Success, Publishing & Indian Comics

On February 15, 2012 by admin

Bharath Murthy

This piece is a presentation of my views on the comics medium in India, and some of my ideas for the growth of the form. These ideas are the result of the last few years spent trying to understand the medium. My background is in painting, (I studied painting in college) and I want to create as well as publish comics successfully to the end of my life. These views come from this commitment to the form. I also studied film making, and strangely enough, I had an opportunity to make a feature length documentary film in Japan about its vast self-published comics (doujinshi) culture. I learnt about the manga industry and found out why it is the the most successful comics industry in the world. I met many manga authors, publishers, printers, readers and realized how little westerners and Asians like us know about Japanese manga. Before making this film, I also sniffed around a little bit into the Indian comics scene, having received a grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, Bengaluru, to study Indian comics. I wrote a 5000 word essay about Indian comics which was published in Marg magazine in 2009. The same year, I also started an independent comics magazine called COMIX.INDIA (www.comixindia.com). What follows is a ‘fact finding report’, and the ‘recommendations’ of this report on how we can have fun, make money and generally enjoy creating and consuming comics in India.

Why black & white is better than colour for comics printing:

 Colour printing began during the late 19th century, but picked up only by the 1930s. Colour comic strips appeared in American Sunday supplements pretty much the same time as comic strips themselves. The newspaper form gave birth to the modern comic strip as we know it. By the 1930s, 32 page comic books appeared in American news stands in 4-colour printing. This is the format of American comic book that continues to this day.

From the website http://www.dereksantos.com/comicpage/pregold.html :

In 1933, after seeing the Ledger syndicate publish a small amount of their Sunday comics on 7 by 9 inch plates, an idea hit upon two printer employees. Sales manager Harry L. Wildenberg and saleman Max. C. Gaines, employees of Eastern Color Printing Company in New York, saw the plates and figured two of these plates could fit on a tabloid page and produce a 7 1/2 by 10 inch book when folded. Gathering 32 pages of newspaper reprints including Mutt and Jeff, Joe Palooka, and Reg’lar Fellas, they created Funnies on Parade. This was the first comic produced in a format similiar to modern comics. Looking to test their product, they published 10,000 copies to be given out as premiums by Proctor and Gamble.

Impressed by this success, Gaines convinced Eastern Color that he could sell thousands of these to big advertisers like Kinney Shoe Stores, Canada Dry, and Wheatena to be used as premiums and radio giveaways. Because of this, Eastern followed by printing Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics and later Century of Comics, both containing Sunday newspaper reprints. M. C. Gaines was able to sell these in quantities of 100,000 to 250,000 copies. Century of Comics was the 2nd comic book and the first 100 page comic.

One fact is significant here. The first comic books were reprints of Sunday strips that first appeared in the low quality newspaper format, where they met with initial success. The first monthly comic magazines were anthologies and appeared in 1934. They all had 4-colour printing. In 1935, National Allied Publications, later renamed DC Comics, was the first publisher to print original material in the 32 page monthly comic format. It was in this format that superhero characters came to be in 1938, beginning with Superman. From then, till now, 2009, 71 years later, the format has been the same. 4-colour printing has become synonymous with superheroes and with the comic book form itself.

In India, colour printing got associated with comics by following the American example. It gave rise to the notion that comics MUST BE in colour, and the idea that Indian comic readers will not buy comics unless they are in colour. These notions are common among Indian comics publishers. However, we’ve had our fair share of successful b&w comics and 2-colour comics (way cheaper than full 4-colour printing). For example, Mayukh Choudhury, Narayan Debnath, Toms from Kottayam, Diamond comics magazine (all Pran comics in b&w), the comics in the now extinct ‘Target’ magazine, and countless other short comics in magazines.

The model for comics production in India is the American DC/Marvel Comics model. This involves an assembly line setup, with employees working on a monthly salary or per project. In other words, a factory. This style of production is suited for large volumes. Artists are paid average salaries (unless their reputations precede them) and monthly colour comics are produced for news stands. But colour poses a problem here. If high quality colour comics are to be produced, the cost shoots up too much. Colouring takes the longest time to do in the production process. As a result, the narratives have to be short, so that they can be coloured on time. 32 pages a month, at high quality, is a very tough target to achieve. At low quality, it is easier, but doing colour and doing low quality is not such a great idea.

Price Comparison of comics:

Comic no. of pages Price in Rs. Quality of color printing
Raj Comics (India) 96 40 low
Tinkle Double Digest (India) 94 75 low-medium
Virgin Comics (India) 32 30 high
One volume of ‘Sandman'(DC Comics, America) 258 782 high
Tintin comic (Europe) 62 380 very high
One volume of ‘Buddha'(Black &White comic, Japan) 429 295 -n.a.-

From this simple comparison, it is clear that colour comics are expensive to produce and buy, and the higher the production quality, the lesser the number of pages offered, restricting narrative length. The best value for money is provided by the lowest quality colour printing, and full black & white printing.

What about European style colour comic ‘albums’? They are the luxury goods of the comics medium, much like other over priced European luxury items. The most expensive comics are European ones. A 62 page Tintin album costs Rs.380 on the ACK website. Too expensive even for me. The interesting thing about Tintin is that the initial few stories were first produced in b&w and serialized in a b&w comic magazine. Only later were they collected, redrawn, coloured, and released as a book. Even the direct-to-colour albums were serialized as pages in magazines. Ananda Bazaar Patrika has released a few Tintin style albums, a 38 page full colour book costing Rs.40. Recently, Puffin has published a few colour comics first serialized in newspaper supplements, a 48 page album costing Rs. 99. Comics already have a restricted audience, and further restrictions due to high cost is sure to kill the medium. The high cost of European comic albums has ensured that so much of their great comics remain unavailable in the English language. In England, however, there has been a b&w cheap comic magazine tradition, and one will recall that Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ for example, was first published in a b&w comic magazine, and so was ‘From Hell’.

So, we’ve covered Europe and America, and seen that colour comics dominate and are expensive products, thereby restricting readers and also narrative length, eventually stifling the medium. What remains to be studied are Japanese comics, called ‘manga’. Japan happens to be the world’s largest comics producer and consumer. It seems that they draw comics as effortlessly as the rest of the world writes text. What is the secret of the stupendous, unimaginable success of manga? Is there a lesson in it for Indian comics creators and publishers?

The secret of the success of Japanese manga:

 When I went to Japan to make a film about self-published Japanese comics sub-culture, (which is larger than the commercial American comic market), I realised how little Indians like me knew about manga. First of all, manga is not a particular style of drawing faces and figures. The big-eyed faces popularized as ‘manga style’ is only one among a whole spectrum of styles, from hyper-realism to extreme abstraction. MANGA is simply a general term for ‘Japanese Comics.’ Manga narratives cover every possible genre that exists on planet earth in  both fiction and non-fiction, and they have created a very unique genre that exists only in manga called ‘Yaoi’ or ‘Boys Love.’ Wiki it for more info. And contrary to notions, there are quite a few manga which are printed in full colour. However, most manga are black & white. Part of the reason manga is so misunderstood is because most manga remains untranslated. What we read in English is the tip of the iceberg. But another reason we misunderstand manga is because we have a preconceived idea of what comics are and what they can do.

The secret of Japanese manga is their method of production, and its got nothing to do with the quality of the content. The entire most successful comics industry in the world rests squarely on CHEAP B&W MAGAZINES produced week after week. The high-end ‘books’ that appear in Indian bookshops are only reprints of the most successful stories from the manga magazines. Virtually ALL manga stories first appear in the manga magazines. And you have to see them to believe the kind of low quality product they are. Hardly any ink is used! Its worse than photocopy resolution! And that’s what most people read and enjoy. The well-printed book manga is a sort of bonus for the author who has proved successful in the magazine form. I still don’t know how the publishers get their feedback on popularity, but fan letters and self-published comics featuring characters from mainstream commercial manga are two of them. Surveys are also done, but I don’t know details about that.

Because of the magazine form, because its b&w, and because it’s printed cheaply, comics are affordable by everyone. Even a high-end ‘artistic’, ‘serious’, ‘intellectual’ ‘literary’, ‘graphic novelesque’ whatever story first appears in cheap manga magazines. This ensures that literary stuff is also affordable by everyone. Contrary to popular conception, cheap printing DOES NOT equal cheap content. This is a truly unique feature of manga that we could do well to adopt. In Indian text-based books, cheap printing is generally equated with pulp fiction, (of course there are exceptions). Books claiming higher literary status tend to have better quality paper and printing, and are costlier.

The uniqueness of Japanese comics printing is in the fact that all content regardless of artistic merit passes through the initial ‘cheap-magazine-printing’ phase, guarantees income (paid by page rate) to the author, and on positive feedback, gives a second lease of life to the author through high-quality reprints in book form (called ‘tankobon’ in Japanese) that give the author royalties. The author owns the rights to the work throughout. The ‘cheap-magazine-printing’ phase also ensures space for newcomers who are always required for a comics culture to flourish, while providing fresh, original material and also fostering healthy competition. As I see it, this is a fool-proof system.

Aesthetic reasons for black & white over colour printing:

Very interestingly, there’s also an aesthetic reason why black & white is better than colour for comics publishing, in a rare instance where art and commerce fit hand-in-glove. The clue to this lies in the nature and characteristics of the comic medium. The success or failure of a comic is not at all dependent on the ‘quality’ of the artwork. It lies in how narrative information is communicated and manipulated using images and text. You might have an grand gorgeously produced image, but to the reader, it is just narrative information. He or she will quickly turn the page and your painstakingly drawn beautiful image is gone, it has become information in the reader’s head. Lets face the awful truth here– comic drawing is NOT painting (no offence to great comic artists here, I am an artist myself, and I know how to paint). Any amount of extra detail in artwork only goes into narrative info. Another problem that occurs in cases when extreme stress is given to gorgeous colour artwork is inconsistency. This inconsistency is very obvious in many Indian colour comics. The first few pages are great, then the deterioration starts.

The truth is, the reader demands narrative information first and foremost, and all the aesthetic appreciation comes later. You can independently admire the artist’s virtuosity for as long as you want, but only after narrative satisfaction is complete. Artistic virtuosity is an added ‘bonus’ for a comic, and not an absolute necessity. If artistic virtuosity was the only criteria for a successful comic, many many comics authors would have been failures. Colour information in a comic adds artistic value to the drawing, but it does nothing to the narrative. A panel of Superman kicking ass in black & white has exactly the same amount of NARRATIVE INFORMATION as the same panel in colour.

Mainstream Indian publishers are very reluctant to publish full colour graphic novels, and rightly so. Its a huge burden on them. Its a huge burden on the artists too. I say remove colour, cut out the fat, and we’ll have a healthier comics industry. Why imitate all the wrong ideas from American comics.

In order to save artists from self-destruction, this tyranny of colour must go. Also, my little experience of comics has convinced me that the line is the basic tool of comic art. A bad line and no amount of jazzy colouring can save it.

Why printed books are still the best medium for comics in the age of the internet:

Now that we’ve seen the value of Black and White in comics printing, I want to make a point that is relevant to the times we live in. With the coming of the internet, one might ask the question, why bother with traditional printing at all? Why not simply do comics on the internet? Why not sell them as e-books? Why print comics?

One part of the answer to this is the obvious advantages of the book. No electricity required, no batteries, no machine breakdowns, durable, one can take it anywhere, and finally, feel the tactility of the book on your hands. But with comics printing, there is another techno-aesthetic reason why comics can be best enjoyed as a printed book. This is because of the fact that COMICS ARE HAND DRAWN. Even if you use a pen tablet and computer, which is the cutting edge of comics drawing technology, you are still drawing by hand. Even if you use photographs instead of drawings, there is still a major amount of handicraft involved. The printing of a hand drawn inscription brings us as close as possible to the actual process of drawing of the author. There’s an intimacy generated with the author. I believe this is part of the reason for the strange urge felt by comics fans to copy comic artwork. I’ve tried reading b&w comics on the Amazon Kindle e-book reader, and it is very cumbersome. Of course, the technology will get better, so maybe e-book readers are another distribution channel, but I doubt very much that it will kill the printed comic book. It might kill the text-only book however, but this is unnecessary speculation on my part, sorry!

How cheaply produced black & white comics magazines can save Indian comics:

The black & white comic magazine format has a huge number of obvious advantages going for it. The failure of many comics companies doing full colour comics (recent example, Virgin), has debunked the myth that extreme high quality colour artwork will guarantee success. On the other hand, a totally low-quality dirt cheap b&w comic magazine drawn and published by Malayali cartoonist Toms has been a success in Kerala for many many years. The reader wants an enjoyable, informative narrative, first and foremost. If you are able to provide that, everything else falls in place. One can always attempt to imitate the limited success of ACK or Raj Comics, by doing full colour. But to start and run a high quality colour comics company now is a very risky proposition. I would not attribute Raj Comics and ACK’s success to great quality or great artwork, but to the fact that they began way before everybody else, and are now venerable institutions. The truth is both companies were going downhill in the late nineties. ACK changed ownership, while Raj redrew and recreated their old characters, just like how DC and Marvel Comics of America have been doing. The problem with this method of production is not that colour is evil or something, it is that building a team of in-house artists and writers producing full colour comics is a lot of expense, and not recoverable in the short run. This colour method also gives little space for new talent, for reasons I’ve given above.

A good place to change our notions is to learn from cartooning, those quickly drawn, mostly black & white, single panel nuggets of narrative mainly used for humour. Cartooning in India has truly become an Indian art form, complete with a history and tradition, even though now it has lost its edge. Cartooning has lost relevance only because it imposed a sort of censorship on itself, both in content and form. Comics can simply be seen as cartooning expanded to many panels. This self-censorship has resulted in us not having a strong ‘comic strip’ tradition, let alone a comics tradition. Comics have come to us mainly via imitation. But all we need to do is build on what we already have, a cartooning tradition. This argument also leads to the creation of b&w comics magazines. It was in fact a black & white cartooning magazine called ‘Shankar’s Weekly’ that helped establish a whole generation of cartoonists.

          

Comparison between b&w and colour magazines:

BLACK &WHITE COMIC MAGAZINES COLOUR COMIC MAGAZINES
Very cheap to produce. Very expensive to produce.
One author can create a whole comic story. Requires a team.
Can be done fast, deadlines can be met. Takes a lot more time.
Because b&w is cheap to print, narratives can be much longer. Narratives tend to be short because more pages means more time and more money.
More space for newcomers, as emphasis is on narrative rather than only drawing skills. High skills required. Entry barriers high. Stifles growth.
Affordable by working class, students, and others with little money to spare, but would love to read. Restricted audience because of lesser affordability.
Increased possibility of reprinting popular serialized comics into affordable b&w books, resulting in royalties for author. Reprinting high quality colour comics into full length books is prohibitively expensive.
Longer narratives also mean one story can run over many books. More demand and supply. Good for book publishing in general. Fewer colour pages mean fewer books.

           

Bharath Murthy is a comics author and makes non-fiction videos for a living. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S University, Baroda; and Film direction at the Satyajit Ray Film and TV institute, Kolkata. He was commissioned by Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) to make a documentary on the comics subculture of the countryThe film titled, “The Fragile Heart of Moe”, was part of a series on Japan’s capital, called Tokyo Modern. The films, all by non-Japanese filmmakers, explored the various facets of life in the metropolitan. Bharath explored the subculture of Japanese comics called manga. He did a comic strip for The New Indian Express for a while, and excerpts from his ongoing book-length work were published in ‘Siruvarmalar’. He started COMIX.INDIA magazine in 2009, which is currently the only independant Indian comics magazine in this country. 5 Volumes have been published. Follow Bharath Murthy at: http://bcomix.wordpress.com

            

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *