Comic books try new ways to keep Indian readers hooked

February 27, 2014

For 11-year-old Jahanabi Prasad, it’s a busier month than usual. After eight hours at school, she returns home for a quick lunch before attending classes for her annual exams a few weeks away. Still, she always finds time to read her favourite comic book series.

“I like Tinkle … Its characters are funny. And the stories are nice. Unlike regular books, it is colourful too, easy to understand,” said Prasad, a resident of Noida, a suburb east of Delhi.

Some 600 kilometres to the south in the tourist city of Udaipur, 12-year-old Bhaskar Sinha buys comic books every two weeks. His favourite character is Shikari Shambu — a bumbling, faint-hearted jungle explorer who ends up trapping animals on the loose and saving people’s lives by accident.

Chacha Chaudhary and Sabu are also the best,” said Sinha, referring to the old man whose brain is said to run faster than a computer, and his giant-sized companion from the planet Jupiter. Both popular characters were created by cartoonist Pran Kumar Sharma.

Prasad and Sinha are among a new generation of comic book fans that gives some hope to India’s comic book publishers who are trying to keep their readers despite the lure of satellite television and the Internet.

“Nobody reads comic books any more, at least in our school … They watch TV, or surf the net,” said Manas Johri, a teenager studying at a private school in a satellite township on Delhi’s outskirts.

Despite what Johri says, comic book sales in India are growing. Some media reports say the industry is worth more than $100 million, and is expected to grow further. Rajani Thindiath, the editor of Tinkle, said exact numbers are hard to come by since “the industry in India is not as clearly defined as in the West.”

Publishers have smaller cities and towns to thank for growing numbers. With many children there who have less access to digital entertainment, comic books remain a welcome pastime. And there remains a base of hardcore fans such as the 40,000 fans who showed up at the fourth Comic Con in New Delhi earlier this month. That convention pulled in more than 20 million rupees ($323,000).

“These days, parents are very good. Young parents are ready to buy books for children. In our time, we would buy books without letting our parents know,” said Gulshan Rai, creator of Diamond Comics, which published its first comic book 44 years ago.

Sales at Diamond Comics, India’s biggest comic publishing group, have been growing steadily and Rai said the brand is now valued at 250 million rupees ($4 million).

Tinkle, a comic book associated with rival group ACK Media, has also been doing well, with sales growing 40 percent year-on-year since 2008, said Prakash Batna, ACK’s senior vice president of sales and marketing.

“Tinkle is the only children’s brand which has not de-grown since it started,” he said.

Generations of young Indians have grown up with ACK Media’s Amar Chitra Katha series based on Hindu epics and mythology, and it remains one of India’s best-selling comic book series.

But unlike the United States, stores dedicated to selling comic books never took off in India. Also, satellite televisions have replaced novels as a source of entertainment over the past decade. Social media and gaming websites are another threat. Falling demand saw bookstore chains, including Chennai-based Landmark, close their retail stores, making access to comic books more difficult.

For publishers, survival meant playing to their strengths. Diamond Comics is focused on making its books, magazines and comics available across the country, including on e-commerce websites such as Flipkart.

“Today, we are available everywhere in India. In the remotest areas, on railway stations, bus stands, stations, newsstands, magazine stands — there is no place where you won’t see our comics,” said Rai.

“(Our retailers) are getting books directly from us. We don’t have wholesalers. We have distributors in every city,” he said, referring to his distribution network of more than 125,000 retailers.

Both ACK Media and Diamond Comics are strengthening their digital presence through e-commerce stores, Web applications and video games. Another popular comic book publisher, Raj Comics, sells its collections online.

ACK Media counts on publicity for higher sales. Batna said the publisher is exploring organising workshops and tie-ups with schools. The firm is planning to launch branded merchandise, including T-shirts, mugs and accessories.

“It’s not one particular comic or comic book that works. Today, that’s a strict no-no,” said Batna.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Tony on Twitter at @TonyTharakan , Robert @bobbymacReports and Anupriya @anupriyakumar )

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