Arun Prasad, one of India’s largest comic book collectors, is working on a project that traces the history of comics in India
Collector of comic books Arun Prasad was referred to as an ‘extreme collector’, on a History Channel show, for his collection of 18,000-odd comic books — the result of more than 20 years of travelling, collecting and, most importantly, preserving.
Collecting these India-published comic books — like Phantom, Bahadur, and Mandrake — was initially a way of going back in time, through the pages of his favourite Indrajal comics. “These connect me to my past, I get a bit of my childhood back, through this,” says the Bengaluru-based pannapictagraphist, who is one of the largest collectors of Indian comics in the country. Arun’s search for vintage comics, which started in 1998, today comprises a network that spans across the country — Lucknow, Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Kolkata.
His first source of stories, growing up in Eravankara in Kerala, was his grandmother. He remembers her as being “filled with stories” drawn from mythology and folk tales. The days full of stories were enveloped with blankness when she died. “There were no more stories for me. That was the turning point. I started looking for stories — in newspapers and magazines — Balarama [a Malayalam comic book for kids] was my first exposure to comics,” he remembers. Around this time, he started reading other comics, especially those by Indrajal.
Over the years, as his collection of comic books and comic-inspired material grew — he began viewing them differently: “as material of social, cultural and historical importance rather than merely for the narrative and story. When I started looking at them that way, I realised I had something of value — not in monetary terms but as archival material,” he says.
The history of Indian comics
A columnist, artist, film and photography enthusiast, he is currently working on a project that traces the history of comic books in India, “in a visually attractive and readable format,” Arun says.
A trigger for this was the invitation, in 2012, to show some of his vintage comics at Comic Con (Bengaluru). That made him take a ‘serious look’ at the material he had, he ‘saw’ them as artefacts and understood their significance. “These made me take a serious look at the material I had,” he says.
American cartoonist Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, which studied comics and their roles seriously, contributed to Prasad’s changed outlook on comics as artefacts. He says, “If we consider comics as sequential art, as Eisner suggests, then we have a history dating back 10,000 years in the rock drawings of Bhimbetka caves. You look at one picture, you’d have no idea what it means unless you see them in a sequence — like you would a comic book. It shows a well-defined story of human beings and their cultural evolution. If there is narrative with illustrations placed sequentially then it is a comic.”
The murals of Ajanta caves depict the life of Buddha and Jataka tales. He also lists Rajasthan’s kavad, patachitra (West Bengal and Odisha) and leather puppetry as other traditional forms of sequential art.
As he shows the history of comic books through a series of slides one comprehends what he means when he refers to them as socio-cultural material. For instance, shortly after the satirical British weekly Punch began publication in the 1840s, India had its Parsi, Awadh and Bengali versions — all satirical, which continued to be printed till the 1930s. One gets the sense that regional languages had a strong culture of comic books well into the 1960s-70s. Abid Surti, creator of Bahadur, one of the first desi super heroes, caught up with him at a comic con event asking if Prasad had come across his earlier works (cartoons) for the Gujarati magazine Ramakadu.
Prasad’s collection is the result of painstaking work done over two decades and multiple sources. Phantom is his favourite superhero, and he has the complete collection of Phantom comics published by Indrajal — all 803 of them — in the nine languages it was printed in. He even tracked down the first 10 issues of Amar Chitra Katha (ACK).
Comic books, since they used to be printed on newsprint, disintegrate easily. The problem compounds with age, and storage becomes important. To prevent the pages from turning brown, Prasad places comic books along with acid-free boards — used by artists — and slides them into poly-propylene bags. These are then placed vertically in cartons in a dedicated space in his home.
“The ‘first’ issue of ACK comics is numbered 11. The question, ‘Why 11?’ nagged me for a long time. The answers I came across were vague, like 11 being auspicious. I wasn’t convinced,” says Prasad. He found that with issue number 11 ACK comics acquired their highly individualistic, signature Indian style by telling Indian stories. The issues from one to 10 were based on western fairy tales such as Pinocchio, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and others translated into Indian languages. He is in the process of cataloguing his comics.
The software-generated homogeneity of modern-day comics does not appeal to him. A traditionalist when it comes to comic books, he says, “You could feel the artist through the hand-drawn works, now it is ‘system generated’, the soul is somewhere lost. I don’t feel like reading those,” Prasad says. However, he is happy with the evolution of the genre once considered a low form of pop art. He says, “They are being considered literature — comics are winning Pulitzers, featuring in art biennales… the scene has changed. As also the indie-comic scene, where anyone with a story and who can draw, with access to a photocopier, can print and sell…in India there is a revolution on.”