In the south Tamil Nadu town of Sivakasi, with its sun-baked soil and matchbox factories, the town that is the heart of fire-cracker industries, a quiet printing press brings to life the adventures of a British undercover agent with a unique ability, and an Italian cowboy with a sharp sense of justice.
Lion-Muthu Comics, started in 1972 as Muthu Comics by M Soundrapandian, has been translating and publishing comics from around the world into Tamil, for a small but close-knit reader network. When Soundrapandian, who comes from a family of printers, started Muthu Comics, he did so by introducing the most successful series in the UK at that time called The Steel Claw. In Tamil, the character was called 'Irumbukkai Mayavi' who would go on to become a big hit with their readers.
S Vijayan, Soundrapandianâ€™s son who currently runs the comic book house, says, â€ś45 years later, even today, we have readers fondly remembering the character. He was a secret agent who lost his right hand and quite recently we republished the books."
Vijayan in his office
The Steel Claw, created by Tom Tully and JesĂşs Blasco, was Englandâ€™s most popular comic series from the 1960s and '70s. An undercover agent who loses his right hand in a laboratory mishap, Steel Claw gets his name, quite literally, from his prosthetic steel hand. Later, in another lab accident, he gains the ability to become invisible, with the exception of his steel claw, for a short period of time if high voltage electricity passes through his body. Equipped with inbuilt weapons in his prosthetic hand, Steel Claw aka Irumbukkai Mayavi, becomes an invincible secret agent.
From Vijayan's table which has an assortment of comic books, we pick up Mayatheevil Maayavi (Adventures of Steel Claw on a Magical Island) in its shiny reprinted cover to devour later.
Vijayan, who still has his enthusiasm and craze for comics intact, started his own line of publishing called Lion Comics in 1984. â€śI would go to my fatherâ€™s office every evening when I was 12 or 13 years old to observe. I was barely a 17-year-old teenager fresh off school when I started on my own. I only trusted my own instincts as a reader to experiment. I basically did what I thought would click from a readerâ€™s point of view,â€ť he shares, remembering his early days.
Three years later, after graduating with a B Com in 1987, Vijayan began taking care of his fatherâ€™s Muthu Comics as well. In the late '70s, Muthu Comics ventured into American titles, and when Vijayan began Lion Comics, around 1985 they started looking at other European works.
â€śWe brought in some more European titles, Italian and French. We found that there was an ocean of comics in the French and Italian languages. Among the Franco-Belgian collection, the famous ones that people know are Tintin and Asterix but we ventured beyond mainstream comics. It gave us a huge range to pick from,â€ť says Vijayan.
The cowboy character named Tex Willer, created by Gian Luigi Bonelli and Aurelio Galleppini and first published in 1948, is immensely popular in the country even today. Tex, says Vijayan, is one of his most favourite comic book characters. Tex was introduced in Tamil by Lion Comics around 1985. â€śHe is still one of our flagship characters. Heâ€™s a lot like our Rajinikanth character and thereâ€™s no age restriction to get to it,â€ť he adds with evident affection.
Original artwork for Tex Willer done in-house
But what comes as a total surprise is a confession about their readership base. â€śI believe the relationship we have with our customers has been very close-knit, very mutual. Weâ€™ve grown with them and theyâ€™ve grown with us. The teenagers who picked up Tex are the ones in their 30s and 40s today. Weâ€™ve also ventured beyond what is considered usual for a comic strip. Our comics too have unique storylines, ones that defy popular belief that comics are for children. For instance, two years ago, we published a graphic novel, a French award-winning novel from 2012, called Brodeck Report. Our Tamil title was Nijangalin Nisabdam published in 300 pages, black and white. It was a very dark story about life after WWII in a small village. On paper that is a subject that no one will relate to here. But it was one of our most successful comics. Bluecoats, a parody on war too was most popular. People still think comics are only about Calvin and Hobbes etc but that isn't all,â€ť he says. He also vouches that his reader's knowledge in subjects relating to the world would surprise many.
Vijayan personal favourite remains to be Lucky Luke, a popular cartoon character from France, created over 70 years ago, still going strong, selling over 300 million copies in its International versions.
With over 300 titles to their name so far, Vijayan tells us that they donâ€™t just have a good readership in the state but across the world as well. â€śIn Bengaluru, thereâ€™s a good number of readers. In Sri Lanka we have a very passionate readership. Our readers are also from the USA and UK. In fact we have a dedicated reader in the Middle East who subscribes to our comics every month. He spends Rs 4000 every month just on courier,â€ť he chuckles.
For a readership base of close to 500, Lion-Muthu Comics functions with three translators, Vijayan included. When asked about it, he laughs.
â€śWe still have same the translators on board. There is a woman translator who works on French to English translations for us. Sheâ€™s been doing it for 20 years and prefers to remain unnamed. Itâ€™s a hobby for her. My dadâ€™s friend Karunai Anandham, who is now 75, works on English to Tamil along with me. Sometimes I might have to rejig his writings to suit modern readers. We have two translators in Italy who do the translations for us in English. We have our own printing press and thatâ€™s all,â€ť he says modesty, adding, â€śIf weâ€™ve changed our translators, our readers will know.â€ť
The process of translating and printing these International comics involves a tedious process of obtaining the copyrights first. While earlier they received the original bromide prints via air mail and then workd on translations, today the process has been made simpler with electionic files says Vijayan.
Wouldn't it be easier to create content locally? We have had Dina Thanthi's Rani Comics that ran briefly, Kumudham's Maalai Madhi that stayed a little longer and the more popular Amar Chitra Katha Comics the are published even today with locally made content. "Creating comics is a labourious team work. Countries abroad set aside teams, budget and time for creating such content like how we would do so for our films here. For instance, for Tex Willer, they had close to 20 different teams of artists working together. There was a German artist who took 7 years to complete a story once and they gave him the time. Things are not the same here," he says.
Sustaining for close to 50 years, as the longest surviving comic books publishers in Tamil, Vijayan says that the secret is to be a reader first. â€śYou need to be a reader first, to pick out stories that will work. We have a very small print run. Unless it is very personalised, we cannot reach out to our readers who have access to everything. Very recently we did a series called Baraccuda. A six-part story that has fantasy, pirates, magic. We are also experimenting with new content to keep our reader's interest."
Lion-Muthu Comics maintains a very close bonding with its readers with Vijayan stating that theyâ€™re one big family. â€śEvery Sunday, thereâ€™s a blog that I write on and thereâ€™s so much of activity with more than 100 readers logging in for a live chat. The kind of conversations we have are very exciting. I get an idea about my audience. There are plenty of talented writes, those from movies field, media field, literary fieldâ€¦ half of Sunday is for interacting and a lot of friendships are made,â€ť he smiles.
Every August, the group convenes after the Erode annual book fair. â€śWeâ€™ve been doing it for the past four years and we also schedule a special issue launch during this period. Itâ€™s like a family get-together. You should drop in sometime,â€ť he adds.
Even while the comics publishing field remains less profitable, with GST cruelly cutting in on their margins, Vijayan says that his printing press helps him sustain his passion. â€śWe also do printing and juggle a lot of hats. You donâ€™t chase numbers here but only sit back and wait for them to come. When we had our good days, weâ€™ve even printed 20,000 copies for each title during the '70s and '80s.â€ť
The publishers now work on a subscription basis. You can go through their range here.