The Return of the Superheroes

The comic book culture, thought to have died a slow death, has seen a revival in the past 20 years, thanks to digitisation of the original print comics and a series of VFX heavy movies featuring the superheroes. Original copies are highly coveted by collectors today, and the fans are no longer children but young adults.

Reading as a hobby, a guilty pleasure and an addiction, is quietly dying out in a world obsessed with technology. Youngsters nowadays spend their days immersed in their PlayStations, multiplayer role-playing games, OTT platforms streaming any kind of content you desire and of course, that invention of the devil, the smartphone. Finding a teenager or preteen who reads is like discovering a caveman walking around the streets of New Delhi, an anachronism and even an object of derision. It might come across as a surprise  to them that a mere fifty years back, for the generations that grew up in the fifties, sixties and the seventies, reading books and comics was the favourite pastime.

Back in the good old days, the Higginbothams or AH Wheeler kiosks were one of the landmarks in each railway station across the length and breadth of the country. These were the caves of Ali Baba, housing untold treasures, and all you needed to unlock these were a few coins, the Open Sesame to the gates of paradise where you could browse to your heart’s content, make agonising choices between a Dell Donald Duck comic and a Gold Key Tarzan comic, an Enid Blyton adventure novel and the latest of the Biggles adventure series by Capt. WE Johns. Those lucky to have grown up in those halcyon days will remember the pleasure they took in reading these books and especially the comics, treasure houses of exciting stories with panel after panel of wonderful art that would transport us to myriad worlds of imagination.

A collector’s delight today

The humble comic book, loved by children for nearly a 100 years, but decried and despised by imbecilic adults for supposedly being shallow, derivative and even for corrupting young minds, has seen a revival in the last twenty years. Collecting comic books is now not just a children’s hobby; some of the richest and most well-known fans of pop culture are now into collecting comics. Vintage comic books have sold for astronomical sums in the recent past, with collectors paying millions of dollars for a copy of Action Comics 1 with the first appearance of Superman (published 1939), Detective Comics 27 with the first appearance of Batman (published 1939) and Amazing Fantasy 15 with the first appearance of Spiderman (published 1962). Similar ‘key’ comic issues sell regularly for huge amounts. Comic book collection is indeed big business today, even for Indian collectors who are scrambling to locate early issues of Indrajal comics first published in the early 1960s, and Amar Chitra Katha (especially the first ten issues which were only published in Hindi).

I was drawn into the world of comics by The Phantom — The Ghost Who Walks, The Man Who Cannot Die, that masked defender of justice — who used to make a fortnightly appearance in Indrajal Comics published by the Times of India. Soon I was introduced to Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Tarzan of the Apes, Superman, Batman, Little Lulu, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck and a whole host of other ducks, geese, foxes, dogs, pigs and other anthropomorphic animals. In a matter of hours I was addicted and have remained enslaved to these wonderful creations for over 50 years, oblivious to the sneers of the uninitiated nincompoops,  lost in their world of big bucks, exotic cars and social climbing.

How it began: comic strips in newspapers

Comic strips have been in existence for over a 100 years, initially as a few panels in the newspapers. Soon, as their popularity increased, they started getting a whole page or more to themselves, especially on weekends. Hal Foster’s Tarzan and Prince Valiant, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Lee Falk’s The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician and Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and hundreds of other characters captured the imagination of millions of readers worldwide. The first comic book is believed to be The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck, which appeared in several European languages in 1837. Written and drawn by Swiss artist Rudolph Topffer, an English version was published in Britain in 1841 and reprinted in America in 1842. The first monthly comic book came out in January 1922 and was called, well, Comics Monthly.

Evolution of the tradition through the ages

Early comic books were usually collections of comic strips which were appearing in the newspapers at the time, and thus already had a dedicated readership. Slowly, original content also started to appear.  The period from 1938 to 1956 is known as the golden age of comic books. It saw the appearance of the costumed superheroes who would go on to rule comicdom. The first Superman comic appeared in 1938, followed by Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and a host of others. All of the above were published by DC comics. Marvel Comics, the rival comic publishing giant, brought out characters like Spider-Man, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and the X-Men. Other major comic publishers included Dell Comics with their Four Color comics line (including universal favourites  like Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse created by Walt Disney), Harvey Comics, Fawcett Comics and Archie Comics who introduced the world to a red-haired teenager named Archie Andrews and his friends Jughead, Reggie, Betty and Veronica.

The period from the 1940s to the 60s also saw the flowering of the talents of some of the greatest comic book creators. Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, Alex Raymond, Alex Toth, Walt Kelly, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Carl Barks, Will Eisner, Russ Manning, John Buscema, John Stanley and several other wonderful writers and artists emerged during this period. The torch has since been passed and the likes of Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Craig Johnston, Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi and many others who carry on the glorious tradition of sequential art. The comic book tradition has also flowered in places like France, Belgium and Holland and some of the best comics of the world have emerged from these countries with characters like Tintin, Asterix the Gaul, Iznogoud, Lucky Luke and Blake and Mortimer.

Themes go adult 

While early comic books were generally aimed at a juvenile audience, the storylines soon became more complex and the characterisation more detailed. The old cardboard characters began to evolve into much more believable characters and the black and white characters began acquiring shades of grey. Comics began to address serious issues like drug addiction and AIDs. Comic creators like Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury and Walt Kelly in Pogo began to produce scathing satirical evaluations of the political climate of the day. The emergence of the graphic novel in the 1980s and the 1990s took comics to another level. Aimed at adult audiences and featuring adult themes, many of them gained a cult audience and won rave reviews. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, published in 1992, was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. It was a horrifying and yet evocative look at the Holocaust. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Neil Gaiman’s  Sandman series were some of the many graphic novels to win prestigious literary awards. The legitimisation of the comic book as a genuine literary genre was complete.

Comics in the digital era

The current generation is not one known for its literary predilections. The recent spate of blockbuster movies from the Marvel and DC stables has however rekindled an interest in comics.  Moreover, access to the best books and comics has become much easier due to the availability of ebooks and comics in  digital format. The digital era has thus been revolutionary in increasing the popularity of comic books as well as print comics. A whole world of untold wonders beckons the new reader. Surrender to its siren song and come along for the ride. You won’t regret it.

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