comic books

Comic Con India founder explains why Bengaluru loves Star Wars while Delhi prefers Marvel heroes

Jatin Varma on zines, cosplaying and the grim world of comic book publishing.

Comic Con India, an annual pop culture convention held to celebrate the world of comics and graphic art, has come a long way since its small beginnings in 2011. From just one event in Delhi, attended by 5,000 visitors, it has expanded to five cities, including Bengaluru, where it will make an appearance this year on December 2-3.

The idea of such a large-scale event stemmed from the need to create a platform for Indians who love comics and graphic novels. Those who attend it do so to share their admiration for zines, large comic franchises or even a life-changing character with the community.

Scroll.in caught up with founder Jatin Varma to discuss his fascination for comics, the world of publishing, and what to expect in the upcoming editions of Comic Con.

Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con, India.
Jatin Varma, founder of Comic Con, India.

Which was the first comic you read?
I think it was Tinkle. I remember being hooked to it and loved the fact that it had a section called “It happened to me”, where you could send a story and they would select it. I sent many and they always rejected it, but on their 30th anniversary, they published my quote, and I was thrilled. I must have been eight or nine, and was post the Enid Blyton phase and had just started reading books like Tintin and Asterix.

Was there a gap in India’s engagement with the comic world that made you start Comic Con in 2011?
I didn’t do it for the bigger picture and for all the geeks out there – I just did it for myself. I like comics and was publishing a magazine called Random, which was like Mad Magazine. There were a lot of contributions and had a fair idea of what was going on in the world of comics. So it was a personal project, for which I was willing to even lose money. I believe that we should only do things in life that haven’t been done before because there’s some uniqueness to it.

The other motivation was that at that time, a part of my business was producing television shows for channels, wherein you don’t have control of what goes out at the end of the day. You don’t own the content in most cases. I didn’t want to continue pitching my idea, making it my baby, and then somebody else owning it and usually, taking it down the drain. I had some experience with events, which was The Golden Kela Awards that I still do. But it wasn’t at the same level as Comic Con.

What has been the response in each city?
Our biggest show till date has always been Delhi, even if the audience isn’t the nerdiest. Delhi and Hyderabad are about how to have more fun; Bengaluru and Mumbai tends to be a little more nerdy in terms of fandoms and they know what they want. So Bengaluru and Mumbai seem to be more into the Star Wars franchise, versus a Delhi and Hyderabad, which are more into Marvel. But in all cities, we bring out the geeks.

What is the curation process?
It’s still a very niche industry, so the number of people in it is limited. There are phases of boom and bust. There are more serious players now, who are consistently producing comics and creating new characters. And then there are people who do it one year and then vanish and re-emerge two years later. The graphic arts isn’t a full-time profession for everyone.

If someone is dedicatedly putting out new comics every year, then we give them extra support and promotions at all our shows to talk about the art, share their comics. The idea is to encourage them to keep producing. The best example of this would be Abhijeet Kini from Mumbai, who produces his own line of comics and works for Tinkle. Every year, he puts out new characters like Angry Maushi and Delhi Billi. Saumin Patel from Mumbai is another example whose quality of work is really good and is producing his own artworks and books. Another example is Vivek Goel, who runs an indie publication called Holy Cow. He’s one of the most active guys in the comic world, producing four to five new titles every year, always working on some series or the other. Not everyone has that bandwidth because not everyone does this full-time. Also, it’s not the easiest profession to be in because the Comic Cons are maybe 10 days in a year, and the rest of the year, you have to market yourself and sell your comics.

Do cosplayers, who wear costumes to represent characters, actually read those comics?
Cosplayers are very serious about what they do. You can’t do cosplay if you’re trying to be cool because there’s way too much effort involved. If someone is going as say, Chacha Chaudhary, they’re doing it for fun and have read the comics at some point of time. The moment you get into some of the Japanese characters, Anime, Manga or more detailed portrayals, you’re doing make-up, costumes, and doing it like a tribute to that character.

Give us some insights into the world of publishing comics.
People aren’t really buying books and bookstores are dying. It’s harder for artists to sell comic books. So they’re starting to sell their books to international publishers, who have a wider reach.

If you ask anyone, they’ve made peace with the fact that they won’t make millions of dollars with their comics, but they just want more people to see their work. It’s a vicious circle where you don’t get to distribute properly, and if you don’t have even money to produce, you can’t make new content. So a lot of people are innovating the format by trying out webcomics or only selling online. At the end of the day, there’s a much larger comic book reading audience outside India and a ready market with comic book shops and a proper distribution system.

What about self-publishing and the zine culture here?
The best thing about the internet is that it lets you try out different things. You’re on social media and have to figure out how to promote your work in a space where 10 million people are trying to get your attention. You have to be innovative and it’s not easy to sustain it, even if you’re a great comic book artist. The need to be a jack of all trades, to be self-published, printing on your own, creating a website, selling your work – unfortunately, these are the needs of the day, and not everyone is able to do it. That’s where we’re stuck. I always encourage newcomers to try and put their work outside India too, as you never know when something clicks and works out.

Can you recommend some highlights from Comic Con Delhi on December 15-17?
Go to the Indian Comic Book Guest Area. There are people like Abhijeet Kini, Akshay Dhar, Vivek Goel, Sumit Kumar, Shailesh Gopalan and Saumin Patel. There are international speakers like Ryan North, the creator of Dinosaur Comics and the writer for Squirrel Girl; Dan Parent, the artist and writer of Archie Comics; and Sonny Liew, a Singaporean comic book artist who just won tonnes of Eisner awards [the Oscars for comics] for his book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The quality of his work is so high that in the next few years, you’re sure to hear about him. My aim is always to bring in people who I feel will get bigger in the coming years, and to introduce people to their work, even if they don’t have the biggest fan base in India.

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