Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, there is a planet. The planet is exotic, rich in resources – and starfaring humans have taken control. The planet’s native life forms are highly evolved and have an ancient civilisation of their own – but the arrival of humans and their unending quest for riches is wreaking a path of havoc and destruction. But wait, somebody is fighting back. A pair of star-crossed lovers – a warrior prince and a beautiful and dynamic princess – are pitting themselves against deadly and evil forces – human, alien and monster.

Sounds familiar? No, it’s not Star Wars. And no, it’s not Avatar either. This planet is called Aveon 9. And it is home to a brave attempt by an Indian publisher to cross genres and borders and boldly go where no Indian publisher has gone before – into the brave new world of global comic books.

“My idea is simple,” says Manish Sinha, CEO of Rovolt Entertainment, “I want to create intellectual property which can transcend borders.” The ‘IP’ he is talking about is comic books. Rovolt is the newest entrant in the rapidly growing, but risky and fraught global graphic novel marketplace.

But Sinha is looking beyond just graphic novels, even though only two titles in Rovolt’s first creation, the Aveon 9 series have come out so far.

Founded in 2010, Rovolt Entertainment Services (to give its full name) is in the process of creating IP in domains such as graphic novels, comics, mobile apps, animated videos – and hopefully, at some time in the future, a full-length movie!

Sinha, an IIT Delhi and IIM Kolkata grad who did the typical IIT-IIM trail through a series of Indian and multinational companies, including a stint with consulting major McKinsey, before striking out on his own, has his fingers in many other pies, including venture funding and a real estate company. But the comics venture is the one he is passionate about.

“I have always ‘done’ art,” he says. “I used to draw and paint in school, in IIT, I did the posters for Mood Indigo (the IIT festival) … and I wanted to do something in this field.”

The “something” is an attempt to create an Indian comic book brand which can be truly multinational – and get a toehold in the world’s largest, and toughest comic book market, the US.

So, unlike the Indian market leader, Raj Comics’ Nagraj, which stars a cop-turned-crime fighter whose superpower is the ability to launch mystical snakes on command and whose bite is filled with venom, and is the biggest selling Hindi comic in India, Rovolt is aiming to create characters who have roots in India’s rich history and mythology, but are not recognisably Indian. They are, from birth, intended to charm overseas audiences. And they are all in English.

Rovolt currently has five different titles in the works. Apart from the Aveon 9 series, there’s Hey You Tiggou aimed at young readers and Metafreakz, Aren and Zooman, aimed at the young adult market.

“We have tremendous talent in this country. Some of our artists and illustrators can match the best in the world,” says Sinha. But to ensure that the overall tone and impression stays suitably international – or transnational – he has put together an international team.

So, while the lead illustrator and colourist are Indian, Aveon is edited by Ron Marz, the legendary series editor of iconic comics such as the Green Lantern and the Silver Surfer. Singapore's Imaginary Friends Studio has done a cover, while another has been done by a Serbian artist.

“The idea is to create world-class products through international collaboration,” says Sinha. Adds Abhishek Manisoni, Rovolt’s creative head and principal artist, “You can see the Indian influence in many places … backgrounds, architecture, sometimes even in the appearance of the characters, but the overall impression is different. It cannot be called Indian.”

Sinha’s plan is to have stories and characters that not only transcend cultures and geography , but genres as well – from print to video to interactive gaming.

The reason is simple: economics. With the average graphic novel or adult comic managing between 3,000 and 5,000 copies in India across its lifespan, the characters need to be monetised across genres to make the venture successful.

“The market is growing, but is tough,” admits Sinha. Rovolt’s graphic novels, for instance, are about 80 pages each, while the standard length for a comic book which is part of a series is just 22 pages in the US. “Readers want to stay engaged longer,” says Sinha, “Twenty-two pages will be too thin.” And despite the cover price – a steep Rs 180, the print runs are too small to justify a purely ‘for India’ product, hence the global ambitions. And because of the length, they are often forced to add a mostly-text back story, which is not the norm in the US.

So can an Indian comic brand from a hitherto unknown publisher cut the mustard in the US? Sinha admits that taking on the likes of DC and Marvel would be a tough task. And the costs of marketing would be prohibitive. “We are looking for a joint venture partner,” he admits, but insists, “In India, we’ll go it alone.”

(This article was published on November 22, 2012)
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