CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The artwork in the comic books would look familiar to any comic book fan. A well-muscled, green-skinned man and a Wonder Woman-type character square off against several figures with the faces of humans and bodies of snakes. There are explosions, a superhero climbing up the outside of a building and another breathing what appears to be green fire.
The Undergraduate Library has what is believed to be the largest collection of Indian comics in North America.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
The comic book - written in Hindi and published by Raj Comics - is one of about 1,000 Indian comic books in the University of Illinois library system. South Asian Studies librarian Mara Thacker began collecting the comics for the University of Illinois in 2012, and its libraries now have what she believes is the largest collection of Indian comics in North America.
"We're the only collection like this. We're the only ones buying at this level of comprehensiveness," Thacker said.
The comic book collection is a collaborative project between the International and Area Studies Library and the Undergraduate Library. Thacker started the collection after attending a workshop of the Committee on South Asian Libraries and Documentation, of which she is a member. One of the goals of the organization is for each member library to create its own area of specialization that will benefit a national collection of material and not duplicate another collection.
Thacker chose Indian comics because the Undergraduate Library already had a graphic novel collection, and it was beginning to add foreign-language comics. And, she added, "we already had a pretty good Indian film collection, so we had a good start on Indian pop culture material. Comics seemed really doable, and nobody was doing it."
Thacker herself has a particular interest in India, and in pop culture and visual culture.
"You can learn a lot about a culture or group of people from its pop culture products. And I love the art" in the comic books, she said. "Some of it is really stunning."
The collection includes comics from India's most famous comic publisher, Amar Chitra Katha. Thacker said ACK's comics tell stories from Hindu mythology or Indian folk tales.
"The focus is really a celebration of Indian culture," she said.
The U. of I. also has comics from publishers such as Raj Comics, Vimanika Comics, Holy Cow Entertainment and Pop Cracker. Some feature stories and artwork in the tradition of Marvel Comics, with lots of superheroes, and others reflect Indian folk art themes.
"There are some superhero comics that would be very familiar to an American audience, although they are put in an Indian context," Thacker said.
Most of the comics are in English or Hindi, although there are some in Bengali and a few other South Asian languages.
"With graphics to supplement the text and the easier language that is used, maybe some language learning students might like to use them," Thacker said, adding that reading the comics has helped her to practice Hindi.
Thacker believes scholars in various areas will want to use the comics - for example, religious studies scholars might be interested in comics that retell religious myths. They'll also be available to the local South Asian population to share stories with children.
Thacker works with the Library of Congress and two agencies to get new titles. She is now focusing on finding old and rare comics, as well as acquiring comic books from Bangladesh.
"I'm really excited to see what's available in Bangladesh," she said, adding the U. of I. library system could be one of the first in North America to have comics from Bangladesh.
Most of the comics are in the Undergraduate Library, and a few that are rare or in fragile condition are in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.