Introducing : Nagraj!
For anyone who read Indian comics, has heard of Indian comics or has seen them on A H Wheeler bookstalls in the late 80s and the early 90s if you ask which is the most prominent comic book character, you would invariably get either of the two answers – one of them would be Chacha Chaudhary, the other one ninety-nine times out of hundred would be Nagraj. His popularity pervades to non-readers, and his name has become synonymous with Raj Comics.
Nagraj swung on the scene on his snake-rope in 1986, in his debut comics – the eponymously titled ‘Nagraj’. He is introduced as a Superweapon, a mercenary who is owned and controlled (and supposedly created) by a crooked Professor Nagmani and he shows off his powers in front of a multi-national coterie of criminals comprising of Dons, Yakuza and smugglers. In a truly creative use of story-telling Professor Nagmani via exposition tells the criminals (and in effect the readers) that Nagraj is an evolving weapon and his powers will keep on increasing with age, thus giving the future writers of the comic books a lot to play with. Before the comic ends Nagmani’s effect on Nagraj is ended by a powerful Guru named Gorakhnath who realizes that Nagraj is not a criminal and is under the effect of brainwashing. Nagraj turns a good leaf and decides to use his powers for good and since he already knows via Nagmani the criminals in various countries, he decides to dedicate his life to fighting terrorism and crime across the globe. This is a brilliant setup, it introduces various villains in one go and offers the hero a video-game style level/stage with an end-boss in each country.
Before we start following Nagraj on his journey a word about his powers – Nagraj is a truly Indianised superhero. Indian mythology is replete with references to reptilian snakes, be it Sheshnaag, the Snake who holds together the entire universe and is supposed to be endless, or Vasuki – the snake used first as a churner of the sea and then as an Ornament by Lord Shiv, and in general our society has had either reverence or fear (often one leading to another) of Snakes. Other literature and art, ranging from Mahabharat to B-grade films there has been a presence of Ichchadhaari Naag (Shapeshifter Snakes). Nagraj is both a tribute/a result of this influence of snakes. His powers broadly are that his wrists sprout snakes which live in his body in a microscopic form, and like blood-cells they keep on multiplying. These snakes can be used to either directly attack an enemy or as a rope, he also has poison-breath, a poisonous bite, self-healing (since the snakes act as bloodcells), hypnotism, and in the early comics – the ability to change his appearance and size at will. He also has super strength, which means he can most of the times not use any magical powers and just punch his way through the horde of enemies.
Much of Nagraj’s early years were spent travelling around the globe, as the Hero Without A Home. He had no luggage, literally no baggage (his only possession was a trench-coat which he wore to hide his green skin) and since he was a Superhero he used his entitlement for free airplane tickets and hotel stay (small price to pay if you ask me when the user is bent on saving the world). And because the stories were set in different countries it gave the writer and the artist (the legendary Pratap Mullick) the option of exploring the mythology of myriad cultures. So we have Nagraj battling ‘Bugaku’ in Japan, blood drinking Cossacks in Russia, a villain called Tutankhamen in Egypt and a Half-Elephant/Half-Human Thodanga (who became a fan favourite in the later years) in Africa.
All these comics acted as one-shots, with Nagraj entering a new country, battling henchmen and the main crime king, befriending the girl (the comics were/are aimed for children, so befriending is all that Nagraj did) and the last panel more often than not showed him boarding a plane and leaving for the next adventure.
This template carried on for many comics until Nagraj discovered that he has a home, and although still not completely sure of his origin (since Nagmani was an unreliable narrator) he finds other Snake-people like him on an island called Naagdwip (Snake Island). There he meets his on/off girlfriend/fiancé Visarpi and Mahatma Kaldoot, who is arguably the most powerful character in Indian comics. Mahatma Kaldoot is said to be ageless, has three torsos and a never ending supply of special powers. Nagdwip becomes a quasi-home for Nagraj, changing his status from the Lone Gunman hero to one with allies, he has an interesting mix of friends from Nagdwip with Snake related powers who help him in his quests and often provide comic relief. He also becomes more rooted, solving problems more localized to our country.
Dhruv who debuted a few months after Nagraj ran parallel to him, and while Dhruv’s villains were more science-y (Using Magnetism, Sound Waves, being a Cyborg etc) Nagraj dealt with magic. More than two of his villains are certified magicians, there is the alien Shakoora and the sorceress Nagina, and his enemies were often also humanoid creatures and fantastic beasts(again showing the deep-rooted affect of mythology on Nagraj comics).
In the middle of the nineties something changed. Anupam Sinha (who was already running the mega successful Dhruv series) took over the helms of Nagraj as well. And with his coming in there were three major changes not just in Nagraj but in Indian comic books as a whole. The first was the introduction (or rather fortification) of the Arc structure. Anupam Sinha’s expansive narration couldn’t completely fit in a single comic, so he used multi-comic stories to layer and enrich his tales. There had been some two-comic issues of many heroes in the past but Anupam Sinha took it to a different level for Raj Comics. This ensured that a reader was hooked in and waited for the next comic for completion, it also gave time for the characters to breathe and develop and for the stories to move simultaneously in different timelines. Which brings me to the second major change – we finally got to know Nagraj’s true origin story, after more than half a decade of the character being around. And this was not an elseworld tale or a deliberate reimagining, this new origin story tightly tied up neatly with the first comic.
You see till that point of time even the fans believed that at some level Professor Nagmani was telling the truth, that he infused Nagraj (who had some connection with snakes) with powers and thus he could in some measure take credit for his origin. However the origin story is much more interesting than that, Nagraj is the son of a King from the early 20th Century and due to a boon/curse at his birth was born with poison and snakes in his blood. The Khajana arc set up this story as well as the backstory beautifully, and discredited Nagmani many years after the comics began.
The third change which was an all-around crowd pleaser was the increase in frequency of Two-in-One comics, which combined Nagraj and Dhruv and started happening once in an year (the first crossover ‘Nagraj Aur Super Commando Dhruv’ was not written by him and thus has a very different tonality to the comics as a whole). The team up was teased as back of the comic ads many months in advance and these comics (mostly released in summers) were sold out within a day or two of their release. And this combination (similar to The World’s Best Comics series) worked so well that on a couple of occasions Anupam Sinha snuck in a cameo of Dhruv in Nagraj centric arcs just for the fans to revel.
Nagraj’s popularity was such that in the late nineties Raj Comics attempted to produce a TV series with Sonu Sood starring as the titular character. Unfortunately due to lack of proper budget and the relatively lesser access to special effects only three episodes were produced. However if you take a poll Nagraj would rate highly in terms of the comic book hero that Indian fans want to see on the big screen.
After thirty years Nagraj endures, and will continue to do so because of the powerful backstory that has been built for the character and because of the emotional attachment that people continue to have for the breakthrough Superhero. This post is our way of saying thanks to Sanjay Gupta, Tarun Kumar Wahi , Anupam Sinha and the late and revered Pratap Mullick ji. It is also a continuation of our attempt to expose the deep and engrossing past as well as present of our comics.
All major Back issues of Nagraj are available at the Raj Comics website to act as a starter pack for you on the most successful Indian Superhero.
(Coming up Next : Holi Special – Indian comics’ Villain Shaped Comedian)