Monday, April 30, 2012

For The Love of Indra's Net

I love comic books. Given a chance between saving the world from impending disaster and reading a Back-issue of Doga, I would chose the latter. In fact, recently I poured out my love for sequential art, especially Indian here Thanks to indulgent cousins, DD1 Advertisements and frequent Train Trips I started reading comics at a very very early age. It began with an image of a man sitting in a drum of Fevicol while a train heads towards him, and continued with heroes battling villains who were either Benarasi Thugs, were masters of Sound of Voo-Doo or had peculiar names like Shacura.

It helped a lot that my parents were fans of Asterix and Tintin, my grandfather had a sizeable collection of Paraag (the now non-existent magazines in which he contributed cartoons and poems time to time) and that my Maternal Uncles had dutifully collected and preserved hundreds of issues of Indrajal Comics, with several comics (more often than not of the same series) painstakingly bound together and labeled properly.

My brother and I had found these neatly stacked bundles of treasure on moving to Lucknow, where my Nani Ji has her ancestral home. They were packed tightly in huge water-drums and kept in a safe storeroom . Needless to say we took these books under our shelter as quickly as we could, they promised to provide entertainment in long summer vacations.
Although none of these comics had the heroes I was used to reading at that time, there was no Chacha Chaudhary, no Raaket, no Dhruv, no Parmanu. In fact they were my first introduction to Betaal (I did not know for a long time that he was called 'Phantom'), Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, and Bahadur.

One of the first 'Indian' Comic book heroes, and one of the best

Betaal, Chalta Phirta Pret (The Ghost who Walks) is an interesting Superhero for a lot of reasons (if we ignore the racial overtones of the comic books), he is one of the few heroes wherein the family business in itself is Hero-Giri, when one Betaal dies, his son immediately takes his place, and this is a tradition that has continued for many centuries, it gives the comic books a very wide canvas, there can be a story about the medieval times, about the victorian age or even the world wars and there would have to be a Betaal present in each of them. Also, Betaal has no 'Super' Powers, he has only his two fists and two (always well drawn by the artist) Guns. He has an army of 'Poison pygmies', he has a Pet wolf ('Sir aap ye Kutta is Plane par nahi le ja sakte' 'Ye Kutta Nahi Bhediya Hai') and has multiple homes in prime locations in the jungle and around the world. Besides, once someone becomes 'Phantom' his face is Betaal, his face is NEVER shown by the artist, there is no alter-ego. There is just a man in a mask or a very convenient hat and overcoat.

Mandrake too is unconventional, his only 'powers' are Hypnotism and reliance on Lothar's Strong-man abilities (much like Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu), although his hypnotism is very real, his comics are not devoid of the Supernatural. He is Godfather to a set of Alien twins, he studied magic at a place with a LOT of magic, and has often battled strange creatures, yet the 'setting' was very human. Mandrake worked at a secret organization where his Boss was actually his Cook in a secret identity (wouldn't we all like our Bosses coming home to cook for us), he had a Rogue's gallery of criminals he frequently encountered, and his biggest arch-enemy was a mysterious Terrorist organization called 8, and not some mutant superpowered being.

Also, he has the best house in the world.

Even Better Than This

And of course, there was Bahadur. A character created specifically for Indrajal Comics by the Legendary Aabid Surti sa'ab, he battled what was a raging problem (especially in central India) at that time - Dacoits. He has no Police backing to help him, all he has is the Citizens Security Force (and Bela). Bahadur initially fought dacoits with trusty/rusty rifles, braving the wastelands where his town Jaigarh was with sharp senses and a dead-shot aim. But later his missions went bigger, I remember one distinctly where Bahadur and Bela went aboard a ship to stop some spies. I missed out writing about him in my post about Comic book characters who should have movies on them, but Bahadur, for the sheer legacy that he has deserves celluloid space.

Then there were other characters like Flash, Garth, Rip Kirby, I can keep on writing about them for a long long time, but I would like to shift focus back to the medium - Indrajal comics.

Firstly, all the comics were published in many languages, and thankfully the collection that my Uncles had was totally in Hindi. For a 7 year old kid (in the mid 90s, not today) comics became a lot more accessible if they were in a language that he could understand. Then the comics were printed on 'big' paper and thus were very very easy to read. All the volumes had attractive covers, and even at that age I loved the charm of the old advertisements published in the comics.

It has Kapil Dev on a girl's cycle, and still it doesn't Jar
Plus, there were the 'side features', my favourite being the exploits of a young kid called 'Gunakar' who never spoke (although other characters in the comic did), the many features by Parag regular Shahab, and the occasional Timpa comics (Bengal's answer to Tintin, perhaps) which were serialized as added comics to volumes which had lesser material and needed something to complete their quota of pages.

'Gunaker! Not Henry' 

Timpa in fact gave me one of my favourite lines from a comic book, when Timpa's uncle (akin to Captain Haddock) confronts a villain who is up to no good at a Water Pipe, he is hit hard on the face by his boot, when Timpa asks how does he feel he replies defiantly 'Dekha kaise maine apna chehra uske boot par de maara!' and later in the comic book he is asked by Timpa to accompany him again to the Water Pipe he says 'Napoleon ko bhi koi Waterloo le jaata hai kya phir se? Sab bade logon ki zindagi mein Water ne kuchh gadbad ki hai, Napolean ka Waterloo, Nixon ke liye Watergate aur mere liye Water Pipe'

But here I go, digressing again. This post should be about Indrajal comics as a whole. About what a great piece of pop culture history that they are. And it seems rather surprising today that they were published by Bennett and Coleman, a group of Newspapers who are today more famous for gratuitous nudity in their papers and paid news. Perhaps that is the reason the comics closed down (after an impressive run of more than 800 issues).

My childhood like many others owes a lot to these slim colourful volumes, although there was only one Mainstream 'Indian' Hero in them, they did a lot in cultivating the love that I have for comic books today. Today thanks to the internet, and thanks to a lot of like minded people who act on the internet like a collective entity are out to preserve the memories of their childhood. Many Indrajal comics can be easily read/downloaded online, and there are still people who are willing to sell Mint-condition comics (I for one would be a willing buyer).

One fine day my parents (although themselves big fans of the comics, my mother too was a regular collector of Indrajal) decided that the huge stack of comic books lying around in our house was a big distraction from studies and all the comics were shipped back to my Nani ji's house, sadly never to be seen again (My brother and I had salvaged a few, hidden them, but frequent house-shiftings have ensured that they too have disappeared without a trace).

Recently I asked my mother if there was any chance that after almost 16 years, if I could get those comics back, but to my disappointment and happiness one of my uncles has taken all the comics back with him for his kids (who are at the age I was when I started reading Indrajal), thus ensuring a new set of kids get to know the important legacy of Betaal, Mandrake, Bahadur, so that even today somewhere a young kid would be reading Indrajal comics during his summer vacations.


vakrachakshu said...

I Like ...I like Vaibhav too

Abhishek Kumar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Abhishek Kumar said...

I can identify with your love with the Indian comics as I've spent my childhood with these characters too. I too enjoyed the marvels of science with Dhruva and read Paraag, Madhu Muskaan (older editions which were delightfully full of comics), Indrajaal/Raj/Manoj/Tulsi and numerous other publications.
Although my parents did not share my love of comics, I have always had enough to go on thanks to the secondhand book-shops (where else could I find those old magazines :) ) and some amazing friends. Now looking behind, I can feel only nostalgia. I still give some of the comics from my collection to my cousin brothers from time to time. But sadly, I don't see such joy in them, which I had in mine childhood, for reading. Still whenever I feel like it, I recluse myself into my comic collection. But these moments come rare when you are away from the home most of the time.

Lakshya Tandon said...

inspector drake is not to be forgotten and so the detective
i am a very big fan of indrajal comics
when i had a comic strip activity for my english exam i took up a gunakar story