Spawning the Next-Gen Superheroes
It’s OK to be a comic book geek — it might give you a million-dollar idea.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because rewriting our superhero stories means rewriting big dreams.
To get a sense of what an adolescent comic book geek might grow into, visit the offices of one Sharad Devarajan, CEO of a company called Graphic India. There, among others, you meet a goddess-slash-butt-kicker named Devi and the positively psychedelically depicted stars of the ancient epic the Mahabharata. In the alcove normally allotted in a Hindu home to keep an altar for prayer sit images of gods as grand superheroes that might appeal to that kid and his grandmother alike.
Here at Graphic India, Devarajan’s mission is to save the Indian comic book industry — or, rather, to get closer to the kinds of sales that hit the West (some $935 million in 2014, according to the research group Comichron). At a time when superheroes are going mainstream, when Marvel has built a multibillion-dollar movie empire out of the stuff of pimply nerddom and golden boy Ta-Nehisi Coates is writing the Black Panther comic, Devarajan wants India to have its due. The scale and grandiosity of India’s mythology, he says, is a natural fit for the superhero genre. Yet, he says, this country is woefully behind: While Japan was shipping manga, its signature comics, overseas, Indian stories rarely left the subcontinent. And across Asia, the most avid of comic book readers have spent decades consuming essentially American stories, not their own cultures’, says Philip Smith, who’s written and taught on digital media and comic books in Asia.
So 40-year-old Devarajan is beginning a quest to globalize the market. After previously building a comic empire in partnership with self-help guru Deepak Chopra and Virgin billionaire Richard Branson, Devarajan has today raised $4.2 million in two rounds for Graphic, which has a star-studded cast of characters already: Graphic redid the beloved film Sholay in comic form and partnered with Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to create a show with Disney Channel. And he’s worked with legendary writer Grant Morrison to re-create the Mahabharata for your computer screen. Then there’s the “Da Vinci” of comics, as Devarajan calls him: Stan Lee, former president of Marvel, who has created a character named Chakra. Instead of being bitten by, say, a spider or a monstrous new scientific creation, Chakra acquires a suit that allows him to unlock the many chakras of the body to self-improve. (This storyline, Devarajan tells me, demonstrates the difference between American and Indian ideology: In India, science and religion make easy bedfellows, and technology is not simply scary — it also holds spiritual possibility.)
He used senior year to negotiate rights with DC Comics and soon set up shop in a basement office in Bangalore.
Devarajan looks a bit like a comic book character himself, with heroically wide shoulders, memorable sharp features, slicked-back hair and a distinctive throaty voice that could play kid-cousin to Christian Bale’s. Stand him next to the company’s top artist, Jeevan Kang, and it’s hard to imagine that Devarajan began in this world as an artist; he is CEO, flesh and blood, and Kang, who joined up while a young architecture student over a decade ago, is shy. Devarajan likes to control the conversation and own a room — he almost seems too big for this one, his all-white office papered with pictures from 18 Days, Graphic’s digital Mahabharata adaptation. He refers to art and stories as “Indian IP.”
The day after graduating college in New York, 24-year-old, New Jersey–raised Devarajan landed in India to start the first of his three comic companies. The previous summer, while interning at DC Comics, he weaseled his way into the president’s office, pretending he needed something signed, and pitched the idea of distributing products on the subcontinent. He used his senior year to negotiate rights with DC Comics — Marvel soon followed — and, postgrad, set up shop in a basement office in Bangalore, with help from a family friend. (Devarajan’s mom was a journalist, and his dad was president of Warner Music Enterprises.) For two years, he played a guerrilla game, trying to attract kiddies to the comics he grew up on, even once hiring interns to dress up in capes and masks to advertise by a school. The more serious tactic: actually going for advertising. Most Indian distributors, Devarajan says, hadn’t made a huge play to get regular ad placement in comics, magazine-style. As the company took off, Devarajan hit up business school for 18 months, working all the while.
Why now? Indian comics have been around for ages, many of them telling the same tales that Devarajan’s artists are retelling — the Amar Chitra Katha comic franchise, lodged on every middle-class Hindu child’s bookshelf, peddles Indian myth and history as child-friendly stories. Myth populates TV shows in all languages and the silver screen too. But Devarajan, who’s been hacking away at the subcontinental comic market for over 15 years, figures this company couldn’t have existed a few years ago. Distribution in India is a nightmare. Stocking up piles of printed books, zooming them off on trucks around the pothole-riven roads? No, thanks. But now, thanks to digital media, Devarajan’s artists can draw on computers and ship products meant for iPads and TV.
Technology certainly enables one element of globalization — getting the words (and pictures!) out there. Next up: ideas, which have a trickier time crossing borders. Smith explains the origins of many comics on the continent are essentially American — even manga, he says, came about from American G.I.s leaving behind their materials in postwar Japan. The Asian stories that do get exported are the tip of the iceberg, Smith says. Superhero tales, after all, are myths; they map our ideologies and collective psyches. Which means Devarajan’s job is to tap a latent psyche — West and East, Amitabh and Iron Man.