Abid Hussain Barlaskar
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Raj Comics' Manoj Gupta on video avatars of Indian superheroes

Indian superheroes Nagraj, Doga and Dhruv may soon be seen in movies.

Nagaraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Pinki, Billu, Bankelal, Chacha Chaudhary, Suppandi, Shikari Shambu - all these characters were once household names. They are all Indian comic book characters which used to figure alongside school books and once occupied aisles in neighbourhood book stores and magazine kiosks. Shops and libraries used to rent out comic books for charges as low as a few rupees. Unlike in the West, where comic books saw a resurgence with the adaptation of characters in Hollywood movies, India is yet to witness such a phenomenon.

There has hardly been any form of adaptation of Indian comic book characters in movies so far. Something on these lines might just be around the corner, reveals Manoj Gupta, editor, president and co-founder of Raja Pocket Books and Raj comics. Among popular characters from the Raj Comics household are Nagraj, Doga, Bhediya, Bankelaal, Dhruv, Parmanu, among others.

Manoj Gupta
Manoj Gupta

We caught up with Gupta on the sidelines of the Comic Con India convention held in Delhi last month. Gupta says the value of the Indian comic book market has dwindled over the years and is valued at a little under Rs 50 crore today. 80 per cent of Raj Comics' portfolio is superheroes, 10 per cent comedy and 10 per cent is thrill and adventure. An issue of Nagraj sees around 30,000 prints, Dhruv sees 25,000 and other characters see 18-20,000 prints each. "There was a time when we printed around 3.5 lakh copies of a single Nagraj issue. But things are looking up gradually," he mentions.

Gupta says that in terms of players, the industry is growing by three or four players every year. Older players like Diamond Comics and IBH are resorting to reprinting older issues. "It is a bad thing for the industry," says Gupta. Newer players include Holy Cow Entertainment, Corporat, Bulleye Press, Sailesh Gopalan's Brown Paperbag Comics, Bakarmax and Awkwerrd_Bhagya. Many of them have forsaken print and made the internet their prime playground.

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After publishing mythological, mystery and adventure comics, Gupta's quest for creating a superhero resulted in Nagraj in 1985 - and India got an action hero centered around snakes. This success led to the creation of more characters. Over the 33 years of its presence, Raj Comics has published over 3,500 titles across characters. "Having Hindi at our core, we have a strong presence in the Hindi belt. We tried English, Tamil and Bengali but couldn't continue as we had to fulfill the Hindi market first," he says.

While the cost of creating good content has gone up, the demand has gone down. Gupta says that the industry is showing signs of recovery with slow but steady growth over the last six to seven years. "The sales numbers started dropping in 1998 and by 2010, sales were 10 per cent of what they used to be. We were on the verge of closing down. We have regained some ground and today stand at around 30-35 per cent of our previous presence," says Gupta.

The resuscitation is taking place with the gush of digital air and rising popularity of Western superheroes via movies. "Our former readers are reconnecting via our digital presence across channels like Facebook and Instagram. They are building communities. Again, the increasing popularity of Western superhero characters from Marvel and DC, fueled by Hollywood movies has led to a spike in demand for Indian superheroes. We have planned to bring in newer characters," Gupta says.

On being asked about the adaptation of the characters in other mediums, he responds, "We've been trying to make it happen and even produced TV serials in 2000 but the market hadn't matured then. It is gradually opening up now. Plans are in the pipeline for movie adaptations of several of our characters. Things are taking shape now and the outcome should be visible in 2020-21. Not just movies, these characters will also be seen in web series on OTT platforms."

Raj Comics' Manoj Gupta on video avatars of Indian superheroes

Raj Comics' flow of advertising stopped in 1998. Advertisers included brands like Relaxo, Parle and other stationery brands. Gupta says, "Advertising happens on regular publishing. We are unable to publish regular editions as the process of crafting comics has slowed down. New issues are published on a project basis today. Also, getting hold of good talent is difficult. There was a time when a single illustrator could wrap up an issue of 32 pages in three days. Today, a single page takes three days. Illustrators and creators today have a lot of other exciting opportunities in industries like gaming, etc.,"

High cost and scarcity of retail real estate and display space are making publishers lean on e-commerce. "Retailers are moving on from books/magazines as they see better prospects in other businesses which provide better margins. We are concentrating on online presence across platforms like Flipkart and Amazon and our own website. Apart from new additions, we are witnessing repeat customers too. We have also put in place our e-comics app and a payment wallet based subscription model. Users can recharge wallets and pay from it time to time," he adds.

"Times have changed. At times, we look at our older copies and realise that a phone at that time could have made the hero's life a lot better. They seem strange today," Gupta signs off.