Telling stories in graphics

Unlike the West, graphic novels are not yet a recognisable genre in India. How then is Delhi-based Campfire Graphic Novels doing so well? Girija Jhunjhunwala, director, Campfire Graphic Novels, explains the scenario to Rahul Kumar.

13 Jul 2016 | By Rahul Kumar

While experts and stakeholders tend to look at the western market, especially the American market, to understand the potential of the Indian market, in reality, the Indian market has its own logic. It doesn’t necessarily follow the western model. This is especially true in the case of publishing.

Take graphic novels, for example. In North America, it is now a popular literary genre, free from the baggage of being labelled as ‘comics’. Comics are traditionally targeted at young readers. On the other hand, graphic novels are adult business, even if they deal with superheroes, zombies or mythic creatures. In North America, the graphic novel has a strong market, with publishers like Vertigo and DC Comics raking in the moolah and writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman attaining mainstream popularity.

In India, on the other hand, it is still at a nascent stage. There have been several attempts since the publication of Orijit Sen’s River of Stories (1994) and Sarnath Banerjee’s Corridor (2004), published by Penguin India. In the recent years, HarperCollins has published several graphic novel titles, including Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva (2012) and Bharath Murthy’s The Vanished Path (2015). Another graphic novel currently in news is Banerjee’s All Quiet in Vikaspuri (2015).

A thread that connects all of these novels is their contemporary social consciousness. It seems Indian graphic novels are yet to embrace the myriad possibilities the genre affords. A combination of words and pictures, the format can be used in diverse ways, from social commentary to sheer entertainment.

Enter Campfire
One publishing venture is doing exactly this—setting readers’ imagination on fire. Campfire Graphic Novels publishes titles across four main categories, classics, mythology, biographies and history, and has more than 90 titles. The company has a tie-up with international publishers who bring out these books in ten international languages, including French, Portuguese, Egyptian, Korean, and Mongolian. In regional Indian languages, it has started publishing mythology titles in Bengali.
In just eight years, Campfire has proved itself as an accomplished publisher of the genre, winning the Comic Con India Award for Best Graphic Novel four years running.

Girija Jhunjhunwala, director, Campfire Graphic Novels, explains the reasons. “Globally, reading as a habit is gradually dying. People don’t want to read. People don’t have the patience to read a few hundred pages,” she says. Here, the graphic novel comes to the rescue.

Explaining graphic novels
First, the important question, what is a graphic novel?
One could say that a graphic novel is a more elaborate form of a comic book. It is a combination of graphics and text, says Jhunjhunwala. “Creating a book with graphics is a daunting task, but that is its appeal as well.”

She says, “There is a history of comics in India, initiated by Amar Chitra Katha, but we are one of the first Indian companies to focus on graphic novels exclusively.”

Of course, there is a difference between comics and graphic novels. According to Jhunjhunwala Graphic novels are a more serious form. “It may look like a comic book but the content in a graphic novel is usually text heavy. In a graphic novel, one must aim towards synchronising the graphics and the text for an entertaining and memorable reading experience. It has to be an amalgamation of both writing and art.”

Selling Steve Jobs
Away from the mythological domain of Amar Chitra Katha, Campfire’s titles take on other inspirations, such as William Shakespeare—Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth—and other classic English novels. There are several biographies to choose from as well, including Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela. Jhunjhunwala says that the company chose global personalities because Campfire’s books are sold world over, including Canada, the US, Europe, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia and South Africa.


Steve Jobs: Genius by Design is one of our most popular titles,” says Jhunjhunwala. “I have lost count of the number of print runs for this book. It has sold more than one lakh copies in the overseas market.”

Jhunjhunwala says the book is thoroughly researched and came out six months after Steve Jobs’ death. Another well-researched Campfire title is Gandhi: My Life is My Message, which runs to about two hundred pages.

The book was launched at the Gandhi Smriti by Dr. Rajmohan Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in 2013. He liked the script and found the graphic novel to be a unique medium to tell the Mahatma’s story. Reading a graphic novel is like watching a movie. The graphically elaborate content makes for an interesting and appealing read.

Of course, mythologies are not forgotten. All the usual suspects, such as Krishna, Draupadi and Sita are there. Jhunjhunwala argues that the stories, however, are told from a unique perspective. For example, The Mahabharata is narrated from Draupadi’s point of view and The Ramayana is from Sita’s perspective.

So who decides what characters/ personalities make the cut? It is the story that matters, says Jhunjhunwala. “At Campfire, we believe a story should make the readers think. We don’t need to spell everything out. We invite readers to form their own interpretations,” she says.

How does a title come about anyway? “We generally outsource the content. Once we decide on a topic or a storyline, we commission a writer. If we find the synopsis and storyline acceptable, we then go ahead with the script,” says Jhunjhunwala.

Family first
Campfire is a family run business. Jhunjhunwala’s father Keshav Thriani is the chairman and founder of the company.

“We wanted to give back to society,” Jhunjhunwala said about the motivation behind Campfire. “And now we are getting the next generation to read, with good stories that have been told innovatively. Our mission statement is ‘to entertain and
educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books that recount stories of human values, arouse curiosity in the world around us, and inspire with tales of great deeds of unforgettable people’.”

Jhunjhunwala says the uniqueness of Campfire titles has found takers in the US and Europe, where graphic novels are read by young adults as well as more mature readers. Given their success in the overseas market, the company has international distributors for every territory and for every segment.

Since the books are targeted at young adults, and contain inspirational tales, the education sector, especially school libraries, is a major market for Campfire.

“Today, almost 15-20 of our titles are a part of the CBSE extra-curriculum study list. Thus, the books are not just recommended in schools or picked up by teachers, they are also recognised by education boards like the CBSE,” says Jhunjhunwala. She adds that 12 of their titles have been picked up by the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, an autonomous body under the government of India.

Thus, Jhunjhunwala believes the education market is recognising graphic novels as a tool to introduce children and reluctant readers to the habit of reading.

The business of books
We are in a growing market, says Jhunjhunwala. There is a strong tradition in place. However, today’s readers are looking for fresh and exciting material and this is where Campfire comes into the picture—endeavouring to tell the classics in a contemporary fashion. The stories are the same, but the way they are told and presented is different.

Jhunjhunwala is here because of her passion for books. “Creating books attracts me,” she says. “I came into publishing by chance… it just happened.” Today, she looks after the entire marketing of the company. “It’s not an easy business,” she says and gives an example. “We sell the same book in the US for USD 16 – whilst in India the price is INR 400.”

There are other challenges as well. According to her, art is one thing, but getting the nuances right, especially in a graphic biography where the story deals with historical characters, is a tough job. Details are extremely important in a book that deals with history. The look, the architecture, the colour and the clothes need to be correct and specific. To achieve historical accuracy and the right kind of art for a book takes time, says Jhunjhunwala. “A good chunk of the time goes in research. It takes about six to eight months to render a hundred-page book,” she says.

Jhunjhunwala says that in the beginning, things looked tough. It was hard to find the right kind of people to write the stories or draw the panels. Now, she is hopeful for the future. “We have a lot of talent, but to groom them, we need time,” she says.

The books are printed in India, but are not available in physical bookstores because, as Jhunjhunwala argues, the genre is yet to find a niche in India. Yet, she feels that the popularity is growing.

The company puts up stalls at book fairs and Comic Cons, and over the years has seen a rise in the number of visitors.

The books are available on Campfire’s website as well as other online retail sites.