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All about Priya’s Shakti: India’s first feminist superhero comic

art-and-culture Updated: Oct 14, 2016 18:45 IST
Poorva Joshi
Poorva Joshi
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

An illustration of Priya, the comic’s protagonist with her tiger. (Photo: priyashakti.com)

A rape victim turns superhero in an Indian village. Priya’s Shakti is far from your average graphic novel. Ahead of his visit to Mumbai Comic Con, artist Dan Goldman tells us how the idea came about

This is nothing like Marvel’s Avengers, or DC’s Justice League comic. You won’t find a Batman or Thor in its pages. In fact, the superhero is a girl. She can neither shoot spider webs from her wrists, nor does she have the kind of money to build flying suits. Her superpower is good old social persuasion. Her aim is to rid the world of patriarchal domination, and her partner is a celestial tiger — none other than goddess Parvati’s steed.

That’s the premise of Priya’s Shakti — the story of a young girl, Priya, who is gang-raped. Why? The men of her village believe her clothes — the midriff-showing ghagra choli — are too revealing. Priya’s father agrees with them. “You have shamed our family,” says the speech bubble above his illustrated figure.

Helpless, Priya calls upon Parvati to rescue her. A disturbed Parvati reincarnates herself in Priya’s body and gives her the power to avenge herself. What transpires is a war of the gods against mankind. As Shiva unleashes a curse on earth, it is up to Priya to convince mankind to wake up to the cause of gender equality.

“We consciously decided to make Priya an ordinary woman, who is an unlikely agent of change. It goes on to show that even the most ordinary ones, among us, have the power to rally a revolution,” says Dan Goldman (42), the illustrator for Priya’s Shakti.

We speak to Goldman over a Skype call, ahead of his visit to Mumbai for the Comic Convention — an annual comic and science-fiction festival. It’s 4am in New York when we call. We suspect we might have woken Goldman up. In a croaky voice, he excuses himself to drink water before the interview. He sounds like a man of few words; he takes long pauses while speaking, and rarely elaborates on his answers.

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From Priya’s Shakti (Photo: priyashakti.com)

Published in 2014, Priya’s Shakti was declared a champion for women empowerment by United Nations Women. Now, the comic is out with its second chapter — Priya’s Mirror. The story sees Priya teaming up with Indian acid attack survivors, to wage a war against the demonic king, Ahankar. “The idea was to speak about the notion of male pride and the illusion of authority they think they have over women,” says Goldman.

A narrative of change

The comic was created by New York-based Indian filmmaker, Ram Devineni. In fact, everyone on the founding team is Indian, except Goldman. “I met Ram at a technology and storytelling convention in New York in 2013. We started talking about a comic he wanted to create, a superhero who would stand for women empowerment. The more he spoke about it, I realised I couldn’t lose this project to any other artist,” says Goldman.

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From Priya’s Shakti (Photo: priyashakti.com)

It couldn’t have been easy to create characters that belong to a society different from the one he grew up in. Goldman says he was given the freedom to experiment. Additionally, he had a solid reference point. “I read a lot of Amar Chitra Katha comics. That artwork had a deep influence on the illustrations for Priya’s Shakti,” says Goldman, adding that he consciously did not alter the illustrations of gods and goddesses to keep them relatable for Indian audiences.

Priya’s character, too, is frail and dusky. She doesn’t even have a superhero costume. Her tiger, however, is gigantic. Think He-Man and his pet tiger, Cringer. “Her simplicity becomes her power when she mounts the tiger,” says Goldman.

From Priya’s Shakti. Goldman consciously did not alter the illustrations of gods and goddesses to keep them relatable for Indian audiences. (Photo: priyashakti.com)

An underdog warrior

Goldman grew up on a steady diet of Archie and superhero comics, in Detroit, USA, and has been drawing since he was 10. “I drew a lot of mice as a kid — mice wearing costumes,” says Goldman. But things changed when he saw the work of Bill Sienkiewicz, an American artist who illustrated for Marvel Comics’ Elektra: Assassin series. “It was the first time I had seen a complete comic book, and it was a big moment in my life,” he says.

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His love for art and storytelling translated into a series of freelance assignments — short comics on socio-political issues — for publications such as Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine.

In 2006, he also created an independent graphic novel called Shooting Wars where a hipster journalist and video blogger, Jimmy Burns, covers America’s war on terrorism on live feed. The novel won the Eisner Award (the comic art world equivalent of an Academy Award) in 2006.

Comic artist and Priya’s Shakti illustrator Dan Goldman. (Photo courtesy: Comic Con Mumbai)

What’s remarkable in all his work, however, is his social awareness, and the use of art to express it. Even with Priya’s Shakti, Goldman hopes to start a global conversation against sexism.

Yet, Goldman believes change is on the horizon. With poignant conversations about the treatment of women in comics, and their perceptions as sexualised objects (think Wonder Woman’s scantily dressed character) becoming a pop culture phenomenon today (thanks to the Marvel and DC movie franchises), a future where women are recognised as true superheroes may not be distant.

“Sure, there will always be a few silly little boys who will continue believing that the superhero world should be a male-dominated space. I hope my work can put a small dent in that,” says Goldman.

Don’t miss: Comic Con Mumbai will take place on October 22 and 23, 10am onward
At: Bombay Convention and Exhibition Centre, Goregaon
Tickets: Rs 375 for a daily pass on comicconmumbai.com/tickets