Richard Branson has a finger in almost every pie, but can the man behind the Virgin brand launch a successful comics line? Paul O'Brien assesses Virgin's bid to create a new comics market in India.
16 January 2006

Virgin is a strange business.

While most corporate monoliths tend to identify an area of strength and stick to it, Virgin are all over the place. Starting off as a record company, they've diversified hugely. They do radio, banking, clothes, mobile phones, record stores... you name it, Richard Branson has probably had a crack at it. There's nothing linking it all together, besides the curiously vague Virgin brand.

But every so often Richard Branson wakes up in a cold sweat, suddenly remembering a product that he doesn't make yet. Clearly, when this happens, something must be done. Thus, Virgin Comics - one of the last products they don't yet make.

At first glance, this seems a strange one. Many companies have tried to get into comics over the last few years, and many have failed. The North American market has been stubbornly resistant to newcomers, unless their core activity is reprinting established comics from Japan. And, let's be honest, it doesn't immediately sound like a gold mine compared with some of Virgin's other activities.

Then again, aside from its most successful operations, Virgin has always had a range of interests on the side. A couple have been outright misfires - Virgin Cola never stood a chance against the established competition, and Virgin Condoms proved to be an unfortunate misapplication of the brand. Other tributaries of the Virgin empire range from modest to bizarre to just plain silly. So which is this one - a quiet backwater of the Virgin empire, or something to take seriously?

'Comics are one of the last products that Virgin don't yet make.' Well, Virgin already have a highly active publishing wing, Virgin Books. It's not as though they're entering into completely novel ground. And the publishing division seems to do quite well for itself. They've carved out a niche banging out light non-fiction, episode guides and sci-fi books. They had the DOCTOR WHO licence for ages. They're not exactly an A-list publisher, but they're certainly a solid presence in the marketplace, and not just one of Branson's hobby businesses.

The comics division, however, is not just an in-house creation. It's a collaboration with Deepak Chopra, Shekhar Kapur and Gotham Entertainment. The press release describes Gotham as "South Asia's leading publisher of comic magazines". American readers may recall them from 2004 when they produced the unlikely-sounding SPIDER-MAN INDIA, which was billed (wrongly) as the first reinvention of a superhero for another culture. After an initial spurt of interest, that book drifted off the radar, and nothing more seems to have been heard of it.

Frankly, the attempt to clone Spider-Man as an Indian kid called Pavitr Prabhakar, complete with an Uncle Bhim and Aunt Maya, always struck me as a touch superficial. If you want to appeal to Indians, you create something new - you don't clone a piece of Americana and tinker with the trappings. I suspect that, as with American audiences and manga, those Indians who are interested in Spider-Man at all would probably prefer the original to a localised cover version. In any event, judging from Gotham's website, the project seems to have quietly died a death after the initial series.

What Gotham bring to this deal, from the look of it, isn't really a track record of creating comics. Rather, Virgin are gaining access to the Indian marketplace by hooking up with the top local publisher.

'SPIDER-MAN INDIA seems to have quietly died a death.' It's pretty obvious from the press release that the Indian market is Virgin Comics' major concern. Despite a reference to "creating original comic books and character properties for a global audience", the real focus is squarely on India. Richard Branson is quoted enthusing about the vibrancy of the Indian market, and probably states the divisions' priorities more accurately when he claims it will "help to launch the Indian comic market and spin it into the west".

This all sounds remarkably ambitious. From the sound of it, the plan is to build the division around some sort of homegrown Indian product, which can then be marketed to western audiences in a similar way to manga. There's no doubt that manga, and not the direct market, is the template that's encouraging Branson here - after all, it's the major driver behind growth in the English-language market.

The bit about building an Indian comics industry isn't a bad idea, so far as it goes. India has a massive population with plenty of money to spend, and it sounds as though their comics industry is rather underdeveloped. It may well be that there's an untapped market in India waiting for this sort of product. If so, it's likely to be worth plenty of money in its own right, more than enough to justify the exercise. After all, there are a billion people living in India - over 15% of the global population. Indians outnumber Americans by more than three to one. That's a hell of a lot of readers. If you can establish a major presence in India, you're doing well already.

But the company's global ambitions seem rather more optimistic. Of course, they could always produce something completely different for foreign markets, and maybe they will. The initial plan, though, seems to be to take Indian-originated material and make it globally appealing. This is a tall order. True, in some ways it's easier to translate comics than other media - at least you keep the art, and you can change the dialogue without resorting to dubbing or subtitles. And true, manga has been successful outside Japan. But it wasn't designed for that purpose - it just happened to have greater resonance to western audiences than the homegrown material. (And what does that tell you about the homegrown material?) European comics, in contrast, have never found much of an audience abroad.

'If you can establish a major presence in India, you're doing well.' I struggle to imagine any sort of Indian hybrid comics finding a mass audience in America. It just doesn't instinctively seem like the sort of thing American readers are looking for. In Europe, they might do well with the large Indian communities. They're a worthwhile market in their own right. They've managed to get Bollywood films into the UK top ten. But that's largely through an intensely devoted minority audience. Penetration of Indian influences into the British mainstream remains comparatively limited.

To judge from their press release, Virgin Comics anticipate a potentially massive crossover appeal of Indian concepts. Stranger things have happened, but it still seems a remarkable assumption. I can buy the idea that this division could grab a big chunk of the Indian market, but I'm extremely sceptical about the idea that they're going to achieve worldwide success with the same product.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the press release, though, is the location of the company. Even though the overwhelming focus is on India and the subcontinent, the publishing operation is going to be based in New York. This seems a truly strange move, if they're really intending to build around Indian themes in the way they claim. It may be that New York can provide technical knowledge about the comics industry, but I can't imagine the place is overflowing with comics professionals blessed with a detailed cultural understanding of the Indian subcontinent.

It strikes me that if Virgin really want to pursue this course, the best way to do it is to focus on establishing themselves in the potentially-massive Indian market, rather than pushing too heavily for an "all things to all people" global-village identity. They'll just confuse people if they do that, and reduce their chances with the market that might be most receptive to them.

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