Animation and comics have gone truly global. Just look at Spider-Man 3's global box office sales as an example. Last month, the wall crawling superhero broke box office records in India, earning the most that any Hollywood movie has in that country to date. In South Korea and Hong Kong, the film superseded existing benchmarks for opening day revenues, while in Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand, sales were the highest for any single day.
The fact that an idea stemming from a 1960s superhero thought up by two American writers holds such strong appeal cross-culturally is simply testimony to the extent to which vastly different cultures are increasingly intermingling with one another. Within this context, acknowledging that anime and manga have gained significant ground with comic book and animation aficionados far beyond the geographical confines of Japan lacks the element of surprise that it might have engendered some years ago.
"If you told parents ten years ago in America that their children would know characters named Yu Gi Oh! and Pokemon as well as they would Spider-Man, those parents would have thought you were crazy — yet in America today an estimated 30% of major children's animated programming is now Japanese animation," states Sharad Devarajan, CEO of the New York headquartered Virgin Comics and Animation.
It is the recognition of this ease with which anime transcended its initial status as merely a cult phenomenon outside Japan that formed a fundamental impetus behind the founding of Devarajan's company about two years ago.
Positioning itself to redefine the comic book industry, Virgin Comics touts its mission as the creation of global comic properties that take their basis and inspiration from the east, particularly India, in a manner that resonates with both western and larger eastern audiences alike. It is the progeny of Sharad Devarajan and Suresh Seetharaman — co-founders of another comic book company, Gotham Entertainment Group in 1997— along with writer Deepak Chopra and acclaimed director Shekhar Kapur.
The Richard Branson backed company, which is the first original entertainment character group coming from India, has the advantages that novelty often confers upon the fortunate. It has recruited top celebrity talent, the press is interested (everyone from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to The Hollywood Reporter,) and it's successfully expanding into multiple platforms.
"In a world that is increasingly dominated by fantasy and epic tales like those of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, India has a rich vault of 1000 year old mythic content that is ripe to be tapped for global consumption. Our mission is to change the perception of India from an outsourcer to a source," Devarajan recently told FastCompany.com.
Apart from its focus on South Asian content, and the fact that it eschews super-heroes in favor of other genres, what sets Virgin apart from every other comic book company out there is a uniquely constructed multi-pronged business plan that consists of three lines— Shakti, Voices and Director's Cut. The company uses a 360 degree model that aims to seamlessly blend its print publications with television, gaming and animation.
And there's more. In a quest to induct celebrity creatorship right from the word go, Virgin has successfully wooed big names like director, John Woo and actor, Nic Cage. Devarajan, who unabashedly self-identifies as a "comic addict," explains that fleshing out a printed property to encompass other creative arenas makes for a far more durable outcome in the long-term.
The Shakti line focuses solely on Asian oriented content — repackaging Indian and other South Asian mythology to create publications that are digestible, not only for India's untapped 550 million strong youth market, but also for western and global audiences. The line is now being published in a dozen languages including French, German, Spanish, and Italian.
The company's aim is to continue expansion, and according to Ron Marz, a comic book writer of 17 years who recently signed on as editor at Virgin, it will do so successfully. "Marvel and DC print lots of superhero based comic books that are consumed in mass quantities in the United States. There is very little genre material. Superheroes really don't do that well in global markets," he explains. France for instance, which has the second largest comic book market in the world after Japan, has shown a pronounced distaste for superhero characters.
In keeping with its quest to appeal to global audiences, Virgin Comics has its feet planted firmly in multiple camps, with a 100 person studio based out of Bangalore, and its marketing, licensing, merchandising and editorial departments in New York. Its revenue is currently evenly distributed between India and the US, with European markets responsible for a large chunk as well.
Shakti publications include Devi: the story of "a fierce feminine warrior, stronger than the Gods themselves… a champion of the heavens, and the protector of man;" and The Sadhu, a tale about "one man's choice between his spiritual oath and his human instinct," that traces a simple English soldier's journey to becoming a spiritual warrior.
This summer, the comic books will be retailed at Borders, Barnes and Noble and other mainstream bookstores across the United States. "This is a great way to recruit new audiences, not only within existing groups of comic book readers, but also amongst those who so far haven't really been attracted to comics but might be attracted to this new wave of content," Marz states. The company has the added advantage of retailing at Virgin stores.
Other brownie points for Virgin Comics: its Voices and Director's Cut lines. These go beyond the repurposing of South Asian stories to recruit top creative talent from the fields of film, music and the arts during the stages of creation, not just implementation, of its projects.
While DC and Marvel have brought in outside celebrity talent, this is primarily through writers, like Kevin Smith, who usually work on existing characters rather than creating entirely new concepts themselves. Marz maintains that Virgin is the first to have created such a business model, although other comic book companies are increasingly beginning to catch on.
Through Voices, the company has brought in Nicolas Cage, who will play the lead role in the film adaptation of The Sadhu line of comics; he is also currently in the process of co-creating a line entitled Voodoo Child with his son Weston. With Director's Cut it has inducted names like John Woo, who created 7 Brothers in collaboration with writer Garth Ennis, and Guy Ritchie, who thought up The Game Keeper — both monthly paperback comics lines, the latter of which is slated to soon be turned into a film.
The high level of celebrity involvement is certainly a selling point for the company, which operates out of a sunny, single floored office in Soho. "Over and above being just a name, a celebrity is a brand. Tapping into existing brands in this alternate form is one way to compete in a superhero dominated world," acknowledges Devarajan.
Inducting celebrities from different parts of the world has also served to strengthen Virgin Comics' cross-cultural appeal. John Woo reels in fans from South East Asia, Guy Ritchie has some sway in the UK markets and Shekhar Kapur's Devi is proving popular in India. Devarajan staunchly denies playing favorites to any region in particular: "We have no one focus because there are different rewards in different markets."
The company's decision to stay far way from the superhero genre, even within the US, is a wise one according to Marz: "The American comic market is dominated by superheroes — companies like Marvel and DC rule the roost and people don't want third generation knockoffs. The American comic book market is so restricted: when people hear about 'comics' they immediately think of superheroes, rather than seeing them as merely one way to tell a story, " Marz says. The writer's own decision to work with Virgin was spurred by his conviction that the company is doing something "new and different," which is likely to induct new readers.
Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Midtown Comics in New York, agrees: "Companies like DC and Marvel are more mainstream; they are houses of established iconic characters. Virgin takes a more intellectual approach, with stories that are based on folklore and mythology. Its audience goes beyond just the regular comic book buyers — there's a lot of scope for it to expand the existing demographic of the comic book market."
When asked whether they thought Virgin could ever act as a threat to an established name like Marvel, both Gladston and Marz maintain that there's space enough in the comic book markets across the world for both companies to flourish. States Marz: "Virgin and Marvel aren't competitive with each other. They're just opposite ends of the same spectrum."