EVERY year, tens of thousands of people throng the Lahore International Book Fair (LIBF) looking for all sorts of reading material: books for children and adults, in English and Urdu, old and new, and on every conceivable subject. Amongst these seekers is a subset in search of a type of reading material that is one of the hardest to come by in Pakistan: comic books.
The comic has been around for a long time, but in recent decades there seems to have been a global increase of interest in the medium. The comics journalist Joe Sacco maintains that the graphic novel is the only sector of the US publishing industry which is increasing in sales, with other forms of print in decline. Once generally derided as a simplistic or childish indulgence by those ignorant of what the format is capable of conveying, comics are now often used as a vehicle to express complex narratives, whether they be autobiographical, journalistic, historical, or philosophical.
During the past few years a rising number of Pakistani writers and artists have begun producing comics in both English and Urdu for local consumption. But the perennial favourites are the world-famous characters who have appeared in thousands of comics over several decades: the superheroes of publishing giants Marvel and DC, and it is the comics featuring such iconic figures as Superman and Spider-Man that tend to attract the most interest — and the highest prices.
The Pakistani quester of comics has a difficult task, however. While some bookshops such as Readings and Liberty Books had trade paperback collections on offer at this year’s LIBF (held from Feb 4-8), these tended to be expensive by most standards. Cheaper material could be found at the fair, but because most booksellers are unable to easily distinguish between children’s books and comics, the latter are often mixed with the former, requiring one to expend considerable effort in sifting through heaps of colouring books in the hope that trapped somewhere therein is a comic.
Even if one does find stray issues of an interesting storyline, acquiring the requisite missing issues is next to impossible. For completists this is often a source of irritation, but for many this is not a concern: some readers are attracted more to the art than to the story; others are happy just to get their hands on comics at all. Fortunately, a number of great comics could be found at this year’s LIBF, and assorted enthusiasts shared their finds with me.
One of them, a teacher of graphic design and long-time hunter of comics, discovered stray single issues of Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 at the Readings stall for only Rs25 each. At the nearby booth of Dogar Brothers — an Urdu Bazaar retailer of high school and college books and an improbable source for comics — he acquired a trade paperback collection of Nikolai Dante stories for Rs100.
Visiting from Karachi was Generation Books, where Sacco’s great investigative work Footnotes in Gaza could be plucked for Rs500 from an array of coffee-table books. At the same stall, I encountered an artist who was pleased to have discovered a few old Urdu comics for children published by Ferozsons many years ago. On the Liberty Books discount table I spotted War with No End, a book consisting mostly of various prose pieces related to the War on Terror, but also including Sacco’s insightful comic strip about the US presence in Iraq titled Down! Up!
And at other stalls one could spot a couple of miscellaneous volumes of the manga One Piece or Dorling Kindersley’s guides to various comic characters such as Catwoman and The Avengers. I myself was fortunate to acquire numerous works by famed writer Neil Gaiman such as the comics Marvel 1602 and The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, the novel Anansi Boys, and the illustrated filmscript, Mirrormask.
As a collector of vintage comics selling some of his stock, it was interesting to observe people’s reactions to being confronted by a dedicated display of rare comics — something commonplace at comic conventions in the UK or US, but non-existent here. Some were puzzled by the sealed, colourful items being offered; approaching the comics box from the wrong end, they would pull out the comics back to front, stare briefly at the back-page advertisements, and perplexedly return them to the box.
One visitor straightforwardly asked me what they were. Not sure how to fairly answer his question without reeling off a long monologue about the evolution of storytelling, I responded with a simple, accurate, and somewhat useless answer: “stories”. The man nodded curtly, and moments later when asked by his curious son the same question, gave a similar answer, albeit with a deprecatory tone that said: “These are just stories”.
Other observers wondered why a 25-page Spider-Man comic was being sold for Rs5,000 while another one was being sold for Rs100. Variations in value are, of course, due to many factors: age, condition, rarity, and the historical significance of the comic in question are all important considerations. But since the culture of collecting and grading is practised here by only a few, there is often bafflement at the stark price differential between two ostensibly similar comics.
There were many people, however, who immediately identified what they were looking at, ranging from older gentlemen who smiled nostalgically when recounting to me the collecting days of their youths, to internet-savvy youngsters intimately familiar with the superhero universes of Marvel and DC. And it was mostly those of a younger generation who did not balk at spending several hundred rupees on a half-century old comic; one suspects that the more attuned aficionados recognised instinctively the intrinsic value of such cultural artefacts.
Considering that comics are as diverse as any other form of expression, the offerings at this year’s LIBF may seem frustratingly paltry and not suited to every taste. Those asking me from where they could get Watchmen, for instance, left the hall disappointed. But the fact that renowned and significant comics are available here at all, and that there are those eager to read them, is something to be welcomed, and one hopes that future book fairs will see tables stacked with multiple copies of Akira and Alan Moore’s comic books.
The author is an antiquarian and a Lahore-based freelance writer.