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Old January 2nd, 2007   4PointOh is offline   #1
The Lower Frequencies

joined: May 2003
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Default Wall Street Journal Talks Comics


Wall Street Journal is a pay site. For that reason, I am posting the entire article. Thank you.

Holy Heroes of Indian Lore, Batman!
Virgin Group Gambles
On Comics Resurgence
With Myth-Based Line
January 2, 2007; Page B4

A sexy villain swoops out of the night sky, her hands morphing into terrifying swords. She intends to kill a girl named Tara, who is driving home from a nightclub. But suddenly a secret society of caped men whisks Tara away -- aboard an elephant.

Soon Tara will learn the startling truth: It's her destiny to become a Hindu goddess.

It's a key scene in "Devi," a new comic book that's part of an ambitious effort by a unit of Richard Branson's Virgin Group Ltd. to develop story lines based on Indian religion and mythology. Others take inspiration from the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana and traditional legends such as one involving snakes that can take human form.

The company, Virgin Comics LLC, has also teamed to develop other story lines with a broad range of individuals, including John Woo, director of "Mission: Impossible 2," and Guy Ritchie, the film director. In November actor Nicolas Cage agreed to star in a movie based on one of the new comics, "The Sadhu" -- which describes the adventures of a British man who discovers he was a sadhu (Hindu holy man) in a previous life. Deepak Chopra, the author of self-help books, will write the screenplay.

The new comics, which cost $2.99 each, are being rolled out in the U.S. and will be introduced in India this month. They will also be launched in some countries in Europe and Latin America in the first quarter. The goal: Capitalize on the current vogue for all things Indian as well as the success of Asian comics in the West in recent years.

The books are aimed at young people ages 16-25, both here and in India. In the U.S., Virgin is aggressively targeting Indian-Americans, by sponsoring Indian-American events and linking up with student clubs at colleges.

The U.S. comic-book business had roughly $550 million in sales in 2005, and has been enjoying a renaissance the past few years. The resurgence is driven partly by the influx of Japanese "manga" comic books and "anime" animated features, as well as characters like Pokémon and Hello Kitty. Since 2001 sales of manga comics in the U.S. have grown from roughly $10 million to $20 million to an estimated $155 million to $180 million at the end of 2005, according to pop-culture Web site ICv2.

Another boost for the industry has come from Hollywood, which has turned to comic books to create movies in recent years, such as "Spider-Man" and "Superman," as well as some lesser-known comics like "Constantine" and "V for Vendetta."

Virgin hopes to capitalize on both these trends. Four of its six comic titles are inspired by Indian mythology. The character Devi, for instance, is a character right out of a typical Indian mythological tale, where gods combine their powers to defeat evil. "We're not in the superhero business," says Sharad Devarajan, chief executive of Virgin Comics.

In the U.S., the comics are being sold through comic-book stores and Virgin Megastores across the country. This year, some of the issues will be packaged into a longer graphic novel, and be sold through bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

In Europe and Latin America, they will be translated to local languages and distributed by Virgin's partner, Panini Group, a Modena, Italy, publisher of U.S. comics in Europe and Latin America. In India they will be distributed nationwide. Some of the comic books would be edited for profanity before being released in India.

To be sure, the project has a tough road ahead. The industry is largely dominated by two giants, making it hard for newcomers to make a significant mark. Time Warner Inc.'s DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment Inc.'s Marvel Comics control 70% of sales of comic books and graphic novels in comic-book stores, according to ICv2. Virgin Comics is only a year old, and has virtually no record in publishing comics other than some previous experience of its studio team creating an Indian version of "Spider-Man" that was sold in India and the U.S. (In that comic, Spider-Man is dressed in a traditional billowing dhoti as the lower-half of his costume and he's wearing juttis, or pointy sandals.)

Comic-book distributors say Virgin's new projects are off to a surprisingly good start. While the standard new comic rarely goes for a reprint, some of Virgin's titles have had "virtually unprecedented reorder and reprint sales," says Jim Kuhoric, purchasing director at Diamond Comic Distributors, one of the largest distributors in the world. Three of Virgin's four India-themed titles have made it to the top-300 ranking of best-selling comics for November, published on ICv2's Web site. "I've been surprised at the strength of some of their titles," says Milton Griepp, editor of ICv2.

Virgin is also trying to use the muscle of its record stores across the country to promote some of its comic books. The firm gave away 250,000 free preview copies of its comic book "7 Brothers" -- a China-themed story co-created by Mr. Woo, the director -- to buyers of CDs or DVDs at Virgin Megastores.

The project is the brainchild of Mr. Devarajan of Virgin Comics and Gotham Chopra, son of Mr. Chopra the self-help author. Mr. Devarajan had already been running another company, Gotham Entertainment Group LLC, which has been distributing U.S. comic books from Marvel, DC Comics and the like to South Asia since 1997. The two men concluded that Indian mythology -- with its notions of spirituality, destiny and reincarnation -- was rife with stories that could meet the recent appetite in the West for everything Asian.

In 2004 they set up a studio of artists in Bangalore, in southern India, to create these comics. While India is increasingly creating computer animation for Hollywood movies, like "The Chronicles of Narnia," Mr. Devarajan says theirs is an attempt to showcase original Indian creativity. Their breakthrough came late in 2005, when Mr. Branson agreed to invest in the Bangalore studio and launch Virgin Comics.

The comics take traditional stories and try to make them contemporary and cross-cultural. For instance, in "Devi," the lead character, Tara, looks nothing like the traditional sari-wearing Hindu goddess. Indeed, she wears body-hugging outfits, hangs out at bars, and is dating a big, beefy guy.

And in "Snake Woman," which is based on an Indian legend, the eponymous lead character is a Los Angeles resident named Jessica Peterson, who is also the adopted child of a British man. Her roommate, Jin, wears a T-shirt with a big Chinese character on it.

India's Shekhar Kapur -- best known for directing the 1998 film "Elizabeth" starring Cate Blanchett -- helped create the "Snake Woman" story line.

The company also hopes to develop online videogames. Mr. Devarajan says the company this year will start work on developing a multiplayer role-playing game based on the epic Ramayana -- which tells the story of a god who is banished from his kingdom and spends years fighting evil forces -- that can be played by hundreds of people at the same time. "Ramayana is like 'The Lord of the Rings,'" Mr. Devarajan says.

Write to Shefali Anand at [email protected]
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