Rise of the Supers
It’s a bird, it’s a plane...no, it’s the Supers - and they are everywhere!
When Mandrake gestured hypnotically, all would be well. When the Ghost Who Walks rode out on his white horse, many jaws would be left with the imprint of a skull, and trees would whisper Phantom Phantom...! Life was made up of comic books, which one read, re-read, and bartered with, exchanged, bound a whole lot of into a large volume, and, in general, spent many happy hours with.
There was Henry, the lad with a head like a billiard ball, who never said a word. Little Lulu with the two curls and ringlets; Lotta; Hotstuff, the little red devil; Casper, the friendly ghost and his three nasty cousins… the list goes on, depending on one’s own vintage. There were times when comics were made of imaginary creatures and boys drew World War II fighter planes all over their notebooks, when ack ack guns and battle tanks were the precursors to video games, when Commando comics brought out the true meaning of Tom and Jerry (the Brits and Germans)—forever immortalised in Hanna-Barbara’s iconic cat and mouse chase series.
Most of those characters died with their authors; publications came up with newer, smarter, more age-appropriate material. But some survived. And thrived. And grew younger, more powerful; became household names—Legends!
Batman is one such phenomenon. At 77, he’s only improved with age. Everybody knows Bruce Wayne—he is who every man wants to be: playboy by day, superhero by night, and big time movie star for all time. Women love him—they want to soothe all that hurt away. Gen next think he’s cool, because he’s a techno whiz, has all the right gadgets, drives a car that grown men only dream of and earns an average of roughly 04,000 crore each time he appears on the silver screen. He may still wear his fancy Kevlar underpants over his tights, but if you make that kind of money on films alone, who’s complaining?
Not only did Batman’s sidekicks—and enemies—like Robin and the Joker become iconic film stars on their own, Gotham City, his fictional abode, has spawned a complete TV serial of its own, set as a prequel to the Batman stories as we know them.
Batman isn’t the only cartoon who has made a success of his imagined life. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that path-breaking live action/animation mix, gave us Jessica Rabbit, a sexier-than-life ‘toon, who’s still the envy of women, the heartthrob of men.
In 1960, DC brought Batman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Superman, and Wonder Woman together to form the Justice League of America.
Later this year, more than half a century after they first appeared, Justice League is coming out as a movie, and by all estimates, could well be the most anticipated film in recent years. It also follows the tone set by other super hero collaborations in recent years, like Marvel’s Avengers as well as Batman Vs Superman.
Even before Batman, in 1938, there was Superman. Clark Kent and Lois Lane brought romance to superheroes, ensuring gender equal popularity, so much so that in the current scenario, Superman and Supergirl have enjoyed equal popularity on the small screen, though when Batman recently met Superman on celluloid, they were an epic fail!
Superman began his film career in 1941, in a series of shorts, but his first feature film was Superman and the Mole Men, starring George Reeves in 1951. Superman 1 had the amazing cast of Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman and Christopher Reeve among others. Reeve, who also starred in Superman II, was arguably the most popular star, requiring little or no special effects to help him look the part. The only other really significant film was in 2013, Man of Steel, and its follow up in 2016, the hugely hyped Batman v Superman, Dawn of Justice.
Superman’s lesser known but entertaining parody has been from the Japanese Manga—Suppaman—or Sourman. He rides on a skateboard on his fat belly, indiscriminately throwing grenades. With no real superpowers to speak off, he, too, changes his clothes in a phone booth, works as a reporter and is otherwise known as Kenta Kuraaku! Sounds familiar?
If the world has produced superheroes, it has most certainly produced the most awe-inspiring villains. Each one more imaginative and twisted than the other, they have surpassed the hero they were born to be vanquished by, and in the twisted world we live in, these villains have an equally huge fan following.
The Joker in the Batman series has left his counterparts far behind in the sweepstakes, especially after his appearance in the wildly successfu Christopher Nolan filml ‘Dark Knight’, the first superhero film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, back in 2008. Heath Ledger, who played the Joker etched in every mind a terror so dark that jokers will never be viewed as persons to laugh about again. His final legacy to film before his untimely death actually surpassed the earlier avatar played with equal madness by Jack Nicholson.
Perhaps not so well defined, but equally insane, were the villains without whom no superhero could be defined, and who have carried even video games to their extensions.
Small Screens & Big Heroes
TV lends itself marvellously to comic book storytelling than perhaps any other medium
Comic book properties exist at the pinnacle of media proprietary. It wields the market swagger of a Bruce Wayne profile on a dating site, while remaining as flexible as a Tony Stark argument on global warming served with a side of dry martini. It penetrates, adjusts and overwhelms every form of media with ease—video games, movies, T-shirts, legos, virtual reality or even the wrapping around your favorite happy meal. But, if there is one space on which eons of paper, pen and ink-based comic book lore finds true love, it is in episodic serials. In the golden age of television, this passionate romance is changing the rules of the game for both mediums.
The 1960s were the birthplace of pop culture as we know it. The Beatles, flower power, the beat generation, JFK, Rolling Stones, Hunter S. Thompson, you name it, they illuminated it. The television live-action superhero space went kapow in a neon blast of scream bubble as Adam West made a vertical climb on a horizontal building to plant the first rose bud of the romance. After a friendly wave to a nosy neighbour sticking her head out of a window, of course. Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman sparked fantasies of blue-eyed women in star spangled grammy panties wearing red corsets with a fistful of gold paint at the convex end. Lou Ferrigno painted green as The Hulk was eye candy for the opposite sex while providing anatomy lessons to the muscularly impaired. The serialised nature of these shows made for apt storytelling vehicles for the immortal nature of comic book catastrophes. There would always be a bank to be robbed, always a dastardly deviant to be dispatched. But, as the demand for comic books waned through the 1980s, so did the popularity of the shows attached to them. In this they were loyal lovers.
The new millennium witnessed television grappling its way to relevance again. Wesley Snipes’ Blade, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man had eked some mainstream interest back into comic books. In 2001, DC launched Smallville, a coming-of-age bubble gum tale of a teenager in high school, just like any other, but for the minor contrivance of him being the Kryptonian, the world would soon come to know as Superman. This was genesis. Ground zero of the DC and Marvel tellyverse phenomena.
With Smallville’s conclusion, DC launched Arrow, a gritty and polished prototype of what it would then replicate over the years with other properties like Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and their most successful outing, The Flash. The reason why television lends itself so marvelously to comic book storytelling is because of the nature of comic book arcs. They are naturally serialised, smaller events leading up to grand conclusions, the epic finale. There is empathy towards the villain, and a desperate lack of exposition.
Just think about it. Which was the last comic book villain to have made an impression in a movie outside of The Joker? And in that movie, did you really care about Batman? Comic book tales are of empathy, not just towards the heroes, but to the villains as well. Every Spider-Man villain is a failure, a failed scientist, a failed father, a failed circus trainer, and Spider-Man himself, a loser outside of his alter ego. His battles with the villains is as much a battle of the choice of being subservient to your circumstances, or prevailing despite them. The point is, there just isn’t enough time in a movie with a two-hour runtime for you to care about (all) the hero(es) and the villains and the compulsory lackeys that hang around for accidental inspiration, humour or sexual tension. Not to mention, the plot. DC in this regard is telling far more fulfilling comic book stories on television than movies. While Marvel hasn’t merely upped the game. They have changed the whole game board; die, playing pieces and all.
The televised tale of Daredevil in the Netflix series set off as a deviant in terms of production. The first two episodes of the show are some of the finest in television history, culminating in a faux single take action sequence that is the best fight in all of Marvel’s cinematic universe. It is that good. Inspired by its success came Jessica Jones. This time the deviation was in the point of her tale. Jessica suffers from perennial trauma of her mind controlling ex-lover slash nemesis Killgrave. It deals with the post-mortem of an abusive relationship, the scars that cannot be healed even by the insentient balm of time. Most recently comes Luke Cage, who has no allegorical equal in the present socio-cultural landscape of America—a black man from Harlem who is bulletproof.
And, as the world strikes dangerous democratic deals with dictatorial figures of prejudice, the conscientious transformation of comic books also begins. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a Black Panther tale. The second season of Jessica Jones has only women filmmakers working on it. The process of making broken hearts into art has already begun.
Dil Manga More!
The best of manga and anime shows to get hooked on right now
Attack on Titan
Set in a world that has human beings near annihilated by the sudden onset of gigantic androgynous monsters known as Titans, Attack on Titan is THE gateway drug you need to become a purebred anime addict. The last of the humans live behind three concentric walls and after nearly a century of no attacks, they are just about ready to issue H1-B visas when suddenly the Titans return with the vengeance of a demonetisation spree. It’s filled with more twists and heavy metal than a bowlful of Maggi noodles and, with so many character deaths, it’ll make George R.R. Martin tear up.
If thrillers are your poison, then Death Note is your prescription. The story of Yagami Light, a teenager with an IQ score that would land Da Vinci on an unemployment list, finds a Death God’s notebook. Any person whose name is written on the notebook will die. As Yagami’s sociopathic tendencies spiral out of control, he is chased by the authorities that are led by L, another highly intelligent teen, whose severe lack of melanin makes him look like someone who saw Rekha without make-up. What follows is a battle of wits between the two, resulting in a thriller tighter than a Kardashian corset.
Cowboy Bebop is cool, it is noir and it is as dangerously smooth as a poker-faced lie. The story follows the travels of interplanetary bounty hunters, Spike Spiegel and his trusted buddy Jet Black, who are the best at what they do, and the worst at what they don’t. Broke, romantic and badass like nameless cowboys from an old spaghetti western, their stories are single shots, with a few interspersed in between to carry forward the overarching arc of the deadly duo. It is slow and measured television with a soundtrack that is probably the best you will ever hear for an episodic series. Best enjoyed with fine scotch and the company of a lazy trail of cigarette smoke.
Bleach is the story of a high school teenager who inherits the power of a Shinigami (death god). One of the big three (the others being Naruto and One Piece), this is anime as the world knows it, with an episodic count that runs well beyond the 200-mark. Don’t worry though. If you get hooked to them, you really end up wishing there were more because it is as addictive as cocaine. And just as easy to snort. The lead character of Kurosaki Ichigo and his claptrap motley crew of friends are a delight of character and costume design. While the action, featuring the most mind-numbing samurai swords, is like icing on a cake the size of Antarctica.
It’s still not lucrative, but from Comic-Cons to die-hard printers and devoted writers, a small sub-culture is thriving in India
Statutory warning: Kids of the 90s, this article may induce flashbacks, nostalgic sighs and, in extreme cases, a severe bout of the sniffles.
If you were a 90s’ child, you would remember the time when Chacha Chaudhary’s brain (faster than a computer) was a legit unit of speed in jokes and repartees. An era where Amar Chitra Katha trumped NCERT history books as a valid source, often quoted in historical/religious debates and Supandi and Tantri the Mantri were the original ROFL- inducing riot. But then, George Eliot’s proverbial golden gates (of childhood) slammed shut in our faces and marked the end of what could, arguably, be termed the golden era of comic books in India.
The rich heritage of Amar Chitra Kathas, Tinkle and Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, waned at the turn of the millennium, almost undone by a barrage of Marvel and DC movies lapped up by the mobile twiddling millennials around the world. Hope, however, lived on as desi comic aficionados evolved into a new breed of comic book writers who are set for a…let’s call it a reboot of the desi comic scene.
Aniruddho Chakraborty, a sarcasm/wit-spitting marketing whiz by day, who moonlights as the founder of Chariot Comics, summed up the indie comic book scene: “In terms of content and companies floating around, Chariot Comics, Holy Cow Entertainment, Meta-Desi Comics and Abhijeet Kini round up some of the popular independent comic book publishers. In the mainstream section, Amar Chitra Katha, Raj Comics and Diamond Comics still have regular uptake. In the webcomics space, we have stripteasethemag, uglysweatercomic, Garbage Bin and Sikh Park. Then there are graphic novels published by HarperCollins and Penguin. These pretty much sum up the desi comic scene.”
The battle is real, against almost Superman-tied-up-to-kryptonite-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean-in-a-lead-case like odds, but these writers have more than just survived. They are breaking even in a couple of years and now profits are on the horizon. While Aniruddho termed ‘it fiscally stupid’ to attempt being a comic book writer, full-time in India, he does break it down, “The most important part has always been the artwork that, with artist costs (pencils, ink and colours), takes up nearly 70 to 80 per cent of per page production cost. As far as the economics go, every publishing house must factor in a gestation period of two to three years before they break even operationally.”
This is why an audience is vital, like Batman to the Justice League. Abhijeet Kini, founder of Abhijeet Kini Studios and creator of Angry Maushi and Fanboys, is optimistic about the tastes of the Indian audience. “It takes some time to get the Indian audience to warm up to Indian comics, since most of them still think that there’s nothing beyond the Marvels and the DCs, he says. But, us indie comics creators and publishers get a lot of people actually following up with regards to the next issue in our comic series and that I think is a positive sign.’
There are so many indigenous superheroes to choose from, but because of a lack of vision & subject knowledge, Bollywood tries to pass off a Flying Jatt, Ra-One or a Krrish as a superhero movie. Like seriously?
Talking about positive signs, Akshay Dhar, founder of Meta Desi Comics, counts the increasing interest in comics by corporate brands as a blessing. “While larger brands, in my experience, have little interest,” he says. “What is heartening is the fact that smaller companies, largely startups, have expressed a more reasonable kind of interest as they, too, have started to grow in recent years.”
The kind of interest that has led to the crazy amount of footfalls at our desi Comic-Cons, is a testament to the potential that India holds. Abhijeet, who has been to countless international Comic-Cons, rate Indian Comic-Cons high. “In terms of production values, not to mention the international guests, we are right up there,” he says. “We, in our own comic market in India, have done well to get the Comic-Con culture going.” Akshay, who was a guest speaker at the New York Comic-Con, loves the Delhi Comic-Con and counts it as the best of the lot because, “year after year, since the very first day, it has the crowd that comes in large numbers that actually put their money where their mouth is and buy Indian comics, instead of merchandise or foreign comics.”
So, how does the Indian Comic-Con compete with let’s say the geek Mecca—San Diego Comic-Con? Well, for starters, a more active role by Bollywood comes to mind, what follows on the same train of thought is the Flying Jatt, so maybe not Bollywood. Weighing in on the subject, Aniruddho believes, “There are so many indigenous superheroes, comics, and concepts to choose from, but because of a lack of vision, subject knowledge, scale and budgets they just go ahead and try and pass off a Flying Jatt, Ra-One or a Krrish as a superhero movie… Like seriously!’ Akshay also echoes the sentiment, “It takes time and money, depending on the type of comic genre (like superheroes), it can mean a LOT of money. It doesn’t help that Bollywood tries to make comic adaptations, happy to tell extremely poorly written stories with awkward artwork.”
OUT OF POCKET
A number of small-screen toons have continued into adult life in other avatars. The most recent and hugely successful has been Pokemon, the original Pocket Monsters from Japan. This series has developed from a video game version for the Game Boy to trading cards, movies, toys, books, and very recently Pokemon Go, a location-based game for mobile phones. This game has taken the world by storm, and it is not unusual to find an enthusiastic stranger knock on your door, and insist there is a virtual Pokemon in your living room, whom he absolutely has to capture.
TOP 10 SUPER VILLAINS
3. Doctor Doom
4. Lex Luthor
Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer
Superman, Justice League
7. Ra’s al Ghul
9. Phoenix Force
NOT SO SUPER ORIGINS
Superman was created by two high school students from Cleveland, USA, in 1933. Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster sold the character to DC comics, then known as Detective Comics. The original Superman was a bit of a villain, a vagrant who gets immense psychic powers from an experimental drug and uses them maliciously for profit and amusement, only to lose them and become a vagrant again, ashamed that he will be remembered only as a villain. They reinvented Superman as we know him i.e. the superhero, and he finally saw the light of day in 1938.
Superman is due to enter the public domain in 2033. However, this would only apply to the character as he is depicted in Action Comics #1 (1938) So get your creative juices flowing and write yourself the new Superman.
Superhero name: Supreme Commander Chaksius
Superpowers: Writing, colouring, publishing and a no-holds barred storytelling style
Alter ego profession: Marketing and adverting professional
Known affiliations: Chariot Comics, VRICA, Damned, Zombie Rising
Superhero name: Kini Man
Superpowers: Illustrating, animating, publishing, conducts workshops and is visiting faculty when not saving the world.
Alter ego profession: Naah. Superhero to the core.
Known affiliations: Tinkle, Angry Maushi, Fanboys
Superhero name: Hark a Shady
Superpowers: Writer, editor, publisher and an evil genius with a dash of wit and a flair for philosophy.
Alter ego profession: More secret than his super villain identity… some sort of business management
Known affiliations: Meta-Desi Comics, Holy Hell, Ground Zero, Retrograde