Comic commerce: What fuels the mini economy of vintage Indian comic books
Comic book buffs have created a mini-economy where collectors are willing to pony up big sums for rare editions.
Bids may go as high as several thousand rupees. The initial issues of Indrajal and Amar Chitra Katha are the most sought after. To think, these comics cost a few rupees when they were being published in the ’70s and the ’80s. (Indrajal comics series, which ran from 1964 to 1990, was launched by The Times Group, which publishes The ET Magazine).
For readers in the Hindi-speaking belt, issues of Raj Comics, Manoj Comics and Diamond Comics are a huge draw. Also in demand are comics in Bangla, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada.
By early ’90s, most of these comics were discontinued as the publishers could no longer justify their cost of production. Among those still being published (like Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, Diamond, Raj and Balarama), the older issues aren’t readily available offline due to the lack of a comic book preservation culture in India. Hence, they have become rare collectables for fans.
Shahid Ansari, a Delhi-based bookseller, once sold an old Indrajal issue for Rs 1 lakh. “A collector from the US bought the same issue for Rs 4 lakh later.” Each of the first 10 issues of Amar Chitra Katha is worth Rs 30,000-35,000, Ansari adds.
Nostalgia fuels this business. These comics establish a direct link between the collectors and their childhood. Most of them grew up in India in the ’70s and the ’80s. Indian comics were cheaper and readily available then, compared to their international counterparts like Marvel and DC Comics. Stories told in sequential panels featuring pithy writing accompanied by snazzy illustrations caught children’s imagination. “Back then, there was little else for kids to do for indoor entertainment than read stories of superheroes and mythological creatures,” says Kunal M Shah, 42, a Mumbai-based casting director who was nicknamed comic king by his school mates because of his collection.
Many lost their childhood comic collection either while relocating for work or higher studies, or to their parents who gave their treasure away to scrap dealers. Comic lovers have rummaged through scrap dealers’ junkyards for two decades since then. On the internet, their passion has found second wind.
Ansari, who has been selling comics since the late ’90s, started a Facebook group for such people in 2011. “The business of vintage Indian comics has picked up in the last five years as social networks connected fans on a national and global level. This facilitated buying, selling and exchanging of rare, old editions.” His Facebook group — Old & New Comics & Magazine Collector & Seller — has over 9,000 members.
The WhatsApp group, Comic World, is one such platform that helps pannapictagraphists — collectors of artworks like comics — bond. J Rudresh, a Delhi-based financial planner who is a member of the group, recently had to take a break from the group as it was distracting him from work. “Within minutes, I received frantic calls from some members enquiring why I had quit the group. You cannot live without these groups,” says the 38-yearold who has a collection of over 5,000 old Indian comics. Rudresh has three Facebook accounts — one for family, one for work and one for comics. Shah in Mumbai keeps one phone for work and family and another for 12 comic-related WhatsApp groups. “I check the second phone every evening after 9.”
It is this bonding with fellow aficionados that keeps Swaroop Chand, 42, from quitting Facebook. But the Bengaluru-based entrepreneur says over the last couple of years, most of these Facebook groups have split into smaller WhatsApp communities of 100-odd members. Members on most such groups are discouraged from going off-topic, discussing religion and politics, posting inappropriate content and, most of all, from sharing forwarded good morning messages. But the groups are abuzz throughout the day.
Fandom for Indian comics is spread across the globe. One-tenth of Ansari’s Facebook group’s members are foreign nationals. Through such groups, Bengaluru’s Chand has networked with comic collectors in 25 countries. California-based N Scott Robinson seeks his help to find comics in Indic languages. Robinson, a percussionist and the chair of the music department at San Diego Mesa College, claims to have 7,000 issues of comics from around the world, including 470 from India. Jermayn Parker, an Australia based collector of all things Phantom, seeks Chand’s help in gathering issues of Indrajal across languages. “When I first started collecting them (in the’90s), they were worth a few dollars each. Now, a later issue is worth $20 odd and the earlier issues in near-mint condition can be chased for a few $1,000 each,” he says.
The multiplicity of languages that Indian comics offer draws foreigners. “No other country has that,” says Robinson. He finds influences of American pop culture in the characterisation of some Indian comic heroes. “For instance, Mahabali Shaka, published by Diamond Comics in Bengali, English, and Hindi, seems to have borrowed influences from Conan the Barbarian. The character Kala Pret featured in Mahabali Shera issues from Manoj Comics in Hindi seems like it is based on Batman.”
However, it is India’s first original comic superhero — Bahadur — that is a favourite among all collectors.
Indrajal launched the Bahadur series in 1976. Author and screenwriter Aabid Surti created the character while late Govind Brahmania illustrated Surti’s vision on paper. Clad in a saffron kurta and blue jeans, Bahadur was a dacoit from Chambal who transformed into an officer of the (fictional) Citizen Security Force. “Bahadur was a character ahead of his time. He was shown to be in a live-in relationship with his girlfriend in those days,” says Jatin Varma, founder of the Comic Con festival in India.
Bahadur has actors like Shah Rukh Khan among its fans. “Shah Rukh has a framed cover of Bahadur comics in his office,” says Surti, sharing a picture to prove his claim. In an interview with NDTV in 2011, the actor recalls being fascinated by Bahadur’s innate ability to innovate. “He made a gun out of a bicycle and stuff like that,” says Khan.
Surti, who is “only 84”, is thrilled to recount another story. “Five years ago, a PhD student from San Francisco came to interview me for her comic superheroes thesis. She asked if I had any old copies of Bahadur. They were being sold in the grey market in her home state. A dozen of them could cover her foreign travel expense she said.”
Govind Brahmania’s son Pramod says his father would have been happy to know this. “In those days, comics were popular but they weren’t making any money. Artists could not preserve the artworks,” says the 50-year-old advertising professional.
Vintage comic collection has clearly graduated from being a hobby to an internet sub-culture. “I don’t think we even thought this could be a business,” says Reena Puri, executive editor of Amar Chitra Katha. Even costlier than the comics are the expenses of storing and preserving them. That can run into a few lakhs annually.
“Binding comics crops parts of the story and illustration. Stacking them on top of each other breaks the spine of the comics. And spine roll is irreparable,” says Chand from Bengaluru. He puts his comics in Mylar sleeves (polyester bags tailor-made for comics) that he gets shipped from the US. This material helps preserve comics for years, he says. He also stores them vertically in boxes made of acid-free cardboard to prevent decolouring of pages. American companies like E Gerber specialise in selling comics storage and preservation supplies. It takes an average of $150 to buy these supplies for 1,000 comics.
The cost doesn’t bother these collectors much. Joe Praveen, a 34-year-old business advisory at a research firm in Chennai, says, “Collecting comics is exciting, but mostly, it is a massage for your memory cells. I read these whenever I am stressed.”
If publishers of some sought-after comics start selling reprints, it could be a massive hit, reckons Varma of Comic Con India. They can, perhaps, find a way to circle some of the money back to the creators, too.
“Comics have become like a lottery ticket now,” says Hitler Nadar, 51, a bookseller in Mumbai’s Matunga area. “The value of old editions has gone up. But the readers have gone down.” He recently sold an old Indrajal edition for Rs 15,000. But Nadar misses the romance of selling comics. “Earlier students would come rushing to buy a new comic at the start of summer vacations. All that is gone now.”
Some people still prefer the old-fashioned way. Arun Prasad, a 44-year-old Bengaluru based researcher and comic archivist, sometimes spends a whole day looking for comic books at shops of junk paper dealers. He has a dedicated three-room space in his house to store his 16,000 old Indian comics across languages and titles. He sees these as an extension of the stories his grandma used to narrate to him when he was a child.
Nostalgia is hard to miss. Shah, the Mumbai-based casting director, has a Tinkle issue dated March 5, 1991. At the back of this edition is a letter to the then editor — Anant Pai. In that letter, a 15-yr-old Shah asks for cricket quiz to be published in every issue. That's a keeper.