Comic Book Day: Pursuing Your Passion with Sharad Devarajan
by Brian Walton on September 18, 2013
Sharad Devarajan has been a lifelong fan of comics. From an intern at DC to partnering with Richard Branson on Virgin Comics, if there’s something interesting happening in comics, Devarajan is either involved or watching closely. He founded Gothic Entertainment, which was South Asia’s largest comics publisher and was instrumental in bringing Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and others to the region. He’s currently the CEO of Graphic India, the creators of 18 Days, alongside Grant Morrison. He’s one of the smartest people we know and he’s choosing comic books too, so we must be doing something right.
Nerdist: What is it about comic books that drew you in?
Sharad Devarajan: I am the ultimate fanboy, so the reality is I’ve been collecting comics for as long I could conceivably remember. I’ve literally been reading comics from the time I could first start to read. I started my life wanting to be an artist actually. Went to art school, studied art, and pretty much my whole influence had been both the amazing story-telling and the influence in my whole way of imagination and seeing the world came from comic books. I also found this amazing, creative place and playground where as they say, is like a movie without a budget. A place where any artist with a pencil and paper could level the playing field and really just take you into these amazing places of wonder, so I was hooked. I always wanted to get into comic book art or the world of comics. I remember when I was in junior high school, I tried to get an internship with Marvel comics. For whatever reason, my junior high wouldn’t allow it at the time, even though I think Marvel did allow it then, but I’ve always, always been an avid, avid fanboy. My personal collection of comics and Rolodex in my head of every book that I had read is pretty staggering, and sad in some ways [laughs], because I have rooms filled with comics that are a great source of amazing inspiration to me. I went off to college at Syracuse actually to study fine art and painting and illustration for my undergrad. I did my B.F.A. there. Focused on fine arts, focused on advertising also and design.
When I was in school, probably around my junior year, I think, I interned at DC comics and I was in heaven. This was the greatest internship in my life. Obviously, I had this huge dream of just wanting to be associated with the industry in any way, shape, or form. At that time, I had gone off to India and spent over the years, every summer, every couple years, I’d see family and relatives there. That particular summer, I spent some time in India and I saw some kids wearing Batman t-shirts- this was probably the early ’90s- I remember thinking they knew the brand for Batman and Superman yet there were no products available. They had known the brands, but they really didn’t know the backgrounds. No one knew who Bruce Wayne was, no one really understood the stories. They understood, in an abstract, they really hadn’t gotten connected to the characters certainly in a way that I had. The imports coming in were way too expensive for anyone to kind of really buy and they were very limited. Or, they were really old, remaindered copies that were lost sales copies that had been shipped off to India that were 10, 20 years old that had found a way there. That had started building an interesting base of collectors, but it hadn’t built the tipping point yet. I went back to DC comics with this vision of trying to secure all the rights to the DC comics library and become their publishing licensee for India. I figured I’d start a business right out of school and follow my passion, bringing all of DC comics out to the India market.
I remember I snuck into Paul Levitz’ office under the pretense that I had to get some papers signed. Paul allowed me in and then I just dropped this business plan that I had put together. It was basically a fine artist making a business plan, so it was a lot of work to be done back then. But I remember he didn’t kick me out of the office. He seemed very encouraging. He’s seen a lot of people go out and follow a lot of things and a lot of ideas and we ended up chatting for an hour. Though he certainly didn’t give me the rights, but he didn’t close the door in my face. I think I’ll always remember that. I’ve been friends with Paul for years and years since because I think he actually did give me a shot at the idea. Over the course of my continuing college, I didn’t give up on it. I ended up meeting with the international rights team at DC and putting together a really more formalized plan. Back then I was at a time where India and China weren’t really on the map the way they are today. Most of these publishers were looking towards Europe and “foreign” meant Canada, for the most part. It wasn’t what we see with the world today.
N: Yeah, Marvel UK was the thing.
Sharad: Exactly, exactly. By the time I’d graduated undergrad, I worked out a deal with DC Comics to essentially to take all the rights for their publishing programs and publish in local languages and really build the comic market out in India. I’d never lived in India, never seen India except for family vacations, but was born in the states. It was a true adventure. I packed my bags. We had a lot of ambition, put together- really cobbled together- friends and family and tried to create what was called an angel round back then before there were formalized angel rounds. We raised a very little bit of money, moved out to India with this dream, kind of went across the entire country at one time. It was an exciting time in my life because it was a time where there was no organized retail. There were no Barnes and Nobles or Borders or nothing certainly equivalent of that. Now, India is changing where there are organized retail and things like that. At that time, there as nothing like what we know. I went around the country and really went to thousands of Mom and Pop shops, distributors, retailers, and tried to build this distribution market. Launch comic book trucks with guys, the equivalent of ice cream trucks where people had capes and were driving around, where kids would get off school and sell comic books.
At the time, we not only then got DC comics, but were able to get Marvel comics as well. So we had the Coke and Pepsi of the industry. We were kind of publishing these things in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayam, Urdu, Punjabi. Very low price plans, equal to about 10-15 rupees each, which made them mass accessible. 27 to 30 cents by the international standards, really built at the time this focus on the youth markets, which in publishing hadn’t really been there before that, and this focus on quality international comics in the market. Just the other day, I was interviewing with an artist that we’re bringing on here at Graphic India, he said to me at the end of the interview something that was very touching to me, he said “I want to thank you.” I’d made the company Gotham Entertainment Group because of Gotham City and my fascination and passion for Batman. The comics were all under the matter of Gotham comics which were obviously because of Gotham City as well. I met a young artist who said to me, “Growing up, I read all the Gotham comics and that’s what made me want to become an artist.” Whatever seeds what we want to plant that bring on those amazing stories that were done on such an international level of quality from the best artists and writers around the world and really making them accessible in India, were planting the seed for what hopefully is now the new generation of artists and writers that had grown up in that.
To make a long story short, we probably at the time built the largest magazine publisher in India. We expanded to Singapore, Malaysia, other territories as well. We really handled almost 40-50 comics of Marvel on a monthly basis, a lot of local language production. It was a very tough business. We had immense challenges because the margins were very thin, there were no specialty stores, there were no comic book shops. We were building a comic book audience for the most part. The only way to do that was the shot-gun approach of going wide to the market but not knowing where the audience was beginning. There was nothing digital, anything like that. You had sale-return market where if you sell it, you’re getting returns back. Advertising was we were hoping where it’d really pick up, but you know, we were kind of trying to convince advertisers to really focus on the youth market and focus on not television which was in that space.
There were a lot of uphill battles we were fighting and (it was a) very challenging business, but also very fun in many ways. I woke up one day thinking I was binging the best of the West to the East. It was the East going to the West. It was Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh. It was Hero and House of Flying Daggers. It was 30% of all American programming at that time was being dominated by Japanese anime where you had this wave where it wasn’t Japanese kids making Pokemon “Pokemon,” it was every kid. There was this huge kind of reversal, where Korea, China, Japan- really led by Japan- where they were infusing this whole huge paradigm where they were bringing culture to this world, and I felt that India was comparably in the stone ages.
While we had a very driving Bollywood industry, we had not really cultivated this youth market to take on the world in the same way that we saw these other markets doing and really build the character entertainment industry. I went around the world, because I was an artist, I had some familiarity with finding amazing talent and bringing them together. We brought together people who were architects, temple painters, street painters, guys from advertising, just all different, around the country, and pulled them into this studio. We didn’t pay them much, and we just said “Look, all we can do is collectively come together and change the perception of India from outsourcer to source. How do we find our own voice? How do we really do something different? Let’s just experiment. Let’s have some fun. Throw some paint against the walls.” We had people speaking different languages, people from different backgrounds, but it was just like these guys were just immensely pushing the boundaries. We wanted to bring people that, though they may not have had all the technical skills in the world, felt that they had this great creativity. This raw kind of way of seeing the world. We’re looking for artists and not technicians, as we always like to say. There was a lot of outsourcing, for a time, for guys who were great at coloring, but had not really figured out how to think outside the box, really take risks. So this was a great time as well. A lot of the great artists that are still with us today, a lot of the artists who had gone on and become hugely successful, really got their start in this little incubator, this little ecosystem we created which was all these guys coming together trying just trying to break the mold…
N: Did you find that being a creatively driven person allowed you to see other opportunities, whereas if you had gone to school for business you may have not have picked up on them?
Sharad: It’s fascinating you say that. One of the things I’ve had as a good fortune in the last four, five years of my life has been to be a professor as well. I’m a professor at Columbia Business School and I teach media arts entrepreneurship. I also teach off and on, it’s been a number of years since last, to some of the painting students at Syracuse University where I went for my undergrad. I did my masters at Columbia Business School while I was running the company. Basically, it comes back to two things. I studied advertising in school because one of the things, my father was a first generation. Came from India, really came with nothing and climbed up and worked through blood, sweat, tears, and saw through him, through relentless hard work and the great immigrant story that anyone can become anything. I saw that quality first hand. All it takes is passion and will and drive and a dedication to be able to kind of make something happen out of your life. He always really wanted me- although he appreciated my creative side, more than most Indian parents I think who grew up in the states would- he definitely didn’t have any desire for me to be an engineer or a programmer or any of that. He was very supportive of my creative passions, but he did also saw the advertising side and other ways to channel that creativity into some commercial industry. He’s part of the reason why I studied it as an undergrad.
When I did my MBA at Columbia, partly because I made a promise to him that I’d pursue that side of my brain as well, but when I teach the entrepreneurship class at Columbia and I see the painting students at Syracuse, they’re actually quite the same. I don’t see the disconnect as much as people would like. I think we people put ourselves in boxes often. We try to paint ourselves in boxes and I think that the best thing is that we should never be an MBA, we should never be a painter. All these things are tools in our tool chest to support us, but they should never define us. What I find with most of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the guys who are really thinking disruptively, kind of creating the Facebooks of the world, the next startups out of a garage, they think a lot like the artists do. They think a lot like the creator do. They’re anarchists. They want to do something just for the sake of seeing and disrupting the way things are. They kind of have an innate desire to kind of change the machine. I look at the company that I’m building, and I’m looking at this business I’m putting together as my art. In the same way, I’m seeing many entrepreneurs have the same exact qualities that artists do, which is come from with ambiguity. Thinking outside the box, taking risks, trying push a certain level of creative where they don’t see any of the challenges in front of them as problems. They see them as opportunities and I think that quality- you have a lot of illustrators and authors that look at life as a jotted, process-oriented way and you have a lot of people who look at it as an artistic, creative way. So I think it’s really a mindset rather than whether someone creates an artistic background or a business background. I think entrepreneurship in many ways is very allegorical and very paralleled to the artistic journey of creating something out of nothing and bringing together resources, tools, mission, pulling people, and kind of allowing that passion to come together.
N: You’re not only creating opportunity for yourself but a lot of people are being able to share in what you’re building. Is that something that is conscious in your mind?
Sharad: It’s one of those things. I’ve had a lot of interesting roads and bumps and challenges in the journey that we’ve been on, but it’s been an amazing ride. I’ve always loved what I’ve done. I always wake up and say “I would pay someone to do what I do.” The fact that I’m getting paid to do what I do is even better. I think that the main thing I try to tell my students, and what I hope to instill in a company culture that we’re building, is that: what’s your passion? If you don’t love what you do, you’re not doing the company, yourself, you’re not doing the world any favors. I recognize that we all got to pay the bills, we all got to find a way to make a living. At the end of the day, people work don’t work for money. I think money is a means to an end, but it shouldn’t be the end. Ultimately, we have to work for something greater than that. We have to get up in the morning, to solve something, to feel inspired by something.
I’m hopeful; I truly believe that the people we have working with us at Graphic India are people that really want to redefine how people see character work from India in the world. We want to really create character stories that are enduring and captivate the imaginations of people worldwide and take people into a place of wonder but do something in India that hasn’t been done before. So that’s what I think gets us up in the morning and what gets people very passionate. We’re trying to surround ourselves by that same type of ecosystem. I do think that the whole idea that we’ve created and trained artists and writers who are amazingly self sufficient, going out there now are now recruited by people with companies. A lot of these guys can have their pick of jobs coming their way every day of the week. And I remember when we got started people used to say “If India could do it, they would have done it already”. So there’s always a negativity that comes in when you’re trying to do something new and now we are proving. Those artists now have fan bases around the world in many cases whether it’s Giman Kang or a Cage thing or Shaman Patel… I mean, these guys have gone up and really created something for themselves out of the opportunity we gave them. But they took that opportunity and ran with it and that’s what was great. These were all people that didn’t have anything handed to them on a silver platter. They rolled up their sleeves and they worked hard to make it happen.
N: For a while there you were figuring out ways to channel comics and western media into India and really foster that culture and community. Then a shift happened to where you are now sharing with the world Indian culture and Eastern culture with the west. How do feel about that progression from West-dominated conversation to a dialogue?
Sharad: It’s a perfect way to put it! It’s a dialogue and a synthesis. One of the things I find fascinating is you’re right; I started my career bringing the best of the west to the east. And then we did this project back with Marvel back in 2004, which was reinventing Spider-Man as an Indian boy, so Peter Parker became Pavitr Prabhakar. Bouncing off rickshaws, living in Mumbai, celebrating Diwali and this was what we called a transcreation instead of a translation. Where we allowed these Indian artists and writers to take the essence of Spider-Man but really globalize it and make it local, make it racial. And it was a huge success out here in India and a huge success in the media as well, which got picked up globally as a story because I think people were just fascinated by this concept of reverse globalization; taking that idea of “With great power comes great responsibility,” but infusing that into a new canvas and lens here in India. Of course we’ve seen that a lot now of iterations of things very similar to that over the last decade. But in 2003/2004m it was a very innovative thing in India and it also showcased a lot of the Indian creativity.
For the first time, we had a lot of people around India talking about how Indian artists were working on the Spider-Man: India project. And seeing the art and seeing the quality of it kicked off a little bit of a spark. But the one thing I learned from that was the real value in the long run though, if we were going to build a company, was ultimately while we were publishing a license from Marvel and DC, we respected the risks that they took and they were amazing partners, but we were always somewhat limited in how we could take those properties into so many other areas or really build beyond publishing. Of course, rightfully so, because we didn’t have those rights, so I realized that owning and creating and channeling creativity of these Indian artists to create properties that we could turn into films, games, animation. Build beyond that first incubator. I always thought what Marvel did exceptionally well was to use publishing as its R & D laboratory, as a place where people could take great risks and tell great stories and ultimately, from there, maybe find ways to take those stories to other media in other ways to reach larger audiences, so could we do something similar? So then we obviously changing our business model, so we stopped being a licensee of Marvel and DC and started focusing on creating our own content, our own characters, our own stories; which has always been a guiding mission of my life and has taken a bunch of deviations but now come full circle with Graphic India.
The big challenge that we had was that at the time when we were originally trying to come up with Indian characters and superheroes back in 2005, the Indian market wasn’t really ready for it. Physical distribution, as I mentioned, was a challenge. We were still coming into our own with the youth market and other things that were starting to emerge. All of that has really changed now, and the biggest thing that’s changed is digital.
To step back to answer your larger question, what I think has happened is there are two things I would say, from a business academic standpoint, that are truths in the media world that we are seeing today. One is that because of technology and globalization, either one of them would have radically transformed everything we known about media. But the fact that both have happened and are feeding off each other exponentially at the same time is completely throwing out the rulebook. And these two truths that have emerged because of technology is that everybody wants to be in everyone’s business and I think you have this real push of what everyone is calling “transmedia”. And I think it’s still being defined but basically most major media companies are trying to essentially trying to move around and be in everyone’s business. So film guys are looking in games. Game guys are looking in television. Guys who are in television are looking online. Everyone is sort of moving around in everyone else’s sandbox and playing into different ways to bring their properties there, different ways to monetize and develop revenues there. So the truth one is, everyone wants to be in everyone’s business.
Truth two is, everyone wants to be in everyone’s country. So you’ve got a real global media grab. Whether it’s a Reliance buying into Dreamworks, Disney buying into UTV, around the world people are making investments and acquisitions into everyone else’s territories. As a result of that you have a very different kind of board structures. The people making decisions are becoming very global. Different best practices are being shared across the world, whether it’s the Japanese way of crating character entertainment, which is very different from the Indian way or the American way. As all of these companies start investing in each other they start sharing these ideas, sharing these different ways of thinking. So the center of both of those truths is that it’s all about IP. It’s all about intellectual property at the end of the day. The value of libraries of IP I think are going to become exponentially more valuable as we see the next five to ten years emerge, provided that the IP is focused on having the ability of being multi-platform and capture multiple revenue steams and have the ability to essentially touch multiple markets and reach audiences in multiple ways. I think more and more of what we see, and what I love about the content that I’ve always been passionate about in comic books and the genres I live in, is that it doesn’t matter about race, religion or culture. Wherever you are in the world you can experience an Avatar, a Transformers, a Harry Potter, a Hunger Games, a Spider-Man, a Batman, a Superman. And you’re taken into a place of wonder that touched people and connects with people no matter where they are. So I think stories and concepts and character and the world we live in has more and more intrinsic value in the world the way it’s going.
That’s one basic thing we look at as our overarching macro look at the world media over the next five years. And certainly I think every two years you’re going to see disruptions there. The second thing I’d say is that we look at the social zeitgeist. Which is what I think Stan did really well in his generation. He captured the social zeitgeist with his heroes of the superhero revolution that was allegorical to the atomic age, to the Cold War, to the Civil Rights movement. Everything from Spider-Man to X-Men to Daredevil, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, radiation was at the core of it. The fears and unknown of radiation but also the allegorical of the civil rights movement, and Malcolm X/Martin Luther King, Separatism/Inclusion, Magneto/Professor X. You had a lot of that happening as well. Whether conscious or unconscious that pervaded itself into the storytelling of its time and it caught on because it dealt with these larger fears, hopes and discussions that were taking place. I think you can look at Man vs. Science as being the prevailing theme that existed in Stan’s world in the 60’s. And I think that in Japan it was Man vs. Industry or Man vs. Nature where it was the Japanese balance with the industrial age that led to Akira, Godzilla, all of these great anime like Princess Mononoke that were allegorical to that loss of balance with nature and this industrial age unbalancing that society.
We look at two things, what is India’s story and what is the global story. And I think the global story of our generation is the story of globalization. It’s the story that kids today don’t just learn about world history in textbooks. They have friends around the world in Facebook and they’re sitting in a world where they’re exposed to ideas in light speed that are coming from east and west and everywhere in-between. You have a generation where the kids who grew up on Pokemon are not the same as the kids who grew up on Scooby-Doo. They’re much more engaged with the world and seeing the world in a different way. So I think that the story of globalization, what does it mean? Does it mean we all have McDonalds on every street corner? Does it lead to homogeneity, which I think has led to some of these fears particularly some of the fears that are engaged with a lot of the back and forth of isolationism that starts to emerge from this. Or does it lead to spontaneous evolution? And our belief is that not since Alexander the Great opened up the spice trade have we seen so much globalization so fast and it’s all going to lead to a spontaneous evolution. And if we can empower that dialogue, empower that creativity and empower that exchange of ideas we can be the catalyst for that global decision. So bringing in Grant Morrison to work with Indian creators on a ten thousand year old ancient eastern myth, or Stan Lee to create the first Indian superhero for the Indian market, creating an Iron Man suit that activates the Chakras of the body, those are ideas that we feel bring creators together, bring ideas together and try to synthesis some kind of new dialogue. And who knows what will happen as a result of it, but we want to take the risk of at least opening the floodgates. That’s a great rant, I’m so sorry I realized you asked one question and that’s what you got.
N: What’s the lasting impression you’d like to leave on comics?
Sharad: I think that’s a very profound question, which I wish I had such a defining profound answer. I mean look, the life mission I have is I recognize many different things I’d like to do in my life but I think that the thing I’m really most passionate about is global dialogue through great storytelling. Creating and helping to create the modern myths of out generation but I think the dialogue of this generation, as I said before, is the globalization and the interexchange of ideas from East and West and how those ideas can form new ideas and new thoughts. I think the best way to do that is through great stories and great storytellers. So Graphic India is the culmination of what I hope is going to be a lifelong pursuit that I’ve always had which is, in the early part of my life, was bringing western comics to the east, in the middle part of my life, bringing eastern comics out to the west and now trying to synthesis both to bring east and west together in a way that we can share ideas, thoughts and creativity and hopefully synthesize that creativity into some great enduring stories and characters.
N: You’re also bridging the gap of finding readers who aren’t traditionally into comics. Graphic Elvis was probably a very deft business move but it was also very interesting to see that kind of thing done with such a global name. Why didn’t someone do that before?
Sharad: Thanks, that was an awesome project to work on and the fact that there was such authenticity because Elvis was such a comic fan. He Marveled himself with capes and so much of his wardrobe was modeled after Captain Marvel and had a personal affinity that comics were such a profound influence on everything he became, so the authenticity also came through. But it was awesome that the estate allowed us to see a lot of his personal writings that the world had never seen before and publish it in that book and give it to artists and writers to create stories around. So it was an awesome project and just a lot of fun to work on. I think what we like to do is try to do stuff that is a little different and try and take some risk. And sometimes that fail and sometimes they succeed but it keeps us more engaged and it’s a lot more fun to try those things, at least from out point of view.