Friday, July 23, 2004

a multicultural web

Spiderman dons a dhoti and battles a Hindu demon in a new Indian version of the popular comic.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Newsweek International in July 2004).

Even superheroes aren't safe from job outsourcing anymore. Next month Marvel Comics will launch "Spider-Man India," the first ethnic adaptation of the popular comic-book series. Peter Parker of New York City becomes Pavitr Prabhakar of Mumbai, Mary Jane becomes Meera Jain and the villainous Norman Osbourne (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) turns into Nalin Oberoi. But the reinvention goes further: Spider-Man has been transformed from an allegorical figure representing the dangers of scientific experimentation into a hero trying to navigate a modern India steeped in Hindu mysticism. The hero gets his powers from a yogi who performs a ritual on him to access the "web of life," and the villain is a demon from the Hindu pantheon of gods. Prabhakar wears a dhoti, a loincloth favored by Hindu-temple devotees. "I was trying to capture the essence of India," says Jeevan Kang, the 26-year-old former architect hired to draw the series. "I looked at a lot of artwork on mythological characters and tried to intertwine that with the characters here."

It's a blending of cultures that Marvel Comics sees as natural—and profitable. "India is very rich in graphical mythology, and that plays well to the superhero ethos," says Marvel Comics president Gui Karyo. At the same time, India—with a population of 1 billion—has a rapidly growing middle class and a burgeoning interest in Western culture. In 2002, 32-year-old Sharad Devarajan launched Bangalore-based Gotham Entertainment to publish Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Warner Brothers comic books on the Indian Subcontinent. Since then, the company has ramped up circulation to about half a million copies each month of such titles as "Superman," "Batman" and, of course, "Spider-Man."

Gotham and Marvel have distributed some U.S. comics, including "Scooby-Doo" and "Wonder Woman." But by Indianizing "Spider-Man," they hope to win over a larger audience and demonstrate their sensitivity to India's rich culture. "We are a business that manages intellectual property, so there were definitely concerns [about tinkering with the character]," says Karyo. "But there was also acknowledgment that you can have the same character interpreted differently."

Kang was an obvious choice for the reinterpretation. Before being drafted by Marvel for "Spider-Man India," he had been working on a comic-book version of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic in which the hero battles the demon-king Ravana. For "Spider-Man India," Kang turned the Green Goblin into a modern-day reinvention of Ravana, who gets his powers by performing a forbidden fire ritual. But diehard fans, rest assured: Spider-Man remains a force to be reckoned with, loincloth or no.