The eleven-year-old girl wore a frilly purple frock and furry ears and carried a teddy bear. “A character out of a fairytale or a Disney film?” I asked. For half a second, she looked at me as if I’d spoken in hieroglyphics. Had she been a less polite child, she would have certainly rolled her eyes. “Oh no, I’m Gothic Annie,” she said. “From League of Legends?” League of Legends — I’ve since looked it up — is an online multiplayer game, populated by anime characters that have each spawned their own cult followings. This street-cred squandering instance was at last month’s Comic Con Bangalore, and I resolved to stop trying to figure out who was dressed as who and just applaud, giving mental thumbs-ups to people dressed as Deadpool, Hercules and Mystique, characters I knew.
Bangalore visibly knew more. Based on conversations with comic book artists, event organisers and cosplayers — those wonderful people who devotedly spend months getting their costumes ready for the event — it became clear that different cities in India consume their Comic Cons very differently indeed: Delhi, eager to both hipsterise any bandwagon and wear fitted Superman T-shirts, is all about superheroes; Mumbai, where the event is called ‘Film & Comics Convention’, is about superhero movies, in which few take the time to actually read the comics that birth the blockbusters; and Bangalore, which is fast becoming the impassioned hub of the Indian comic scene, is teeming with manga aficionados.
What is obvious is that the subculture has found a voice in this event. JatinVarma, organiser of Comic Con India, started out because he figured it would be easier and, crucially, much cheaper to host a local event than to travel to one of those international Comic Cons we dreamily read about on the internet, such as the San Diego Comic Con, at which the edgiest comic creators vie for attention alongside the loudest Hollywood mega-movies. “Let’s have our own Comic Con,” laughs Varma, remembering the impromptu battle cry they had when starting out. “How difficult could it be?”
Considerably, it turns out. I remember the first Comic Con in Delhi, in February 2011, held, oddly enough, at DilliHaat, an open-air marketplace that deals in traditional handicrafts and food from across the country. It was a tiny affair with a handful of stalls, marred by a Sunday downpour. My Spider-Man T-shirt felt like costume enough, though I did see a couple of Wolverines (with drawn sideburns) roaming the place. The only highlight was Tinkle’s Uncle Pai being given a lifetime achievement award by ChachaChaudhary creator Pran — both Pai and Pran have left us since. It was an earnest but decidedly unspectacular affair, one barely even worth tweeting about.
Contrast that with this year’s Bangalore event. It was held at White Orchid Convention Centre, close to the airport, because last year’s Koramangala Indoor Stadium was too small for the number of enthusiasts who showed up. Varma and gang have impressively stuck to their guns. The scale is considerable, and Bangalore has taken to it big time. I walked in expecting to see Infosys dads and Google moms talking about Batman and Alan Moore. And, while those folks were certainly there (mostly crowding counters selling unlicensed Breaking Bad/Game of Thrones merchandise), there were enough kids in hardcore costumes proudly representing groups such as the Bangalore Anime Club to compensate for the slacker fan.
Twenty-three-year-old Aorin Shariyari was doing her Bachelor’s in English at Jamia Millia Islamia when the first Comic Con happened. She leapt at the chance, missing college to try on a simple costume. “You didn’t know who’ll think you’re a freak. So, I wore something I could wear to the mall,” she says. Always having gone the extra furlong for Halloween parties, she’s now popular on Facebook as ‘Color me Aorin’. She’s one of the few Indian cosplayers who have actually gone pro and been hired by a gaming firm to dress up and travel to various events. “I didn’t expect it at all in India, not for the next ten years at least,” she says. “Now, the company I work in, Beyond the Game, is the only seller of worbla [a mouldable thermoplastic modelling material] in India, and I can make really complicated costumes.” A self-confessed wig-fetishist, she taught herself sewing from YouTube because her ridiculously elaborate designs can make tailors weep. At Bangalore this year, she dressed as Shanoa from the video game series Castlevania, and won a ticket to next year’s Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo. As expected, this wasn’t the kind of dress she could wear to the mall.
The 31-year-old Oracle employee who spends two months on a RoboCop outfit because his Gabbar Singh costume wasn’t up to scratch last year; the parents who dress their adorable four-year-old as Mystique from the X-Men series, complete with fiery red wig and cobalt blue body stocking; the boy who shaves his head and paints himself blue to look like Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy; the girl whose grandma makes her Harlequin costume; the Khaleesi who gives a rousing speech in High Valyrian — what is fantastic about these events is the way all cosplayers are treated like celebrities, with fans and fellow nerds requesting an awful lot of pictures.
“People make new friends at Comic Con,” emphasisesVarma. Everyone speaks geek in this crowd, and the ice is broken by default when obsessions line up. It’s rather remarkable that India, a country whose comic reading culture was confined to Amar Chitra Katha, speaks this much nerd, and so coherently. Despite the lack of neighbourhood curators, the hungry youth get their fix from the internet, with torrents and digital downloads hitting the world simultaneously. It is heartening to know they are finding their own niches and picking their own subcultural corners. These guys take pride in knowing their stuff.
On Varma’s part, his company has recently been acquired by British events firm Reed Exhibitions, the folks who do the Chicago event that Bangalore’s winning cosplayers will visit as well as the New York Comic Con. As a result, the Indian events are growing in scale, and Varma promises a roster of increasingly sensational guests, including stars from international television shows. “We have some special surprises lined up for Mumbai,” he promises.
The Bangalore event, too, had an impressive line-up of guests, including David Lloyd, the artist who created the unforgettable V For Vendetta in collaboration with Alan Moore; Sana Amanat, the bright Indian editor of Marvel comics responsible for Ms Marvel turning into a Muslim teenager; Peter Kuper, who has drawn Mad magazine’s iconic Spy vs. Spy for over 15 years; and Dan Parent, who currently draws Archie Andrews and the familiar gang of eternal high-schoolers. Each was accessible for a chat if you were patient, and the artists — for a teensy token fee of Rs 600-700 — gladly drew you a sketch.
While the place is positively teeming with spirit and a fair bit of fanaticism, what an Indian Comic Con currently lacks is the comics. There aren’t many books available that you can’t get online, often for cheaper (though, you can find a Bangkok-worthy haul of t-shirts celebrating almost any bit of pop culture, including Subhas Chandra Bose drawn like Superman). There are enough action figures to save the world and burn a large hole in the wallet. But, what does the collector, the honest-to-goodness panelogist, do in a place like this? He evolves, apparently.
When I asked Lloyd about how artists who create big, beautiful splash pages deal with most comics being consumed electronically now, reducing pages to phone-sized screens, he pooh-poohed me. “Just plug it into your plasma TV and you’ll see it bigger than we drew it. Splash screens instead of splash pages. Isn’t that wonderful?” And, then, he drew me a version of V with the Guy Fawkes mask, tweaked, on request, to make V’s moustache more like mine. W for wow.
Buckle up, then, oh local lover of comics. There is much to prepare for and look forward to, and I suggest you start work on your costume already. Most importantly, go belong. Nobody’s a stranger when everybody’s being strange.