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Beyond Borders: How two American universities are competing to build the biggest collection of Indian comic books in the world

Michigan State University has 1,763 titles from India — Amar Chitra Katha, Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, Lion and Muthu, some new-age graphic novels such as Campfire, and University of Illinois has 1,500 of them, nearly the same tiles and also Indrajal — the Hindi translations of Phantoms and Mandrakes; with around 450 waiting to be catalogued

india Updated: Dec 17, 2017 00:12 IST
Yashwant Raj
Comic books are increasingly being seen as an integral part of popular culture and, thus, a valuable resource to understanding a society, its people, culture and values.
Comic books are increasingly being seen as an integral part of popular culture and, thus, a valuable resource to understanding a society, its people, culture and values.(Animesh Debnath)

Siddhartha Chandra always carries three suitcases for travels to Asia. One, the smallest of them, is for his personal belongings, and two of them, big ones, go completely empty. They return packed with comic books. That’s how he has built Michigan State University’s collection of Indian comic books, one of the largest in the United States: suitcase by suitcase, three times a year, for the last eight years.

“You go, you buy, and you bring back,” says Chandra, director of the Asian Studies Center at Lansing, Michigan, and the driving force behind its rapidly growing collection of comic books from the region, including Indonesia — he is a big fan of them — and, improbably, North Korea. He has been into comic books from childhood, some of which was spent on train between Thane and Delhi, with Amar Chitra Kathas bought on the go, with parents’ approval, from an AH Wheeler.

Across Lake Michigan, one of the five Great Lakes, Mara Thacker, an assistant professor and librarian of South Asian studies, has been diligently constructing her collection of comic books from India at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, through trips to India, visits to Comic-Cons, at least one, palling up sceptical comic-book fanatics online and in person, publishers and collectors — it took her a while, a personal visit, to convince on collector she was serious. She has even set up a “Google Alert” to catch anything new or old popping on the Internet.

Whichever collection wins the race in the United States, wins the world with no competition, apparently, from Europe or even, and that should be a cause for some shame at home, in India.

“At the moment,” Thacker declares without any hesitation, “we are tied with the library of University of Michigan, but we are very confident we will have the largest collection in the United States soon, because we are growing, and rapidly.” And becoming the largest in the United States could make her collection, when it crosses that milestone, the largest in the world. “I don’t think there are collectors in Europe and though there some in India none of them seem to have as many as ours.” “We have an extraordinary commitment to it,” she added.

Number and Number

University of Michigan has 1,763 titles from India — Amar Chitra Katha, Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, Lion and Muthu, some new-age graphic novels such as Campfire, and University of Illinois has 1,500 of them, nearly the same tiles and also Indrajal — the Hindi translations of Phantoms and Mandrakes; with around 450 waiting to be catalogued. These numbers are somewhat complex and misleading. At least for Michigan, which counts Amar Chitra Katha comic books, the most popular of them, as one entry, divided into separate volumes, between an estimated 200 and 300. Some of them re-runs of the same story, done differently. Even Chandra doesn’t want to hazard a guess. “I think I can guarantee that we have at least 1,763,” he said, adding, with a a chuckle, “but we probably have more than that.”

This is not a beauty pageant. Nor a teen obsession that still don’t cut it with parents far more focused on the colors on the report card. Comic books are increasingly seen as an integral part of popular culture and, thus, a valuable resource to understanding a society, its people, culture and values. Amar Chitra Katha publications that were focussed on a mix of history and Hindu mythology actually helped to shape what it was to be Indian among the middle classes in the 1960s, 70, and 80s, says Chandra, who himself grew up on a steady diet of them — Rani Jhansi, Shivaji, Akbar, Ashoka.

Mara Thacker of the University of Illinois with her collection of Indian comics. The university has about 1,500 Indian comics. (Jake Metz, The Media Commons Technical Support Specialist, University of Illinois)

The Michigan library focusses on “indigenous” comics. And Chandra rattles them off from a checklist stored in not too remote a recess in his mind. Amar Chitra Katha, of course, ruled the comic books scene in India and his library and others — but he also has some from its lesser-known rivals Adarsh Chitra Katha and Manoj Chitra Katha, that are difficult to come by “because they haven’t survived”. And then there are Diamond comics, Raj comics “Lion and Muthu” from Tamil Nadu, and translations. Chandra is very excited about this “very interesting”, “amazing” collection of Campfire comic books whose artwork is of such high standard that they have put Indian artists on the global scene, earning them contracts from foreign authors. Titles include “Genesis: from creation to the flood”, “They changed the world: Edison-Tesla-Bell” and “Abhimanyu and the conquest of the Chakravyuha”.

The theme has been shifting from the preponderance of history and Hindu mythology and superheroes to contemporary subjects such as the Mumbai terrorists attacks, acid attacks on women and personalities. One of the Chandra’s proudest additions to the his collection is Amar Chitra Katha cover on Verghese Kurien, the founder of Amul and man widely called the Father of White Revolution in India. “He was an alumnus of Michigan State University and we have a comic book on him and his life,” Chandra says, eager to press the importance. “Think about the other covers done by the publication (Amar Chitra Katha) — Jesus Christ, Buddha, Shivaji … this a serious line-up.”

Thacker is impressed by some of the new trends in India too — the use of digital drawing, color saturation, “creeping influence” of Japanese Manga style. More global, once again. “Goliath of Shenzhen”, she found was extremely interesting publication from Kolkata recently. It told a Chinese folk tale. Front of the book was a graphic novel, and the back told the same story in prose. “It had really beautiful art and a lot fo people were really excited about it,” she says. Another publication, Holy Cow Entertainment, launched a series build around Caster, a Catholic priest from India who fights demons.

May the best …

Other US universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, also have sizable collections of Indian comic books but none of them are in the race for the top, not with the kind of numbers Michigan and Illinois bring, or drive. And Thacker, who is also an assistant professor, is right. Whichever collection wins the race in the United States, wins the world with no competition, apparently, from Europe or even, and that should be a cause for some shame at home, in India.

And they keep an eye on each other. Thacker pointed to Michigan for her closest competition and Chandra said he was aware of the Illinois collection. And Randy Scott, the Michigan university librarian who has overseen what is the country’s largest collection — academic, he added the qualifier — comic books at around 300,000, that include those from Asia and India, playfully knocked a recent report Michigan has the largest India bouquet. “She has already declared victory,” he said, laughing. To be fair to Thacker, that was not really her, she had not made that claim. It was news report. Scott wasn’t much troubled by it, either way, and moved on.

Scott joined the library in 1974 — as a typist, he pointed out, for no apparent reason, other than to marvel at the journey since. His first brush with Indian comic books came in the 1970s, at a local book store in Lansing, where he has lived since joining the university. “They had probably been left by some customers or a tourist,” he recalled. “They had seemed exotic.” He bought them, and that was the start of the university’s collection of Indian comics. He picked up as and when he could. They were not readily available in the United States. But not enough for a take off. That would wait a few years.

Till 2009, when Chandra joined as director of the university’s new Asian Center. The library had the largest comic collection and — to Scott’s credit, they had a fair number of Amar Chitra Kathas as well — but their Asian collection was not as large as he thought it should be. So they started, and India it had to be.

Thacker discovered Indian comic books as an undergraduate student studying popular culture. Amar Chitra Katha books were prescribed reading for picking up Hindi, getting familiar with the people and culture. Once she started working as a librarian she was asked by their collective to pick a local niche that was unique. Around then the library for the undergrad classes on South Asia asked her she could help build their collection of graphic novels from India. Research showed there wasn’t much happening. “That’s when we decided we could become a hub for Indian comic books.” That was 2012. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”