After crossing the confusing age of twenty and being considered as half-irresponsible by elders (the glass is half-empty for me), if a person continues to have an undying love and never-ending knowledge about comic book characters then people call him or her a nerd. I’m a nerd. Geek. Fan. I know the name of the street where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed and I know the name of Clark Kent’s first love interest (not Louis Lane). I remember the oath of Green Lantern corps by heart and I agree how Gwen Stacy’s death has changed the entire world of comics. And as obvious as it is, I never bought or read almost any of these books. Never been in my reach or knowledge and most of all, never affordable.
The difference between me and many of my time is drawn from the fact that I’ve always been more into American superheroes and comics and hardly in the borrowed plots and inspired characters of more regional origin. Though, I’ve always liked Dhruv and never thought Nagraj is any good against him. But my biased affection towards the virile, smart boy with no superpowers could be because my first superhero book was a Super Commando Dhruv. The first appearance of Dhwaniraj.
I’d read Champak and Lotpot before that, around third standard, recommended directly from my father who just wanted me to read something. He’d brought me a copy from a newspaper stall. And I remember feeling surprised when he told me that he’d also read many comics before. Things like Rajan and Iqbal (I’d no idea who they were, back then) or Chandamama. And I caught myself thinking, Can adults actually do that? Are they even allowed to read a comic? How can someone be so naive at eleven, right?
. . . So I read. I finished my Lotpot in one night and then went through it again the next day after school. I memorised the one-liners, repeated them two or three times in my head and then made my friends giggle during the evening gatherings. I started sharing the stories of Motu-Patlu with others, properly concealing the source, no doubt. (Always had that bit of a plagiariser in me.) And I learned the amazing pleasure of intentionally making someone laugh. But it was quick. The content was small and I was hungry for more.
Then, the summer vacations. I lived in Aliganj, back then. Standing next to my mother on a stationery shop. Browsing through a stack of forty-to-sixty comic books. There condition wasn’t good, but the rent was low. One rupee per day, one copy at a time. Sensing that my mother wasn’t enjoying standing there behind me, waiting for me to finish browsing, pick one, and leave, I hurried. But every reader must have faced this conundrum of actually picking only one book from a stack of fifty. So I settled with, “Laash ke Tukde” (the Corpse’s Pieces). An average pulp-fiction horror. I don’t think it was even meant for eleven-year-old anyway. But my mother never paid much attention; at least I wasn’t bothering her anymore.
That comic, I believe, (after the TV show Aahat) can be the reason of my unrelenting interest in the macabre. It actually showed bones and brain matter. I was so thrilled. I didn’t sleep well that night. There was something under my bed.
Then, it was Dhruv, the next day. My first superhero on paper. After that Ashwaghosh (about a world where everyone is a centaur). And more horror. I read as much as I could. The vacations were over soon, as they always tend to do and the shop had run out of good stuff. I’d read enough that I could develop a taste. Horrors and heroes. And then we started with the daily dose of cartoons. Cartoon Network introduced us to an entire new world of superheroes. Literally, Hundreds of them.
I also started finding similarities between them and the ones I’ve read. Disappointment.
But the journey continued.
I learned soon that these cartoon shows were inspired from comic books of their own. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Justice League, X-Men, Dragon Ball Z. My curiosity exploded. As the time passed, I tried to grab some copies for myself but couldn’t find any in the nearby shops. Years passed and comics disappeared from the market. The journey from Chandamama to Lotpot, Chacha Chaudhary and Champak, to Super Commando Dhruv and Doga was almost over.
Later, I found a few on some of those small, battered stalls selling second-hand books, entrance exam forms and old magazines. And at one time, the ragman who made periodic rounds in every three months, passed me a tattered old copy of Lotpot. Its edges were rough and worn, the pages fading. There was no Motu-Patlu in it. But it was the real thing and I realised where the comics went.
There was also one time when I got a free Justice League comic with Maggi. It was some promotional tie-in thing. But apart from that, I never read any other American comic back then.
With the advanced technology and .cbz readers for androids, it’s become a little easy nowadays. I’ve read the Frank Miller’s masterpiece The Dark Returns on my tablet and even though the experience was different, (it’s not very easy to read e-comics) I felt somehow satisfied. I had, at last, actually read my first Batman.
Now, in the modern age of comics, we’ve more original concepts and English publishers in India. There’s Ravanayana, Devi, Rama, Aghori and many other dystopian or urban fantasy stories with Indian characters and theme. Anti-heroes and villains who represent agendas and ideologies. Moments when the heroes make bad choices in the climax. But where Captain America and Superman grew up from being flawless American icons to symbol of hope with more human aspects in personal life, Indian classics have dwindled towards oblivion. I’ve often felt bad (after growing up idolising Shaktimaan) about the ignorance our heroes face. They weren’t bad for starters. I might not be a huge fan of them, and have often found them too thin for my taste, but you always remember your first.