The incredible world of Tamil comics

13th June 2016

- The Hindu

The translated adventures of foreign comic heroes are witnessing a revival as a new generation of readers take to them

At first glance, the rancher in a yellow shirt and blue jeans, posing jauntily with two holstered guns and a cowboy hat, could be from any spaghetti western.

But this is, if anything, an idiyappam Western, with a marked Tamil twist, in which the hero, Tex Willer, appears to acquire something of a native characteristic –– in the way he walks, talks and holds himself.

And when he lets his guns do the talking, they go ‘Dumeel’, the distinctively Tamil equivalent of the ‘Bang’.

Welcome to the world of translated Tamil comics, crossovers from the UK, the US and other geographies, which inexplicably enjoyed a huge readership in Tamil, and are now enjoying a revival by reaching to a newer generation of readers. At the heart of the revival is the Sivakasi-based Prakash Publishers, which churns out these paperback pulps under the Lion and Muthu comic brands.

The 44-year-old publishing house has printed 800 titles translated into Tamil from Franco-Belgian, Italian, Dutch and American comics. About 150 of the titles are in circulation now

Their genres range from cowboy comics, detective stories, and humour to, now, graphic novels.

Niche readership
Although they cater to a niche audience, translated Tamil comics enjoyed admirable readership, but that slumped in the past two decades. “With the advent of cable television in the early 1990s and the internet in the 2000s, readership dropped and sales took a hit,” says S Vijayan, Chief Editor, Prakash Publishers.

In recent times, however, the market is seeing something of a revival, thanks largely to a keenness among the Tamil Diaspora to teach their children Tamil through these comics, say industry insiders. Vijayan points to his company’s customer base abroad –– in the US, the UK, Australia, Africa and France –– as proof.

A Sanjay, store manager of Discovery Books, which sells these Tamil comics, says, “We are slowly getting a new audience.”

Pandian, who has built up a collection, says he wants his children to enjoy the comics the way he did. The children have a particular liking for detective comics and comedy, he adds.

The local flavour
How do these comics, set in a vastly different cultural milieu, enjoy such resonance in Tamil? The answer may lie in the skilled translation, and the adoption of a local idiom. For instance, when Irumbukkai Mayavi (the Tamil avatar of the British superhero Steel Claw) dares a group of baddies to a fight, he says: “Vangada, oru kai parkkalam” (Come on, let’s have it out), which has a very local flavour.

The economics of the Tamil comic industry isn’t very encouraging. Unlike indigenous comics such as Amar Chitra Katha, Prakash Publishers has to pay a large royalty to the original publishers. That comes with a foreign exchange risk, “but since we can’t keep increasing the price of books, we offer our customers attractive packages,” Vijayan says. “We used to sell these comics at newsstands at ₹5 or ₹10, but that’s unsustainable. So we reworked our pricing and are selling in stores and e-commerce platforms,” he adds.

Having an in-house printing facility has helped keep overhead costs under control, he notes.

Now, graphic novels
As part of its quest to expand the market, Prakash Publishers recently introduced graphic novels, mostly from the Franco-Belgian and Italian genres, and even science fiction titles.

Other established publishing houses too, like Vikatan Publications, are looking to enter the graphics novel space. Vikatan recently published Chandrahasam, a period fantasy, in graphic novel format.

Addition of the Sci-Fi genre has opened the door to an interesting possibility: that a young generation of readers among the Tamil Diaspora may be learning their mother tongue from a Tamil-speaking alien!

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