, struggling to find a space for themselves within the content of Indian comics and graphic novels.
IX. The 2010s
Back on the upswing.
And so that brings us to the most current era, one we’re still living and one in which comic books and graphic novels can no longer be deigned as a medium of dwindling potential. As society and attitudes progress, so have story lines and experimentation with visual imagery and over the last 4 years we’ve seen the kind of genre and convention-defying work that we might never have expected from the subcontinent even a decade ago. Add to that a major upsurge in comic book sales again and we can only hope that perhaps the golden days are returning. Chronicled below are some of the more iconic moments that deserve mention:
2010 - Sumit Kumar’s ‘An Itch You Can’t Scratch’ came out at the first ever Indian comic con and quickly became a fan favourite. Humorous and somewhat autobiographical, the book was recently sold out, a first achievement of its kind in the graphic novel space in India.
2011 - Vivek Goel’s Holy Cow Entertainment entered the comic book market with their first offering—a ten-part comic book series based on the Hindu epic, Ramayana, titled Ravanayan—and today, the publication has a rooster of flagship characters. Mumbai-based Goel was the artist behind the series which he developed in tandem with Delhi-based writer, Vijayendra Mohanty.
2012 - Also featured in our ‘comics with a conscience’ graphic novel series on Homegrown, Sudershan (Chimpanzee) was released this year. Created by Rajesh Devraj and Meren Imchen, the dense, dark and detailed imagery draws readers into an incredibly immersive graphic anthropomorphic tale, which offers both a fresh take on animal centric Bollywood films of the 1950s as well as delves into the complexities of the fickleness of fame and the delusions of grandeur, even while capturing the increasingly seedy underbelly of a city. One of the most interesting aspects about it was the the bilingual approach of the text (Hinglish) and it is now even available on the iPad.
2013 - And finally, as something truly worthy of icing-on-the-cake status, the publishing of Abhishek Singh’s ‘Krishna - A Journey Within’ by internationally renowned Image Comics (making him the 1st Indian artist to ever be published by Image) seems appropriate as our final landmark as we reach the end of our traced-out timeline. Possibly one of the most visually captivating books to come out of the country, it’s particularly refreshing to see such a stylistic approach to the deity-stories we’ve become so used to spotting. Standing out is easy enough when the topic you’re approaching is all new, but it’s a whole different ball game when you manage to do so even when hundreds before you have attempted it in their own ways.
Initial Research: Sanyukta Shetty
Special Thanks To: Alok Sharma (for the additional input and the tireless fact-checking.)
[Alok Sharma is a writer, director and filmmaker, who started off as a comic book illustrator with Gotham Comics, before eventually moving into Radio for a brief period. The mad maximalist has worked with The Walt Disney Co. (India), Turner (Cartoon Network, Pogo), BBC (India), Red Chilies, Yash Raj Films, STAR India and The Epic Channel as a creative consultant.]
‘Chitrakatha - Indian Comics Beyond Balloons and Panels’, his documentary film that breaks the mould and explores the largely untouched subject of Indian Comics as a serious art form. It covers the history, evolution and socio-cultural significance, as well as the future of Indian comics, through a series of conversational interviews with Indian Comic Book Creators. Alok is also currently creating and developing IPs for some of the biggest Indian and International Studios, as well as writing mainstream feature films.
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