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Comics are serious business

Prasad Sangameshwaran  |  Mumbai 

If you are Indian and over 30, you probably know these characters well: Vikram and Vetal, Shikhari Shambu and Suppandi.
There are a couple of generations that connect their childhoods with these iconic animated characters, and the comic books in which they appear. Well, Chandamama and Tinkle are still around but, like you, they're changing with the times.
On the cards are licensing agreements involving content and characters, leveraging the growing opportunities in the online games and movie segment and, perhaps, merchandise. Welcome to version 2.0.
Animated ambitions
The renewed interest in comic books "" the sector had been dormant for some years, with the advent of cable television and 24x7 cartoon channels "" started a couple of years ago.
Analysts point to the growing popularity of gaming and graphic novels among older teens and young adults helping the trend spread to younger consumer groups as well.
Then, in 2006, a group of non-resident Indians, in partnership with maverick entrepreneur Richard Branson, author and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and film maker Shekhar Kapur, launched Virgin Comics to not only address the comic book market, but also tap into the Indian creative pool for the global market.
While the arrival of new competition propelled the older players to rexamine their growth strategy, what finally moved them into higher gear was a change in at both publications this year.
Last month, India Book House sold Amar Chitra Katha and for an unconfirmed Rs 10 crore to ACK Media, a newly formed entertainment and education company for pre-teens and teenagers, while Geodesic Information Systems paid a similar sum for Chandamama in March.
Why is everyone treating comics as such serious business? The revival is heavily influenced by the huge market potential "" 300 million Indians in the 6- to 17-year age group. Granted, they're not all likely to read comics "" the 300-million figure covers all income groups and education levels "" but the publishers aren't complaining.
India CEO L Subramanyan claims that sales of the magazine (newsstand price: Rs 15) have increased from 160,000 a month to 360,000 over the past year, while ACK Media reports monthly sales of 140,000 for Tinkle (Rs 40 per issue). Virgin refuses to divulge sales numbers.
Also, according to estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers global media and entertainment outlook from 2006-10, while magazine publishing revenues in India (comics come under this category) is expected to grow at a CAGRof 13.3 per cent, revenues from home videos (CAGR 41.5 per cent), TV networks (11.2 per cent) and filmed entertainment (11.9 per cent) are also expected to deliver healthy growth rates.
The global opportunity is equally big, points out Sharad Devarajan, co-founder, CEO and publisher of Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation.
The market for comics and related products like merchandise and films is estimated at $40 billion (roughly Rs 160,000 crore). Japan, with its Manga books, makes up 30 per cent of the market, followed by the US and Europe. In stark contrast, India accounts for under 1 per cent.
The players are determined to change that. Which is why they are planning to take comics beyond the traditional book format to not just films and television serials, but also online games, social networking sites for children and so on.
ACK Media CEO and co-founder Samir Patil agrees there is a huge global audience "" primarily NRIs "" waiting to lap up diverse and differentiated Indian content.
It plans to reach them through online services like the ACK Shop, which also sells products made by competitors such as Karadi Tales, Tulika Books and so on.
Meanwhile, it is building an online base with a children-oriented website, tinkleonline: the "social networking" site allows children to earn points and exchange them for games, books and toys. Needless to say, the site also allows online shopping of ACK products.
Chandamama, too, has turned to new media. Apart from uploading its stories on the Internet, it has also tied up with satellite radio service provider Worldspace to bring the Indian story telling tradition live through radio. In a couple of weeks, the company will also announce its tie-up with a national FM radio station for a weekend story-telling slot.
Television and film are also part of the new focus. Chandamama has already created a story cell that will produce scripts for animation films and programmes, while ACK is exploring tie-ups with production houses that will replicate its comic storyboards on film.
At present, neither ACK nor Geodesic are looking at creating new characters "" they just don't see the need. Amar Chitra Katha, for instance, published more than 400 titles over the past 40 years, while Tinkle's characters, too, enjoy high recall levels.
"It will take years for consumers to become acquainted with new characters," points out Patil. Geodesic, too, plans to leverage its existing strengths "" Chandamama reportedly has a story bank that will last 15 years.
That's not Virgin's strategy, though. In fact, the huge dearth of new original characters is the raison d'etre for the organisation "" Mickey Mouse was created in the 1920s, Batman a decade later and Spiderman in the 1960s. They still remain the most popular animation characters. The only recent addition is Pokemon, and even that is over 10 years old.
"We decided to focus on India as not an outsourcing destination but as the source for new comic characters," says Devarajan.
In line with that decision, Virgin Comics are made in India, for a global audience. The company already has a 200-executive-strong studio in Bangalore and plans to set up two more across the country next year.
In fact, when it comes to the beyond-books strategy, Virgin is far ahead of the other two players. In a move that will facilitate transit of its comics into Hollywood films, the company has started a Director's Cut Comic Line series where it has associated with Hollywood directors.
In this series, Hollywood directors such as Guy Ritchie, John Woo, Terry Gilliam, Shekhar Kapur, Jonathan Mostow, Ed Burns, and Nicolas Cage associate themselves with the creation of a comic title. For instance, Guy Ritchie's Gamekeeper, which was released through Virgin Comics, will be adapted into a film co-produced by Warner Bros.
Virgin has also tied up with two Indian production houses "" UTV Motion Pictures and Studio 18 "" to create Indian superheroes and horror films, respectively.
The company has also entered into a partnership with Sony to develop online games on its Ramayan 3392 AD title. For the television medium, it has a partnership with Sci-Fi channel.
The power of content from India is also a top draw. Gotham Chopra, chief creative officer, Virgin Comics, claims that Virgin's titles like Virulents, The Sadhu, Ramayan 3392 AD and Devi, all part of the Shakti series, have fared as well as Director's Cut books. "India is the biggest celebrity because of its mystery and exoticism," he says.

First Published: Tue, December 18 2007. 00:00 IST