Phantom of the Comics: Vineeth Abraham

It is a Sunday morning in Delhi, and there’s only one place to catch Vineeth Abraham (1977): Daryaganj, home to one of India’s largest second-hand book markets. Vineeth has been visiting the weekly market every Sunday since he arrived in Delhi, in 1989.

Daryaganj market for second-hand booksOn Sunday, Vineeth Abraham is at his Vineeth picking up books and comics - for himself and others
I first heard of him four years ago when Rajiv Varghese (1977) told me of a Delhi-based batchmate who maintained a huge collection of books and comics. In July 2007, I contacted Vineeth for this blogpost and he suggested that we meet at Daryaganj.

The first Indrajal comic“I am a great western fan and have currently got a collection of 3,700 odd westerns, almost 90% of them purchased from Daryaganj,” Vineeth wrote in an e-group four years ago. His other envious collection is of comics, which includes the first Indrajal comic: The Phantom’s Belt, published in 1964.

In January 2002, when Vineeth was invited to contribute to Outlook magazine’s Special Issue for Schools, he wrote an article ‘Thought Balloons’, where he described how comics grew on him:

It was Phantom who pulled me into the world of comics when I was seven. But it was only at the age of 15, when I read the Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo, that I began noticing new facets of comic books. They now had more complex characterisation and narratives. The old good-against-evil storyline had changed now and the whiter than white hero had begun to acquire shades of grey. Batman now began to show psychotic traits. The Incredible Spiderman was a super hero all right, but he also was an insecure, nervous and even neurotic teenager who I could totally identify with…Comic creators like Walt Kelly in Pogo and Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury were producing scathing satirical evaluation of political climate of the day.

Vineeth and a seller share a joke.At Daryaganj, as Vineeth moves from one bookseller to the next, it is clear that he is known in these parts. “Yes, when they get a ‘new’ old comic, they inform me on the phone,” Vineeth says. There are buyers and there are buyers.

Today, he has picked up two June and School Friend comics, a 1968 edition of The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, seven westerns, and four other books. For just Rs 107.

Not all the booty is for his collection; some of it is for book-loving friends he has met in e-groups. Vineeth is active in international e-groups and bulletin boards on comics and westerns, where fans converge to share story summaries, upload cover scans, clarify one another’s queries, and occasionally bump into the artists and creators of the comics. When members ask for books and information, Vineeth procures them to the best of his ability. “Without Vineeth’s help this whole web site would not exist and the joys of Indian comics would not be open to us all!,” writes Terry Hooper-Scharf of indopakbangcomic. Elsewhere on the web, Vineeth is thanked for his “amazing efforts” in preparing a publishing history in India of the Phantom, or for helping to compile a list of Indrajal’s Mandrakes.

Seeing is believing. So, we head for his flat in west Delhi.

Vineeth with a part of his collection in Delhi
Cartons of comics and shelves of books touch the ceiling. I wish to see the first Indrajal comic and he fishes it out for me in less than five minutes. In the process, out come a few others–Sherlock Holmes comics, Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which won the Pulitzer), the Pogo collection We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us (a famous quotation picked up by environmentalists), and Ompa-pa (who makes cameo appearances in Asterix but has a series of his own by creators Goscinny and Uderzo).

In Maus, Spiegelman depicted Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. In the world of comics, which character does Vineeth think is closest to a Loyolite? He replies, “Phantom.” What??? I know that Vineeth is a big ‘phan’ (that’s how Phantom fans call themselves), and that he lurks among the phans as Patrolman (his chosen avatar in the e-club), but I can’t hide my surprise. So Vineeth explains.

“Phantom is for the whole family to read. When he shoots, it is invariably to knock off a pistol or scare somebody, not to kill. Honour, truth, goody-goody. He is not a superhero, but an ordinary man who has developed his abilities fully. He has a treasure house in a jungle but uses it for the community, not for personal gain.” After I’ve taken down all this, Vineeth adds, “Not a realistic character, too good to be true.”

Vineeth shows me the first Phantom comic in the worldEven as Vineeth preserves the older comics in plastic covers, new comics keep arriving. The white packet on the table has just come from a collector in Australia, who has sent him the 1,500th issue of Frew Comics’ Phantom. It starts with a reprint of the first-ever Phantom comic, The Singh Brotherhood (1936).

Vineeth pulls out Phantom comics from different publishers (Goldkey, Charlton, Moonstone, Indrajal, Budget) to show me how the same story appears differently when published across time and space. Phantom - published by various publishersVineeth does not buy every comic that comes his way — the year of publication, and the artist matter. Sometimes, you judge a book by its cover.

Vineeth grew up on the reprints of foreign comics, which he says are more sophisticated in art and content than the Amar Chitra Kathas that came later. That’s why, despite having a decent collection of ACKs, he is not a fan as much as his juniors might expect him to be.

Cliched, but I have to ask. Favourite author? P.G. Wodehouse. “In the sixth standard, I was reading some pulp book in the Loyola library, when vice-principal Fr C.P. Varkey came by. He asked, ‘Isn’t this your games period? What are you doing here?’. I told him that I liked to read and I was not the only one not playing.” Fr Varkey picked a book from the shelf, handed it to Vineeth and said, “Read this, if you must.” That book, Right Ho, Jeeves, introduced him to Wodehouse. More than thirty years later, Vineeth tells me, “Anything that Wodehouse writes will have takers. Even his laundry list.”

Not surprisingly, Vineeth is a mine of information on comics: Dhenkali in Phantom comics was Bengali in the original foreign editions; in the Indian version of Spiderman, you will meet Pavitr Prabhakar (Peter Parker) and Meera Jain (Mary Jane); one comic in Vineeth’s collection is going for Rs 1,500 on the web…

Ah! Any plans to sell? His collection would be worth a few thousands of dollars, right? “No, not for sale. I never bought any comic or book with that in mind. I kept on buying because I liked reading, that’s all.” Vineeth’s wife Fisal says,”In Irinjalakuda [his hometown near Thrissur], he has stocked the almirah with books, instead of clothes.”

And is there an old school magazine in the Irinjalakuda racks? “Yes,” says Vineeth, “there is a copy of the 1972 magazine, the year in which I joined Loyola.”

This 44-year old desk officer in the central government is different from most Loyolites I know. He has built expertise over decades with dedication, focus and fun. While many of us, I suspect, do this in our professional area, excel at work and earn the respect of peers, Vineeth has done it outside the cubicle. With a hobby from his school days, Vineeth Abraham has created a world of joy outside the workplace.

The holy grail is Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold, Dell comic, issued 1942. “Once I get it, I’ll probably retire on that.” It’s for sale on the web. A blog reader might gift it, I tell him. Vineeth smiles and says, “It’s selling for $10,000.”

Vineeth will pick it up from Daryaganj one day. For Rs 10.

Acknowledgement: Fred Gomez (1977) helped me get in touch with Vineeth. Joshua Newton clicked the second photo in the opening panel.

Update: A modified version of this blogpost was published in the Business Standard newspaper (subscriber login required).

43 Comments

  • Wonderful way, not just to introduce an old boy to us, but also a new world – that of comic book connoisseurs. Very well-written post.

  • Hi Ashok,
    Great to read this article on Vineeth. I myself was a very great fan of the Phantom and Mandrake series but it looks like Vineeth has taken this passion to a totally different level..I wonder whether he has collections of the Bahadur, Dick Tracy, Blondie and other series 🙂

  • Just to answer Karthik’s query, I have copies of issues from all the series you mention. Getting more and more difficult to find as time goes by, but persevere long enough and everything turns up at Daryaganj.

  • Oh, at last i see Vineeth. We have been on the phone about comics and graphic novels for long hours from my place in Hyderabad. What an enthusiast, and a long-lived one at that.

  • Ashok, Thank You very much for bringing us this wonderful story. Please have a feature like this once in a while about senior loyolites…it is really inspiring to read about old boys like Vineeth who carry on with their hobbies and passions despite the grind of daily life.

  • “With a hobby from his school days, Vineeth Abraham has created a world of joy outside the workplace” – what a refreshing way to live life! Hats off to you, Vineeth, for following your passion and sticking to it even after all these years. And again, nice writing, nice topic, Ashok…

  • Happy to see Karthik and Vineeth exchanging notes on comics here.

    Chandru, Vineeth had told me about your new venture in Hyderabad–the comics shop/website.

    I am not a fan of long blogposts. Guess one can get away with it if the topic is interesting and the story is new. There was a lot of potential to do this story in Flash (rather than just text and pics), but am technologically challenged. Anybody out there skilled in Flash?

    Deepak, Sreejesh, Senthil – glad to see that you liked the post.

    Jiby – I rely on volunteer scouts like you to find the next inspiring Loyolite. 🙂

  • I met Vineeth through the net, as he contacted me on seeing my posts on the Phantom, in a popular Australian Discussion Board called the PHANTOM PHORUM. I visited his Delhi residence and was highly impressed by his single minded dedication for novels, short stories and comics, as well as movies, which you did not mention in this blog. Over the years, especially after I was posted at Delhi, we have been in touch and have exchanged / gifted each other books / comics / film cds. Vineeth is not only a fanatical collector, he is also a thorough gentleman and a very sincere, humble human being. Wherever, our reading tastes match, we have lively discussions and pleasantries. Our wives look on and search for topics to chat on, while we talk of Phantoms and horror anthologies and classic Hollywood films. Vineeth’s single minded desire is to go back to his home state, Kerala, which puts me off thoroughly. Anyway, its his life and his choice.

  • I knew you were a bookworm then. It is amazing how you have continued and become a conosieur of books and magazines. Your analogy of a loyolite as Phantom is very appropriate as most loyolites has done that in the numerous fields of work and socially.
    Good luck to you.

    Anthony
    ABL

  • awesome. i r’ber we used comics and books as currency back in school. not sure if the school lib had them. the exchange or barter system we developed in books, esp the rare ones taught us quite a lot:
    1) economics – the rare ones were worth 2-3 other ones – demand and supply determining the price
    2) cartels and monopolies – the guys who were in the “in” crowd controlled the rare ones
    3) reading comprehension prep for CAT 😉 – a book a day in the bus journey to school was standard because the exchange was only for a day
    4) negotiation – sometimes u could get a rare one in exchange for 2 instead of 3 if u haggled well
    …and we learned some english too 🙂

    if this were a micro economy, and vineeth had been in that barter system, i guess he would have been rough on roughnecks, as the old jungle saying goes…

  • Thanks to everyone for the kind words. Like I mentioned to Ashok , if the post rekindles an interest in others to go back to their childhood days and revisit the books they loved, its purpose would have been served.

  • Hi everybody, Thanks to Ashok we get to meet Vineeth, and to learn of his single minded passion and effort at collecting comics. I can recall the old days when getting to borrow a comic bound was like (I really cant express in in words now). One never knew where to start on the bound, and used to lovingly gaze at random before getting down to specifics. Im sure that Vineeth’s collection is heading for the status of a museum before long. Continue the good work of the bard dear Ashok, Love and regards to all.

  • Sarkar – Vineeth told me about you and another friend, all three from 1977 ICSE, but from different places in India.

    Mathan – As Sarkar noted in his comment above, Vineeth frequently talks of going back to Kerala. I suggested to Vineeth that he set up a comics museum in Trivandrum, where comics can be referred in-house — a first step to develop comics culture in India, and also a tourism centre.

  • Ashok- Don’t know about Trivandrum- could maybe think of a museum in Irinjalakuda.

  • Great article and Vineeth, I hope to see you one day. I first saw your mention at Bryan Sheddon’s premier Phantom site about 7 years ago. When I met Misraji in Hyderabad earlier this year, your name came up again. Now thanks to various blogsites on Indrajal the minor and the major treasures are once again accessible for ‘Phans’. Thanks to my father and Misraji, I have a small collection of Indrajal Phantoms myself which survived many years of my neglect and most recently Hurricane Katrina.

  • Ashok: Great article. An easy way to use flash would be to slidecast (www.slideshare.net). Create a powerpoint file, a matching audio file, and upload both. Sync it on the web. 🙂

    Vineethcheta, amazing hobby. Are copyrights on all these comics still active? Scanning all of them and putting it on the net would be really nice.

    Btw I saw one of these: http://www.scribd.com/doc/37367/Virgin-Comics-Ramayan-Issue-5 in hardcopy recently. Pretty amazing stuff. Ramayan reimagined as scifi/fantasy.

  • Vishnu

    Thanks for the link to the virgin site. Yet to get my hands on a copy but it looks good. BTW copyrights on these comics are still active though there are some sites on the Net where scans are available . These sites are not legal though.

  • Good to have a glimpse of Vineeth Abraham. I have been reading his message posts on Phantom Phorums and Indo-Pak-Bang Yahoo group, and was thinking him of a late 20’s chap… but continuing a passion throughout life is a miracle… something which I am hoping to do in my life.

    Nice to be in touch with you Vineeth. thanks for Ashok for the blog…. you writing is of top class.

  • To Vineeth & Vishnu:

    No Need to pay a premium for Ramayan storyline of Virgin Comics. Gotham Comics is planning to launch it in India in the coming months, among their current 17 titles. So we could get hold of it for 25 to 30 rs…..

  • I talked to vineeth when i visited delhi about 2 years back and fixes appt with him. but unfortunately i could not meet him since i was far away from where he stays. And thus i missed seeing the huge collection of vineet. I Myself am a collector of comics , maybe 40% only of vineeth. Keep it up vineeth, as you are a gold mine of comic india

  • Although i was having a ‘ghost; introduction of vineeth through some common friend like ajay mishra and other phantom based site but it was nice to find more information about him through this article along with photos of him and his collection.
    I heartily congrats vineeth for building up such a nice collection..i want to ask him one question..thats it whether he is planning to build up a sequenced/sorted/arranged list of his collection so that one can know easily about the content of his collection.

  • Thanks to everyone for their kind comments. As to the lists of the comics I have, I do have rudimentaryu lists of all the 5000 odd comics I have in my collection.

  • Thanks vineeth for all the scans and comics provided to all phantom sites. there r many comics fans, including me, but u really has taken it to a different level. i love to be in touch with and comic fan like u.

  • Happy to see comics fans dropping by to cheer Vineeth, clarify doubts, etc. Rafiq Raja’s and Comic Guy’s sites on comics are impressive.

    Vishnu, before posting this article, I visited your creation (slideshare). Skipped it because the slides did not flow non-stop. Doubtful of pulling off a sync-ed slideshow, I played safe with the traditional written article format.

  • great article on a great collector, rather a great human being, who is always ready to help others,,,

  • is he also an umberto eco fan – has he already read the his latest book
    I am not real – but i liked the bolg – do not want to say who i am – but wanted to comment – so dont believe in the email id

  • Both the persona and the writer impressed me for their respective traits. Chill!

  • I worked with Vineeth in Adult Education Department of Shastri Bhavan, New Delhi. At that time I found him as very fond of movies specially hollywood films and also very fond of english literature. He is a very gentleman. I think he can recall me, if he can, please send your e-mail address.

  • Hi Vineeth:

    Thanks to the Internet, we got around meeting each other. Thanks a million for introducing me to the Phantom artists and appreciate what other heroes like Batman and Tarzan had to offer too. Take care, buddy!

  • Dear Vineeth,
    I am glad to have come across an Indian who collects pahntom comics. Can you please suggest ways I can find them in Mumbai.

  • Vineeth was my class mate and I can remember him telling me about a mate of our’s named Rakesh Hasija who borrowed a comic bound from him and never returned,30 years after we left school,waiting to get even with him some day.

  • Govind/ Sreekala

    Only place to get secondhand Indrajal comics are at secondhand bokshops/ pavement shops. In Delhi you could try out Daryaganj mar

  • hello vineeth
    i am a ex-loyolite like you. i can vaguely remember the name but i thought i will email you as an old friend and schoolmate. i was not necessarily a well known person in our class but i finished school in 1976. other classmates used to be sajeev k nair ,santosh sivan etc. am i able to rekindle old memories?
    if so let me know
    regards
    sivarajan