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Indie comic books are no longer just kids’ stuff

Complete with complex plotlines and mature humour, self-published comics are garnering a steady readership

Debasmita Dasgupta with a copy of her comic 'Nadya'.
Debasmita Dasgupta with a copy of her comic 'Nadya'.

A few weeks ago, the Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai hosted a children’s literature festival at the Kitabkhana bookstore and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. One of the highlights was the segment on comic books and graphic novels, particularly those by independent creators. Yamini Shah, curator of the festival, was keen to bring a variety of readers to the venue, and the sessions on comics saw packed audiences made up of teens and young adults.

For many of us, the love affair with comic books began with Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha though the current generation of readers has grown up to have more eclectic tastes. My 13-year-old daughter, like many of her peers, is a huge fan of manga. However, there is an equal fascination for work by independent Indian comic book creators such as Unbearable Comics, Holy Cow Entertainment and Meta Desi Comics, which have garnered a loyal following.

Unbearable Comics’ first volume, Eyes ‘n’ Daggers, a ghost-hunting action adventure series, sold out at the Comic-Con Bengaluru in 2022. The creators, Bajro Narayan Dutta, Prathamesh Gandhi, and Vignesh Ramesh, partnered with IndiePress to print and publish their series. “A self-publishing platform frees us up to experiment with our story formats,” says Ramesh.

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Abhijeet Kini is one of the most influential names in comics in India. An illustrator and animator who runs Abhijeet Kini Studios in Mumbai, and the creator of the Angry Maushi comic series, he believes that there are many independent comic book houses and creators in India, who have distinctive styles and a following among both teens and adults.

No longer do comic books feature simplistic plots and child-like humour. They come with mature jokes and complex plotlines. “Today, comic books in India explore dark humour, sociopolitical satire, indigenous superheroes rooted in mythology, and horror,” he says.

Hamza Sayed is the founder of the Comic Book Store in Mumbai, which opened in 2022 and claims to be India’s first exclusive comic book store. Like Kini, he believes there is a significant uptick in young readers and adults demanding more independent comics. “There are various platforms like IndiePress that distribute self-published comics and even big publishing houses have imprints that cater to independent comic creators,” he says. “Today, comic books resemble well-directed movies, with an immersive and visually appealing storytelling experience.”

For example, an Amar Chitra Katha has the traditional comic book look and feel with many panels but in newer comic books, one particular dialogue or scene takes up the entire page. Comic books like the Dracula series by Bullseye Press or Ravanayan by Holy Cow explore local lore with indigenous superheroes.

The reason for this is, perhaps, that the demographic this genre targets has changed. No longer are comics meant only for children. Indian writers and illustrators are working on content that would appeal to adolescents and young adults. And example of such a book is People Of The Indus (2022) by Nikhil Gulati and Mark Kenoyer, which demystified history through stories from the Indus Valley Civilisation. In fact, comics and graphic novels have become great ways to get young readers to explore history, identity, and dissent.

The themes also intersect. Debasmita Dasgupta’s Terminal 3: A Graphic Novel Set In Kashmir (2023) is about Khwab Nazir, a young girl who is set to represent India at an international jiu jitsu tournament but is filled with uncertainty.

Earlier comic book publishers would bring out their own serialised editions—Tinkle is a case in point—but today popular publishers are reaching out to independent comic book creators for collaborations. One of the most popular comic books released in the last few years in India is Maithili And The Minotaur: Web Of Woe (2021), written by C.G. Salamander and illustrated by Rajiv Eipe. Published by Penguin Random House, the books are filled with delightfully weird characters, incredible flights of fantasy, and dark, wicked humour. Salamander and Eipe created Maithili And The Minotaur as a serialised comic, which ultimately turned into two books, with the third coming out in May 2024. “When it comes to prose, I restrict myself with the themes. But with comics, these rules fly out the window,” says Salamander.

Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Mumbai.

Also read: Children's Special 2023: Reading various versions of the past


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