If one were to go by the 14,000-strong crowd that thronged the two-day comic convention in Mumbai in October, the future of the Indian graphic novel is bright and promising. Excited by the response their stall received, Kishore Mohan of Libera Artisti, a Thiruvananthapuram based three-man artist combine who are into the final production stages of their mini comic series Auto Pilot, said: “If we are able to sell to even one-quarter of the people who visited us at the convention, we’ll have a bestseller in our hands.”

There is no denying that the field of Indian graphic novel publishing has widened exponentially during the last few years, with new exclusive comics publishers like Vimanika, Campfire, Level 10, Pop Culture Publishing, Manta Ray, Liquid Comics and Holy Cow Entertainment adding to the more established line of Penguin and HarperCollins. Even publishers like Blaft (Moonward), Tara (I see the Promised Land), Navayana (Bhimayana), Westland (Private Eye Anonymous, Lie: A Traditional Tale of Modern India), Yodha Press (The upcoming partition anthology Restorying: Narratives from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India) have been dabbling in the genre which, Sarnath Banerjee asserted, in a recent interview in the Times of India, had the potential to become something quite big in India. Banerjee should know, for it was he who had sold the idea of “graphic novel” to the Indian publishing world with Corridor (Penguin) in 2004.

While Banerjee’s book was the first to be sold branded as a “graphic novel” the attempt was not entirely new. Orjit Sen, in 1994, had published a collection of stories on the life on the banks of the Narmada in comic book form (River of Stories) and earlier, famed Malayalam auteur G Aravindan’s comic strip Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Small Men and the Big World) that ran for 13 years in a Malayalam literary journal had read like a modern graphic novel in its 1978 collected edition form.

What Banerjee did with Corridor was to forefront the graphic novel tag, which helped to disassociate the book from negative connotations of comics as infantile literature, and thereby bypass editorial and reader prejudices. This had also been the strategy in the West during the early years of the genre, with the term “graphic novel” first used on the covers of Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978).

Eisner was trying to pitch a book to an important New York trade book editor when he came up with the term “graphic novel” for he feared that the editor might be put off if he used the word “comics”.

It is evident that Eisner had used “graphic novel” to distinguish a more serious and mature form of comics from the infantile varieties flooding the market at that time, thus calling out for a re-evaluation of the medium and its capacity for complex and mature narratives.

It is evident that Eisner had used “graphic novel” to distinguish a more serious and mature form of comics from the infantile varieties flooding the market at that time, thus calling out for a re-evaluation of the medium and its capacity for complex and mature narratives.

Holding up a similar view, artist Eddie Campbell, responding to the “NYTimes Mag Article” thread on the comics journal message board had formulated a “revised graphic novel manifesto” defining the “graphic novel” as “a movement and not a form” whose goal was to “ forge a whole new art which will not be bound by the arbitrary rules of an old one . . . and also take the form of the comic book, which has become an embarrassment and raise it to a more ambitious and meaningful level.”

However in the West, 30-odd years since it was first used, the term is considered to be a misnomer by the new comics narrators and fans who regard it a newfangled name for “the good old comic book” perpetuated by the commercial concerns of the major players like DC and Marvel who have hijacked and appropriated the term to sell collected back issues of superhero comics.

In India, the useful aesthetic distinction had remained more or less intact during the first few years, marked by Banerjee’s second book The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, Amruta Patil’s Kari and two eminently forgettable attempts: The Believers and Kashmir Pending; both published by the now defunct Phantomville. While The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers (Penguin, 2007) did nothing to further Banerjee’s reputation as a graphic novelist, Patil’s Kari (Harper Collins, 2008), appreciated for its honest voice and nuanced visual imagery, managed to win positive reviews across national newspapers, and has even been translated into French and Italian.

Among the later graphic novels in India, Parismita Singh’s multilayered, profoundly Indian tale The Hotel at the End of the World published by Penguin in 2009 stands out for its raw, earthy lines and a delightful non-linear narrative structure. This book perhaps is the closest a graphic novel in India has come to be called an “Indian graphic novel” in its truest sense.

E P Unny, chief political cartoonist at The Indian Express and himself an unacknowledged graphic narrative pioneer in India—he has been doing graphic shorts in Malayalam literary journals as early as the 1990s—while admitting that the graphic novel has arrived in India, says he is still waiting for that “Indian graphic novel”. Uneasy with the convenient urban or exotic thematic subsets that are over-eager to cross over, Unny locates the creative challenge for the Indian graphic novel in “learning and unlearning Western formats and getting down to confront the here and now robustly”, something, he feels, “might begin to happen in regional languages as Aravindan had surprised us way back in the 1960s”.

However, right now, nothing seems to be beeping on the regional language radar. One could blame it on the lack of a comics reading culture or non-existence of publishing outlets outside urban India, but the graphic novel in India displays a great reluctance to move beyond the familiar to tread uncharted territories.

This does not mean that the field is devoid of thematic and stylistic diversity. The last couple of years have seen works as diverse as Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s revisiting of the Emergency years to Navayana’s Bhimayana, a graphic novel biography of Dr Ambedkar rendered in Gond art style by tribal artists Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam.

While the creators of these books deserve credit for choosing such different and engaging themes, the works themselves hardly push the boundaries of graphic narrative in India. Ghosh’s Delhi Calm is a mere allegorical take on the worst phase of Indian democracy, presenting the reader with no new insights, while Bhimayana hardly ever rises above the level of an illustrated text, short-selling the immense possibilities of the medium as well as the original genius of tribal art in the process.

To put it bluntly, Bhimayana and Tara Books’ I See the Promised Land, a biography of Martin Luther King illustrated by Patua artists of Bengal, are perfect examples of how marrying traditional Indian art style to a post-industrial art form like comics doesn’t necessarily deliver quality graphic narratives.

If at one end of the graphic novel spectrum in India are the mainstream publishers who are more or less content with a set of established names, and superficial thematic and stylistic “innovations” the other end is populated by a group of independent smaller comics publishers who have gleefully dropped anchor at the superhero-mythology genre bay.

Vimanika, Level 10, Holy Cow Entertainment and Liquid comics seem to locate their core audience in an expanding fanboy base, whereas Campfire—in spite of their graphic novel tag—routinely churn out comic book versions of classics and mythological fables for the young adult, except for a few recent original titles.

The only exception amongst the indie publishers appears to be the Bangalore based Manta Ray, who with their hard hitting, silent, 24-page mini-comic explored the dark areas of child abuse. Not a safe choice for a first book, Prateek Thomas of Manta Ray admits, but says, “Hush was never about the money we would make as a publisher. For us, it was our ‘calling card’—we wanted to show that comics can be different; tell a realistic, believable story, be told differently (with no words) and produced well. We wanted to show that comics can tell good stories.”

It was similar ideals that prompted Coimbatore-based Bharath Murthy to start the alternative, self-published Comix India anthologies. Published on demand through Pothi, Comix India is four volumes old, with the fifth in the final stages of production. While the first anthology, Random Selections, as the name suggests, was devoid of any thematic unity, the next three anthologies had stories woven around a central theme.

The contributors, most of whom were publishing a comic for the first time, were drawn from across the country through an open call for submissions on the Comix India website. The marginal profits generated were divided equally amongst the contributors.

Murthy, who is currently working on a comic travelogue titled The Vanishing Path, [excerpted on pages 38-52] believes that Comix India democratised the area of comics publishing in India by demonstrating that artists and authors existed outside the urban centres. Unfortunately, the financial model on which the Comix India experiment is based appears to be unsustainable in the medium term.

The graphic novel market in India is a niche one and the real challenge for creators and publishers is to devise ways to expand the reader base. One of the pitfalls that the industry would do well to avoid is the easy construction of the intended reader as a comic addict and the super hero-mythology fanboy, and of comic-reading as a groovy sub-cultural activity. This was one mistaken notion that the American comic-publishing industry carried on with until translated Japanese “manga” began to sell in huge numbers in the North American market. Manga became especially popular among young women, literally broadening the profile of the comics reader which till then was limited to the “superhero fanboy” white male. This was to have lasting effects on how comics and graphic novels were produced, disseminated and consumed.

Prateek Thomas believes that the biggest challenge ahead is to find new readers, to bring comics out of its niche zone and make it more popular, while US-based comics author and reviewer Anisha Sridhar identifies the necessity to move away from the pre-dominant mythological narratives if graphic novels are to come of age in India.

For Unny, “the already graphic novel-savvy Indian reader who has taken to Eisner and Spiegelman, and among the rest those who might read good Indian language fiction at least in translation, and are young or smart enough not to have made up their mind on most things around” needs to be the ones publishers should be looking to engage.

Bidisha Basu, who runs the Mumbai graphic novel lending library “Leaping Windows”, attests that the graphic novel reader base in India is definitely growing.

“When we started, we had imagined that most of our clients would be a young 18-35 kind of age group, but we ended up with a really wide cross-section of age proving what we really believed—it’s always a good age to read comics,” says a Bidisha who plans to open a comics café and reading room in Mumbai by the end of the year.

Despite the good cheer around, the fact remains that most publishers believe that even though the graphic novel genre will continue grow, it won’t become huge. With increasing connectivity and accessibility, the web offers an untapped alternative but no solid financial model, despite the roaring success of India’s first Internet comic porn star Savita Bhabi some years back.

Launched in March 2008, savitabhabi.com had built a hardcore following (In a 2009 interview, the creators put the following at 60 million unique visitors every month, with 30 per cent of the followers being women, before the Indian government banned the site in June 2009, in response to the complaints that the promiscuous bhabi with her numerous sexual escapades was damaging traditional sensibilities.

Ironically, the “Save Savita” campaign and protests from the liberal quarters lost steam when the creator of the comic who had earlier gone by the pseudonym Deshmukh, identified himself as Punnet Agarwal before apologising to fans for taking the strip off the proxy servers citing personal and family issues arising from his going public about his identity. Savita Bhabi was back on the Web after six months but under a new domain name, Kirtu.com. While earlier the strip could be freely accessed, it now uses a subscription format.

Mobile phones might be another venue of dissemination even though most comic readers are still enamoured of the actual feel of the paper in their hands. As of now, it is this band of faithful who seem to be driving the development of the genre in India. Unfortunately, they might just not be enough in the longer run. More readers have to take to the art form and that can only come from pathbreaking works that will force them to sit up and take notice, read and fall in love with them. There seems to be no other alternative.

Even though the first “graphic novel” was published in 1978, 1986 is considered to be the watershed year as far as American graphic novel publishing is concerned. In that year three iconic works which went on to gather unprecedented critical and commercial success were published. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s  Maus and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns would drastically alter the general public’s perception of the graphic novel, and inspire a generation of artists and writers who would take the form to greater heights.

Many people will argue that it is unfair to compare a nascent Indian graphic novel industry to the American behemoth. Let’s be patient and give it more time to grow, they may say. But in this globalised world, that would be a luxury the Indian graphic novel may not have. The Indian graphic novel urgently needs a 1986 of its own.