From Steel Claw to ‘Irumbukayi Mayavi’ — the history of Malayalam comics in reel

Abdul Hameed, a retired cop who inspired a comic book hero — Inspector Prakash — of the 1970s, was among the people filmmaker Tony Davis and MBS student Sreeram KV spoke to, for their eight-part Malayalam docu-series Kadha Vara Kadhakal.

Other sources include comic collectors across Kerala and elsewhere, single copies of comic books that have ceased publication, creators with fading memories, communities of comic aficionados on social media and publishers.The series traces the history of Malayalam comics and comic books from the 1970s till now, two episodes of which are already out on YouTube.

Tony and Sreeram see this project as an archive and open source of information on the topic, which is largely undocumented and scattered. The narrative follows the story of how they joined the dots, filled gaps in the history of Malayalam comics and collated information that gives insight into the pop culture of the period.

From left, Tony Davis with comic enthusiast Rajesh G Nair, Narayan Radhakrishnan, Sreeram with Kannadi Vishwanathan and his wife 

“We cannot claim all the credit for this work. We have had inputs from comic collector Narayan Radhakrishnan who guided us in the right direction,” says Tony, who had set up Kerala’s first comic book library in Kochi. Meeting collector Arun Prasad in Bengaluru, when he was in town to attend Comic Con (2016), fuelled his interest in the topic.

Between that and the library, the idea of a documentary took root. Watching Celluloid Man (the film, by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur,based on film archivist and founder of the National Film Archives, PK Nair) changed his perspective on collection and preservation and strengthened his resolve..

Meeting Thiruvananthapuram-based lawyer Radhakrishnan and learning more about CID Moosa, a comic book published in the mid-1970s, piqued their curiosity. CID Moosa is also the name of popular Malayalam film, most people would be unaware of the original ‘CID Moosa’ (online). The first step was A five-hour long discussion with Radhakrishnan which gave them a staggering amount of information about the history of Malayalam comics.

The search for information led them to collectors across Kerala — from Thiruvananthapuram to Irinjalakuda (Vineeth Abraham) to Calicut (Aroon Kalandy). “Unfortunately, some of the original content creators are not alive and those who are still alive have failing memory ,” Tony says. Among the high points of their quest is meeting artist Mohandas who created the iconic character Mayavi and artist Baby, the creator of Dinkan.

Filming started in July 2019, and by the time lockdown was announced in March 2020, they had completed interviews with most sources. With time at hand, Tony got down to the job of going through the footage and editing each episode. “The deeper we dug into the subject, the more information we found. We are planning another season,” he says. Previously, he had assisted late director Rajesh Pillai on films such as Mili and the Hindi remake of Traffic.

The evolution

Although Malayalam comic strips were being published in dailies and magazines, comic books were not.

One of the first action-based Malayalam comics with a Malayali ‘superhero’ was CID Moosa by Kannadi Vishwanathan, a tailor, who is also credited with Flight 731 and Irumbukayi Mayavi. Radhakrishnan had tracked Vishwanathan in Palakkad earlier, and learnt that Flight 731 (originally a Barracuda Adventure) and Irumbukayi Mayavi were translations from Tamil. The English original of Irumbukayi Mayavi was called Steel Claw.

Until then the tone of Malayalam comics was light and humourous such as in Bobanum Mollyum and Pachuvum-Kovalanum. CID Moosa was perhaps the first ‘action’ comic. Radhakrishnan’s inputs provide insight into comics and his experience of tracking them and their creators.

The documentary is laden with trivia: the first film-inspired comic in Malayalam was CID Nazir ( based on yesteryear superstar, Prem Nazir). There was even a CID Rekha comic book, with a crime-busting woman as lead character.

The docu-series begins in Palakkad with nonagenarian Vishwanathan, and will wrap up, with contemporary creators such as Kokaachi (Tina and Pratheek Thomas), Appupen, and Joshiy Benedict among others. Later episodes map the trajectory Malayalam comic books through — superhero comics such as Phantom and Mandrake, original comic books, iconic (strips)ones such as Toms’ Bobanum-Mollyum, G Aravindan’s Valiya Lokamvum Cheriya Manushyarum, popular children’s magazines of the 1990s and 2000s and collectors of comic books.

The series, made on a shoestring budget, has been funded entirely by Tony and Sreeram. Some interviews would also be released on their YouTube channel. The Since they have a huge amount of information, the plan is to later release some interviews in their entirety on their YouTube channel. “The attempt is to keep the episodes coming out on time and complete this season by December,” Tony adds.

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