There was a time when every family member in any middle-class family used to wait for the next Nagraj, Commando Dhruva or Doga comic.
Today, the only place these three Indian superheroes appear larger than life are on the posters that adorn the walls of Raj Comic’s (RC) sprawling studio in Burari, Delhi.
Raj Comics marks its silver jubilee this year, but Sanjay Gupta, RC’s creative head, is in no mood to celebrate.
The reason: his creation, Nagraj, India’s most famous action comic superhero, has failed the test of time. “When I created Nagraj in 1986, I was sure it would become a global comic superhero like Superman or Batman. That hasn’t happened,” says Gupta, sitting in his office, his desk crammed with an assortment of comic books and sketches of new comic characters he is trying to create for the publication house his father, Raj Kumar Gupta, started 25 years ago.
In fact, instead of winning over the world, Nagraj lost ground at home, too. “In the 90s, each Nagraj comic used to print at least 3 lakh copies; now it’s just 70,000 copies,” says Gupta. This, he says, is due to a decline in comic culture caused by the advent of satellite TV, internet, video games and other mediums of entertainment for children.
Gulshan Rai, founder of Diamond Comics—publishers of the legendary Chacha Chaudhary comics—calls the seven years between 1997-2003 ‘the dark age of Indian comics’ in which at least 50 Indian comic publishers, including Manoj Comics and Tulsi Comics shut down. “Our sales fell to 3 lakh from 15 lakh copies,” says Rai.
“By the late 90s, our sales dropped by 90 per cent. We had no option but to close our comics division,” says Ved Prakash Sharma of Tulsi Pocket Books, the publication house that owned Tulsi Comics, which closed down in 2004.
To recover lost ground, the surviving Indian comic book houses are trying to leverage their content on diverse platforms like mobile phones, internet, home video and television. Raj Comics has tied up with a mobile service provider. It is also producing motion comics. Diamond Comics is planning a TV channel, slated to go on air this year, that will have shows based on some of its popular characters in animated versions, including Chacha Chaudhary.
Besides, these comic book houses are tying up with Bollywood. Gupta is in talks with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap to make a film on Doga, the dog-masked popular superhero from Raj Comics. “Bollywood and Indian comic book houses can gain a lot from each other,” says Gupta. Diamond Comics plans to come up with a range of merchandise based on its characters. Besides, Indian comic book houses are adapting contemporary events for stories. Last year, Raj Comics brought out a comic based on 26/11. Also, instead of newsprint, Raj comics now publishes comics on thick, glossy paper, with lots of digital effects.
Besides, Gupta has already planned a major makeover for Nagraj —who, he believes can still be global comic superhero—like Superman.