Thursday, 9 September 2010

Where have all the comics gone?

Old and out-of-print Indrajal comics have almost disappeared from Bombay’s pavements, circulating libraries and old paper marts. It's a pity, really, considering that these comics—Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby and the rest—are fetching a fortune online, though you wonder who's buying. They are up for sale on auction sites with price tags of hundreds and thousands of rupees (or dollars if you like). Who doesn’t dream of being a lakhpati overnight (or a millionaire if you like)?

While there are many willing to sell or pawn their Indrajals, it’s difficult to say if there are any buyers willing to fork out that kind of money. That’s because, unlike America, Europe and Australia, a comic book is not a serious investment proposition in India—and I doubt it will ever be one.

Trade in rare and secondhand comic books usually takes place among collectors in western countries with scarce attention paid to aficionados in countries like India. There are some very serious collectors here too.

There is, however, a market for comics in India, albeit a limited one. Sales of comics are mostly restricted to the ever-popular Amar Chitra Katha for their historical and mythological value or the odd Tintin and Asterix. You will rarely find parents buying, say, a Marvel or DC, for their children. Enid Blyton and education books top the charts.

Parents who have an ‘open access’ policy on comics are the ones who read and collected them during their own childhood. You just can’t let go of some things in your life, can you?

There is another reason why comics are a low priority in India: their cover price. While Amar Chitra Katha, Tintin and Asterix, Gotham Comics and Commando are reasonably cheap, Marvel, DC and the like can bore a hole through your pockets. Mega retail outlets like Landmark and Crosswords are stocking up on imported comic books and graphic novels with entire shelves devoted to this category of literature. While these comics are hugely entertaining, they are also frightfully expensive. A typical middle-class family will rarely buy a Wolverine or a Spider-Man for Rs 500 (around $10) and above. Only the serious and well-heeled collector will.

So back to square one. The pavements and old paper marts of Bombay and in other metros of India, are still the best bet for comics long gone. You will find them if you look long and hard.

For instance, I purchased half-a-dozen Classics Illustrated—no, not the 50s and 60s priceless originals—but those published by Acclaim Books in 1997-98, for Rs 30 (about 65 cents) apiece. The bookseller in south Bombay told me that even these were flying off his pavement space and replacements were hard to come by.

His neighbouring bookseller was selling tattered Indrajal comics in English and Hindi, both equally in high demand. When I asked him the price, he said: “Rs 60 each (a little over a dollar). Rates have gone up. There is big demand for Indrajal comics. If you have any, sell them to me. I will pay you Rs 10 each!”

Did I say comic books were not a serious investment in India?

Recommended Read: For those who came in late... White Skin, Black Mask at www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?207314

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