A line from Peanuts has been a great source of comfort for me since my school days—“I think I’ve discovered the secret of life – you just hang around until you get used to it.” I held on to the line like a charm that helped me get through several downs. But all that was somehow forgotten as I grew up and matters more mundane became much more important for me. And maybe in this striving for the ordinary, I forgot being a superhero. Very recently all of that changed in waves of nostalgia as I stumbled upon an old cardboard box in the cellar on a wistful rainy Sunday afternoon of grey sky and callow breeze. Tied with a coir rope the box was stacked below a set of stools for decades, forgotten and wasted. A neat layer of dust had settled itself comfortably and the knot looked like a nice old button, like the ones with a blob that we wore on the woolen sweaters that have gone out of fashion now. I got myself a pair of scissors from the tool box and got rid of the rope with a quick snip.
Open Sesame! Stacked in two neat files were piles of Bahadur, Magician Mandrake and Lothar, Flash Gordon, Batul the Great, Nonte Fonte, Phantom and their mates. In one fine cut my entire childhood had come galloping back. Back in those days I was often seen as some geek who would often enact the actions of the superheroes while guffawing with friends. But yes they stayed by me like silent sentries of strength, resolve and often inspiration helping me chaff the right from the wrong.
Whenever I had an extra dime or quarter, I would run up to the local comic stall to buy myself a few flights of fantasy and adventure. In fact my father often got me to do a lot of household chores while my friends were busy playing hanging the carrot of a double volume of ‘Indrajaal Comics’. As I stood before my childhood heroes I once again felt dwarfed by their overwhelming presence and simplicity. It will not be a detour to remind you of how it all began, while I dust clean the pages.The verdict is still hanging in balance as to how the first comic book evolved. In fact there are several versions. One can trace it back to the cartoonish broadsheets of the Middle Ages, which were parchment products, created by anonymous woodcutters.
These broadsheets later evolved with better content and humor. The first formatted evidence of a comic strip could well be the popular Punch, an elegant British creation, which became the primary focus of documentary accounts of those days. But in reality the comic strip still stood in the alley, waiting to be born. Then Great Britain’s Ally Sloper’s “Half Alley” arrived– a black and white tabloid that had panels of cartoons mixed with a sliver of news.Now while all this was going on in Great Britain, the United States had its own brand of evolution. Instead of magazines, US newspapers took the lead in creating the comic book industry and it was William Randolph Hearst who scored a knockout with the Yellow Kid. But these were not comic books. It perhaps arrived with Carl Schultz’ Foxy Grandpa.
The Whitman Publishing Company, in 1934, took over the mantle of being the pre-launchers for the modern comic book. They published forty issues of Famous Comics, which was a black and white hardcover reprint. However, people really got the hang of comic books with Famous Funnies that featured such memorable characters as Joe Palooka, Buck Rogers and Mutt and Jeff.
But it really didn’t matter when it originated, what mattered was how my brand of indigenous magazines were my constant companion in the dim balmy afternoons, stormy dark nights and valourous peek-a-boos during the study hours, letting the untamed horses of imagination run wild.What began with ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’, ‘Khirer Putul’ and ‘Buro Angla’ silently slipped into the cover comic strip ‘Kaushik’ of ‘Sukhtara’ and ‘Roverser Roy’ of Anandamela. Aabid Surti, who published the first 3 panel strips Dhabbuji, also created one of my favourite characters Bahadur for Indrajal Comics that could easily compete with Phantom and Mandrake.
The character came into being in the 1970s when dacoits were rampant in north India. Bahadur, himself a son of a dacoit Vairabh Singh, grew up to be the principle protector after being adopted as a kid by inspector Vishal, who had killed Vairabh. He along with his love interest Bela rid the Chambal Valley of the low life much like an indigenous Robin Hood.
I was filing comics in neat rows when from behind a double volume of Mandrake and Lothar emerged a rag-tag ‘Batul the Great’. Narayan Debnath’s Batul, was the next door superhero we all admired as kids. Batul was chasing Bachchu and Bichchu, the regular thug-duo, in the story and threw them inside the lock-up with one fling of his arm. The story goes that Debnath thought up the idea of the superhero while returning from College Street. When the Bangladesh War of Liberation flared up, he was asked by the publishers to add an aura of invincibility to Batul. Debnath was reluctant at first because he was worried about legal implications. On assurance, he made Batul a superhero able to take on tanks, airplanes, and missiles. Bullets began to bounce off him. If batul was the homespun superhero Handa Bhonda and Nonte Fonte, two of Narayan Debanath’s other creations, were any prankster’s guide to a ‘helluva fun’ and I was no exception.
Two other Super heroes who ruled our childhood were Phantom & Mandrake. The Skull Cave and Xanadu were exotic hideouts of these superheroes. I remember I had once or twice as a kid tried to locate Bangalla, the mythical African country, where resided The Ghost Who Walks. If the Skull Cave attracted me for its exotic and mystic nature, Mandrake’s residence Xanadu enticed me with its hi-tech content, close circuit cameras, drop gates. While, the skull ring’s impression with the sound effect of ‘dhishum dhishum’ remained etched in the mind for years, as did mandrake’s hocus focus that changed pistols to bananas, guns to snakes and rods to sugar-canes. If for nothing Lee Falk will be immortalized for the adrenalin rush he had given to our otherwise staid childhood that had no cable televisions, no video games and no play stations.
We also had our share of sci-fi in the hip-shaking Elvis singing 1970s. And it was none lesser than Flash Gordon created by Alex Raymond. The comic strip followed the adventures of Flash Gordon, a handsome polo player and Yale graduate and his companions Dale Arden and Dr Hans Zarkov. The story begins with Earth bombarded by fiery meteors. Dr Zarkov invents a rocket ship to locate their place of origin in outer space. Half mad, he kidnaps Flash and Dale, whose plane had crashed in the area, and the three travel to the planet Mongo, where they discover the meteors were weapons devised by Ming, evil ruler of Mongo. For many years, the three companions have adventures on Mongo, traveling to the forest kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin; the ice kingdom of Frigia, ruled by Queen Fria; the jungle kingdom of Tropica, ruled by Queen Desira; the undersea kingdom of the Shark Men, ruled by King Kala; and the flying city of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan.
Another aspect that attracted me were the remarkable pets they had be it Chinmaya (dog) of Bahadur or Devil (wolf), Hero (Horse) and Fraka (Hawk) of Phantom. But perhaps the most unique of them were Vedo (dog) and Uto (the ostrich) that Batul had. It was quite a treat seeing the illustration of Batul riding the ostrich almost choking the bird in his vice grip on the neck. He of course did not mean it and Uto surely knew it.
While, these superheroes did not have the fancy web of the Spiderman, the avant-garde batmobile of batman or the kryptonite gene of Superman, they were heroes grounded to the earth with their set of follies and weaknesses that often made them look very mortal and vulnerable and hence the connect was deeper. What made them heroes was perhaps their capacity of overcoming their frailties in doing what was right, what was true and fair.
In contrast the aura of invincibility of the new age superheroes makes them larger than life and hence often too alien to relate to. Perhaps the only exception is Herge’s Tintin, who has survived time and has in his own affable way continued to charm generations of kids with the classic morals of discretion is the better part of valour and a stitch in time saves nine. The Tintin series was therefore not there in my magic box from the past as it had taken its place in the book rack along with his dog talking dog snowy.
I dusted the books and set them back inside the box along with a few series of Panchatantra and Chandmama, our moral police from childhood. I closed the box and set it back where it was. I searched my way back to the cellar door in the fading light of the evening. A storm was brewing in the horizon. I descended into the balcony of my house amid the ordinary, but as I walked into my room I could feel the superhero alive inside me once again.