Jul 28, 2019

‘Comic books do not sell themselves’: A Q&A with comic creator, artist & publisher, Vivek Goel

BYGautham Shenoy

India has always had a strong tradition of homegrown comics and comics fans. However, when people think of comics from India, they usually think of the classic Indrajal comics or Amar Chitra Katha, if not Diamond Comics and Raj Comics. The past decade however has seen a spurt in new comics publishers in India, with writers and artists willing to experiment with the kind of stories that Indian comics have been telling and with the form itself. While it’s a sad state of affairs to see many fold up leaving their stories incomplete, one comics publisher who has been around now for over eight years and continually introducing new titles while continuing its old ones with a consistent level of quality not just in its storytelling but also in the quality of its final production is Holy Cow Entertainment.

Founded in 2011 by Vivek Goel, Holy Cow is India’s first creator-owned comic book publisher and had its first breakthrough title in the form of the well-received Ravanayan by writer Vijayendra Mohanty and Goel. Since then, Holy Cow has published long-running titles such as Aghori with writer Ram V, standalone graphic novels such as The Skull Rosary written by SF author Shweta Taneja, and introduced new titles such as Shaitaan and Caster. Apart from being a publisher, Holy Cow’s Vivek Goel is an artist himself, having started his career as an inker at Raj Comics and going on to become a full-time penciller at Level 10 Entertainment. So, it was hear about his journey and that of Holy Cow’s that I caught up with Goel for a Q&A. Here goes.

Gautham Shenoy: Firstly, thank you Vivek for agreeing to this Q&A and for taking the time out to do this. And as someone who’d been an integral part of modern Indian comics for many years now, I’d like to start off by asking you to give us an overview of your journey so far.

Vivek Goel: Many thanks for having me Shenoy. It’s always nice to talk to like-minded people. Well, I started my professional journey some 13 years back first as an inker and then a full-time penciller, worked in the industry for about 5 years before realising that I had a number of independent ideas and characters, but the industry lacked people or institutions who could support that. There were a number of new publishers, but they wanted to develop their own IPs. Also, by the time I started my own venture I realized that I have developed similar interests in post-production, sales and street-level marketing. I loved the totality of the comic-book making process.

The Indian comic book market has always seemed a bit weird to me. When I started off as a publisher, there were almost 6-7 people who also started their own publishing journeys. Now, when I look around, unfortunately very few of us are left. But, I must say this that the demand for Indian comic books is just rising. People need good stuff, they need regular stuff and most of all they need us to wrap the stories and complete the series! They love all this and if you do that they will love and support you with all their heart and pocket.

Shenoy: Since 2011, when you founded Holy Cow, many other comics publishers have come and gone. What is the secret of HC’s success and longevity?

Goel: The day I got the company registered, I made a list of some absolute do’s and don’ts drawing from my experience, working as a freelancer and observing the market. From the very start I have applied the following rules in my conduct of business and I believe all these have contributed into the survival of HC till date:

a) Even if you are getting a single cover done from someone, sign an agreement.

b) Pay every single creative sharp within 4 days of them completing their books. Never ever let them ask you for their cash.

c) Draw everyday so that I can also be an equal contributor in my company and there can be a good & healthy synergy between me and the other artists as well. This also comes in handy while giving them feedback on storytelling because if I cannot do something, how can I convey the same thing to another person?

d) Always complete my stories and publish the entire story arcs. There is no greater sin than letting people invest in your stories and then you shut shop abruptly saying you are not making profits, leaving incomplete stories and unfinished arcs.

e) Make 2-3 years financial and creative planning so that you can have an idea in the budgeting and the profit process which will help you plan ahead and accordingly.

f) Treat every single artist and writer with due respect. Each of them is special and they are sensitive people and it requires a special way to communicate with them. Being an artist myself, I believe I have understood each and every person working in my company from the very first day. In the last 8 years, not even a single artist has left HC!

g) Be vigilant and present at the printing press during printing as it is the last  step towards the final product for which we all have given our best, and one single mistake made by the printer can ruin your entire edition and last but not the least,

h) Be a good salesman for your product because comic books do not sell themselves. I believe that my desire to sell and to connect with people has resulted in me being a very good street level salesman and I still sell comic books personally at each and every comic con event in every city in India.

ALSO READ: ‘Comics fans in India are exceptional’: A Q&A with Ram V, writer of Aghori, Batman, Paradiso and more

Shenoy: Ravanayan and Aghori both were refreshingly original as far as Indian comics when they first came out. As far as I can tell, they’re still very popular today. Can you tell us a little about how these two titles came to be and what made/makes them so popular?

Goel: I always wanted to break the linear storytelling of the age-old epics, without changing the facts and events, and work on a villain’s perspective because one thing that I have learned from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata is that evil is relative. It all depends on your POV. Initially I thought of taking on the case of Duryodhana but later realised that he is not the bonafide badass of hindu myth, Ravana is!

Aghori followed on the same lines of ‘exploring the road less travelled’. Set in the contemporary times, it gives a glimpse into the lesser-known lives and practices of the famous Aghoris of India. An idea hardly explored, it soon became a commercial success and later paved the way for more characters leading into a shared HC universe.

Shenoy: The second arc of Shaitaan has just ended. Caster Vol. 1 is done too. The crossover series Decay is on its way. Can you give our readers a quick tour of the complete existing HCverse and what we can expect to see in the future?

Goel: Post Ravanayan, we realised that the future of any comic book company does and should not rely only on pre-cooked mythological stories and you are technically not giving out anything special and unless you want to get labelled as the Ramayana and Mahabharata publisher. Enter HC’s first original IP, Aghori!

Basically having an array of characters is nothing different than having kids. You look out for them, you love them, you find out the best possible way for them to grow and be their best selves in the world and you most often set events in motion for them. Developing comic book characters is just like that, you love them, you want them to move ahead in their lives, the stories of their lives, you want all your kids to interact with each other, fight, make up and form special bonds, make mistakes and grow – that is exactly how you should deal with the characters you make. You love them because when they grow old, they start caring you. That’s my retirement plan!

With Holy Cow, we are telling local stories, stories of local legends, local people, Indian people and Indian issues. Also, we are making a point that we cover as much religious and cultural diversity as possible. Shaitan Singh is a North Indian, Aghori is a wanderer, Desh is an assassin, Dehek hails from Bhutan, with Caster we wanted to explore Christianity and Viridian hails from Arunanchal Pradesh. Post three volumes of Aghori and two of Shaitan, we decided that its time these characters have grown and should start supporting other newcomers as well because that’s the way you do it. Aghori volume 2 introduced Desh, Shaitan introduced Dehek in its volume 2, and then we made Viridian as an extension of Dehek’s own story. That is how you make room for new characters into the hearts of readers who are following the ones who came before. It’s like older siblings introducing the younger ones to the world, leading to a big and strong family.

There is a basic template of creating a successful shared universe, you create a situation which is too big for a single superhero to handle, this concept is complete workable and universal. This is what leads to the requirements of superheroes possessing a variety of skill sets to come together in unison. This is exactly what The DECAY is. It is the 3rd coming of Shaitan Singh and we are also introducing a demi-god in it.

Left: Comics artist Vivek Goel, founder of Holy Cow Entertainment. Right: The new heroes in the Holy Cow universe

Shenoy: As a publisher and creator, why do you think Indian comics haven’t made truly left a mark beyond our borders? What in your opinion, do Indian comics books creators and publishers need to do better, to get more readership, even domestically?

Goel: Not at all, we are not even an industry; it’s more like a boutique industry. Most of the people have not even left a mark amongst ourselves let alone outside India. We need to have unbreakable morals and immovable confidence in this medium for it to do any good to us and to the market. We need to understand that it’s a very difficult industry here in India and it will take at least 4 years for you to get any capital back, and last but not the least, you need a good physical distribution network which apparently sucks here in India. Even if you are ready to pay up the distributor their desired cuts, they are still reluctant to take your comics books to every corner of the country.

There are comic book readers in this nation and they are more than willing to grow as I have seen it all at the comic-con events when I interact with my customers but when a book is not displayed on the shelf, the potential reader is never created! Slow and steady. The market is slow and steady. If you make a concrete plan and have very low expectations, you will sleep peacefully every night.

Shenoy: What is your opinion of Indian comics readers? How do you see them treating Indian comics differently as opposed to western comics, if at all? In what ways can Indian readers do better?

Goel: Indian comics fans are in no way less than their western counterparts. Superhero comics are very popular in India and it’s a straight cut example of how fresh ideas are welcomes with open arms by Indian readers as well.

However, I sometimes see that a lot of people are willing to spend hundreds of rupees on western comics and then they bargain over an Indian one. The reason mostly is we are conditioned by cheap comics costing anywhere from Rs. 4/- to 40/- for a 32–64 page comic book, from a number of Indian publishing houses doing business for the past last 30 years, that sometimes it becomes hard for some readers to think that a good and balanced 32 page comic book can be worth Rs.250/-.

Comics have become costly because there are so few writers and artists left who still do this full time, because of slow sales we are bound by taking a limited print run of 2000–2500 copies per edition and because there are so few venues to sell them. It’s a vicious circle and the only one that can break it is the readers.

I can only as readers to keep faith in new publications, give them the benefit of doubt, watch them, ask them and support them in completing their series, and when they do that, reward them with a purchase and when you see them moving forward, walk with them.

Shenoy: Despite everything, what do you think it is – and as both a creator and a publisher – that makes it all worthwhile?

Goel: When people visit you at the comic cons and tell you that you were the biggest reason they came. When people bombard you and inbox you asking what other projects you are working on and more details, that excitement makes it worthwhile and last but not the least when at the end of the day you convert a white sheet of paper into something out of nothing and it goes into diff. stages of production with you on every step, it all seems worthwhile.

Shenoy: Who are your favourite comic book characters, western or Indian? Any comics and graphic novels that you think are must-reads?

Goel: My favourite characters are Batman, Namor, Calvin and Hobbes, Hellboy and Lady Mechanika. When it comes to comics, I read  and would recommend Descender, Black Science, Outcast, Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, Thor by Jason Aaron and whatever Geoff Johns writes.

Shenoy: What advice – or words of caution – would you give to young or aspiring comics creators in India?

Goel: You need to relentless, uncompromising and committed, these are the only 2 qualities that will take you ahead in a comic book market like India. Practice daily as there are no shortcuts in a creative field.

Well, there you have it.

And this brings us to the last edition of this season of New Worlds Weekly. As readers of this column would be aware, this month marks its third year and as always, New Worlds Weekly will go on a short break before the next season. Many thanks from the bottom of my heart to all of you for reading and supporting this column over the years. In case you have missed any edition of the column, you can find them all at this link. It has been a great three years, and I have enjoyed every single week of this journey, exploring science fiction and fantasy and their many facets. I hope you have too. On that not, I sign off for now and hope to see you again soon for a new season of New Worlds Weekly very soon.

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Gautham Shenoy is a writer of FactorDaily.