2006 was the year that Richard Branson launched his “Virgin Comics” brand in the hope of cashing in on a lucrative trend for capitalising on comic properties, with Marvel leading the way with a slew of successful film spin-offs, which, in 2016, showed no signs of stopping its’ juggernaut-like momentum – at the time of writing I was eagerly awaiting the release of “Dr Strange”, one of my favourite Marvel characters.
Virgin Comics had its’ production base in India, with a head office in New York, led by co-founder, Sharad Devarajan, but managed to attract A-List comic talent (e.g.Brendan McCarthy) internationally, as well as nurturing some awesome indigenous talent, and was a collaboration between Branson, film director Shekhar Kapur and New Age guru, Deepak Chopra – but despite its’ heavily publicised launch and pedigree (Branson owned the rights to “Dan Dare” briefly and relaunched a new graphic novel adaptation under the Virgin banner), it ultimately foundered, re-emerging as “Liquid Comics” and shifting to the U.S.
Virgin Comics’ new venture reminded me of my early encounters with comics in India on long Indian train journeys in the 60s and 70s…
My dad would buy comics from vendors on the railway station platforms we stopped at on cross-country trips – back then, usually Harvey Comics like “Sad Sack” or “Casper”, which provided a much needed jolt of homeliness and familiarity in a strange, often alien-seeming environment, since I collected the same comics at home.
The comics, often local re-prints, carried an evocative odour of ink and newsprint, and the cheap pulp stock was often yellowed through prolonged exposure to the Indian sun – the comics included crude re-prints of Will Eisners “Spirit” first editions – the femme fatale “Plaster of Paris” fascinated me in particular, why was she called that ? – the “Phantom” and “Mandrake”, Archie, Mad Comic, locally produced comics and the odd home grown superhero.
The US re-prints suffered from mis-registered 2 colour printing (“Mandrake” sticks in my mind for this reason) and cover-art with often unintentionally funny characterisations based on the original U.S versions, by local artists.
DC Comics seemed to be few and far between, probably because they hadn’t agreed on distribution rights for India, so if you saw them at all they were most likely left behind by foreign tourists or used as ballast in cargo ships, and were like gold dust.
All this contributed to calming my anxiety about being somewhere unfamiliar, while the train rattled on through the Ghats and the sun beat down through the glassless windows of the carriages.