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Phantom of the comics

Ashok R Chandran  |  New Delhi 

Comics collector haunts the bazaar every sunday.
It is a Sunday morning in Delhi, and the only place to catch is Daryaganj, home to one of India's largest second-hand book markets. Vineeth has been visiting the weekly market every Sunday since he arrived in Delhi, in 1989.
"I am a great western fan and currently have a collection of 3,700-odd westerns, almost 90 per cent of them purchased from Daryaganj," Vineeth posted in an e-group four years ago.
As I catch up with Vineeth in Daryaganj, all I want to know is about his other enviable collection "" of comics "" which includes the first Indrajal comic: The Phantom's Belt (1964).
"It was Phantom who pulled me into the world of comics when I was seven," Vineeth once wrote. "But it was only at the age of 15, when I read the Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo, that I began noticing new facets of comic They now had more complex characterisation and narratives. The old good-against-evil storyline had changed now and the whiter than white hero had begun to acquire shades of grey. The incredible Spiderman was a superhero all right, but he was also an insecure, nervous and even neurotic teenager who I could totally identify with," he explained.
At Daryaganj, as Vineeth moves from one bookseller to the next, it is clear that he is known in these parts. "Yes, when they get a 'new' old comic, they inform me on the phone," Vineeth says. There are buyers and there are buyers.
Today he picks up two June and School Friend comics, a 1968 edition of The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, seven westerns, and four other books. For just Rs 107.
Not all the booty is for his collection. Some of it is for book-loving friends he has met on e-groups, or online discussion groups, where fans converge to share story summaries, upload cover scans, answer each other's queries, and occasionally bump into the artists.
"Without Vineeth's help this whole website would not exist and the joys of Indian comics would not be open to us all!" wrote Terry Hooper-Scharf of Indopakbangcomic.
Seeing is believing. So, we head for his flat in west Delhi.
Cartons of comics and shelves of books touch the ceiling. I wish to see the first Indrajal comic and he fishes it out for me in less than five minutes.
In the process, out come a few others "" Sherlock Holmes comics, Art Spiegelman's Maus (which won the Pulitzer), the Pogo collection We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us (a phrase picked up and made famous by environmentalists), and Ompa-pa (who makes cameo appearances in Asterix but has a series of his own by creators Goscinny and Uderzo).
Vineeth pulls out comics from different publishers (Goldkey, Charlton, Moonstone, Indrajal, Budget) to show me how the same Phantom story appears differently when published across time and space. He does not buy every comic that comes his way "" the year of publication and the artist are what matter. At times, he judges a book by its cover.
Vineeth preserves the older comics in plastic covers, and new ones keep arriving. The white packet on the table has just come from a collector in Australia, who has sent him the 1,500th issue of Frew Comics' Phantom.
It starts with a reprint of the first-ever Phantom comic, The Singh Brotherhood (1936). Vineeth is a big 'phan' (that's what Phantom fans call themselves) and judging by his treasurehouse of comics, this 44-year-old with a large heart could well be the jungle.
Not surprisingly, Vineeth is a mine of information on comics: Dhenkali in the Indian editions of Phantom comics was Bengali in the original foreign editions; in the Indian version of Spiderman, you will meet Pavitr Prabhakar (Peter Parker) and Meera Jain (Mary Jane); one comic in Vineeth's collection is going for Rs 1,500 on the web...
Ah! Any plans to sell? His collection would be worth thousands of dollars, right? "No, not for sale. I never bought any comic or book with that in mind. I kept on buying because I liked reading, that's all," he replies.
Vineeth's wife Fisal sighs and says, "In Irinjalakuda [his hometown near Thrissur in Kerala], he has stocked the almirah with books, instead of clothes."
This desk officer from the environment and forests ministry is different from most people I know. He has built expertise over decades with dedication, focus and fun.
While many of us, I suspect, do this in our professional area, excel at work and earn the respect of peers, Vineeth has done it outside the cubicle. With a hobby from his school days, has created a world of joy outside the workplace.
Tailpiece: The holy grail is Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, a Dell comic issued in 1942. "It's for sale on the Internet. Once I get it, I'll probably retire on that," Vineeth says. A reader might gift it to him, I say. He smiles and says, "It's selling for $10,000." I know what that smile means. He is waiting to pick it up one day from Daryaganj "" for 10 rupees.

First Published: Sun, August 12 2007. 00:00 IST