With no end in sight to this pandemic, what’s keeping many of us going is nostalgia. Eighties, nineties and ‘naughties’ (2000-2010) playlists abound, TV shows from those eras are being revisited and movies rewatched. Perhaps because those spaces are our ‘happy places’, the ones that make us feel safe in unstable times. One such space to rediscover is the world of comic books.
While I was never into superhero comics and I’ve never (gasp) been into Marvel or DC, I was into the chick lit of comics — Archie & the Gang. This was definitely the happiest place when it came to the world of comics. My favourite among these was the Betty & Veronica Double Digest. I loved how the stories were light and agenda-free, and how America came to life in freckles, boom boxes and burgers. Many an afternoon waiting at Dadar station for a train to Pune would be made brighter with the pile of comics my mother would let me amass from the platform book stand.
While reading Archie & the Gang, we were introduced to many characters who went on to grow up and get their own dark, sultry, sensational TV shows. These include Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Josie & the Pussycats and the whole Riverdale gang. Though I do follow Riverdale now — I’m not a fan of how they turned a sunny, fantasy world into one full of murder, psychopaths, violence and darkness.
While my own comic interests over and above Archie extended to Garfield, Snoopy & Charlie Brown, the philosophical Calvin & Hobbes and a few issues of Tinkle, there are some who attribute a large part of their popular cultural education to comic books. Vivek Vaishnav, Investment Banker, 38, says, “My grandfather kept stacks of Marvel and DC comics for us to read, of which Phantom was the most popular. As I grew older, I loved the satirical humour of Asterix and Obelix and Tintin. Comic books were where I learned about good and evil, satire and philosophy, and I continue to appreciate them till today.”
Nilofar Haja, Digital Marketing Strategist, 37, says, “I read a lot of comic books as a kid, including Tinkle, Chacha Chaudhary and Archie. The dialogues were witty and crisp and the illustrations were lively, colourful and engaging. So many things were conveyed through a few expressions and pithy lines.”
Tinkle comics featured on many children’s reading lists and were accessible to most of India while growing up. Santosh Pai, Banker, 35 says, “I loved Suppandi from Tinkle because if I scored badly in a test, I always knew I was smarter than him!”
These Hindi comics often came with important messages embedded in each story. Kanika Bhattacharya, Entrepreneur, 38, says, “The situations were highly relatable as they were typical middle class problems of the ’70s and ’80s and the charming, positive way they were resolved offered a sweet escape to the reader of the time. For instance, the villains were conniving local thugs and corrupt politicians, but at the end of the story they would always be embarrassed about their misdeeds and keen to make amends.”
She continues fondly about the popular Chacha Chaudhary, “I miss his earnest innocence and idealism. Chacha isn’t a superhero, but rather he is a frail old man who uses intelligence and common sense to save the day. (Chacha Chaudhary ka dimaag computer se bhi tez chalta hai).”
Today, the world of 3D cinema and CGI has made comic books come alive like never before, with Marvel and DC characters like Iron Man becoming more popular than the original comic books. With no comic book stores, apart from Leaping Windows comic book library in Andheri west, Mumbai, collector’s editions of comics are hard to come by in India. Comic Cons too get a small niche audience when they do happen. So, while many millennials and baby boomers have fond memories of comics, younger readers find access difficult. Older readers remember borrowing comic books from libraries, including Schoolgirl comics and MAD magazines. They also fondly remember the You Said It comics by RK Laxman, many of which are still relevant. While for children today, digital comic books downloaded on tablets are often the only option.
All this is perhaps why today digital copies of comic books continue to circulate on WhatsApp groups as happy distractions during the lockdown. They are a window to our past, with messages for the future — told in a light-hearted manner to make the present just a little bit brighter.