Dhaka, Bangladesh - In Bangladesh, where four out of ten people are illiterate and the annual per capita income is only about $1,000, spending money on comic books has never been a high priority.
But that has changed over the past three years, as a growing number of Bangladeshis are buying and reading English and Bengali comic books.
Twenty-four-year-old Farhan Mahmud Akash, a business student at a private university in Dhaka, says he can now buy the latest issues of Batman or Hawkeye in the Bangladeshi capital just a few weeks after they are released in North America. In the past, Akash had bought second-hand comics from used book stores. "Still, I could not follow my favourite titles regularly," he said. "Also, most of these issues were from the eighties or nineties."
The situation for readers like Mahmud changed rapidly after stores began importing comics from top Western publishers - like DC, Marvel, Icon, and Vertigo - and sellling them in Dhaka.
Bangladesh also now has two comic publishers of its own, which together sell 10 titles. The burgeoning demand has been facilitated by the release in recent years of several Hollywood movies featuring Marvel and DC superheroes. Meanwhile, social media and the internet have allowed Bangladesh's publishers to more easily reach out to their target audience.
Growing reader base
Opening a shop selling only comics and paraphernalia was a risky venture for AKM Alamgir Khan, who goes by the nickname "Jamil". He's the sole proprietor of Jamil's Comics and Collectables, which launched in Dhaka's upscale Banani area in 2010.
"I was doubtful about making profit, as comics culture had not taken off in Bangladesh 'til then," said Khan. Importers deemed it inadvisable to ship in expensive comic books, but Khan, a die-hard comic book collector himself, went forth with the venture and ordered a stock of back issues. "The first few months were tough due to low sales. But the reader base grew rapidly with time," he said.
During the eighties, there was little scope for connecting with your target segment. But right now, through social media and the internet, we can reach out to our young readers very easily.
Khan took another leap of faith in 2011 when he decided to participate in DC Comics' "New 52" project, in which all its major series were relaunched. "I wanted to see whether my readers are willing to buy latest issues of their favourite comic titles, a few weeks after their release in US," he said. It was a risky proposition, since the cover prices for most of the issues are between $3 to $4.
"For example, I had initially ordered 10 copies of Batman by Scott Snyder. To my surprise, all the copies sold out within three weeks. Soon, I reordered for more from DC distributors and these issues sold out as well!" he said.
The store's success has encouraged others to open up superhero-themed restaurants and stores selling T-shirts, posters, watches and other memorabilia. "Big-budget superhero movies from Hollywood were also released in Dhaka coincidentally around the same time, catalysing the growth of this culture," said Faizul Khan Tanim, a 37-year-old advertising professional and comics collector.
The growing demand encouraged Mehedi Haque, a cartoonist at Unmad, Bangladesh's longest-running satire magazine, to launch Dhaka Comics this February. "'Til now, Dhaka Comics has released eight different titles in Bengali language," said Haque. With prices ranging between 50 and 120 takas ($0.65 to $1.50), Haque said the company is selling 600 comics per month - up from 300 a month when it launched. The comic books' genres include mystery, horror, fantasy, science-fiction, comedy and more.
"Earlier, comics publishers could not survive in Bangladesh, as during the eighties, there was little scope for connecting with your target segment," said Haque. "But right now, through social media and the internet, we can reach out to our young readers very easily."
The revenue is satisfactory compared to the fate of Kalpadoot and Shuchipatra, two Bangladeshi comic publishers founded in the 1990s. Both had shut down within months of launching due to low sales.
Comics' growing popularity in Bangladesh may also be the result of a snowball effect. "The comics community is growing larger by the day in Bangladesh, and some just want to be a part of this community," said Khan. He explained that many new readers are coming to his store after seeing their friends reading comics.
As a comic-crazy community gradually formed in Bangladesh, Saadi Habib Rahman and Abu Yousuf - both owners of stores selling action figures and accessories in Dhaka - planned to organise a comic convention in Dhaka.
The first-ever "Dhaka Comicon" materialised at a restaurant in January this year. It was attended by more than 10,000 fans who shrugged off a cold wave then. Besides "cosplays", in which participants dress up and pretend to be a character from a comic book or pop culture, the two-day event also featured stalls selling T-shirts, comic books and collectibles.
Following the success of the first convention, "Dhaka Comicon 2013" was held at a bigger venue this November and drew 16,000 people, according to organiser Saadi Habib Rahman. University student Muhammad Mustafa Monowar said he had to queue for one and a half hours before he could enter the convention.
One week later, the "Unmad-JCC Comic Convention" was held in Dhaka, which Khan said attracted 12,000 people. Jamil's Comics and Collectables gave away more than 22,000 comics at the convention to promote comic culture, he said.
Motivated by the success of these conventions, the organisers are planning more events as soon as next summer. Meanwhile, Haque said his label plans to release its ninth title next month.