The Ghost Who Continues to Walk

“Ah, the smell of those Indrajal Comics…I used to spend hours reading them…”

Fifty-six year-old homemaker Salima Sheikh’s voice trails off as she remembers those days when collecting The Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and Bahadur comics were the order of the day. Rohan Seth, 40, is another Indrajal fan. He roams around town rummaging through the comic book sections of roadside booksellers and frequenting raddiwalas’ shops.

“The regular bookstores don’t stock the type of comics I am searching for,” he reasons. Forty-five year-old Vineeth Abraham, a section officer working with the central government in Delhi, beats them all. He has about 6,000 comics including almost all the Indrajal issues (800-odd) and a number of Phantom comics published by Frew (Australia) numbering 600-odd and counting!

These comic-book lovers are not kids or teenagers – they are middle-aged executives, housewives, scientists, journalists, civil servants and the like, who network, are part of offline and online comic-book communities, scour book markets, and consider it an event if they were to lay their hands on a rare old copy of an Indrajal.

From Tintin to Archies and Phantom to Flash Gordon, comics are a genre among themselves. They have been passed from generation to generation and people have no qualms about reading and re-reading them over and over. After all, comics have provided the masses with entertainment in the days when television and computers were a figment of some genius’ imagination.

“I feel that my generation – the pre-TV generation – were the last of the die-hard comic lovers. Later generations were more tuned to television and video and not so much into comics,” says Abraham.

But the comic series sorely missed by earlier generations have been Mandrake The Magician, The Phantom, Flash Gordon and Bahadur – all published from 1964 to 1990 by Indrajal Comics, a division of Bennett, Coleman & Company – publishers of The Times of India.

When the TOI stopped publishing The Phantom in 1990, Diamond Comics quickly picked up the rights to publish The Phantom and Mandrake in India, but discontinued it nine years later.

As a result, for the first time since 1964 when Indrajal Comics started, fans witnessed a complete absence of their lovable heroes from bookshops.

But old-time fans continue to hunt for their favourite Indrajal Comics. Says Deepak, a roadside bookseller at Matunga, “The craze for Indrajals is more among the older people. I always sell them at a premium. And there is no saying when a fresh stock will arrive. Whenever someone sells a bundle, it gets picked up in a day or two.”

Another bookseller starts grinning when asked about Indrajal Comics. “You are in queue sir,” he says, flipping out three visiting cards, two of which belonged to senior editors of city newspapers. “They have already told me to keep aside any Indrajal Comic that I happen to get!”

Online of course, there are scores of Phantom and Mandrake Clubs. The ‘Phans’ – as they call themselves – hold regular meetings, discuss, exchange comics and basically breathe the comic characters they revere. While some refuse to tell anyone about their collections – preferring to hide them in trunks and suitcases – there is the other lot that believes in trading comics with fellow-Phans.

Dr P C Sarkar, a scientist with the Central government, explains his love for the comics in his blog on a ‘Phantom’ website: “When the publishing houses stopped these publications, readers became collectors and suddenly the value of these discarded comics shot up. Now E-Bay India is full of these comics, selling at atrocious prices. Some smart chaps have also scanned the comics and sell them in CDs.

From a buyer’s market, it has become a seller’s market now.” Adds Jaideep, “At 31, I still love to read Phantom comics, and so does my father!” Alex from Dubai says he has been reading it since the time Indrajal sold it for Re 1. Adds Ravi Raman from Thane, “The first and foremost reason we love Phantom is because of all the childhood memories it brings back, right from the feel of those Indrajal comics pages to the sheer pleasure of being lost in the story.”

Abraham says he reads the comics to relieve stress and says he spends “a few hundreds every month” to cater to his interest. “You escape back to your childhood days when you did not have a care in the world,” he muses.

Aabid Surti, the creator of ‘Bahadur’, is a happy man when told of the legions of fans his cartoon character has spawned. Apparently, there are Bahadur fan clubs in the US, where each comic sells for 100 dollars! Surti, a well-known cartoonist then, conceived of ‘Bahadur’ and started the comic strip in 1976.

“Bennett, Coleman & Co wanted me to create an Indian character that could take on the popularity of the three foreign comics that ruled the market in India then – The Phantom, Mandrake and Tarzan. Also, during that time, the Chambal Valley had gained notoriety and I had read a quote somewhere that people should group themselves together to fight crime. So, I developed the character of Bahadur, as someone who helps create a citizens’ police force to fight the dacoits.”

Surti has an interesting take on why Bahadur sports a saffron kurta and jeans! “A kurta and saffron were symbols of Indianness. And jeans was a Western import and indicated progress. Hence, the combination,” he says. “In fact, I have showed Bahadur and his girlfriend, Bela, in a live-in relationship – something unheard of during those times. But it was very well accepted by the audience,” he adds.

Interestingly, most of these comics are making a comeback. Surti is working on reviving Bahadur as a comic strip and is in talks with some publications. A movie is also being planned on the character though nothing concrete has been worked out yet. Film director Anurag Kashyap was believed to be interested in making a film on Bahadur, but the plans didn’t work out.

And Mandrake and The Phantom are still waging a relentless war against crime and cruelty. The pygmy Bandar were right: The Phantom Never Dies and is indeed the Ghost Who Walks! The success of Moonstone Publication in reviving the Phantom in the US comics market recently has validated this theory.