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Virgin territory

Comic label unleashes Indian lore



An ancient culture is rising. India is rising. Pundits predict India will be one of three superpowers over the next two to three decades, along with fellow Asian muscleman China and the United States.

It's befitting that a superpower has its own superheroes.

Indian cultures, religions and mythology hark back millennia. The quintessential Indian literary epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been dated back to over 2,500 years.

The fantastical characters, villains, heroes, gods and goddesses of the Indian Subcontinent practically emerged right along with the primordial birth of humans. These colorful denizens of mythology would make perfect superheroes and unsavory characters in comics and graphic novels.

Enter Virgin Comics.

The new kid on the comics block was founded a couple of years ago by British businessman Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group; motivational speaker and author Deepak Chopra; filmmaker Shekhar Kapur; and entrepreneurs Sharad Devarajan and Gotham Chopra.

Virgin Comics' flagship line, Shakti, mines the vast treasure trove of tales and characters from Indian mythology and ancient Hindu theology.

The company has offices in New York and California but its artists and many writers are based in Bangalore, India. Storylines including Devi, The Sadhu and Ramayana 3392 A.D. are now established while others are being developed.

All works in the Shakti imprint relate to Indian mythology. The protagonist of Devi is "an avatar created by the gods to stop the renegade god Bala." The Sadhu, written by Deepak Chopra's son, Gotham Chopra, is about a down-on-his-luck English soldier who is transformed from a hardened fighter to spiritual warrior after being transferred to India in the mid-19th century.

Japanese anime and manga have added their cultural shades into American youth culture for the past several years; now the tales of India are making their way in.

Virgin is not interested in retelling the old stories in a contemporary format; they're "re-imagining these wonderful tales," as Gotham Chopra likes to call it, with new characters, storylines and contemporary artwork.

Chopra and Devarajan grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha, a line of Indian comics that have been read by Indian kids since the 1970s. Virgin Comics is infusing modern art and storylines into some of those myths while creating new characters and original tales taking inspiration from mythology for the tech-savvy global youth of the 21st century.

"That's our mission, to find the Indian equivalent of manga," says Gotham Chopra.

The company has an eye on the rapidly evolving global entertainment market, especially in India where there are projected to be over 500 million kids under the age of 20 in the next 10 years. The company is already on its way by creating new comic heroes that are infused with a mythic undercurrent that is primed for a global audience.

Call centers and software geeks aren't the only things based in Bangalore, the silicon valley of India. The Bangalore-based Virgin studio houses 50 artists and writers and is focused on the creation of original stories and characters that tap into the vast library of mythology and re-invent the rich indigenous narratives of India in a compelling way.

Chopra says the company now has artists and creative types working all over India, including Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi.

So how did the whole thing come about?

"Virgin was looking to align with ventures that tapped into the markets of India and China," said Sharad Devarajan, publisher and CEO of Virgin Comics.

"Instead of the west going to the east, I started thinking east coming to the west with Pokemon and the like becoming household names here," Devarajan said.

Devarajan was already bringing D.C. and Marvel comics, among others, to India via his Gotham Comics venture. So a partnership was forged with the forward-looking Virgin Group, and Virgin Comics was born.

"Indian kids today watching the Cartoon Network and Spider-Man expect a higher level of quality," he says, speaking of the artwork and storylines embraced by his company.

Indian mythology is ripe for translation to graphic novels and comics. The colorful and often flamboyant stories have been passed down through the generations.

"It's a culture with a 5,000-year-old vault that has gone generally unexplored in the modern world of entertainment on a global scale," co-founder Deepak Chopra said in an interview with the comics news Web site "I think it's distinctive in and of itself, because of the rich pantheon of gods, demons, heroes and villains from which to draw. It's also very spiritual for lack of a better term because in the Indian philosophy and spiritual traditions, there is a general acceptance of the tangled hierarchy of all things, that we are just an expression of the consciousness that surrounds us."

Roll the cameras.

"We're finding today comic books have become the hottest source of content for movies," said Devarajan. "So many films are based on comic books, and the consumers will never know they are based on comic books, such as 300, Road to Perdition, A History of Violence and many others. Comics are a place where we can essentially create a visual universe with storyboard, characters and setting. It's a place that serves as a springboard to take those properties outward."

Virgin Comics is already making inroads into film and gaming.

Fox/New Regency is currently developing Virulents. It's a graphic novel that's being developed with filmmaker John Moore, who directed the remakes of The Omen and Flight of the Phoenix, among other films.

"We're hoping to start shooting Virulents sometime this year," Gotham Chopra said. "It's an interesting allegory on what's happening in that part of the world. It's the story of the U.S. and Indian armies going into the deserts of Afghanistan to look for what they think is a terrorist cell and stumbling across an ancient blood demon that's been unleashed. Every time you shoot the demon, he bleeds and thousands of other demons emerge from the blood. It's a larger allegory on the war in that part of the world."

One of the greatest Indian epics is the beloved Ramayana. Just about everyone in India or with roots in South Asia is familiar with that millennia-old epic tale, which consists of some 24,000 verses. Virgin Comics is re-imagining the tales of Rama, the ultimate hero and warrior prince of Hinduism, but the story is staged in the year 3392 A.D., as background for his further adventures.

When asked if using religious figures in comics has stirred any controversy, Gotham Chopra said, "We've heard from isolated individuals. People have written letters, not expressing outrage, but expressing some personal discomfort. Our response has been, we have incredible respect for the original myths and gods. So in larger part, we didn't want to try and reinvent them in any way. We have tried to use the myths, which we consider the greatest in the world, and try to inspire with its heroes. The people who are doing this are creative young minds in India, people who are 20-something. Showing characters from scriptures and showing them as archetypes and heroes. If it had not been for our artists and writers in India telling us this is the way we want to tell the story, we would not have done it. It's not some sort of commercial type of exploitation."

"We're taking the original myth and retelling it," he likes to emphasize.

Devarajan agrees and says this is a chance to reinvent some of the oldest myths in the world and present them in the modern world. "Hopefully this provides inspiration that will make people want to go and read the original stories. What we're doing with Ramayana is inspirational to me personally."

So what's new on the horizon for the burgeoning outfit?

"We've been getting ready to launch Tall Tales," said Gotham Chopra. "It's a re-imagining of the classic Panchatantra tales from India. They are stories very familiar to Indians but Tall Tales re-imagines them in a way that's relevant to modern India."

The company is also collaborating with talent from around the world -- writers, musicians and film directors -- to craft original stories and characters initially in the form of comics and graphic novels and subsequently to be developed into films, television, animation, gaming and, of course, merchandise. The outfit has partnered with directors Guy Ritchie, John Woo and Shekhar Kapur, actors Ed Burns and Nicolas Cage, musician Dave Stewart, and even the queen of naughty, Jenna Jameson, to create evocative titles outside of the Indian mythos.

Devarajan said the company has already begun to publish the early comics online for free and more content will be posted. "We were looking to see how we can tap into India not as an outsourcer, but instead as an insourcer," he said of the venture.

Virgin is also partnering with Sony to create multi-player online games based on comics, including Ramayana 3392 A.D. "We want to become more aggressive now that we've built our library and continue to build it," said Devarajan.

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