New Delhi: DC superheroes may have taken over the world but for those growing up in the 80s and 90s in India, it was also the dawn of the ‘RC universe’.
From ‘Nagraj’, the king of snakes, to anti-hero ‘Doga’, ‘Dhruva’, the super commando, to Parmanu — a mix of Ant-man and Atom — a home of Indian superheroes was created by a little-known publisher called Raj Comics (RC).
The imaginative world of these superheroes who wore bright and tight spandex, violent vigilantes and engrossing storylines often found their way inside classrooms too, with children reading them on the sly.
Raj Comics was launched in 1986 by Raj Gupta and his sons Manoj, Manish and Sanjay. The aim was to create a world of original Indian superheroes, something that hadn’t been done before in India.
Sanjay Gupta explained to ThePrint how they also created characters like Super Commando Dhruva, a superhero that “wasn’t your typical brawny guy but was more brainy”.
Though the company also delved into medieval fantasy, horror and mystery books, it was the superhero comics that made Raj Comics popular.
The superheroes in the RC world have unfathomable abilities and well-rooted backstories. Most superhero conflicts in DC and Marvel comics take place in the high-rises of New York or London but with RC, Indian children got their own friendly neighbourhood heroes.
Pranav Shashank, a producer at Kuku FM, an audio content platform, attributes his success to RC.
“I have been in this field for three years and have worked on dozens of amazing novels. Some have been selected to be made into web series. If the creativity of Raj Comics hadn’t rubbed off on me, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he told ThePrint.
One of the most loved characters was Nagraj, the first superhero character introduced by RC. Initially unleashed as a ‘weapon’ by an evil scientist to spread terror, Nagraj becomes a force against terrorism. He is the king of snakes and can destroy or heal people with touch. The most powerful superhero in the RC universe, Nagraj uses his snakes to do everything and often transforms into a serpent himself.
Atush Rohan, director, CRM and power platform at Mercurius Information Technology, said he started reading the ‘Nagraj comics’ in 1994 and identified with the character.
“He was just a kid who was out there trying to protect children and drinking milk,” Rohan told ThePrint.
The simple style of storytelling, along with vivid illustrations drew kids’ attention from across India, especially the Hindi belt.
Another fan favourite was Doga. Based in Mumbai, vigilante Doga, with his bright red eyes, takes law into his own hands to serve justice in the shadows.
Shashank’s favourite character was Doga, “As a boy, I was really into WWE, and the movies at the time would glorify toxic masculinity and Doga fit right into that. He was a human who would fight corruption and terrorists, evils in the real world. Even when he fought aliens, he was still human.” Doga’s vulnerability also won him admirers across age groups.
Super Commando Dhruva was popular among slightly older children. He stood out from the other superheroes because he had no powers, much like Batman sans his batmobile. He had nothing but the will to do good for his people, intellect, and some acroNagrajbatics. The only thing he had in common with his superhero friends was that he wore a bright yellow and blue jumpsuit.
Competing with TV
Unfortunately, RC’s popularity also came at a time when Indians got access to cable television.
They were also unable to grow their readers since the comic books were published exclusively in Hindi. While they held a strong foothold in India’s Hindi belt, there weren’t many readers beyond it. Their foray into regional languages did not do well.
By 1998, the sales had begun to drop and by 2010, the sales were 10 per cent of what they used to be, pushing them to the brink of shutting down. The unwillingness to adapt to the changing times spelt doom for RC, believes Shashank.
“Most of the publications were out of the market. Raj Comics was the only one and their content had also begun to fluctuate, both in terms of art and story. We used to go out to rent DVDs to watch at home and often wonder when they’d create TV shows or movies for Nagraj and Doga. They struggled to adapt,” he explained.
Rohan said, “The new characters they launched were not handled well by their internal team. The content and art degraded, and so did their sales.”
Pranay Khadatkar, who runs HighBP TV on YouTube, a channel devoted to comic books, told ThePrint, “Even today, they produce the same thing they did in the 90s. It’s great for people who read for nostalgia but not a great way to bring in new readers. The page-long text bubbles don’t work, especially when the new generation can get bored in a 15-second video. The content is outdated.”
Where are they now
In over 30 years, Raj Comics has published more than 3,500 titles spread across different characters. They are a cult classic, with readers buying these comics for nostalgia’s sake or because they’ve been reading them for long enough to care.
The original RC was eventually split into three between brothers Manoj, Manish, and Sanjay.
Sanjay said the split had more to do with creative and market expansion. “We get to explore more storylines and new characters. In the past 10-11 years we didn’t create too many comics, but in the past two years, we have come out with 50 new comics, 50 new titles.”
Khadatkar also spoke about how the three brothers have different skill sets. “Sanjay is the creative one, Manoj is great with business and marketing, and Manish is a great communicator. Together, they could’ve built an unstoppable empire,” he added.
The brothers use the same logo of RC books but run separate storylines. The pricing of the comics is also different.
“Manish is reprinting the old Raj Comics at an affordable price whereas the other two brothers come out with new storylines and are priced a lot higher,” Shashank said.
Fans were, however, left disappointed with the split, with many struggling to keep up with the three sets of comics and storylines.
“When we heard about the split we knew immediately that there was absolutely no way we were getting a movie now,” Shashank added.
Former Raj Comics aficionados today have online communities to revisit their favourite superheroes and their stories. These communities keep the chatter around Raj Comics alive through fan fiction, fanart, and discussions around how to keep the legacy of ‘RC’ alive.