Ramayan (above) reinvents the ancient stories of the Ramayana in graphic-novel style. Below, the Hindu goddess Devi, as reinterpreted by filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and series artist Mukesh Singh.
Virgin Comics' Ramayan (above) reinvents the ancient stories of the Ramayana in graphic-novel style. Below, the Hindu goddess Devi, as reinterpreted by filmmaker Shekhar Kapur and series artist Mukesh Singh. Virgin Comics
Bangalore, India: To many Americans, the name evokes call centers and colorless office parks, anonymous places to which U.S. companies export work. But in a building on a quiet residential street downtown, an army of Indian animators is working to export their culture to the rest of the world. Their source material: The elaborate pantheon of Hindu mythology.
"In every state of India we've got, like, about a hundred different gods," says Neha Bajaj, an editor at the fledgling Virgin Comics. "'Cause everybody believes in a different god; they've got their own idol, and every idol is given its own name in every village. It's vast — and it's amazing!"
Less than two years old, Virgin Comics has already published dozens of titles, with names like Sadhu, Ramayan, Uma and Kali. All of them are classic figures, and the staff here knows these stories from childhood.
The Virgin Comics illustrators work from a palette of colors and shapes that resemble those you'd find on the walls of a Hindu temple. Their long-haired warriors have narrow hips and robust chests; their voluptuous women drape themselves in colorful saris. Mostly, the stories are heroic journeys, and good generally triumphs over evil.
The Hindu demon Raktavija is the basis for a comic called Virulents. Virgin Comics CEO Sharad Devarajan explains that in mythology, Raktavija wanted to live forever, but the gods weren't quite willing to grant him that.
"They said to him that in order to stop anyone that may try to kill him, every drop of his blood would turn into another demon," Devarajan explains. "And that would eventually make it very tough to kill this guy."
A writer at Virgin imagined what might happen if you put Raktavija in the middle of the conflict in Afghanistan, and had a group of American and Indian troops discover a nest of the demons — and the result, as presented in Virulents, piqued the interest of filmmaker John Moore.
Moore directed the remake of The Omen; he has a deal with Fox to make a movie based on the comic. He saw a modern message in the ancient myth: Every time a terrorist is attacked, 10 more seem to pop up to replace him. Plus, Moore says, it's not a story that has been overused by the Hollywood machine.
"It was based on a mythology that people knew little or nothing about," Moore says. "The movie staples have been well worn by now, you know, whether it's vampires or werewolves or guys running around in capes and tights."
You're definitely not going to find guys in capes and tights in a Virgin comic. Devarajan got the idea for the company when he was working in India with Marvel Comics. He worked on a version of Spider-Man rooted in a Hindu myth — a title he says was successful enough, for what it was.
"But you know, at the end of the day what we really wanted to do was create our own properties that really could stand at the forefront of the world, and really could champion a lot of this young, dynamic Indian creativity," Devarajan says.
If you're wondering why a company with that mission is named Virgin Comics, well, it's because the main investor is Richard Branson, of Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records fame. His partners are the filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and entrepreneur Gotham Chopra, who also happens to be the son of Deepak Chopra.
Together, they set out to find that "young, dynamic Indian creativity." Chopra says the talent was there — although many of the most-gifted young people had grown used to doing back-end animation for American studios.
"The way the Indian mind unfortunately has been trained in the last two decades is to emulate the best of the West," Chopra says. "Because it's been built upon an outsourcing model, so we do a tremendous amount of unlearning."
When artists first arrive at Virgin, they are used to repressing their own culture, says illustrator Jeevam Kang. Then, "it's like letting loose a nuke."
"Suddenly you are allowed to do anything you want," Kang says. "You can't handle that kind of freedom all of a sudden. So it takes about three to four months of time to adjust."
Virgin has more movies in the works, and the company is animating a massive, multiplayer, online video game based on a Hindu myth for Sony.
The model for many here, says editor Bajaj, is manga, the comic-book form that mixed Western graphic-novel styles with Japanese cultural traditions.
"It's a cult now," Bajaj says. "I think that's what we want to do with our Indian comics as well — create a niche."