Writers: Suresh Seetharaman, Sharad Devarajan, Jeevan J. Kang
Artist: Jeevan J. Kang
While manga has been in the West just long enough for it to no longer require italics as a foreign word, it wasn’t until recently that one of the two titans of comics, DC, turned its gaze abroad. In the past year, comics readers in the U.S. have been offered the “Humanoids” series of European books (including Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Metabarons, The Technopriests, and the devastating Sun of the Gun), and a line of Japanese manga called “CMX.” In addition to these translations, star artist Jim Lee, who has spent the last year living in Italy, will be overseeing the collaborative Batman: Europa, which will feature a number of European artists and a script co-written by an American and an Italian. With this deluge of international comics, it was only a matter of time before Marvel responded.
And respond they have with Spider-Man: India, a “transcreation” combining the familiar Spiderman story with, as the press material tells us, “local problems and challenges.” Here we seem to have a third creative approach: neither translation, nor collaboration. Gotham Entertainment Group, the Indian licensee for Marvel properties, has essentially retold the Spiderman story with “Pavitr Prabhakar” instead of “Peter Parker, ” and in Mumbai instead of New York City. Sushi in a McDonald’s wrapper, or in this case a curried Big Mac, comes to mind. This concept and realization raises two questions in Spider-Man: India #1: How much depth is there to the integration of the American icon and these much-ballyhooed “local problems,” and, absent a frame of reference, what are Western audiences to make of the unfamiliar elements?
A criticism sometimes leveled at “alternate reality” series such as Neil Gaiman’s 1602, or the current Powerless, is that they tend to wear thin after the novelty wears off. The pleasure of dressing Peter Parker in Elizabethan garb and calling him “Peter Parquah” is superficial and can only be sustained if there are ideas that can be explored only by placing the familiar character in new situations, settings, or time periods. Unfortunately, Spider-Man: India’s first issue is simply the retelling of an oft-told tale with exotic costumes. All of the classic characters are present but with “Indianized” names: Pavitr Prabhakar is a gifted young orphan living with his caring Uncle Bhim and Aunt Maya. Everyone at school picks on him except the beautiful and kind Meera Jain. Brooding in his office tower is the maniacal Nalin Oberoi, soon to become a hideous Green Goblin. And rather than perch atop Manhattan’s Flatiron building or the Brooklyn Bridge, Pavitr finds himself on Mumbai’s Gate of India, or the cracked ruin of a pillar. The dynamics of the story, however, are identical. When Pavitr, unable to speak to M.J., thinks to himself “Shahrukh Khan you are not” (referring to the Bollywood superstar), he might as well substitute Tom Cruise. Nothing about the problems or challenges the hero faces are in any way “local.”
The one substantial alteration to the canonized origin tale is the source of Spider-Man’s powers and the nature of his transformation. Stan Lee’s Amazing Fantasy #15 describes young Peter Parker attending a science exhibit, where he learns about “the fascinating world of atomic science.” This cold war comic is suffused with the radiation of the atomic age, and it is that radiation that ultimately causes Peter’s unusual powers. This story has already been tweaked for contemporary audiences, as Sam Raimi’s film substitutes a genetic engineering mishap more resonant in the twenty-first century. But Spider-Man: India #1 completely discards a scientific explanation in favor of a spiritual one: A mysterious and powerful old man reveals Peter’s powers to him by explaining that “evil must be balanced by another force…a being of virtue and righteousness.” Rather than an accident of atoms or genes transmitted through a spider bite, it is through a karmic event that his powers are bestowed upon him by the universe.
The problem of audience comes into play in this origin. Without a proper cultural context, how is the average Western comic-book reader to interpret these changes? India is not an alternate reality, but rather a living breathing nation of over a billion people. By publishing a translation of a native Indian comic book, Marvel could have followed DC’s lead and given its readership a window into both a real culture and the way in which that culture tells stories about itself. Instead, we are invited to see India and to “experience” Hindu beliefs, as just another way to develop the character of Spider-Man. Perhaps Spider-Man: India does represent a successful “transcreation” for the Indian audience for which it was written, but what is the point of publishing it in the U.S.? Mere novelty seems to be the unfortunate answer.
In terms of execution, Jeevan J. Kang is a capable artist and a concise story-teller—a welcome sight in the land of the six-part story arc. The low bullet score is certainly not a condemnation of his skills. But Spider-Man: India #1, for American audiences, is at best a retelling of a familiar story with little real insight, and at worst a piece of exotica condescending to the culture it represents. Marvel would do better to develop a more honest approach to bringing global culture to its domestic readership.
Pavitr Prabhakar, his uncle Bhim, and his aunt Maya have moved from their small Indian village to the city of Mumbai. Pavitr is constantly bullied by his classmates for being poor. One day, a strange old man gives Pavitr spider-like powers. He says Pavitr must confront a demon of malevolence. That demon has been awakened by an industrialist named Oberoi. Shortly after becoming Spider-Man, Pavitr passes by an attempted rape thinking it’s not his problem. That changes when his Uncle Bhim dies trying to save the girl.
This demonstrates the universal quality of Spider-Man. He really is an everyman, somebody just like us. The origin presented here perfectly captures the character’s nature and motivations. The radioactive spider has been replaced by a magic holy man, but ultimately, both are equally plausible. I don’t know enough about Indian culture to judge how well it’s represented in this comic. (I didn’t even know Bombay had changed its name to Mumbai.) This is really the origin of Spider-Man retold with different names.
And that’s about it really. There are no major changes to the character, (aside from the magic and implied connection to the universe, but JMS seems to by doing that with the real Spider-Man anyway.) The American names are substituted with Hindi sound-alikes. I wonder if any of these names could really exist. The art’s good but not exactly bold or unique.
Overall, Spider-Man: India is another retelling of Spider-Man’s origin. We’ve seen it all before. Granted it’s done well, but I don’t think it warrants all the hype.
Translating the foundations of the Spider-Man mythos to Indian culture, Marvel introduces an exciting new take on its most famous character! Spider-Man: India tells the tale of young Pavitr Prabhakar, a rural teen sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Mumbai after his parents’ death. As Pavitr adjusts to life in the capital, across town sinister forces conspire to resurrect an unholy being. Perhaps the two events are not unrelated, as a mysterious being visits Pavitr and grants him a spider’s great power. Of course, by now the reader should know what comes along with great power…
There are a couple things going on in Spider-man: India. Some work well, and some don’t. First, it’s interesting to note that the origin story in Spider-man: India is actually much more interesting than the standard version. Yes, gods coming down to grant uncanny abilities is nothing new, but Pavitr is close to a fully-developed character in just a few pages. There are complex reasons for him to feel the way he feels about school, home life, and MJ. Furthermore, his failure to prevent Uncle Bhim’s murder comes off as much less calloused than that unfeeling bastard Peter Parker. Unfortunately, as this is just about the most frequently revisited and retold story in comics, it is still too familiar, the variation is not significant enough. The similarities in the characters’ names to their mainstream Marvel Universe counterparts are particularly grating.
Jeevan J. Kang and Gotham Studios Asia put in some nice visuals for this issue, as Mumbai’s streets and locales look quite picturesque, and the Green Goblin looks like he’s ready for trouble. On human faces, though, there is somehow a lack of vitality, with characters often coming off as stiff or somehow contorted. Still, Spider-Man’s costume is terrific, and that’s something to be proud of.
Spider-man: India is valuable for its cross-cultural appeal, bringing a young-reader-friendly introduction to Indian culture through one of the world’s most recognizable icons. In future volumes, maybe X-Men: Egypt or Incredible Hulk: Cahokia, perhaps Marvel will see fit to skip over the origin story, which shows only how the hero adapts himself to the world, and instead showcase how familiar yet foreign characters can change the world.
Young Indian boy Pavitr Prabhakar has some familiar problems: a young orphan, he lives with his Aunt and Uncle Bhim in a poor village outside of Mumbai. After days of enduring bullying at his new school, Pavitr is blessed by a Spider-God (shades of JMS’ writing on Amazing Spider-Man?) with the proportional speed and strength of a spider, and through a tragic set of circumstances the boy must learn a fateful lesson: with great power comes great responsibility!
Okay, so we know the story. And as re-imaginings go, setting Spidey up in the middle of India isn’t the first idea you might think would work: but this issue shows that a few slight changes of costume, locale and character names don’t have to get in the way of providing some of the truest writing of the Spider-Man property that has been seen in recent years. Basically retelling the classic Lee/Ditko origin story (with a few concessions to the movie thrown in), writers Kang, Seetharaman and Devarajan seem to understand the essence of the character well, with the subtle changes far more pleasing than those in the Ultimate title, partly for sheer novelty value – check out those shoes! - and partly out of interest in the potential of a divinely baptized Spidey fighting Indian demons providing a whole different direction for the character.
Some things don’t quite work: I get a little tired of the Green Goblin and Mary Jane being constantly introduced so quickly and without mystery in these re-imaginings (but again, I guess we have the importance to Marvel of movie continuity to blame for that), but overall the package is a solid one. The art is well above-average, with some moments of genuine peaceful beauty evoked by the almost painterly colouring of the simple pencils, which brought to mind the kineticism of Mark Bagley’s excellent work on Ultimate Spider-Man. The “powers” scene and the chasing down of Uncle Ben’s killer all carry the requisite moments of emotional weight, with a superbly dark Spidey hanging in silhouette after he discovers Uncle Ben’s fate. There’s even time for a Stan Lee cameo too! It’s a great-looking book.
In the end, it’s difficult to say whether I’d really continue to buy this title. As with Ultimate Spider-Man, I’m too much of a regular continuity fan to really embrace a new imagining on the same level, no matter how original the concept, but as I’m not really the target market for the book then that shouldn’t bother Marvel too much. Hopefully - as Devarajan says in his endearing afterword - Indian readers really will get a kick out of Spidey represented as an Indian youth, living in Mumbai and climbing famous Indian landmarks. With more-than-capable creators apparently at the helm, the series deserves to be as huge a success in India as possible, and I hope Marvel continues to be as broad-minded about its properties in future rather than churning out another dull summer event (Avengers, anyone?) next year.
What did you think of this book?
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