Monday, July 03, 2006

The Indian superhero

"You must admit that the genesis of the great man depends on the long
series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he
appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly
grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."
– Herbert Spencer

Superhumans – Nietzschean uberbeings who bend circumstances, stories
and worlds around their fiery wills – are creatures Indians should be
familiar with. Among the heroes and villains of the Ramayana, the
Mahabharata and the Puranas we have several characters who could teach
Superman a thing or two about high-flying deeds of derring-do. And
through a strange combination of market forces, timing, and
serendipity, the time seems to be ripe for Indian superheroes to step
up and be counted – after making some very serious decisions about
clothing, of course.

It's an interesting time to be discussing superheroes from India,
because Krrish, a big-budget superhero film, is due to release in a
few days*, featuring state-of-the-art special effects, a martial-arts
choreographer from Hong Kong, a cast full of Bollywood stars, music,
dancing, chaste love and lots of leather – and is expecting
competition from another Bollywood SFF film, Alag. Besides this,
Virgin Comics, a new publisher looking to redefine comics and
animation worldwide using India-themed content, is due to unleash its
first collection of Indian heroes (not superheroes, they say, because
cape-and-tights crusaders are best left to traditional comics
powerhouses DC and Marvel) in about a month – which means that the
time to discuss them as 'potential' phenomena is fast running out.
While the establishment of Virgin Comics and Animation is definitely
cause for hope among Indian speculative fiction writers looking to
start out professionally and it is to be hoped that Krrish will turn
out to be a compelling, entertaining superhero blockbuster, experience
leads one to believe that Bollywood's attempts at speculative-fiction
material are best discussed in advance, because the actual viewing of
SFF Bollywood movies thus far has always been extremely inimical to
discussion of these ludicrous masterpieces as anything other than a
source of unintentional humour.

A prime example of this is an internationally famous box-office turkey
named 'The Indian Superman', a completely unabashed copy of the
original, featuring Dharmendra as the Jor-El copy, Ashok Kumar as
Jonathan Kent and Puneet 'Duryodhan' Issar as Superman, and also
starring Jagdeep and Shakti Kapoor. Fortunately, this is not India's
best-known superhero film thus far. That honour goes to Mr. India,
where Anil Kapoor plays a man visible only in areas lit by red lights.
The annals of non-superhero SFF Bollywood films, too, are full of
unforgettable classics – Ajooba, for instance, featuring the who's who
of Bollywood at the time, and featuring Russian-made monsters, large
stuffed tigers and a Rishi Kapoor miniature doll cavorting inside a
blouse. Of course, not even the worst excesses of Bollywood SFF
filmmaking could match Lollywood's International Gorillay, the climax
of which features arch-fiend Salman Rushdie being laser-skewered by
four lightning-emitting flying Korans. But since these essays aim to
take South Asian SFF and its future seriously, perhaps these classics
are best left for other discussions. Like their TV counterparts
Shaktimaan, Aryamaan, Hatim and Captain Vyom, Bollywood's superheroes
thus far have mostly been badly produced, badly copied version of
well-known western costumed vigilantes from film and comics, though
Bollywood's defenders might point out this is only right, given how
vigorously early American superhero comics copied one another.

Indian comics have also featured a number of interesting spec-fic
heroes, from Chacha Chowdhury's sidekick Sabu from Jupiter to Amitabh
Bachchan as the pink-clad Supremo, in an Indrajaal Comics series
featuring Bollywood scriptwriter Gulzar, from half-machine RAW spy
Koushik to Raj Comics snake-man Nagraj. The heroes of Indrajaal
comics, notably the dashing detective Bahadur, commanded genuine cult
appeal and are cherished collectors' items today. The superheroes of
Raj, Diamond and Manoj comics also inspired a considerable fan
following in India, thriving on local content, the intrinsic appeal of
comics and the lack of high-quality alternatives. Comprehensive lists
are available on the Internet, created lovingly by fans who grew up
devouring the adventures of Indrajaal Comics heroes Mandrake the
Magician
and Lee Falk's Phantom – indeed, the lack of memorable Indian
superheroes is even more ironic when one considers that the Phantom,
widely believed to be the first comics action hero to wear a
skin-tight costume, was originally based in India, in the 'Bengalla'
forests, and his first enemies were the Singh Brotherhood.

The comic-book superhero in its current from is an American creation,
and has been popular since the late 1930s. Other nations have
superheroes too, of course – Japan probably has even more than the US
– but have not managed to sell them to the world as well as the
Americans. It's interesting to note that thanks to the superhero,
speculative fiction is the mainstream in comics, and more literary,
serious, set-in-reality comics have to seek audiences in the margins –
a hierarchy that resembles Bollywood more than Hollywood, assuming
that Bollywood films, thanks to their not-so-realistic action
sequences and musical numbers, can be said to contain speculative
content. Be that as it may, the triumphal march of the American
comic-book hero across media and across countries is a sign of many
things – globalization, Americanization, the triumph of hype and
marketing, the universal power of the heroic archetype. And the
evolution of the superhero down the decades has been a potent metaphor
for the state of the world – from the clean-cut, often absurdly
simplistic, high-minded, clean-living and completely unconvincing
heroes of the Golden Age, the confused, violent, bitter heroes of the
Silver Age and the amoral, angst-ridden, equally confused, thoroughly
deconstructed, often self-mocking, ultimately human super-protagonists
of the current day. And as the superhero genre becomes more and more
complex, and succumbs to two major pushing forces – Hollywood, pushing
it towards the pop-culture mainstream, and grown-up comic-books called
graphic novels pushing it towards literature, multicultural, diverse
heroes become a necessity, to deal with an ever-growing, ever-changing
audience not just in America, but across the world.

Mainstream comics down the decades have always been more
audience-driven than writer-driven; the phenomenon of comicbook
writers becoming famous literary figures working in various media with
fan followings outside the field of comics is fairly recent. While
science fiction and fantasy literature have always been a step ahead
of their readers – in fact, the process is interesting and
Ourobouros-like; a path-breaking new work creates an army of fans, and
copies of that work then flood the SFF market to feed those same fans,
resulting in the need for more path-breaking work – superhero
comicbooks, until recently, were much more a reflection of what their
publishers thought their fans wanted. Through letters, conventions and
now the Internet, fans have been one of the key factors in determining
what the superhero industry does, and where it goes – sometimes to the
extent that fans wrote in and voted to decide major plot developments,
such as the death of the second Robin.

And as America became more multicultural, and its comics found their
way around the world, the blatant cultural/social/political
stereotyping of the early days had to be done away with. New,
important sections of fandom had to be represented in the comics they
read, wholly new and very diverse sets of people were reading
comicbooks, and people who were offended by representations of their
kind in comics found it easier to raise their voices in protest – so
black and Asian characters could no longer play just one note or serve
as identikit cannon fodder, female characters could no longer be silly
sex objects, right-wing patriotism had to be toned down a bit, and a
few superheroes had to be gay. While this diversification couldn't do
away with stereotyping – many mainstream comicbooks remain riddled
with the worst clichés in the world – blatant racism, sexism, jingoism
and other politically incorrect prejudices were no longer openly
acceptable. Along with this came a growing demand for new plots and
new exotic settings – and once the word exotic featured in the list of
demands, could India really ever be far behind?

There are a surprisingly large number of Indian superheroes out there
in the universes created by Marvel and DC, which no doubt means that
there is a significant market among the South Asian diaspora for the
comic series they feature in. And since Gotham comics started
distributing Marvel and DC comics in India a few years ago, the demand
can only have increased. The only thing that hasn't happened yet,
alas, is research. Indian characters continue to fit into standard
roles, and we're yet to see a South Asian comics hero who does for
South Asians what Luke Cage did for African Americans, or what Northstar did for the gay community. And the arrival of Virgin Comics,and
potentially other comic-book companies in its wake if its projects
turn out to be successful, mean that the mainstream speculative comic
becomes a tremendously exciting avenue of exploration for the South
Asian writer and artist, both in its existing form and in potentially
reinvented forms. Which is not to say that writers outside the
subcontinent can't create South Asian convincing spec-fic comicbook
heroes; just that they haven't really bothered to, yet, as the
following list of Indian superheroes currently stomping around in the
West will demonstrate. While the list is by no means comprehensive, it
serves as a pointer to the roles available for South Asians in comics
published worldwide today – and also reveals, alarmingly, that the
Indian superheroes created in America, by and large, aren't
particularly any better or more convincing than the American-clone
superheroes created in India.

Bombaby, the Screen Goddess, was a creation of Slave Labor Graphics,
California, starring Saira Banu-esque Sangeeta Mukherjee, dutiful
daughter (!), struggling sister, potential arranged marriage victim
(!) and avatar of that well-known Hindu deity (!), the goddess of
Mumbai (?)

Grant Morrison, one of the brightest talents in comics worldwide,
mind-bending writer of The Invisibles and Animal Man, came up with
Vimanarama, where a young British-Asian boy named Ali, whose father
runs a corner-shop (!) in Bradford (!) accidentally releases ancient
monsters who want, of course, to destroy the world, and can only be
stopped by the Ultra-Hadeen, a team of giant metal-clad
Vishnu-avatar-esque superheroes similar to Jack Kirby's Eternals.
Featured Bollywood (!) inspired artwork starring many lotuses.

DC comics' deadliest assassin, Lady Shiva, isn't Indian, but is
worshipped by turban-wearing fanatics (!) as an avatar (!) of Shiva
(!) the famous Hindu goddess of death (?)

Chandi Gupta, a DC Justice Leage Europe (JLE) member, was left by her
parents with a cult (!) who, again, thought she was a Shiva
incarnation (?). This cult was evil (!) and planned to sacrifice her.
Like all clever Indians, Chandi turned NRI – in London, where she
lived under the name Maya, she helped the JLE win a battle, and then
joined them. On one of her earliest missions, she encountered and
defeated her former guru, (!) the Mahayogi (!)

Adri Nitall
, was an unfortunate young lad from the village of Jajpur
(!) who was turned into a vampire by Marvel's version of Dracula's
minions, while his father, Taj (!) Nitall, hunted vampires with Van
Helsingh.

Black Box aka Commcast, Garabed Bashur (?), is a Marvel supervillain
from India, who, now that India is a known IT hub, is a cyberpath who
can psychically process electronic data. Right up there with Bashur in
terms of common Indian names is Shakti Haddad, a genetics expert
code-named Cerebra, who co-founded the X-Men of the future. Their
names, however, fade into insignificance when confronted by Chris
Claremont's IT genius Muaharam Ram. Chris Claremont, one of superhero
comicdom's most respected writers, is also a frequent Indian character
introducer, which is nice, except that his Indians are terrible
caricatures
like the bindi-wearing Amina Synge (?) or his two most
famous Indian characters, Neal Sharra (?), or Thunderbird, who is from
Calcutta, in Bangladesh and Assam (!), where his family owns a tea
plantation and runs the Indian National Police (?). His lover, Karima
Shapandar
(?), the Omega Sentinel, is a former Indian National Police
operative doomed to destroy mutants like Neal, which might have been a
good idea.

Of course, some Indian characters are better drawn than others – where
'better' is taken to mean 'no obvious mistakes.' Jinx, an Indian
elemental sorceress, is a relatively inoffensive DC supervillain.
Paras Gavaskar, or Indra, is a mutant Marvel superhero from the New
X-Men, who is probably one of the most believable Indian superheroes
out there. Fortunately there's nothing Hindu or god-like about him, he
just has retractable armour plates. Spiderman India, an interesting
relocation of the world's favourite web-crawler, featured a lungi-clad
teenager named Pavitr Prabhakar taking on green goblin/rakshas and a
multi-armed Doc Octopus-esque Hindu demon, and drew a lot of media
attention in India, where even mainstream literary coverage is
minimal.

The winner of the prize for best-done Indian comics character goes to
Fables creator Bill Willingham, for his stylish, smart and cliché-free
version of the Jungle Book gang – Mowgli, a world-roaming secret agent
who goes under the name of Vincent Jagatbehari, is an excellent
creation and probably the only charismatic Indian in world comics
today, and Kipling's animals are well extrapolated from the book.

Of course, given how rare well-rounded (emotionally, that is)
characters are in mainstream comics as a whole, and that the new
evolved spec-fic comicbook (Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen, Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Fables, V for
Vendetta, Hellboy) is essentially a product of the last two decades,
the result of the maturing of an industry after years of professionals
gaining expertise and experimenting with the form, it seems
unreasonable to expect a wave of intelligent, fully formed South Asian
heroes to emerge immediately, no matter how demanding the market. But
given time, opportunities and a sufficiently large wave of talented
writers and artists, there's no reason why Indians shouldn't be a
significant force in the evolution of the superhero comicbook,
adapting it to create new, exciting, entertaining and enriching
varieties of speculative fiction. It's actually possible now, for the
very first time.

*this was written a while ago, before Krrish was released. Turns out that was a good thing, as I suspected.

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