When I was a kid our family used to go on a lot of pilgrimages, with trains as our preferred mode of transportation, thanks to my grandfather. And, of course as any kid, I used to love trains, even the smelly sleeper class coupes and train stations. Train stations were gateways and trains were the transport ready to whisk me away on an adventure, I used to think. But, there was another reason I loved them – bookstores. You can always find bookstores in a train station – a Higginsbotham bookstore, a RK Math outlet, or at the very least a nameless vegetable cart littered with magazines, pirated books and comics. These were the only bookstores I knew other than the magazine stall at Dilsukhnagar bus stop. And, it was here I first discovered comics.
Any cart would be loaded with Chacha Chaudhary, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Tinkle, Gokulam, Chandamama, and a few others which I didn’t care about. None of them had the appeal of say Superman or Batman or Spiderman (or any of the industry biggies) which were almost non existent as comics in India, but these comics, in addition to being good, were the only ones available. Chacha Chaudhary & Phantom were my favourites. I remember crying a lot to pursuade my father to buy me Chacha Chaudhary. He finally relented buying me two – a single issue and a double digest which remained my prized possessions till I lost them. With a two rupees pocket money every week it was tough to save money to buy comics given the number of ways I could spend them on – panipuri, cutlet, labels, pepsi (not the drink), stationery, etc. But, sometimes I did manage to save five rupees which I would then use to buy Tinkle or Gokulam. (I almost never bought Chandamama, ’cause we used to have small lending libraries which my grannie/mom used to subscribe to for film magazines, which would also have these books, and once they read everything new on stands and still had quota left, would let me use it to rent Chandamama). In addition to Chacha & Sabu, Phantom & Devil, Shikari Shambu, Kalia the Crow and Suppandi were few other characters who became my friends.
The only other place I could read comics and where I discovered western comics was our school library. One day out of pure luck, I walked past a rack which held He-man and Spiderman comics. I was so amazed by their art work and story lines full with splash pages and tons of action that I spent my entire lunch break reading them. I returned, of course, the next day too and continued to do so for a week, when one fine day I saw the rack missing. ‘What happened?’ I asked the Librarian. ‘We hid them, no one’s reading anything else other than them’ she said. Disappointed I returned to my class and it would be a very long time before I would lay my eyes on comics again.
2006 to 2010 was a good time to be a book lover in Hyderabad. Couple of high profile book stores like Landmark and Odyssey launched offering never before seen books to a Hyderabadi. It was here that I again saw comics, this time – Batman (thanks to Batman Begins). I quickly purchased a few (Long Hallowe’en, Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke, Hush, Dark Victory, Year One) only to realise I had spent a fortune on them (each one costed around 800 bucks). As a student and later on my first job, I didn’t have that much to spend on them. So again, I had to stop. But, when you know you can’t afford something, yet, like it very much, you unconsciously start hating it. A defense mechanism I guess, to forget the pain of realising our limitations. ‘Grow up’ I told myself and decided not to indulge in comics anymore.
However bookstores were my most frequented places, and I would occasionally stop by the comics rack to check the collections. But, I never bought any. I cured my itch with movies based on comic books which were being released regularly by Hollywood. I did not miss even one movie. And, then comics started invading the small screen too. Arrow followed by Flash became my favourite shows (not to mention how many times comics are referenced in The Big Bang Theory; another all time favourite show). Around this time I could no longer push back my urge to read comics (some itches just can’t be cured). So, I went online and started researching, which resulted in surprising information. I didn’t have to start at the very first issues of any comics, I just had to start somewhere and comics were always designed to accomodate new readers. Also, DC had recently relaunched its entire catalogue for a newer generation. So, I took the plunge.
Getting a comic book in an Indian bookstore is a joke. You either get outdated ones and/or mangled and torn ones and almost never the latest releases. Also, over the last year I had decided not to buy physical copies of books unless I really loved the book and wanted it as a collectible. It was Kindle all the way for me. So, I started searching for digital copies of comics when I discovered Comixology – a sister site of Amazon which offered digital comics and had amazing discounts almost all the time. All I needed was a tablet or a smartphone. I started slowly, and over the last six months, have not read any other books than comics. Batman, Flash, Superman, Ultimate Spiderman, Green Lantern, Justice League, Aquaman, The Walking Dead, Thor, Daredevil, Nightwing, Batgirl, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, wow, so many amazing stories and art, it was like discovering a new world. Hope there’ll be enough to keep me satiated (and bankrupt).
Sometimes, I question myself – Why do I still love comics? Did I not grow up? As children we learn there is good and there is bad as two distinct concepts and that heroes represent the good and villians the bad. But, growing up reveals the truth – there’s no one who is pure good or pure evil and that we all have the capacity to be either with our choices and actions determining who we turn into. We learn that life is complicated and that lot of it lies in the gray area and that good does not always win. And, I think I was tired of this notion. Tired of its complexity. There was no closure, no poetic justice. I longed for a simpler place where good could win, where anything was possible (magic), where logic was thrown out of the window (mostly), and where bad could be kicked in its’ ass. Comics provided me this outlet, became that oasis.
After reading good amount of stories, I realised just like all good books, comics were not just sources of entertainment and escape but also of learning and imagination. If Batman & Superman offered entertaining and sometimes thought provoking stories, graphic novels like Watchmen and V for Vendetta & The Walking Dead offered social commentary. My journey so far with Capes & Cowls has been mostly rewarding, and I hope it’ll continue to as I discover more. But, what about you, dear reader? What comics did you grow up with? What do you still read? Or do you harbour a secret wish to read them someday?