While I was reading one of the optional readings for this week, Ritu Khanduri’s “Comicology: Comic books as culture in India” I was intrigued by an incident he describes that occurred in Indian popular culture. The episode in question was the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Among the crew members to lose their lives was Indian-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla. Two years after the accident, the long-running Indian comic publisher ACK released an issue detailing Chawla’s life and achievements. Khanduri puts forward the idea that this comic had a direct impact on Chawla’s canonization as an Indian national icon.
What interests me about this story is the direct cultural impact that the comic seemed to have in solidifying Chawla’s status as a national hero. Comics in the United States haven’t had that effect, at least not for a real person. Sure, there are dozens of American national icons that come from the world of comic books, but that’s exactly the point; all of these characters are fictitious. When was the last time that an American comic book caused a real-life activist or some other figure to shoot to the center of public attention? American comics are simply too much of a fiction-oriented industry for comics about real people to gain enough readership to become a cultural icon through comics alone. America seems to lean more toward film or TV dramatizations for building awareness of national heroes. In America, comics are too often skewed toward fantasy for a biographical comic to have the kind of effect the Chawla comic did in India.