Hasan Zaheer is a comic book enthusiast who has been reading comic books for the last 35 years, and has one of the largest collections of Hindi comic books in India. He writes Comic World, a popular blog dedicated to Hindi comic books. This interview was conducted over phone on September 23, 2018.
Shambhu Nath Mahto is a research scholar, writer and comic book illustrator who has worked with many publishers and has recently come out with his own comic book project called Comix Theory. This interview was conducted over phone on September 25, 2018.
Following is an edited transcript of the two telephonic interviews.
Rahul Kumar: Growing up in the 1990s in the Hindi heartland, it was hard to not fall in love with the world of comic books. However, it was a task to maintain this affair. My parents did not allow me to read comic books and I had to be very discreet while reading them. They were considered a taboo and were thought to have a corrupting influence on children. How was your experience?
Hasan Zaheer: When I started reading comic books during the early 1980s, it was not frowned upon or considered a taboo. The comic books that existed during the late 1970s and 1980s used the usual tropes of suspense, action, humour and adventure. During the 1990s, comic book houses like Raj Comics and Manoj Comics started to emulate Marvel and DC, which contained a lot of violence and gore. This led to the notion that comic books were morally corrupt. Nudity in Hindi comic books was also a product of the 1990s. Earlier, there was self-censorship in the comic book industry. For example, Indrajal Comics used to publish syndicated stories of Western comic book heroes like Phantom and Mandrake in Hindi. If in the original comic book a woman character was dressed skimpily in a panel, either that panel was to be removed or Indrajal would ask its local artist to redraw it by dressing up the woman as per Indian standards of decency. I know this because I have the original comic books as well, and I have often noticed that certain panels in the original do not correspond with the ones in Hindi.
R.K.: Tell us about the comic book reading culture where you grew up.
H.Z.: I was born and brought up in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. There was a culture of reading, especially in western Uttar Pradesh. That place was the hub of the Hindi publishing industry in the 1980s. Comic books formed a major part of that industry, both logistically and commercially. This period was the apogee of the rental-library culture, which flourished all over north India. Almost every mohalla in every town had small libraries that provided comic books on rent to readers, the rent normally being 10 per cent of the MRP. Library business was quite profitable as this was the only way that the majority of North Indian middle-class readers could afford to read.
R.K.: I have been a regular reader of your blog. It is easy to make out that Phantom (Vetal) is your favourite comic book character. Why?
H.Z.: When I started reading comic books in the early 1980s, Indrajal Comics was the most famous publishing house, and Phantom was its most famous character. Phantom is read in around 150 countries and the character has remained one of the most popular comic book characters in India. I used to read almost all the comic books published during that period, but Phantom was my favourite. He has all the qualities that an ideal hero should have. He does not have any superpower, and fights injustice using his physical prowess and brain. He neither drinks nor does he use abusive language, and is faithful to one woman. He loves both humans and animals. Phantom was read and loved by the young and old alike.
R.K.: I grew up in the 1990s and naturally was very fond of Raj Comics. From your write-ups, you do not seem to like them much.
H.Z.: When Raj Comics was established initially, its stories and superheroes were original. But somewhere during the mid–1990s, their writers started giving the stories a supernatural twist. They also started stealing plots and storylines from Marvel and DC. I lost interest thereafter. With internet, it became much easier to access Marvel and DC Comics. Readers could now easily tell the similarities between them and Raj Comics. The artwork and other things in Raj Comics have become quite sophisticated since the early 2000s, but the spirit of the stories and plots has been lost. This is a major reason for the decline in their readership. There was a time when they used to publish 10–15 sets of comic books in a month. These days they hardly publish one set in five or six months.
R.K.: There are a lot of Hindi comic book collectors these days. You are considered one of the most respected collectors, with one of the biggest collections in India. Tell us a little about your journey.
H.Z.: I grew up in a family that was not very well off. I could not afford to buy comic books. I used to get them from the renting libraries. During the summer holidays, my brothers and I started a lending library of our own. We had a few comic books of our own and invested Rs 100 to buy 30 or so. We were fond of reading and now we knew we could fund our passion on our own by monetising it. Our library had around 150–200 comic books by the time it closed down. This was right after I left school. My passion for comic books had taken a back seat. When I got a job in 2006, I renewed this passion with much vigour. It was the early days of internet in India. I used it to get in touch with people who were interested in selling old comic books. I started by collecting Indrajal Comics, which were my favourite, and gradually moved on to others. Whenever I used to visit a city, for pleasure or for work, I used to make it a point to look for old comic book shops and find all the books that I needed for my collection. Today, I have more than 10,000 comic books in my collection and I am one of the biggest collectors of Hindi comic books in India.
R.K.: Tell us a little bit about the online fan communities that emerged during the early days of the internet.
H.Z.: Comic books and reading culture in India had declined during the late 1990s and early 2000s. During the early years of internet in India, comic book enthusiasts found a space for themselves on social media platforms like Orkut and various other blogs and websites. I had a blog of my own (Comic World) which was quite popular. I used to write essays on various aspects of comic books and would get overwhelming feedback from readers. It helped me connect with like-minded comic book enthusiasts not only from India but from all over the world. Old-school enthusiasts like me used these platforms to write passionately about comic books. We also used to share digital copies (PDF, CBR or CBZ formats) of old comic books. We would take time out of our busy life and scan and upload comic books to be read by those who did not have access to hard copies. This online community was not only a way for old timers like me to rekindle the romance of comic books but was also a wonderful platform for new enthusiasts to discover the exciting world of Hindi comic books that had been out of print for a while.
Rahul Kumar: Tell us about your initial tryst with comic books.
Shambhu Nath Mahto: I grew up in the Kalyanvas area near Mayur Vihar in Delhi. I was introduced to comic books as a five-year-old when my father bought an Angara (a superhero published by Tulsi Comics) comic for me. I got hooked to the visuals. As I grew older I started reading more and more. Renting libraries were the places where I used to primarily access comic books published by Raj Comics and Manoj Comics. Local public libraries also used to have Amar Chitra Katha. I came from a middle-class family and did not have enough money to buy the books, I would manage from my small savings. Reading comic books was not encouraged in many houses and I know instances where disapproving parents set fire to huge collections of comic books. Fortunately, my parents were not against my reading.
R.K.: It is alleged that the majority of the superheroes in the realm of Hindi comic books are copies of Western superheroes. What do you think?
S.N.M.: This is unfortunately true. The superheroes created by many Indian comic book publishers were directly or indirectly copied from Marvel and DC superheroes. Almost every comic book publisher did it. Common readers did not have access to these Western comic books and there was no way to know that the superheroes they were so fond of were not original. With the arrival of the internet, these comic books became accessible and the fans could easily spot the similarities. It was quite disappointing.
R.K.: Tell us about the comic book scene that existed during the early days of the internet.
S.N.M.: During the early days of the internet, the Hindi comic book industry was in a state of disarray. Most of them, barring the bigger players like Diamond Comics and Raj Comics, had closed down. Hard copies were not available in the market. So, a lot of old-time comic book enthusiasts who owned them started to scan and upload these books for others to read. There was no monetary benefit, they were driven by the pleasure of sharing. This online community kept alive the passion for comic books among readers at a time when the reading culture had declined.
R.K.: What is the status of these online communities today?
S.N.M.: The majority of them are now defunct—among other factors, due to certain harsh steps taken by Raj Comics to counter the illegal sharing of comic books online. Raj Comics is one of the big players that managed to stay afloat during the lean period. Since the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in old Hindi comic books. This has a lot to do with the online communities. Raj Comics took advantage of the situation and secured digital copyrights for books by publishing houses like Manoj Comics and Tulsi Comics that had closed down. They literally waged a war against digital comic book piracy.
Some people had downloaded the digital copies of comic books from these online platforms and put them on Ebay for sale. This was out and out piracy. Even the online sharing platforms were engaged in piracy, if one looks at them in purely technical and legal terms. So, while taking legal action against digital piracy and shutting them down, Raj Comics also forced these online communities to shut down. Although these people did not have any financial motive behind sharing, they were branded pirates. Comic book enthusiasts were deeply hurt by the actions, especially the fact that this was done without any prior warning. But the situation was rather complex and neither party can be blamed for this.
R.K.: You are a comic book writer and illustrator. How did you get into this profession?
S.N.M.: I was busy with my MA and MPhil in history from University of Delhi, so I started rather late with illustration. I am a self-taught artist and have never taken any kind of training. After MA, I got an opportunity to work with Raj Comics as a writer and illustrator. I had to let go of it because my priority was to finish my MPhil. In 2015, I finished MPhil and started to seriously consider working professionally as an illustrator. It was then that I finally joined Raj Comics and was given the opportunity to work on an upcoming comic book of Tiranga (a superhero). But as you know, the industry is in a rut. I was told that it would take at least two years for Tiranga’s comic book to be out. I started doing some freelance work. I designed covers for Fenil Comics and TBS Planet Comics. Recently, I have worked on a lot of comic book covers, which I hope will be published soon. I have also been working on a documentary on Hindi comic books, titled Indian Comics Fans. Parts of the documentary available on YouTube include short interviews with veteran illustrator Hussain Zaamin and comic fans like Sanjay Kumar and Akash Kumar.
R.K.: As comic book fans and enthusiasts, we are in awe of master illustrators like Anupam Sinha, Hussain Zaamin and Ansar Akhtar. As an illustrator yourself, how do you look at them and their work?
S.N.M.: Initially, I did not care much about these illustrators. I was only concerned with the comic books and their storylines. But as I grew older and developed an interest in drawing and illustrating, I started engaging with the works of comic book illustrators. It was, of course, helped by the fact that I was quite active on certain American comic book communities on the internet, like the ones of Image Comics and Avatar Comics. I was very fond of the artwork in Top Cow Comics. Pratap Mullick ji has been my idol. Illustrators like him are veterans in their field and it is rather unfortunate that they are not celebrities.
R.K.: What is the creative process behind your own work?
S.N.M.: It all starts with the basic knowledge about the specifications and references of the characters that the publishers provide. They show me certain samples to give me an idea about the style. If possible, I follow that style. Otherwise, I do it my own way. Once the style is established, a layout is finalised.
R.K.: Do they show you Marvel and DC comic books and ask you to illustrate in the same manner?
S.N.M.: Sometimes they do. They show me these comic books just to give me an idea regarding certain aspects like the body structure of a character and costume. Certain clients ask me to copy the exact style. On one occasion, a client asked me to copy an exact artwork. I asked him to get it done by the original artist. I have certain professional ethics as an illustrator. Ever since I became interested in illustration, I have been reading up on artistic ethics, working processes and issues like how much copying amounts to plagiarism.
R.K.: You are a research scholar and a comic book illustrator. Is your research related to comic books?
S.N.M.: For my MPhil, I researched on the history of the Delhi Sultanate. But I plan to do my PhD on the history of Hindi comic books. Unfortunately, in Indian academia comic books are not considered serious enough to research and write about. I had applied for a PhD at University of Delhi but could not find any supervisor to guide me on my area of interest.
R.K.: Tell us about your current project called Comix Theory?
S.N.M.: Comix Theory is an attempt to bring a certain respectability to Hindi comic books in India. We have recently organised events where we have brought comic book writers and illustrators on the same platform as fine arts students, novelists and art critics. We are in the process of working on an anthology titled Ghosts of India: Horror Comics Anthology, which will include stories by 50 writers and illustrations by 20 artists. At Comix Theory, we are also planning to bring out a one of a kind encyclopedia on Hindi comic books.
R.K.: What is the current situation of the Hindi comic book industry?
S.N.M.: The situation is comparatively better than what it was four–five years ago. There are a number of new publishers in the market today compared to the three–four then. Although currently it is nowhere near ideal, the future looks promising. The Comic Con culture has picked up in the past few years, which is a good sign for the market.
R.K.: Do not you think that the Comic Con culture is primarily geared towards catering to the people who come from affluent financial backgrounds and read mostly American comic books from the likes of Marvel and DC? The commercial aspects of Comic Con normally make a typical Hindi comic book fan, who is not as financially secure, think twice before buying the tickets. What do you think?
S.N.M.: English comic books were also published in India. For example, Diamond Comics and Indrajal Comics used to bring out English and Hindi versions of the same comic books. But the English ones were mostly read by a handful of elite readers in metropolitan cities like Bombay and Delhi. They did not enjoy the popularity of Hindi comic books.
Comic Con India initially started and gained legitimacy in the name of Hindi comic books but was soon appropriated by ‘merchandise sellers’ and big American publishers like Marvel and DC. The commercial logistics involved in the Comic Con festivals have become so unviable that it is now virtually impossible for Hindi comic book publishers to attend the event. The reason is that Hindi comic book industry has always depended on sales. But the fans at Comic Con are not at all interested in buying. Their familiarity with comic books is preceded by their familiarity and fondness for the corresponding movie franchises. They look for comic book merchandise like T-shirts, action figures, key chains and activity books.
It was not always the case at Comic Con. Comic books were the prime focus and it was financially feasible for Hindi comic book publishers to buy space for their stalls. Things have changed a lot now. Market forces have taken over the space, and for Hindi comic book publishers to reclaim it will be an arduous task.