Comix.India – a new comics anthology from Bharath Murthy

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This article originally appeared, albeit in a much shorter and edited form, in the New Indian Express dated March 20, 2010, titled ‘A Trailblazer’s Path’.

Below is the original, unedited article about Bharath Murthy’s comics anthology ‘Comix.India’ which he launched in 2009.

IN SEARCH OF TALENT

 “There is no platform for original, short comics in India,” Bharath Murthy – author, artist and film maker – says to me in an email. It was this lack of a platform that spurred him, in October 2009, to launch Comix.India– a multi-lingual, black and white indie comic magazine that focuses on original work by Indian creators. He put out a submissions call for Volume One in the hopes that it would get the nascent comics industry in India buzzing. Three months and several submissions later he is optimistic that the magazine will not only encourage aspiring comic authors and artists but also spawn a new generation of adult comic readers.

 Not Safe For Children

A brief glance at the artwork and stories in Volume One attests to the fact that Comix.India is trying to move away from the child-centric comics of yesterday such as Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama and to create, instead, quality comics that address adult themes and issues. Bharath is quick to point out that unlike comics aimed at children, there’s no attempt to “dumb [Comix.India] down for a child’s understanding.” It’s more likely that children won’t like or be able to relate the content in the magazine.

Take for example Dr. L. Prakash’s story, Ear Rings, which is a true life account of his fellow prisoner’s journey to jail. Although it is written in simple, almost child-like language, the art is stark with disturbing blotches of grey and black. That Dr. L Prakash is a self-taught artist is evident. Also finding space in the anthology is Sudeep Menon’s crime noir about a gangster in Mumbai called Just Another Job. These are not stories with happy endings or even stories with clear morals.

However, the magazine distinguishes itself from colour heavy children’s comics by the plain fact that the stories in Comix.India are published entirely in black and white. While this has a stylistic purpose it’s also a cost cutting measure. After all, glossy full colour magazines come at a cost that an indie publication can’t afford. Perhaps the most important reason for choosing to go black and white is to encourage artists who are not formally trained to learn through copying. “What happens with colour and too many ‘artistic’ effects,” Bharath clarifies, “is that readers are unable to imitate the artwork properly, which is frustrating for those wanting to learn by copying their favorite comics authors.”

 A Medley of Styles

The 260 page volume is impressive in its mix of genres and the variety of artistic styles. Kinnari, a mythology-inspired story about a young man’s travels in an ancient world is written by Meenakshi Krishnamoorthy. It is probably one of the more stylized and richer artwork in the collection. Meenakshi manages to marry manga techniques with Indian symbols creating a style that both foreign and Indian. Some of the other art, however, is more experimental. Sudeep Menon’s Just Another Job is the perfect example. The story is told through sketches as well as sketches superimposed upon photographs that he has taken himself. Introducing this variety of styles and techniques was one of the magazine’s goals and its reassuring to see some of the authors and artists take a more unconventional approach to drawing.

Indie, GO!

All this made Comix.India a rather unique concept in the Indian comics industry. As a result, the magazine did not receive much support from traditional publishing companies. The loss of a major publishing house also meant that their budget for marketing the magazine was severely limited. Luckily, this is the age of the internet and viral marketing.

So, in true indie spirit, the magazine was promoted on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and made its presence known in the blogosphere. The project has over three hundred fans on Facebook and the page is busy with comments, updates, artwork and discussions. Their website, http://www.comixindia.com, has members posting artwork, critiquing each other’s work and talking comics on the forum. The site also features a blog and a database of registered artists and writers to encourage collaborative efforts.

Their DIY approach to the publishing business is bound to have its ups and downs but for now, just the idea of reviving the short comic form is the main focus of Comix.India.

 Graphic Novel VS Short Comic

In the past, Indian short comics relied heavily on retellings of mythologies and folk tales. Furthermore, very little original comic content was created that was not aimed at children. When graphic novels exploded on the scene in the early 2000s, it brought with it the much needed originality that was lacking earlier. In 2004, Sarnath Bannerjee’s Corridor was the first Indian graphic novel to be released by a major publishing house.

However, instead of adding a boost to the stagnant comics industry the graphic novel killed the short comic form as publishers began looking at novel length graphic projects. Nobody wanted to touch the short comic and “rightly so,” says Bharath. The success of the graphic novel has proved that readership is not the problem. The problem is that there isn’t an active comics writing scene in India and as a result, publishers don’t yet see it as a profit making venture. “The very idea of one person sitting down,” says Bharath, “and drawing his own original comic story is, very strangely, a new idea in India.”

But Bharath is hopeful even here. Since the industry for comics hasn’t really developed there’s also no monopoly of the kind that America has. This will make it easier, he hopes, to include “good business practices like not ‘owning’ characters, making it mandatory for authors to own copyrights, etc.” His website is attempting to do exactly that with an entire forum section dedicated to ‘copyrights and the business of publishing.’

From Self to Shelf

A wary publishing industry is one of the reasons, Comix.India has chosen to self-publish using pothi.com. “Comics companies in India operate on an archaic ‘factory’ system,” Bharath says. “It is, in fact, a 19th century industrial model.” The system grew out of an industry which relied on India’s rich mythologies – stories that lent themselves beautifully to the comic genre. A publisher only needed to find the artists to ink and letter the product. “In this system,” Bharath adds, “the artist doesn’t own any of the artwork he or she does. It is all owned by the company.” Without ownership, the artists feel no responsibility towards the finished project and as a result neither the artist nor the industry progresses.

In our modern world alternative venues of publication are available. When Bharath was first drawing comics, a number of self-publishing venues popped up and he took advantage of them, printing out his own comics and distributing them himself. He noticed, however, that not all artists were using this incredible tool to promote and publish their own comics. Most of them were choosing instead to publish entirely online. He realised quickly that if he could get a group of indie comic creators together to self-publish a magazine, he could be instrumental in creating a new comics scene which was not inhibited by constraints on language, content or genre. “Plus, there’s no commercial pressure. So one can build a genuine comics scene wherein readers and writers closely interact,” he adds.

Webcomics Vs Self-publishing

But why self publish when one can make a webcomic? “Webcomics are great,” Bharath says, but Comix.India wants to give comic authors the option of getting out of the web so that their fans, old and new, can read it wherever they are- on a bus, in a train or simply laying on a beach in Goa. There’s only so many places you can go with your laptop. Secondly, the internet is a chaotic place where good ideas and voices can easily get lost. The innumerable flash ads and pop ups don’t help either. The fact remains that most people dislike reading on the internet and do so only out of necessity. Finally, and probably most importantly, self-publishing gives the author some remuneration, even if it is a token amount.

As it stands now, Comix.India is the first self-published comic magazine to exist in India that actively encourages and invites work from both emerging and established artists and writers.

Girl Power!

Volume One of Comix.India does not have a theme. The stories range from memoir to essay to historical fantasy and urban detective pieces. This medley of content and art is just a sample. Comix.India has already mapped out themes for the next five issues. The idea is to broaden the range of stories that comic readers are used to seeing. Part of the appeal is also to breaks ranks a little bit, to talk about things no one is talking about and to encourage artistic styles that are fresh and experimental.

The theme for Volume Two is ‘Girl Power’. The idea behind the theme comes from Bharath’s film on the female manga artists in Japan, titled Fragile Heart of Moe. Shot entirely in Japan, the film reveals that the shoǰo manga movement was begun, inspired and created by women authors who felt that their stories were going untold.

“It was the women comics authors in Japan who really expanded the medium and brought sophisticated literary sensibilities into it,” Bharath says. He points out that, “addressing a female audience is the first and most important [goal]. This is because we have NO comics for girls in India, and almost all Indian comics, children’s comics included, somehow felt implicitly addressed to male readers. I’d want more and more girls and women drawing comics for themselves. It simply must be there. There cannot be a comics culture that doesn’t address women specifically.”

The deadline for submissions to Volume Two is April 30. Submission guidelines and tips are available online.

A Long Way To Go

Comix.India is the first step in the long journey towards creating a culture of buying and reading Indian comics. . More and more authors, influenced by manga and western comic artists, are beginning to take the art form a little more seriously. Like many artists, Kailash Iyer, who designed the cover art for Volume One, is thrilled about the magazine. Not only has it given him a platform to showcase his talents but it is also coming at time when he felt frustrated at the lack of dedicated comics companies and venues he could send his work to. Whether or not Comix.India will be a trailblazer in the comics industry remains to be seen. For now, supporting efforts like Comix.India is one of the many ways to encourage a more mature and exciting comic industry.

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