If you want to understand the meaning of comics in India, one place to start is a battered, chipped piece of sandstone from the 9th century. "Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon," in which an eight-armed goddess impales a part-man, part-animal monster, doesn't bear any obvious resemblance to the X-Men or even the hipster graphic novels of Dan Clowes.
But this sculpture carved out of stone for purposes of worship represents an image that echoes through Indian culture -- and fuels some of the work created today on computer tablets by companies like Bangalore, India-based Liquid Comics.
"You're going to see visions of Durga all over the place," says Julie Romain, the curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who organized the new show. "In both traditional and popular form -- movies, posters, comics."
She sees Durga and others as archetypes, figures that replicate through Indian society. The show, "Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in India's Comics," which runs through Feb. 7, looks at the transformative power of the imagery of Indian mythology: figures such as Durga, an often vengeful mother goddess who is one of several forms of India's supreme goddess Devi, as well as Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, and the mace-wielding monkey god Hanuman. (Though India is religiously diverse, most of the figures in the show come out of the Hindu tradition.)
Romain is not a fangirl but a scholar of classical Indian art, albeit one married to a comic-book lover going through what she calls a nostalgic period.
The show of 54 pieces she put together with paintings curator Tushara Bindu Gude is not comprehensive -- it doesn't look at the entirety of Indian comics and does not explicitly connect the images to the rest of Indian pop culture, whether Bollywood films or contemporary graphic design.
Instead, it comes to Indian comics from a fine-arts point of view and from the past -- what will seem to an American audience like the very distant past, since scholars define Indian art as dating back about 5,000 years.
The show begins with some recent images from Indian comics -- including one by esteemed comics artist Alex Ross -- before leading visitors through the museum's South Asian and Southeast Asian Art galleries. "We wanted to ensure that people would have a teaser, a taste of the exhibition," Romain says, "before they went through the permanent collection. To give them something to think about while they went through."
When visitors reach the main gallery, they'll see contemporary Indian comics, all written in English and aimed largely at an urban, educated audience.
For the story Romain is telling, the most important early line was started by a businessman, Anant Pai, who originally sold "The Phantom" and " Superman" comics to Indian newspapers.
"Then," Romain says, "he thought, 'Why don't we create our own?' " His "Immortal Picture Stories" line (Amar Chitra Katha) launched in 1967 with a line of adventure comics about Krishna.
LACMA's exhibit includes some excepts from the "Ramayana," or "the adventures of Rama," which shows the Hindu gods coming to Earth to vanquish evil, as well as an epic tale about Devi. We see Durga and the buffalo demon again, as well as Rama enlisting a monkey army.
"In the decades after independence, India was really struggling to define itself as a new nation, to distinguish itself from its colonial past," Romain says.
"And [Pai] was very concerned that schoolchildren were being trained very much in the British colonial model -- Western history, Western civilization. And they couldn't answer questions like 'Who is Rama?,' one of the most important Indian gods. But they can answer, 'Who is Athena, or Zeus.' So he saw this as a way to educate future generations."
A lesson in roots
And these comics, aimed at Indian school kids in the '70s, became popular with parents who packed the books when they became part of India's enormous diaspora: They were a way for families in Britain or America to stay in touch with their heritage. (The company has sold roughly 100 million comics in about 20 Indian languages and English.)
Perhaps the most fascinating -- and seemingly contradictory -- point about the show is how this classic American form has led India to come up with work that is deeply and essentially Indian: The slogan of Pai's comics, printed on the inside cover, was "The route to your roots."
Though the newer comics are less didactic, this paradoxical stance is even more characteristic of the place India finds itself today, says Debashish Banerji, a scholar of Indian culture who teaches at Pasadena City College.
"A new generation is coming up, a contemporary generation that is essentially diasporic even if they are still in the country," says Banerji, who has seen the exhibit but has no role in it. "These days, both parents are working, the kids don't hear the same old stories. It's a generation in transition.
"What they are exposed to is international and American culture, including superhero comics. They're conscious of Hong Kong with kung fu movies, and Japan, with anime and manga. That's the language by which these old stories are being discussed today."
"Heroes and Villains" demonstrates the way an essentially American form can take on very different meaning as it's filled with the archetypes of another tradition.
You can see the process working almost in reverse in another set of work. Almost a decade ago, Spider-Man was retrofitted for India, and several panels show Pavitr Prabhakar -- that's a mystical, earring-wearing Peter Parker -- swinging into action, past the Taj Mahal.
"They set it in Mumbai," Romain says. "The origins of his powers come from a spiritual adept -- an ancient divine source." And Spider-Man wears a long loincloth over his costume. "They knew it wouldn't have been socially acceptable for him to be wearing tights."
Banerji points out that these contemporary comics are not just about archetypes but about values: To him, the use of American comics serves to emphasize parts of Indian tradition and to flatten others.
"The things that grab you are the tremendous violence, the heroism, and the demons who come out of ' Star Wars' and movies like that. In the early Indian narratives there are a lot of subtleties and complexities about ethical decisions. That's mostly jettisoned here."
There's also strong sexuality and a kind of simplified feminism to the recent comics.
"It seems very empowering to women's liberation," he says of the goddess heroines.
"Durga is young, she's sexy" in the new comics, in contrast to the more motherly form in which she's often portrayed. "She has the right to do what she wants: Don't mess with her or she'll castrate you."
Links to ancient art
In her goal to demonstrate the continuity and transformation of Indian mythology, Romain also includes court paintings from as early as the 16th century, during the Islamic Mughal Empire, and later watercolors used by nomadic village storytellers.
Banerji sees the heroic roots of Indian comics as demonstrating the age-old Indian idea that time is cyclical. "It shows the sweep of time, going 5,000 years back and then pushing forward. In doing that, it's almost projecting into the future. It's a sense of something both mythical and futuristic."