By Suzon A.
How comic books are perceived in Bangladesh?
There was a time when comic books were perceived as children's entertainment only. With the passage of time, that old notion has started changing.
Through the combination of words and pictures, comics serve as an artistic medium to engage readers. Now comic books are considered to be a form of art that is enjoyed by people of all ages - no longer limited to children.
With that in mind, several publishers have been publishing comic books, and those books have been attracting bookworms to their stalls at the Amar Ekushey Granthamela this year.
Children, teenagers, and adults alike were enthusiastically buying those books, as they consider that form of literature no less entertaining than traditional novels.
Though there were stalls selling comic books with an exclusive focus on the juvenile age group, some others have comics targeted at people of varied ages.
Dhaka Comics is one of the few publishers that are selling comic books catering to the need of people of different ages. Founded in 2013 by Mehedi Haque, the publisher aims to give preference to local culture in their works. Their popular comics include Zoom, Durjoy, Rishad, Rohan Rohan, Mrittu Pathar and Dinyed.
“People used to think that comics are for children only, but comics have a universal appeal. For instance, a graphic novel can tell the story of a novel through cartoons, making it comprehensible for all,” said Tanjim-Ul-Isalm, the writer of the Ibrahim and Solemani Angti comics by Dhaka Comics.
Last year, the publication brought out Pancha Romancha by Qazi Anwar Hossain. It was a great success, according to Tanjim, who added: “Even adults bought the graphic novel from our stall then…”
The publication rates their comic books using the letters “T”, “M”, and “E”. Books rated “T” are for the teenage audience, while “M” is for matured and “E” is for everyone.
“Their comics are attractive, and stories are adventurous,” said Prodorshee, an eighth grader at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College. She was visiting the stall with her mother.
Prodorshee's mother, Dr. Taniya, also could not restrain herself from joining the discussion. She added on: “During my teenage years, we could only find Unmad to read."
"Things have changed. My daughter has many options now," continued Dr. Taniya, in reference to the variety of comic books available at the book fair.
However, some comic book fans said that the number of comic books at the fair was not sufficient. They appreciated the fact that at least a few publication houses were bringing out new comics and graphic novels though.
“When I was in school, I used to read comics, which were mostly from abroad. Now a few [local] publishers are trying to publish comics incorporating our own culture,” said Tahmid Hossain, a student of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
Popular cartoonist Ahsan Habib, editor of Unmad magazine, a pioneer in the genre, said: “Comics are not always for children. Anyone can read those if those are created considering their age. Now the scenario is changing, with initiatives of different young graphic novelists who are explaining a story through cartoons for everyone.”
Mentioning that a wind of change has started to blow, he added: “Different publications now demand graphic novels from me.”
Progoti Publishers has brought out a celluloid graphic novel titled Kasahara by Ahsan Habib this year. The cartoonist said the book is for everyone.
Another publisher, Panjeri, is selling graphic novels on Charles Dickens, as well as the popular comedy series Basic Ali by Sharier Khan.
The Unmad stall on Bangla Academy premises was seen drawing a large crowd of comic fans.
Apart from that, the fourth edition of a graphic novel series on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman titled Mujib-4, was available at the fair, along with its previous editions.
A comic series named Chhoto Kaka Babu by Faridur Reza Sagar was available at the stall of Sapta Dinga. The series is also rated for all ages.
At the recent book fair, popular Bangladeshi stand-up comedian and columnist, Naveed Mahbub, visited the Daily Star Books stall.
People were seen buying his book, Humorously Yours and Counting, published by Daily Star Books. The book is a compilation of his columns, which he wrote for The Daily Star newspaper.
How are they viewed/any impact they've had on Bangladeshi culture, and any way that comic books/graphic novels have affected your life?
In Bangladesh, where four out of ten people are illiterate and the annual income per capita is only about $1,000, spending money on comic books has never been a high priority. However, that has changed over the past three years, as a growing number of Bangladeshis are buying and reading English and Bengali comic books.
Twenty-four-year-old Farhan Mahmud Akash, a business student at a private university in Dhaka, says he can now buy the latest issues of Batman or Hawkeye in the Bangladeshi capital just a few weeks after they are released in North America. In the past, Akash had bought second-hand comics from used bookstores. “Still, I could not follow my favorite titles regularly,” he said, “Also, most of these issues were from the eighties or nineties.”
The situation for readers like Mahmud changed rapidly after stores began importing comics from top Western publishers – like DC, Marvel, Icon, and Vertigo – and selling them in Dhaka.
Bangladesh also now has two comic publishers of its own, which together sell 10 titles. The burgeoning demand has been facilitated in recent years by the release of several Hollywood movies, featuring Marvel and DC superheroes. Meanwhile, social media and the internet have allowed Bangladesh’s publishers to more easily reach out to their target audience.
Growing reader base
Opening a shop selling only comics and paraphernalia was a risky venture for AKM Alamgir Khan, who goes by the nickname “Jamil”. He is the sole proprietor of Jamil’s Comics and Collectables, which launched in Dhaka’s upscale Banani area back in 2010.
“I was doubtful about making profit, as comics culture had not taken off in Bangladesh ’til then,” said Khan. Importers had deemed it inadvisable to ship in expensive comic books, but Khan, a die-hard comic book collector himself, went forth with the venture and ordered a stock of back issues. “The first few months were tough due to low sales, but the reader base grew rapidly with time,” he said.
Khan took another leap of faith in 2011, when he decided to participate in DC Comics’ “New 52” project, in which all its major series were relaunched.
“I wanted to see whether my readers are willing to buy the latest issues of their favorite comic titles, a few weeks after their release in the US,” he said. It was a risky proposition since the cover prices for most of the issues are between $3 to $4.
“For example, I had initially ordered 10 copies of Batman by Scott Snyder. To my surprise, all the copies sold out within three weeks. Soon I reordered for more from DC distributors, and these issues sold out as well!” he said.
The store’s success has encouraged others to open superhero-themed restaurants and stores selling T-shirts, posters, watches, and other memorabilia. “Big-budget superhero movies from Hollywood were also released in Dhaka coincidentally around the same time, catalyzing the growth of this culture,” said Faizul Khan Tanim, a 37-year-old advertising professional and comics collector.
The growing demand encouraged Mehedi Haque, a cartoonist at Unmad, Bangladesh’s longest-running satire magazine, to launch Dhaka Comics this February. “Until now, Dhaka Comics has released eight different titles in Bengali language,” said Haque. With prices ranging between 50 and 120 takas ($0.65 to $1.50), Haque said the company is selling 600 comics per month – up from 300 a month when it launched. The comic books’ genres include mystery, horror, fantasy, science-fiction, comedy, and more.
“Earlier, comics publishers could not survive in Bangladesh, as during the eighties, there was little scope for connecting with your target segment,” said Haque. “But, right now, through social media and the internet, we can reach out to our young readers very easily.”
The revenue is satisfactory compared to the fate of Kalpadoot and Shuchipatra, two Bangladeshi comic publishers founded in the 1990s. Both had to shut down within months of launching, due to low sales.
Comics’ growing popularity in Bangladesh may also be the result of a snowball effect. “The comics community is growing larger by the day in Bangladesh, and some just want to be a part of this community,” said Khan. He explained that many new readers are coming to his store after seeing their friends reading comics.
As a comic-crazy community gradually formed in Bangladesh, Saadi Habib Rahman and Abu Yousuf – both owners of stores selling action figures and accessories in Dhaka – planned to organize a comic convention in Dhaka.
The first-ever Dhaka Comicon materialized at a restaurant in January of 2012. It was attended by more than 10,000 fans, who shrugged off a cold wave then. Besides “cosplays”, where participants dress up and pretend to be characters from comic books and pop culture, the two-day event also featured stalls selling T-shirts, comic books, and collectibles.
Following the success of the first convention, Dhaka Comicon 2013 was held at a bigger venue in November and drew in 16,000 people, according to organizer Saadi Habib Rahman. University student Muhammad Mustafa Monowar said he had to wait in queue for an hour and thirty minutes before he could enter the convention.
One week later, the Unmad-JCC Comic Convention was held in Dhaka, which Khan said attracted around 12,000 people. Jamil’s Comics and Collectables gave away more than 22,000 comics at the convention to promote comic culture, he said.
Motivated by the success of these conventions, the organizers have continued running the show annually up until the temporary slow down caused by COVID.