So, I’m trying to figure out what the earliest comics I read were. As a 5, 6, 7, 8-year old I was crazy for Superman, but mostly in the form of cartoons and t-shirts. I don’t think I read or owned any Superman comics. I didn’t read Archies until I was in about the 11-13 range.
But I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have at least a few Amar Chitra Katha comics around.
Amar Chitra Katha for many years at least seemed to be the monopoly comics publisher in India. I don’t know when they started or anything about the history of the company (though given that this is the Internet, I should probably look that up), but for as long as I could remember, if you bought comics in India, they were Amar Chitra Kathas.
Actually, this is not entirely true. I began devotedly reading and collecting comics in 1986/1987, so when I went to visit India in 1988 I was on the hunt for anything I could find. What I discovered were not only Amar Chitra Kathas, but also Western strip reprints in the English newspapers, and these things:
In 1988, this thing cost 3.00 Rupees (equivalent to about US$0.07) and is so flimsy it almost fell apart on my scanner. I would tell you what it’s about but — as you can see — the art is too horrible to make the effort worthwhile. Although, to be fair, the art is no worse than that found in any number of Robotech comics published by Eternity. Bafflingly, it ends with a one-page Henry strip. I really have no idea what the editorial rationale could have been:
There were also repackaged DC books like this (this one published by India Book House), which seem to have been shoddily recolored for some reason. And check out that threatening “SHAAK!” on the cover — better jump out of the way, Superman! (Art: Curt Swan & Tex Blaisdell, Script: Elliot S! Maggin)
… And this Tarzan book, which also looks like reprints from somewhere else. (I remember copying art out of this comic as a kid.)
On the outside back cover you are commanded to “MAKE MORE WORDS.” Must’ve had trouble selling ad space for this issue…
Plus there were two different James Bond books on the racks from two different publishers. One was this hideously drawn thing from Star Comics / India Book House (art by Anand Wadekar):
And the other was this, which looks drawn professionally enough that I have to assume they licensed the art from overseas. And yet it’s been poorly translated (into English) and shoddily lettered. I also am not sure who exactly published it. In the back it says: “For regional language rights please contact Peacock Features,” “Published by SP Ramanathan,” and “Glidrose Publications.”
But what is REALLY amazing about this book is that it featured actual nudity!!! Look, boobies!!!
I mean, this was in a comic book in India?!?! This is a country that doesn’t allow the depiction of kissing in movies, and put out an arrest warrant for Richard Gere for kissing a woman in public and therefore corrupting the morals of the nation’s children. Never mind the Kama Sutra and the fact that this is the second highest populated country in the world. Just don’t ask where those babies came from. Perhaps, since it was illustrated they could get away with it in the same way they get away with all those topless dancers on the temple walls. Believe me, at 13 years old, I spent A LOT of time with that last panel above. I mean, MASSIVE amounts of time. I mean, INCREDIBLE, MASSIVE, WHOLE LOTS OF TIME. HOURS AND HOURS OF TIME. MEGA COLLOSAL, HUGE TRACTS OF TIME. REAMS OF TIME. GARTANTUAN, MONOLITHIC GALLONS OF TIME. I MEAN, STUPENDOUS, INCALCULABLE AMOUNTS OF TIME. (Of course, she could have had a bikini on in the original which they “colored out” in the Indian reprint.)
Weirdly, this comic ends with a bunch of trivia and activities for kids and a Hindu mythology text story, which brings me all the way back to…
Amar Chitra Katha, which still seemed to have a stranglehold on the religious and moral stories for the longest time. (Although by the time I visited in 2001 there did seem to be a least one competitor in this department as well in the form of Archie-digest-sized “Diamond Comics,” though it was really a very poor cousin). Amar Chitra Katha comics fell into a few basic categories: religious comics (stories of the Hindu gods), animal fables, and occasional historical comics. As far as I can tell they produced a few hundred in total and then just kept reprinting them a gajillion times. When you went to a newsstand, you were lucky if you found a title you hadn’t seen before. Sometimes issues would come with checklists in the back pages which were about as random as the figures pictured on the back of Kenner Star Wars figures. I think they re-numbered the series from time to time too. Anyway, I bought a stack when I visited India in 1988, and when I went to buy more during my 2001 visit they still had all the same titles on the racks, only now with glossy cardstock covers and slightly better paper. (In the only days, both the covers and interiors were printed on passable newsprint.)
As a kid and even now as an adult, the animal fables are okay and all, but it’s the religious titles that are really spectacular. By which I mean craptastic.
If you have only brushed against Hindu mythology in even the vaguest way, you can probably imagine without anyone having to tell you that Hindu religious stories — like all religious stories — are pretty bonkers, overflowing with illogic that is readily drowned out by multi-armed, multi-headed, multi-skin-toned, fanged gods, loaded down with Mr. T level jewelry and crowns, and constant warring between each other and each other’s camps.
The problem is that most of the artists on the Amar Chitra Katha books were journeymen at best, and the work was generally substandard. The interiors were never a lick on the painted covers. Ye olde bait and switch (Interior Art: Chandrakant D. Rane, Script: Anant Pai):
And you rarely ever saw one artist do more than a couple of issues at most. I don’t know much about how Amar Chitra Katha works, but judging from comic industries in general, and the fact that this is India we’re talking about here, I have to imagine the artists were treated like shit, paid poorly, and then never paid again for the tens of thousands of reprints of their work across multiple languages. Of course I could just be slinging mud here where none is deserved.
At any rate there was one artist who stood out: C. M. Vitankar. He had a warm, clean line; did fine figure work with a command of facial expressions; and had solid storytelling chops. This guy knew what he was doing and he was good enough to be the only Amar Chitra Katha cartoonist I know of that appears in Lambiek’s list of cartoonists. (Note the signature of the Jataka Tales cover above.) But sadly like other Amar Chitra Katha artists, he only did two or three issues that I know of. This does not, however, keep his “Ganesha” from being one of the great comics of all time in my book. (Script: Kamala Chandrakant)
But all this intellectual talk about art and artists distracts from the heart of the matter, which is that the central appeal of these comics for me as a kid was that they were horrifically violent and featured regular mutilations, dismemberments, and decapitations. While my parents might have hesitated to allow us watching violent cartoons (actually they were quite liberal, and mostly just complained about such cartoons rather than banned them), they had no qualms or comments about us reading things like this:
… or this:
… among dozens of other such scenes. The reason for my parents’ “lax” attitude couldn’t have been religious since Dad is a staunch atheist. It must have simply been because the comics were Indian so they were happy for us to be consuming them. But as a kid, my response to these scenes was: “Blood! Guts! Awesome!” I remember taking these comics to school in, like, Grades 5 and 6 and showing them off to the other kids who were duly impressed or sometimes stupefied that I owned such things and that this was a religion wholly unlike anything they’d ever read in their bibles. (I guess all those kids must have skipped the Old Testament and the crucifixion.)
Those panels and stories have stayed with me my whole life. I wanted to avoid titling this post “Early Influences” because I have trouble identifying the direct influences in my own work (though believe me, I know full well that WCT is a pastiche). But I’m shaped and therefore inspired by everything — every book, every song, every sitcom episode — and every person I’ve ever met in my life. They have all had some hand in the formation of my personality, physiologically encoding themselves into my RNA as memories. I’m inspired constantly: I see something funny or frightening and I feel like picking up a pen.
But I have to admit that the ultraviolence in Weird Crime Theater must have a direct lineage going back to the Amar Chitra Katha religious comics which dissolved any inhibitions I might have otherwise had about such things. What a colossal debt I owe them, and what a profound effect they’ve had on the makeup of my personality, unconscious or otherwise.
Something I never imagined would happen, but has is that there seems to be an interest in Hindu mythology developing in the West. A few years ago Virgin Comics attempted and failed to launch a line of Hindu mythology comics in the US. I flipped through a few of these but the dreary, muddy coloring made them unreadable in my eyes…
Where were all the colorful costumes and jewelry? And the art seemed to be aping the current art styles at DC and Marvel. One of their titles seemed to be some kind of Ramayana set in the future! Despite Virgin’s sad-to-say-it predictable failure, Grant Morrison is supposedly working on some kind of Mahabharata CGI movie, we’ve just had Nina Paley’s fine animated Ramayana adaptation called SITA SINGS THE BLUES, and Cartoon Network in Asia is supposedly airing a series of Amar Chitra Katha adaptations. (Incidentally, many, many years ago, I once submitted a proposal to Dark Horse for a comic book series adapting the Ramayana and I never heard a peep back from them.)
Still, none of these “slick” modern interpretations have any of the visceral emotional impact that those old Amar Chitra Katha comics gave me in my youth and still do to this day — or, at least, the memory of them.
Just a few months ago my parents were visiting India and I asked them to buy me a few Amar Chitra Katha’s for when they came to see us in Australia. But what they brought me was THIS:
P.S. PLUG: Yes, there is a whole other comics scene in India these days as well. This anthology features work by an Internet acquaintance of mine, Bharath Murthy.