Comics writer Somesh Kumar, who has been working on a 500-page comic set in small town Bihar, has finished 50 pages in less than two months, a feat that would have otherwise taken him a year. Illustrator Harsho Mohan Chattoraj is about a month away from completing his 100-page comic, while Appupen is making steady progress with his latest book.

With their calendars free thanks to the pandemic, comics creators in India have been breezing through their work, producing more than they usually would. But this brings us to an important question: who’s going to publish all these books? And where do we go from here as an industry?

But first, let’s back up to track the story so far:

A brief history of comics in India

I spent a large part of my weekend battling cockroaches and digging through boxes of comics I’d collected since I was six. There were newspaper clippings of Peanuts from the young world; issues of Amar Chitra Katha’s The Mahabharata; a number of yellowing Tinkles; and a whole lot of puffy Archies. But the ones that really grabbed my attention were the pulpy Lion and Muthu Comics I’d “borrowed” from barbers and tea shops – it’s not stealing when you’re six and don’t know better.

These slim, cheaply produced comics were about pirates, cowboys, detectives, superheroes and mad scientists, and while growing up, they were everywhere. Coquettish southerners spoke Tamil, James Bond uttered punch dialogues, cowboys were given the most Indian names. But how on earth was this possible?

For that, I need to take you back to the late ’50s, when comics first started appearing in newspapers and magazines. India started her comic journey by translating and serialising international comics and publishing them in dailies or magazines. They were an instant hit with Indian readers, and as the medium grew in popularity, there was soon a need for stories to be told using the comic medium.

Cut to a few years later, and enter Indrajal Comics – a Times of India group imprint founded in the mid-’60s – which syndicated, translated, and published western comics like The Phantom, Mandrake and Flash Gordon. For the very first time, Indians could buy an entire comic book, instead of having to wait for newspapers and magazines to finish a story.

The Phantom

Growing up, I’d always confused The Phantom for an Indian comic. Maybe it was because of the show on DD2, or perhaps it was because The Phantom was almost always bundled with Amar Chitra Katha comics in the local lending library. When ACK came into existence in 1967, they were an instant game changer. In the 53 years since, they’ve published over 400 comics across multiple languages, sold over a 100 million copies till date, and have cultivated generations of comic readers.

And yet, their biggest contribution to the Indian comic industry was the introduction of homegrown comic books. With retellings of Indian mythology and an emphasis on Indian characters, ACK forced the comic industry to conceive and create comic characters that were uniquely Indian instead of merely translating comics from abroad.

The golden age

In the span of the next few years, there was a flood of original Indian comics, such as Pran Sharma’s Chacha Chaudhary, which started in the late ’60s and has sold over 10 million copies. The comic industry had finally taken off, and magazines and comic publishers mushroomed throughout the ’70s. Diamond Comics came into existence and created Fauladi Singh, a space hero; the detective duo Lambu and Motu; and Billoo the school student. The ’70s was when smaller, regional comic publishers set up shop across the country, introducing an entire generation of Indians to zombies and superheroes.

But it was only in the ’80s that Indian comics reached their full potential. Often referred to as the golden era of Indian comics, the ’80s acquainted readers with some of the country’s most iconic comic characters. Tinkle – founded in 1980 – introduced readers to Shikari Shambu, Ramu and Shamu, Kalia the crow, Tantri the Mantri and Suppandi, while Raj Comics brought out superheroes like Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruva. The mid-’80s to the mid-’90s were an exciting time for Indian comics, with the popular ones easily selling upwards of 100,000 copies within a few weeks.

It looked like the comic industry was here to stay, but the late ’90s weren’t kind to comic creators and publishers. Interest began to dwindle, and publishers either started closing shop or reducing their lists. Why did such a vibrant industry with decades of sales come to a grinding halt? The reason starts with a T and ends with a V.

The comic ecosystem

Now that the glorious past is over, it’s time to embrace the present. The comic industry is not what it used to be. Publishers struggle to exhaust print runs of 2000 copies; creators are paid abysmally low rates; and our distribution system is non-existent. Comics are hard to find in bookstores, let alone hair salons and tea shops as in the past. We’ve shrunk from an industry of 20-something publishers producing hundreds of comics a year to one that relies on three mainstream publishers and a handful of indie publishers who produce fewer than a dozen comics a year combined.

So what does the Indian comic ecosystem look like today? We have zines – slim and easy-to-print pamphlets that can be stapled and produced right at home. Newcomers start out experimenting with zines, and sell their homemade comics at indie comic festivals or small gatherings.

Slightly up the ladder are short comic anthologies published by indie and mainstream publishers, followed by full length comics or graphic novels for the Indian market. There is of course the international comics market. And this is not counting the thousands of comics produced on Instagram for free.

So is it possible to make money off the comic ecosystem in India? If so, how much does the average comic book writer or illustrator make?

Do comics pay?

I will split this into three categories for the purpose of analysis: Indian mainstream comic publishers, independent publishers, and commercial work. Shockingly, it’s the mainstream publishers who pay the least. The average advance against royalty for an 80- to 100-page comic ranges between Rs 50,000 and Rs 85,000 – to be shared between the writer and illustrator.

That’s enough money to sustain a writer or an illustrator for a month, while completing an 80- page comic takes at least six months of dedicated work. Indian mainstream publishers pay so little because comic book deals are structured the same way as deals for works of prose – ie, the payment for the words is split between the writer and the illustrator, but the artwork has to be done free. To put this in perspective, the amount that creators in the international market get for five pages is roughly how much mainstream Indian publishers pay for a hundred pages.

Indie publishers manage to do a little better. They offer about three times as much as the mainstream, but since there’s less than a handful of Indie presses working on no more than 15 books in all, comic writers and illustrators have to turn to commercial work.

Comic art by Harsho Mohan Chattoraj

Before the pandemic, commercial work included comics on financial literacy, advertising, graphic biographies, healthcare and the occasional editorial piece. A chartered accounting firm once asked me if I’d write a hundred-page GST comic, offering a sum in the ballpark of Rs 2.2 lakh, for a 80-page script. This gives a sense of how commercial work is the only way to make money writing or illustrating comics in India.

But this was before the pandemic. Since March, the only commissions that have come my way are COVID-19-related comic reportage, the occasional brief from an NGO in the healthcare sector, and STEM-based comics for children’s textbooks.

Commercial work has always been a means for artists and writers to sustain themselves while they work on their books with the hope of being published abroad. But the Covid19 situation has a serious dampener on things, including the international market.

Going international

Over the past few years, a fair number of Indian creators – writers, illustrators, and a letterer – have managed to break into the mainstream comic industry abroad. Working with publishers like DC, Dark Horse, Image and Archies, it was finally possible for an Indian writer or illustrator to earn a living doing nothing but writing and illustrating comics.

Illustrator Devaki Neogi is one such name who has broken into the international market, and like her peers, she completely relies on it for her livelihood. But, for Neogi, the Covid-19 situation is more than a setback. Her troubles began on 23 March, after Diamond Comics, the largest distributor of comics in the western world, declared that they were going to hit the pause button on distribution.

Covid-19 had made it impossible for comic stores to make a profit, let alone pay the rent, which meant there was no money for distributors to collect, and thus no money to be circulated to publishers, editors, writers and illustrators. Devaki was one among many creators whose projects are either on hold or uncertain at the moment.

Devaki Neogi's art for 'Josie and the Pussycats in Space'

The road ahead

Let’s face it, the road ahead is going to be bumpy. The Indian mainstream will probably look out for a bestseller, and even if they’re looking to publish comics, chances are that the rates will remain the same. As for independent publishers, they’re hanging by a thread. Kokaachi, a small comic publisher based in Kochi, hasn’t sold a single copy since the pandemic. It’s the same story with Syenagiri, an independent publishing house known for their city-based graphic novels. And yet, both Kokaachi and Syenagiri are busy putting their next book together. Syenagiri is commissioning their next anthology, Necrobaba, while Kokaachi is working on an ambitious eight-part Malayalam comic series, Idivettu, and have just wrapped up their first issue.

Independent publishing houses continue to work with the hope that everything will return to normal, while the most seasoned Indian comic publisher, Tinkle, is busy making a quick shift to digital. Savio Mascarenhas, the art director at Tinkle, believes digitisation is the way to go. “We were quick to embrace the digital shift,” he said, “and offered our catalogue for free during the lockdown. The best part about going digital is that you don’t need to wait for a 200-page book to be fully ready. You can upload and release it in phases.”

Tinkle has been quick to react to the Covid-19 situation, and is now considering digital publication as a viable option even after the pandemic. “We’re still commissioning projects, and we will go back to print after the Covid crisis comes to an end, but we’re going to be very selective of what we choose to print,” said Mascarenhas. “The way I see it, the digital shift is here to stay.”

After the pandemic

The Indian comic industry depended on robust warehouses, distributors, offices and salaries back in the ’80s, but that was a long time ago. Today, our worries – of the pandemic or otherwise – are tethered to the fates of the independent bookstores that carry our books, the comic fests where we congregate and sell our self-published zines and comics, and, most important, the commercial work that keeps us afloat.

It’s true that the coronavirus messed everything up for us, but it had been abundantly clear even before Covid-19 that whatever we were doing wasn’t working. Readers were scarce; our distribution was in peril; there was a scarcity of comic editors; writers and illustrators didn’t work under the safety of contracts; and we’re far from a base industry standard when it comes to page rates. But there are issues that my colleagues have managed to address during our conversations about the pandemic.

Appupen's 'Moonward'

Appupen and a few indie publishers and creators are working on a platform for comic folk to band together and share resources—printers, editors, and distribution links to select bookstores. The indie comic fests, held across eight cities last year, has prompted a steady shift towards self-publishing, and with it the promise of higher earnings. But the biggest gamechanger has been the surge of comics being published on Instagram .

“With the sheer number of people making comics these days, there’s a lot of scope for the genre to evolve,” said Sreejita Biswas, the founder of StripTease the Mag, an online publishing platform for comics, among other things. “The minute people read and understand different types of comics, you’re going to see them break away from one particular oversaturated approach.”

I find this to be somewhat cyclical, and see ourselves in a situation similar to the ones we were back in the late ’50s. Comics have begun invading our social media, and are increasingly being sought out as a primary means of storytelling. I’d like to think of us at the cusp of something big, perhaps a decade or two away from India’s second golden era of comics.

The Indian comic industry has survived thus far because of its healthy mix of optimism, arrogance, and persistence. I’m certain that it will survive the current pandemic.

From 'Striptease the Mag'

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.