Illustrated with larger-than-life characters and ideas, these books have been read by generations. They continue to inspire artists, cartoonists, children and adults alike
The world might be digital and we might have more tech characters now, but long before TV, long before video games and OTT series, long before we could make our own avatars on Meta, there were comics.
As per Britannica.com, comic book is a bound collection of comic strips, usually in chronological sequence, typically telling a single story or a series of different stories.
While the main theme was victory of good over evil, these superheroes in their various avatars, did what no man could. They beat villains and saved the world. They travelled where no man has gone and they stimulated our imagination to be more creative. And these comics have inspired series, filmmakers, more writers and readers over the decades of their existence. They have satisfied our quest for adventure and a Utopian world. So, here’s a list of my favourite comics and illustrated books that grace my library:
Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones, Betty Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Sabrina Spellman—these famous characters have found their way in movies, series, video games and even stamps. They were created in 1941 by John L. Goldwater, publisher of M.L.J. Magazines, Inc., artist Bob Montana and writer Vic Bloom. Their first appearance was in Pep Comics #22 (Dec. 1941 cover). By #70, the title became Archie. On July 16, 2010, the United States Postal Service issued a set of five 44-cent commemorative postage stamps with the theme ‘Sunday Funnies’. These stamps featured Veronica, Archie and Betty sharing a chocolate milkshake. As Indian filmmaker Zoya Akhtar is making a movie based on these legendary characters, I wonder how it will turn out.
Did you know that Tintin went to the moon in 1953, long before astronaut Neil Armstrong did? Tintin was also the first global traveller in the modern world, long before any of us could see beautiful places on TV. Tintin was born on January 10, 1929. He first appeared in the Belgian weekly ‘Le Petit Vingtième’. Tintin’s creator is Belgian cartoonist Herge, whose real name was Georges Remi (1907-1983). The first album came out in 1930 titled Tintin in the Land of the Soviets. His best friends are Snowy, the white fox terrier, and Captain Haddock. There are 24 albums and the last one Tintin and the Alph-Art is an unfinished one.
Scholars trace the history of comics to the prehistoric era, that is the Lascaux cave paintings. These illustrated books began flourishing in the mid-20th century in the United States, western Europe (France and Belgium) and Japan. Japanese comics and manga cartoons go back to the 12th century. European comics go back to 1830s to the cartoon strips of Rodolphe Töpffer. Their popularity grew in the 1930s with The Adventures of Tintin. In the early 20th century, newspapers began publishing comic strips in America, followed by magazine-style comic books in the. These books saw phenomenal growth in the post-World War II era (1945).
3. The Phantom
The first masked crime-fighter, the Phantom comes from a fictional African country called Bangalia. This adventure character was created by renowned American cartoonist Lee Falk. The Phantom series began with a daily black and white newspaper strip on February 17, 1936, followed by a colour Sunday strip on May 28, 1939. And they are both running as of 2023. By 1966, The Phantom was published in 583 newspapers worldwide and read by over 100 million people daily.
Called “The Ghost Who Walks”, “Guardian of the Eastern Dark” and “The Man Who Cannot Die”, the Phantom is a legendary hero who comes to the front when evil starts to disrupt lives.
The Phantom is a hereditary crime-fighter who lives in a skull cave. He studied in the US where he met Diana Palmer and married her. They have two children: Kit and Heloise. He has a wolf named Devil and a horse named Hero.
He is the 21st phantom in the line of crime fighters. The first phantom was born in 1536. When his father, a British sailor, was killed during a pirate attack, Christopher Walker swore an oath on the skull of his father’s murderer to fight evil. And the phantom came into the world. Christopher began a legacy of the Phantom which passes from father to son.
The famous England-based children’s author created this character for small children. He appeared in 24 books between 1949 and 1963. The books were illustrated by Dutch artist Harmsen van der Beek from 1949 until his death in 1953. Then Peter Wienk continued the work. Noddy products are very popular with children. A series has run on British television since 1955.
The first book published in this series was Noddy Goes to Toyland. Noddy is made by a woodcarver, who then goes onto make a wooden lion. This scares little Noddy who runs aways and is befriended by Big Ears. The new friend takes his homeless pal to Toyland. Noddy’s best friends are Big Ears, Tessie Bear, Bumpy Dog, and the Tubby Bears. His car talks and he is always falling into trouble. Little Noddy is a delight to read at any stage and age.
Founded in 1967 by Anant Pai, Amar Chitra Katha is based in Mumbai. The chemical engineer founded the company to take India’s rich stories to the masses. The idea was born when he saw a quiz programme on Doordarshan in which children knew about Greek and other western myths, but floundered when it came to their own country. The first Indian comic. Krishna, was released by ACK as serial number #11. Ram Waeerkar illustrated the first issue of Amar Chitra Katha. The first 10 comics were copyrights of popular fairytales.
By the late 1970s, ACK was selling 5 million copies annually with a monthly circulation of about 700,000. Initially, Pai wrote the stories himself. Later, he hired a team of editors which included Subba Rao, Luis Fernandes, Kamala Chandrakant. Writers Margie Sastry, Debrani Mitra and C.R Sharma also joined the team. Other illustrators who joined the team were Krishna, Dilip Kadam, C. M. Vitankar, Sanjeev Waeerkar, Souren Roy, C.D Rane, Ashok Dongre, V.B. Halbe, Jeffrey Fowler, Pratap Mullick and Yusuf Lien aka Yusuf Bangalorewala. Among my favourite series was Akbar and Birbal and Angulimala.
Chitra Katha or painted stories…the history of Indian comics can be traced to the mid-1960s, when The Times of India launched Indrajal Comics. Before that, syndicated strips like The Phantom, Mandrake, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby were translated into Indian languages. And comics were i n the domain of the rich only. Among the earliest Indian superheroes is Batul the Great. created by Narayan Debnath in the 1960s. With the change in habits and coming of the cable, then internet, and digital know-how, the comics industry suffered a setback. To give a boost to the falling comic industry, Indian publishers sent comic postcards to 236 Rajya Sabha members, requesting them to promote reading.
6. Chacha Chaudhary
This famous character with a sharp intellect was created in 1971 by cartoonist Pran Kumar Sharma. He first appeared in Lotpot magazine. There is an official Chacha Chaudhary YouTube channel and a TV series in which Raghubir Yadav plays the role of Chacha Chaudhary.
The wise elderly uncle ‘jiska dimag computer se bhi zyaada tez chalta hai’ (a brain which works faster than the computer) has two main helpers—Sabu, the giant who comes from Jupiter, and Rocket, the faithful street dog. Sometimes, we see Tingu and Chachi. He never locks the door of his house, wears a red turban, a waistcoat with a pocket watch and carries a walking stick. Chacha Chaudhary is published by Diamond Books.
7. Tenali Rama
I am practically in awe of this witty man with such a sharp intellect. I have watched all the TV series and read the Raman of Tenali & Other Stories by Kamala Laxman during my childhood.
Born as Garlapati Ramakrishna on 22 September 1480, in Tenali, Telangana (then Andhra Pradesh), he was among the Ashtadigajas or 8 prominent poets in the royal courts of Vijayanagara Empire. He was also the chief advisor to King Krishnadevaraya (1509 to 1529). This great scholar and Telugu poet did not have the privilege of formal education. But he was blessed with wit and intelligence by Goddess Kali.
His father Garlapathi Rama served as a priest in the Ramalingesvara Swami temple in Santharavuru. And died when the boy was young. His mother Lakshmamma lived with her brother in the native townTenali. Ramakrishna grew up in his uncle’s town and so came to be known as Tenali Ramakrishna. He died from a snakebite in 1528. Tenali Rama was called ‘Vikata Kavi’ meaning clown-jester-poet in Telugu and was given the title of ‘Kumara Bharathi’ too.
The Cartoon Network series, The Adventures of Tenali Raman, were made on Kamala Laxman’s book. She was the wife of cartoonist R.K. Laxman. Penguin Ramdom House, Katha Kids, Puffin books also published the short stories.
The ancient book was written in Sanskrit by a scholar called Vishnu Sharma. The text comprises 87 stories in five books. These animal fables with a strong lesson are gems of Indian folklores and literature. No one knows Vishnu Sharma’s dates of birth and death for certain. But he is said to have lived in the 3rd century BCE at the beginning of the Gupta era. He explains the beginning of these stories. There lived a king called Sudarshan, who had four dim-witted sons. He did not know how he could make them rulers and requested the scholar to teach them all about running a kingdom in a short span of time. He was even promised many bighas of land, but the scholar refused saying that he did not sell knowledge.
He took five core principles and compiled these stories to educate the princes in how to be a good ruler. And the work falls under nitisastra or ways for a wise conduct. Each section is begins with a frame story and that is interwoven with other linking stories.The Five Sections are:
1. Mitra Bheda: The Separation of Friends (The Lion and the Bull)
2. Mitra labha or Mitra Samprapti: The Gaining of Friends (The Dove, Crow, Mouse, Tortoise, and Deer)
3. Kakolukiyam: Of Crows and Owls (War and Peace)
4. Labdhapranasam: Loss Of Gains (The Monkey and the Crocodile)
5. Apariksitakarakam: Ill-Considered Action/Rash Deeds (The Brahman and the Mongoose)
The stories have been published in illustrated forms by many publishers, including Amar Chitra Katha. Noted American scholar Franklin Edgerton (July 24, 1885 – December 7, 1963) wrote and edited a reconstruction of the (lost) original Sanskrit text of the Panchatantra. According to him, over 200 different versions of the fables exist in 50 different languages .
Much like the Panchtantra, this book of animal fables and human characters is written in Sanskrit. It is credited to Narayan Pandit and its origins lie in the 12th century; the oldest manuscript found in Nepal dates to 14th century. Like the Panchtantra, it is written in prose and verse and divided into four sections. These short, impactful stories help children understand various aspects of life and give them a wiser outlook.
It has four main sections. The preface is ‘Prastavika’, in which the author expresses gratitude to Goddess Saraswati and Lord Ganesh. Book 1 is Mitralabha or how to gain a friend. Book 2 is Suhrdbheda or how to lose a friend. Book 3 is Vigraha or war. Book 4is Sandhi or peace/accord. Witty animals and mindboggling lessons, it’s perfect for a quiet day when you are ready to absorb some good old common sense.
10. The Jataka Tales
These animal fables relate to Buddha’s many births before he attained the birth of a buddha. They are originally written in Pali. Each story highlights a positive trait that the Buddha learned as a human or animal over many births.
Jātakas are the illustrations found on many Buddhist sites such as on the Bharhut stupa railing at Sanchi, Ajanta, in murals of Silk Road sites of the pre-Tang period (421–640 C.E.) at Kucha. A good example are the illustrations at Ananda Temple, Myanmmar, (which depicts 554 tales). Some main sites where Jataka illustrations are seen: Bharhut, Kanaganahalli, Amaravati, Goli, Nagarjunakonda, Bagh Caves. These tales were an important way to spread Buddhist teachings and were part of sermons, rituals, festivals and art.
I enjoy the fables even now—simply narrated and with a moral that leaves a deep impact.
Technically, this isn’t a book. It’s a magazine, very much in existence and comes out fortnightly. When I saw a post by a children’s book author on Facebook, this was a nostalgic moment. I decided to include it, as I read it for many years. Published by Delhi Press, it was started in 1968. It comes out in eight languages and reaches over 6 million children. The magazine has many sections and the stories are set in Champakvan. It’s very interesting to meet Cheeku the rabbit or Meeku the mouse or Damru the donkey and more animals who pop out through the pages. These just make learning so much fun.
I am going to end this list with an ode to this defunct magazine, simply because good literature and efforts must live on. It was popular for its illustrated stories. There is a page where you can read old stories for free. The first issue in Telugu came out on August 15, 1947. And the final issue was in March 2013. For 75 years, this magazine brought out sensitive and educative literature for children. This monthly magazine used to be published in other languages too: Tamil (as Ambulimama), Kannada, Sanskrit, Assamese, Hindi, Odia (as Jahnamaamu), English, Marathi (as Chandoba), Malayalam (as Ambili Ammavan) and Bengali (as Chadmama).
The founder editor was Chakrapani and the magazine was printed and published by Nagi Reddi, leading film producer in South India. The grandparents’ style of storytelling was very popular. Stories were drawn from historical and modern texts, mythology, fables, parables and even useful hearsay. Even the tales of King Vikramāditya and Vetala (Vampire), an adaptation of the Sanskrit work Baital Pachisi, were published. The covers were printed in four colours, while the illustrations inside were line drawings.
The days of comics and illustrated books are not over. There are so many to choose from such as Superman, Batman, Thor, Avengers and more, but I haven’t read those. I have seen the movies though and that will be another post. And also, am in search of more illustrated books and graphic novels from all over the world.
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This post is a part of Book Marathon by Outset Books