Editor's note: I am so pleased to run this column by Pooja Makhijani. In May, Pooja shared the terrific "South Asian Stories to Tell" with readers here. Welcome back to Chicken Spaghetti! —Susan
A Guest Column by Pooja Makhijani
A few months ago, Susan and I exchanged comments on her post "Comics Classic." I urged her to find the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) version of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata
wherever she could. Luckily, thanks to the wonder that is the
interlibrary loan, Susan was able to score a copy through her local
Like many Indian-American children, ACK was my first
introduction to the myths, history, and folktales of my parents' native
India. Though far from perfect, the comics made the convoluted plotlines of the Mahabharata and Ramayana easier to follow. They introduced me to historical figures such as the Rani of Jhansi, Akbar, and Rabindranath Tagore.
They brought the Panchatantra—a collection of Sanskrit fables exported
to western Europe through travelers via Persia, Arabia, and Greece—to
life in my suburban American home.
I outgrew my ACK books when I was 10 or 12. By then, I had graduated to Wonder Woman and X-Men. I was also ready and interested in exploring the moral complexity of the Mahabaratha and Ramayana and began reading more "adult" versions of those tales.
o o o o o
Earlier this year, new-age
kook guru Deepak Chopra, filmmaker Shekhar Kapoor (best-known for Cate Blanchett-starrer Elizabeth),
and Sir Richard Branson joined creative forces to form Virgin Comics,
whose mission is "to create original stories and characters that tap
into the vast library of mythology and reinvent the rich... narratives
The new comic line launched three imprints this summer—Shakti, Director's Cut, and Voices. Shakti, loosely translated as "female power" or "female force," focuses on re-imagining myths from the Indian Subcontinent. Director's Cut is a collaboration between comics writers, artists, and famous filmmakers. Voices
is a collaboration between Virgin Comics and "iconic mavericks" or
"masters in their own fields... that have something to offer the world
of graphic fiction." Virgin alerts us to keep our eyes peeled for "the
man everyone considers the best-kept secret in the creative arts" and a
"certain pop icon" to show us their comic book skills. (Madonna, is
And was I excited when I received Issue #0 in the mail, which featured excerpts from two of the comic series in the Shakti line—Devi and Ramayan Reborn.
Devi literally means "goddess" and is the story of a
goddess reborn as a young woman who fights crime in modern Sitapur, a
town in northern India. The comic hit shelves in early July and has
sold more than 10,000 copies, according to Virgin Comics and Animation.
Devi is one cool chick. The black-leather-clad superhero is busty,
goth, and extremely fair-skinned for the average Indian woman. Here,
why don't you take a look at Devi. A cross between Angelina Jolie and The Most Beautiful Woman in the World, Aishwarya Rai, maybe?
Ramayan Reborn (FYI, the epic is referred to as
"Ramayan" and "Ramayana") is the relaunch of one of Hinduism's central
narratives. The series will land in bookstores and libraries in
September. The original Ramayan chronicles the fourteen-year exile of
Prince Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and his defeat of
the evil demon, Ravana. The Virgin version takes place in a
post-apocalyptic world and describes Rama's quest to recover Earth's
most precious element from Ravana. The excerpt I read is beautiful,
heart-wrenching, and intriguing; I will definitely pick up Issue #1
Shakti and Director's Cut also launched several other series that use India as their inspiration: Sadhu, Snakewomen, and Vetaal: The First Vampire. Shakti plans to release ten additional stories in 2007.
o o o o o
The most obvious difference between the ACK comics of my
childhood and these slicker versions is the art. The ACK art is, to me,
quite traditionally Indian. It often reminds me of a ubiquitous form of
color, line, and type found in contemporary India on everything from
shop counters to calendars to roadside signs. The Virgin comics use
what I associate with modern superhero comic book conventions: dark and
psychologically complex characters, varied panel angles, and complex
montages. However, like ACK, Virgin's art is seeped in Indian and Hindu
motifs and iconography. Check out these panels.
These comics aren't for the youngest readers, of course. And those expecting faithful adaptations should look elsewhere. Ramayan Reborn
is not for the mythology-phile trying to get a grasp of the original
text; it's for the comic book fan open to an reinterpretation. Check
them out. I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. (An aside: The Ramayana has
become a controversial text; it is both a flashpoint and touchstone for
Hindu fundamentalists. To that end, Virgin has included a disclaimer on
the material they sent me: "Ramayan Reborn is a reinvention of the
Ramayan in every way. There is no intention to faithfully recreate the
original text. Our goal is to tell a whole new story by springboarding
off the original that we love so much, with respect and admiration." Such a disclaimer is not included with the art and text of Devi.)
o o o o o
*Sigh.* All this chat of comic books is making me nostalgic. I
haven't looked at my hard-bound, plastic-covered ACK version of the Ramayana in years. Now I want to call home and have my mother dig it out.
Pooja Makhijani is the editor of Under Her Skin: How Girls Experience Race in America,
an anthology of essays that explores the complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families. Her first picture book, Mama's Saris, is forthcoming. She maintains a frequently updated online bibliography of South Asian youth literature.