Even two decades ago, the comics that the young generation of Bangladesh would follow were mostly from India, espcially its state of West Bengal, or other foreign countries. Chacha Chaudhary, Tintin, superhero comics were some of the popular comics with huge fan bases back then. But in recent years, the scenario in Bangladesh has changed. Bangladesh has now a few prominent comic publishers of its own, which publish comics both in Bangla and English. Their growing popularity has crossed national boundaries and reached readers as far as West Bengal. But this promising growth is not free of certain crises that seem to hamper the true potential of this growing industry. And the biggest difficulty, currently, the comics industry faces is in the publication and distribution.
Mr Mehedi Haque, the founding editor of Dhaka Comics sees an informal syndicate operated by a few people as the main obstacle to the distribution. With sales commission as high as 40 per cent in some cases, publishers often remain concerned about earning any revenue at all as they have to send books in dues without any assurance of getting the bill ever. Publishers can start to earn only when comic books gain popularity. Otherwise, all the effort put in publishing and distributing comics books may go in vain and the companies concerned faces huge loss. For example, facing huge losses due to low sales, Kalpadoot and Shuchipatra, two Bangladeshi comic publishers, shut down in the 1990s within months of their launching. For a small or medium publication, it is almost impossible to bear the financial losses.
While the previous generation grew up reading and watching Bengali comics from West Bengal, the current generation bears witness to our very own comics getting exported abroad, especially to West Bengal. But, there are certain limitations that pose a threat against maintaining the fanbase abroad. According to Mr Haque, the discrepant charge rate set by the government is not suitable for book business. “The government-operated postal service charge is too high, almost a thousand/kg for even India. Books are not very pricey products, but since there is no classification and all goods are labelled as 'parcels,' the postal charge is making the price too high for foreign customers,” Mr Haque explains.
The comic book publishers of Bangladesh still lack proper revenues to substantially increase the production and distribution as per the popular demand. The production cost isn’t helping them either. But what contributes to this high production cost?
Comic books demand high quality papers which are priced highly. Since publishers try to maintain a global standard with brightly coloured comics, they need good quality papers capable of holding out digital drawings. But this costs heavily, making the overall production cost go high. If books are without quality papers and reasonable prices, publishers always risk losing interest among readers. But importing good quality newsprint is so expensive that the cost almost reaches the same price as the offset paper. Such reality often puts the publishers in a handicapped situation with little hope of gaining enough revenue to expand their industry.
Comics publisher Mighty Punch Studios had faced rejections by bookstores for not meeting their too high a commission. Now Mighty Punch Studios is trying to reach readers by introducing their books in supershops. Besides, the opportunity to sell their publications on e-commerce websites like Rokomari has helped them have a niche audience.
Popular Mighty Punch Studios Titles
“We are thinking of creating English trade paperbacks of our comics and approaching Diamond (UK shops get all their comics through Diamond Comic Distributors) to see if they are willing to distribute them. We are also considering a comic reading app. India would be a good market for our comics but we have not tried to sell our comics there yet,” said Samir Asran Rahman, the CEO of the Mighty Punch Studios.
Though Mr Samir believes the price is reasonable, the hike at the end of every year makes it unpredictable. “We do use high quality papers so our costs are higher than other publishers, but I don’t feel that it is terribly expensive here. It would be nice to have even more choice for quality of papers, advanced printing techniques, etc.”
Even when faced with challenges, the comic book publishers strive to maintain international standards in terms of story and visual senses. Their sincere professionalism and dedication have been rewarded with huge support and recognition from fans and acclaimed cartoonists both at home and abroad. Also, Bangladeshi comics are now coming out of a certain age group and appealing to a wider audience. And publishers, along with striving for quality, are translating and uploading their comics on their online apps to reach global audiences. All these keep hopes high of the publishers that the local comics industry will grow even larger exceeding all the obstacles that may come their way.
Shafa Tasneem is currently a third-year student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.