Mumbai: It’s Sachin Tendulkar like he has never been seen before. He wears metallic armour covering rippling muscles, yellow visors, a glowing sun on his chest, and sports a bat that radiates energy.
The transformation of India’s best-known and most-loved cricketer into a superhero is under way at the Bangalore studio of Virgin Comics Llc., a company founded by Sharad Devarajan, a former employee of MTV Networks and DC Comics and Gotham Chopra, writer, journalist, son of wellness guru Deepak Chopra, and a man named for a career in comics if there ever was one.
Gotham city is where Batman operates, and the name came to creator Bob Kane when he saw New York one cloudy evening and thought that the city looked Gothic. Chopra was initially named Gautam (after the Buddha), but changed it to Gotham.
Market creators: Chief creative officer of Virgin Comics Gotham Chopra (left) and chief executive officer Sharad Devarajan are seen by people associated with Virgin and the comics book industry as market creators. So much so that people hope that the duo will change the kind of Indian comics that hit the stands.
Devarajan and Chopra, both Indian Americans, created Virgin Comics from Gotham Entertainment Group that has published DC comics such as Spider-Man and X-Men in South Asia for the past 10 years. In 2006, the two decided to create “Indian” comics with local characters and local visuals: busy streets filled with auto rickshaws; cows and traffic; women in saris.
“Asian content was becoming very mainstream in the West,” says Devarajan, chief executive officer of Virgin Comics, referring to the genesis of the company.
“You had China, Japan and Korea all becoming very prolific in exporting their content. And where was India?” asks Chopra, the chief creative officer.
Virgin hasn’t got down to the auto rickshaws yet. Its first comics have been based on the Ramayana (with a science fiction twist), and superheroes and heroines such as Devi, Sadhu, and Snakewoman. The company has also managed to rope in celebrities such as director John Woo and actor Nicholas Cage (and his son) to create characters. And it has signed on authors such as Mike Carey and Garth Ennis to actually script the books.
That’s the comics equivalent of working with directors such as Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and Virgin has managed to do all this in a little over a year.
In this period, Virgin has also formed partnerships with half-a-dozen top names in the global entertainment business for movies and games based on the company’s characters. It has received (and continues to receive) a lot of calls from Indian writers and artists looking to be part of the Virgin story. And it has sold at least 200,000 copies of its most popular comics.
India has had its brush with comics in the past, but despite the popularity of the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) books of India Book House (a series that looks at everything from mythology to history to contemporary personalities), the medium has never really taken off in the country, the way it has in Japan, for instance.
ACK books are popular with the Indian diaspora, but Virgin’s model is different—the company wants to make its comics, with Indian characters and others, successful in the US, the biggest market for English language comics in the world.
Chopra and Devarajan are both “comics” people. The former likes to dress in baggy jeans and loose buttoned-down shirts, and sports a leather arm band and sneakers. In college, he wrote Child of the Dawn, a parable based on his father’s bestselling Seven Rules of Spiritual Success. He also edited Bulletproof Monk, a comic that went on to be made into a movie starring Chow Yun Fat.
Devarajan prefers dark suits and wears his hair slicked back and he loved comics even as a boy.
“Sharad gets this glow in his eyes whenever he talks about comics,” says writer Saurav Mohapatra, who is continuing the Devi series from the 11th book.
When the duo came up with their idea of “Indian” comics for the global market, it was immediately backed by Deepak Chopra and friend, director Shekhar Kapur (Devi is his creation), but they still couldn’t find anyone willing to invest in the project.
Devarajan says the duo approached several investors, only to hear comments such as: “We have never seen anything successful, from India (in comic books).”
Finally, Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson saw potential behind their idea and told them they were pioneers.
“‘And you know what happens to pioneers? They get shot in the back and someone else comes in and settles the land’,” Deverajan recalls Branson telling them. Branson eventually invested in the project, and the venture had his brand name.
Virgin launched its first set of comics books in the US—Shekhar Kapur’s Devi and Snakewoman, and Gotham Chopra’s Sadhu—in July 2006. Since then, it has also launched Ramayana, set in AD 3392, Deepak Chopra’s Indian Authentic, director Guy Ritchie’s Gamekeeper, and Nicholas and Weston Cage’s Voodoo Child.
The US launch came at a time when the US was witnessing a revival in comic books with revenues at a 10-year high. Since their US debut, Virgin comics have been launched in the UK and India. Later this year, they will go to France and Japan, both countries with a strong comic book market. According to George Salmons, an assistant manager at That’s Entertainment, a comic book store in southern Massachusetts and a self-confessed comic book aficionado, the Virgin comics have done well in the US. “It is not a top seller but (is) very strong (in terms of sales),” he says. “Comics are a tough market in America and (the genre) is dominated by superheroes and traditional stuff,” he adds.
Most new publishers die out in six months, but Salmons doesn’t see this happening to Virgin. He says that the books were not relegated to the “alternative” category in his stores (but remained popular enough to be mainstream).
According to Salmons, 75% of comic book readers that compose the mainstream were the buyers for the Indian-themed books, and Ramayan 3392 AD was the bestseller.
Overall, the comics have been received well by critics and comic book readers, although some critics say the big name creators are a gratuitous ploy for publicity. Still, writers such as Carey and Ennis come with their own following. According to pop culture information tracker ICv2, more than one of Virgin’s comics have been in the Top 300 list since launch.
And Virgin Comics’ revenues from these top sellers has been more than $600 million (Rs2,460 crore) for the 12 months of data available on ICv2 (it arrives at this number based on sales of these comics by Diamond US, a company that has had an exclusive distribution agreement with Virgin since January). More than half of those revenues came from the Devi, Snakewoman and Ramayan 3392 AD series.
Devarajan would not disclose the closely-held company’s global revenues.
Virgin Comics has also been quick to realize the multimedia benefits of being in the comics business. Sadhu is being made into a motion picture starring Nicholas Cage. Virgin has alliances with India’s Jump Games Pvt. Ltd to create mobile games; Studio 18 to make horror movies; MySpace for a comic book platform that allows readers to create comics in partnership with some of the world’s best-known comics writers such as Carey; UTV Motion Pictures Plc. to create superhero franchises; and Sony Online Entertainment to produce games for the personal computer.
Devarajan and Chopra are seen by people associated with Virgin and the comics books industry as “market creators”. “The reason I am very hopeful (about their venture) is the combination of people at Virgin. As people I think they are quite different,” says writer Samit Basu, who wrote several of the Devi books.
The Basus and the Mohapatras of the world are unlikely to have had an opportunity to write comics for DC or Marvel, says Mohapatra. “It (Virgin) is a great boost for creators in India who want to work in the graphic fiction field,” he adds.
Salil Bhargava, chief executive officer of Jump Games, says that as a gaming company, Jump longed to bring Indian themes to mobile games. “When we came across what Virgin was doing, we realized it was a perfect fit,” he adds.
Indians aren’t used to comics such as the ones Virgin puts out, admits Basu. And Mohapatra says that there is a certain expectation of the kind of fiction that can be created by writers of Indian origin. The two, and many others, are hoping Chopra and Devarajan will change that.
Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to firstname.lastname@example.org