The thronging crowds gave the fourth Comic Con at Delhi a deceptively successful look. But then, India has enough population to give an impressive footfall at every litfest, every expo, every village fair. One has to look behind the scenes and talk to the participants to find out if it met its purpose. Cynics say that the ‘Cons’ held at Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad (for the first time) do little to raise the profile of an industry that boasts of only a handful of publishers. Optimists would say that at least fans are willing to pull out their wallets and buy comics, Tshirts, and even Dirty Laundry, as a stall by that name brought forth a laugh. Plus, the fair sprinkling of fans who dressed up as comic characters to win prizes for the most authentic costumes. The group that runs the various Comic Cons, Twenty Onwards Media, is a Delhi-based media company that has other properties under its umbrella such as The Golden Kela Awards and Random TV. Their commitment to the comics industry is serious, seeing how their own publishing house Pop Culture Publishing is churning out new titles every two or three months.
A 20-minute walk around this year’s Comic Con makes a few things crystal clear to even the most casual observer. This edition was held inside a very large indoor stadium and it was hard to find the 18 stalls of comic book publishers and sellers among the 80 stalls, a lot of them selling things like T-shirts, sweatshirts, toys and collectibles. Some of these stalls were famous household comics publishers like 2000 AD and large publishing houses and distributors such as Random House and Diamond Comics, who hardly need to reach out to audiences. The dozen or so Indian publishers seem almost like an afterthought, positioned in stalls at the corners of the festival.
On top of that, the Indian independent publishers are somewhat marginalised and they aren’t afraid to voice it. Sharad Sharma, the Delhi-based founder of World Comics, was sceptical about this year’s Comic Con and explained why. “The problem really begins at a deeper level with distributors making absolutely no attempt at distributing some of the comics we make as independent publishers. How will people see our comics in bookstores if no one carries them? In Comic Cons around the world, publishers visit these events to find new talent and titles. Over here we have to make do with the few people who are interested enough to buy the comics.”
Sharma, who quit his job as cartoonist to form this grassroots comic book company, is working with people in some of the far reaches of India to make comics. He feels that newspapers have turned their back on firebrand political cartoons that make statements and that the only way for India to rediscover comics is to grow it again from a grassroots level. The Comic Con, in his opinion, is not helping him spread his message enough and that’s mostly because the crowd doesn’t seem as interested. “Whatever we do isn’t enough to engage most people here because each and every year the event is more and more diluted in terms of people actually interested in buying or learning about comics. They keep bringing down more and more people to sell merchandise and other wares and this is turning into any other trade show,” says Sharma. Looking around Comic Con 2014, you have to say that he has a point.
The biggest stalls at the Con were all selling merchandise, some of it related to Marvel, DC Comics characters to name a few, but others were merely there selling their own products. There were two stalls that sold only underwear and another that sold lollipops. Kailash Iyer is the founder and editor of Pulpocracy, an independent comic book publishing house based in Mumbai and as a longtime member of the indie comics community in India, his views on the changing nature of Comic Con merit attention. “It’s a double-edged sword really. Comic Con is great because it brings in a decent number of people who are interested in comics to one place. So it’s good in that sense but if you want to call it a Comic Con, the comics need to be more in focus. You have comics merchandise in focus, which is fine, but the comics are not given any kind of priority,” says Iyer, before offering suggestions about how to improve visibility for Indian comic book publishers. “You can offer comics companies bigger discounts to rent a stall, you can give them bigger stalls and highlight them better just so that people know that this is a comics stall. The thing is a lot of people who come here don’t even know you can get Indian comics; people come here to enjoy the cosplay or buy the merchandise and are surprised that Indian comics are here. Somewhere along the line the message is getting diluted.”
The same message was echoed by Raveesh Mohan, who is the founder of a relatively young comic book publishing company called Orange Radius. Mohan had just begun creating comics over the past few months and he had attended both the Hyderabad Comic Con and the Mumbai Film and Comics Convention as an exhibitor before making it to the Delhi Comic Con. “I have attended Comic Cons in India before I became a publisher and I have to say that it’s good to have them in India. I would prefer if Comic Con would be a place where there would be more comics and fewer of the other non-comics stalls, but that is a utopian situation and I understand that the organisers of Comic Con need to make money as well.” Mohan went on to say that since it was his first year as a publisher he was reserving judgment on Comic Con for now.
One person who sees Comic Con as a thriving platform for Indian comics is Akshay Dhar, the founder of Meta Desi Comics and author of many other titles such as Retrograde and Werehouse. Dhar feels that the founders are businesspeople too and are entitled to maximising the revenue at their festival. “I have worked with the Comic Con guys since it began and I can tell you they are fans as much as we are. Without this event, we would only write comics that fall under what Raj Comics and Tinkle Comics consider to be any good. Sure, there are a few stalls that don’t really belong here, but they (the organisers) need to make money to make the event this big, right?” It was clear that Dhar was in favour of Comic Con’s rapid growth rate, “Even if people come here for other things, if they see our comics here they might consider buying it or at least checking it out.”
Opinion is still divided about what exactly needs to change about Comic Con and there isn’t a clear answer to the equation, but Sharad Sharma does have an idea that didn’t seem too far-fetched: an alternative comics festival. “It should be a place where people come to discuss comics, where we actually have sessions for people to understand how this works. It happens in Europe and America; they have such deep respect for comics. Perhaps we need to get people to learn more and not blame the newspapers and the publishers for the lack of awareness.”
So it is clear that Comic Con India will continue to grow in size and stature but ironically, their raison d’etre Indian comics may not grow at the same rate. Either way, Indian comic books are rapidly evolving and whether Comic Con is the best avenue for their growth is a question that will be answered in due course. So keep going, fans.
Mehta is a Mumbai-based independent journalist