The Mumbai Film & Comics Convention (Comic Con) held last week was bigger this year –  not only was it a three-day event, but also a ticketed one. Money or no money, as a comics writer, it has become my karma to attend this Convention, which is testimony to the fact that comics culture has made the country its home. My agenda was set: to network with big and small publishers and find new platforms to tell new stories, comics-style.

Wandering through the aisles of the Comic Con, I was reminded of a common industry notion: "The comic book is an artist-oriented genre." To understand how this "partial" truth has become an entrenched belief, the history of comics in India must be briefly examined.

A graphic history

From the prehistoric paintings in the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka and the Buddhist chronicles at Ajanta Caves to the folk traditions of Chitrakathi, Kaavad, and Phad where oral narratives were supported by art depictions of the tales, illustrations have ruled the Indian storytelling scene.

However, this changed in the 20th century with comics, by then popular in foreign countries, entering India. Suddenly, text became a part of the only-graphics narrative culture. Initially, comics from abroad were merely reprinted as daily/weekly strips in newspapers. Soon, the need for translators arose, when foreign comics had to be retold to an audience in an Indian language. Finally, and thankfully, the birth of indigenous content gave rise to comics writers. It may be interesting to note that even the Oxford Dictionary defines a comic strip till date as ‘a sequence of drawings in boxes that tell an amusing story, typically printed in a newspaper or magazine’, conspicuously omitting the equally significant role of the writer in making a comic.

The comic bazaar

Strolling past the Convention’s "pop" crowd that was there to have fun, unlike me, I began studying how the comics landscape in the country has evolved and if the slant between the two complementary creative crafts of art and writing has been straightened. To begin with, I discovered that the Convention largely acted as an artists’ bazaar. A majority of the art exhibitors could well be categorised as merchandisers, some bearing a direct relation to the comics industry and others to film and television.

The larger chunk of the merchandise spectrum is made up of artists who make portraits of famous film/television personalities, superheroes, and mythological characters. Digital prints of these, more computer-generated than hand-drawn, labelled "original artworks" were up for grabs.

It was amazing to see how Sherlock or Harry Potter was the face of every other artist’s style. Some of them were indeed beautiful renditions, and to be fair, the artworks of a few had at least one quirky, creative element. But when an increasing number veer towards producing similar works, their individualistic style being the only differentiating factor, can they sustain themselves in the long run?

There were others who simply sold digitally printed posters of superhero films. As I praised one such high-priced poster unthinkingly, my artist friend who was with me pointed out: “These images are available online. You can print them out yourself.” Another growing trend is the merchandising of memes. Everyone has an opinion, and in this age of instant messaging, witty/funny content is freely available.

The other end of the spectrum comprises the kitsch entrepreneurs. ‘Cool’ prints such as spectacles, moustaches, dogs, Mughal-era paintings, and memorable scenes from cult Hindi films adorned products and fabrics alike – old trunks, low stools, colourful clutch purses, trendy jackets/pyjamas/footwear, and more. Needless to say, I had failed in my agenda so far, for this merchandise market had very little or completely no need of the written word.

Who’s writing?

So, I headed straight to where new and upcoming comics ventures had set up shop. Checking out their published works, I asked each of them the one most pertinent question: “Does any writing happen in-house?” Their answer, unfortunately, was a direct “No.” Having a content partner - usually a television channel or film production house - the chief task for these ventures was to repurpose and redesign the content of established television shows/films in the form of a comic book. When there is no creation of content at all, who needs writers!

A glint of hope appeared when I noticed that the kiosks of well-known bookstores were chock-a-block with paperback and hardcover comics (published in India). Surely, someone had written those?! My search yielded yet another unpromising trend – all those books with fancy covers were retellings of epics and classics, and most of the credits showed that the story(re)tellers were not Indian. This is one more hurdle that Indian comics writers face, the preference for international names.

The only original content available at the stores belonged to international publishers (big brands such as DC, Marvel, etc. or manga titles). Naturally, they’re sold at a premium. Apart from these, only a miniscule percentage of the already few Indian publishing houses dedicated to the culture of comics seemed to have invested in writers and stressed on creating original, quality content, as the rest continued to exploit mythology. It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to infer that this could be the reason why writers turn graphic novelists. This allows them creative freedom, while bringing in some much-needed individual recognition.

Beyond retelling

But the lack of an ecosystem that is ready to break the monotony of retellings - which Indian comics are somewhat synonymous with - and strive to develop interesting new content leaves a huge gap in the market. Lovers of comics fondly remember writers such as Aabid Surti, Anant Pai, and Pran Kumar Sharma, and illustrators such as Narayan Debnath, Govind Brahmania, Pratap Mullick, and Ram Waeerkar till date. But very few names have been etched in fans’ collective memories thereafter, although scores of talented writers and artists have become a part of this ever-growing industry.

Even today, it is easier for a comics aficionado to appreciate an illustrator’s works, given the obvious visual nature of the medium. But aren’t comics about stories that stem from a writer’s imagination? Not just the industry, but the media and marketing could play a crucial role too by ensuring that writers are as much in the limelight as artists. Once this happens, ideas and writers will find their niche, and readers will have much more to choose from. The scope is enormous in both fiction and non-fiction. The industry would gain multidimensionality and the Comic Con would then be a different place.

These thoughts, along with my singular agenda, were drowned by the Comic Con crowd’s sudden, fanatic chanting of one name: “Gatiss! Gatiss! Gatiss!...” In that moment, it didn’t matter that perhaps the frenzy was because fans had gathered to see Tycho Nestoris from Game of Thrones or Mycroft from Sherlock. What stood out was the irony - Mark Gatiss, a gifted writer, was being celebrated in a surrounding that really had no place for writers.

Nalini Ramachandran is fascinated by the craft of storytelling. Oscillating between the worlds of fiction and non-fiction, she has told tales of imaginary characters and interesting people across various media.