Four comic collectors and one dealer talk about their relationship with their favourite books.
Ajay Misra, Phantom Enthusiast
Out of all the comics that Ajay Misra owns, he says the Phantom Belt series is the most valuable for him.
Ajay Misra is a busy man these days. Both he and his daughter are preparing for their CA (Chartered Accountant) entrance exams together. Born and brought up in Lucknow, the 47-year-old lives on Lodhi Road in Delhi. But it was in the streets of Lucknow that Misra discovered his first comics. “I found them at the Sunday markets. There were readers, mostly kids like me, who were prepared to exchange comics. That’s how it started. Someone owned something, you had something, and you just borrowed from each other,” Misra says. But the kind of readership and community-like engagement that the Ministry of Commerce employee mentions, began disappearing in the mid-nineties and vanished into oblivion by the turn of the century.
Over the years, Misra, who has worked and lived in many cities, stayed true to his passion for comics. “I made decent money. Between Lucknow, Hyderabad and Delhi, I have been to markets and have scoured bookshops of each city for comics. Hyderabad is where I got a big part of my collection,” he says. Misra owns a varied collection, from Amar Chitra Kathas to every issue of Phantom (from the year 1936 onwards), Adarsh Chitra Katha, Mandrake and Jack Kirby. Misra now largely conducts his business online. His trips to Sunday markets have become rarer, as he has taken both his efforts to collect and spread the word about comics, online.
Sometime in 2008, Misra’s daughter suggested that instead of lending comics to people, they could simply put digital versions online.”I started scanning comics. And she would upload them on to a blog. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we didn’t do all of them. Eventually Diamond Comics and Raj Comics raised concerns. But it was a way to share comics, better and quicker than physical lending,” Misra says. His idea snowballed and a large group of collectors came together and began doing something similar. A select group of people now upload and view each other’s collections on the web today, a personal circulating library, so to speak.
Out of all the comics that Misra owns, he says the Phantom Belt series is the most valuable for him. They’re not the rarest or hardest-to-get comic, he admits. “Back in the day when Phantom was published and circulated widely in India, Diamond published a few in Hindi. These were all unlicensed copies. And I can bet you, they will be next to impossible to find in India today,” he says. Though not all is rosy in the comic collector’s world, or his idea of what this world should be. “It has become a business. If someone finds something at Daryaganj, or another street in the country, all he is looking to do is sell it for 10 times the value. I don’t do that. I may give away a few comics on rent here or there, but I don’t get into money-making rat races.” Despite the renewed interest in Indian comics of late, Misra says he finds it difficult to continue collecting. “I don’t think I have any motivation left. I might still buy a comic and read it a hundred times. But for me, the collecting bit is largely finished. It has turned into a business that I neither have the time nor the energy for,” he says.
Vineeth Abraham, Gold Key Fan
At the time Vineeth Abraham began reading, there weren’t that many comics to begin with, except for Indrajaal and occasionally, Amar Chitra Katha.
Earlier this year, 54-year-old Vineeth Abraham took voluntary retirement and moved back to his home in Kerala to tend to his ailing mother.“My mother is 89 years old and my aunty lives here too. They live alone. Aunty is 93. I had to come back,” Abraham says. His father was in the Army, which meant that while growing up, Abraham stayed in many different cities and towns. Of these, the one that introduced him to the world of comics was his childhood home in Mathura during the ’70s.” I was always a voracious reader. Besides, there wasn’t much else other than radio – TVs were rare -- to entertain yourself with. So my dad got me comics from the train station in Mathura, and I guess, it just stuck with me,” he says.
At the time Abraham began reading, there weren’t that many comics to begin with, except for Indrajaal and occasionally, Amar Chitra Katha. “I started with American comics - Gold Key and Dell. They are still my favourites. I eventually moved to others, like DC and Marvel, and the odd Indrajaal etc. But my most prized possessions were American comics,” Abraham says. He owns the complete set of Gold Key, right from the beginning of their year of publishing, in 1962, to the mid-seventies, and Dell, beginning from the 1940s to the mid-1960s.
That said, the way comics are now bought or exchanged has been changing over the years as well. Abraham says there are numerous unofficial channels, like WhatsApp groups and Facebook communities where collectors, buyers and sellers meet. It is smoother and faster. But a collector, one who has personal favourites, will still go the extra mile. “The first comic I really connected with as a reader was Phantom. Some years ago I found out that there was a publisher in Australia by the name Frew, who published Phantom in English. So I established contact with fans in Australia, and through months and years of networking, I assembled a major collection of Frew’s Phantom, more than a thousand editions,” he says.From 1989 till earlier this year, Abraham worked at a government office in Delhi. During his three decade stay in Delhi, he visited the Daryaganj pavement book bazaar every Saturday and Sunday, almost like a ritual. “That is where I got most of the comics. Even the week before I shifted back to Kerala I went there,” he says. But Abraham’s relocation may halt his pursuit of comics for the simple reason that Kerala simply doesn’t have second-hand or used-book markets like Daryaganj where you can accidentally find gold. “Kerala has a lot of readers. But they are into serious reading,” explains Abraham. “There may not be a house in Kerala that does not have a library or at least a small collection of books. But nobody gives them away, no one.”
Arun Prasad, Owns Every Tinkle
In his initial years comic-reading years, Arun Prasad depended on the local Malayala Manorama Publications that published comics like Balamangalam, Poompatta, Balarama, Bobanum Moliyum, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha.
Born and brought up at Eravankara in Kerala, Arun Prasad moved to Bangalore in 1990 at the age of 15. By that time he was already a comic buff. “My grandmom was a voracious storyteller. Be it the Puranas, mythology, the kind of stories she narrated to us came alive as real and I was completely enraptured from a very young age. Her passing away left me blank with no more stories. Maybe that was a reason for me to eventually get hooked,” Prasad says. He graduated in History and got a journalism diploma as well. But the 42-year-old has, over the years, retained the kind of love for comics that has turned him into a practicing comic archivist. There’s a term for it: pannapictagraphist. Prasad is also an artist, a researcher of history and a freelance writer.
In his initial years comic-reading years, Prasad depended on the local Malayala Manorama Publications that published comics like Balamangalam, Poompatta, Balarama, Bobanum Moliyum, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha. “I remember when I was nine years. After I’d cried for about two months, my mom finally agreed to subscribe to Balarama, followed by Indrajal comics which brought out Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and other characters,” Prasad says. As soon as Indrajaal entered Prasad’s household he was hooked to Phantom, a comic that also brought out the artist in him. “I drew Phantom action images and scribbled ‘jungle sayings’ all over my text and notebooks. Once I was thrown out of class for outlining ‘Evolution of Phantom’ over the ‘Evolution of Man’ images in my science text book. It was with Phantom that I began dreaming of becoming an artist myself someday,” he adds.
That said, Prasad didn’t turn collector until after he shifted to Bangalore, when he realised what he had lost – his childhood. “It was more of a personal quest looking for my own lost childhood that I started collecting comics. As is the case with most, I too lost my entire childhood comics collection when our family shifted from Kerala to Bangalore. After that, I began desperately looking for the comics that I had lost,” he says. But it wasn’t until 2000, when someone gifted him a couple of old Phantom comics, that Prasad’s quest turned serious. Apart from the usual Indrajaal and Amar Chitra Katha, Prasad owns the complete Tinkle, rare comics published by the Tirupati Temple Trust, Supremo Comics (Amitabh Bachan as superhero), Sunny the super sleuth (Sunil Gavaskar as super hero), Dalton, Falcon, Star comics and much more.
Prasad is now working on organising a proper archive of his comics. “I have converted the ground floor of my residence into a comic warehouse. Most of my important comics are placed inside boxes made from imported acid-free boards and then packed in polypropylene bags. I have some specially made white carton boxes and the comics are placed vertically so as to avoid the breaking of spines,” he says. Archives and historical relevance aside, comics are now the subject of a growing second-hand market as well. One that Prasad doesn’t completely agree with. Instead, he thinks of himself as a keeper, and if everything goes to plan, perhaps India’s first archivist of comic books.
Shalu Gupta, Lonely Collector
Shalu Gupta is a lonely horse in a town like Hoshiarpur, where he might be the only one interested in comics.
Shalu Gupta was a never a diehard collector. In fact, for at least a decade – from the time he began reading comics to the time he began collecting them – he had forgotten all about them. “One just grows up you know. My father is a doctor. So I took up medicine. But I was never really up to the task. Guess I wasn’t cut out for any of it. But that nevertheless takes a lot away from you. Especially something as enjoyable as comics,” he says. Gupta eventually graduated in the Arts. Brought up in Hoshiarpur in Punjab, where the 39-year-old runs his own business as a hotelier, Gupta came in contact with comics fairly early and entirely due to chance.
Born to a lower-middle-class family, one that could not afford a television until the mid-Nineties, reading was the only thing that Gupta and his younger brother could do. “We read anything and everything. Hoshiarpur didn’t really have a good place to get comics from. So we got them from Jalandhar through relatives. Or if anyone was coming to visit us, we’d ask him to bring this comic or that comic. But we rarely bought any. We just did not have the money. Most of my early years were spent reading rented comics, through the late Eighties up until the mid-Nineties until having to grow up, took my attention away from it all together,” he says. Compared to most collectors, Gupta’s relationship with comics is acutely personal. He went through a tough phase in 2007, and it was comics that almost saved him.
In 2007, the year Gupta got married, his mother passed away. “I was shattered. Both me and my younger brother, we were broken. We did not know what to do. My wife, who had just entered my life, probably didn’t either. My brother, out of the blue, brought home the latest series from Raj, titled Narayan. It was good, and I got back to reading, and with time, it helped me in dealing with the pain. That collection, that particular series by Raj will always remain special to me,” he says. He owns the complete sets of Raj and Diamond comics. Close to 10,000 editions sit in a room on the first floor of his house that he has allocated for his collection.
Unlike America or Australia, in India, it would be embarrassing for an adult to seek pleasure, or worse, solace in comics. Did his wife find it strange? “Absolutely not, she found me at a time I was incredibly weak, and she saw that comics gave me my life back. Though I don’t read that much now, I just collect. It is something I feel I need to do, alongside the other responsibilities I now have,” Gupta says. The father of two children now, Gupta is still a lonely horse in a town like Hoshiarpur, where he might be the only one interested in comics. That said, there are moments that help him keep faith. “A week back we called an electrician to fix the AC of the room where I keep my collection. He immediately came to me and said he and his wife would love to borrow a few, and read them. I find plenty of people like him, and I find satisfaction in the fact that I am able to offer something to them,” he says.
Comics dealer: Mohammad Shahid
The first and second generation phenomenon of collecting comics has given rise to unique opportunities for some people. Delhi-based 64-year-old Mohammad Shahid, for example, is a full-time dealer in comic books in a second-hand market, now a lucrative space to make money. “I turned to selling comics in the early ’90s. Since then I have been doing it full time. Technology has changed things in the last few years, but the basic principles haven’t changed that much,” Shahid says. Back in the ’90s, Shahid went around shops in Delhi putting stickers that had his name and address on comic books. Collectors, when they got hold of these comics, contacted him and eventually became part of a select group with whom he dealt. Though the number of collectors has increased since then, and the scope of the business expanded pan-India due to the web, Shahid’s inner circle of collectors is the same as before – around 25.
But said, the market is continuously expanding. “I believe comics are coming back in a big way. Younger kids are more interested and getting serious about collecting. But I still sell to older collectors, who are serious about it. This small group remains my priority,” says Shahid. The value of returns from operating in this market can be gauged from the prices collectors are willing to pay for single editions of some comics. “The most popular and definitely the most sought after are the earliest Indrajaals. People are willing to pay up to a lakh for an edition. There is hardly any other comic that matches that demand. Some editions of Deewana can sell for ₹5,000. Lotpot can go up to ₹10,000. Supremo Comics in which Amitabh Bachan was a superhero can fetch you around ₹5,000. Then there is something rare like Goverson’s Hindi Asterix, which can get you between ₹5,000 – ₹10,000. The early Amar Chitra Katha editions can fetch you between ₹ 20,000 – ₹ 25,000,” Shahid says. Though he doesn’t share the size of his cut, Shahid says business is good, and expected to only get better. “The trick is to know people. Build your network around the people you will buy from, and those who will buy from you,” he says.