New India ink
To Virgin Comics, the nation is both vast market and creative well.
A British soldier is trained to be a spiritual warrior by an Indian wise man in the Virgin Comics title. (Virgin Comics LLC)
One of the world's greatest stories, India's Ramayana, is being retold as a post-apocalyptic comic book, in "Ramayana Reborn," with an animated television spinoff for kids titled "The Seven Sounds."
This is the brainchild of the newly launched Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation, an entertainment partnership between British billionaire Richard Branson, bestselling New Age author Deepak Chopra, film director Shekhar Kapur ("Bandit Queen" and "Elizabeth") and India's leading licenser of comic books, Gotham Entertainment Group, which has brought "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" to Delhi and Bombay, as well as launched a new Indian version of "Spider-Man" across the world.
"The Ramayan is the Eastern equivalent of the Odyssey. It is our 'Lord of the Rings,' " says Gotham Chopra, Deepak's 30-year-old son, a former Channel One TV personality, author and producer, and the new venture's chief creative officer.
The new companies, based respectively in New York and Bangalore, India, are using largely Asian-influenced comics as the platform to build a global media company.
"We felt that interest in this Asian-edged content, this is the growing wave," says Chopra. "Richard, as a big Western billionaire, recognized that the future of entertainment is in the East, not necessarily in Hollywood."
This is the first major foray for Branson's Virgin empire into the world of comic books in 20 years, a thriving arena in America, which has been the springboard for many Hollywood blockbusters in addition to "Spider-Man," such as "Batman" and "Superman."
"The growth of the comic market in America has been spectacular," notes Adrian Sington, executive chairman of Virgin Books, who is supervising the multimillion-dollar investment for Virgin. "It's been led by comics made in Asia. Despite the fact that India has a mature entertainment business, with movies and sports, it's had no comic business. They're leveraging the talent of Indian creators and moving them like manga into the West. We're looking to help them do that."
According to news reports, comic books saw their sales jump 9% in the U.S. last year. Still, Marvel, one of the industry's giants, made twice as much money licensing superheroes to the movies than on the sale of comic books. The comics business here is a fraction of what it is in some countries. According to Forbes, manga — a style of Japanese comics — is a $5.6-billion industry.
Virgin Comics is already in development on three separate lines of comics: Maverick, based on the work of songwriters; Director's Cut, working with film directors (John Woo has signed on); and Shakti, which will focus on Indian content.
Shakti means "power" in Hindi, and titles in the line include "Devi," which means "goddess.". Chopra describes the character as "Asia's first super woman."
"She wears the different faces of the goddess," he says. "On one hand she plays the typical submissive Asian housewife, on the other hand she's Angelina Jolie." Another story line concerns a 19th century English soldier who becomes a disciple of a sadhu, or Indian wise man, who trains him to become a spiritual warrior.
Sharad Devarajan, the new venture's chief executive, says the plan is to publish comics in the United States, Japan and, of course, in India, not a traditional comic powerhouse but where there will be an estimated 550 million teenagers by the year 2015.
Part of the reason comics have not yet flourished in India has been the lack of distribution, the absence of superstores like Barnes & Noble. But one of the new venture's partners, Devarajan's Gotham Entertainment, already has 7,000 accounts for its Western translations.
"As you can imagine, the biggest problem is collecting the money," notes Sington wryly, adding that he was particularly impressed that "they were paying regular royalties."
Deepak Chopra is very much involved, says his son.
"A lot of people, like my father and Shakur, they're tired of India being relegated to being this backroom, this place for outsourcing. They both felt that India has this incredible pool of talent, and [wanted to], if they could, be part of the creative renaissance."
He added: "My father is writing a novel on the life of Buddha. We're doing the companion graphic novel."