Marvel brings to you Spider-Man: India #1, a relaunch of this title with a predominantly Indian creative team. Writer Nikesh Shukla, pencils by Abhishek Malsuni, colors by Neeraj Menon, and Joe Caramagna on letters. For the uninitiated, Spider-Man India debuted in 2004 as a Spider-Man in an Indian setting within an alternate universe. The relaunch is an attempt to revisit the character and setting given that there is an animated movie, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse in theatres that also includes this Spider-Man, amongst other notable multiversal spider characters.
The task for the creative team is challenging. Of late, Spider titles have been getting mixed responses from readers, Spider-Man India isn’t particularly sticky in the readers’ memories as compared to other alternatives like Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, or Spider-Punk. The design of the comic book version of Spider-Man India differs significantly from the movie version. If the publisher anticipates that recognition from the movie will automatically generate hype or boost sales for this comic book title, it may be setting unrealistic expectations. Yet, there is a section of the audience that is hungry to see Indian representation and if that can be tapped into, fandom from a billion people can translate to great success.
Sadly, this issue of Spider-Man: India fails incredibly and spectacularly. The story can be split into two parts, the cold opening where Spider-Man India, Pavitr, teams up with Miles and Peter to stop Mysterio, and the second part where he is involved in the origin story for a villain. The first part opens with Pavitr stopping for a samosa when Miles interrupts and seeks him to fight Mysterio. Mysterio has taken on new powers where now he can manifest several heads and hands, akin to tales of Hindu Gods/Rakshasas. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and trope-heavy, but it’s something. The action is interrupted and Mysterio is defeated off-panel. Why wouldn’t you show how Pavitr is uniquely capable of dealing with this threat and why Miles and Peter needed his help? It almost felt like Shukla and the editors were in a hurry to get to their next name-dropping scene instead of giving the hero a chance to shine.
The Spider trio then have a meal at a restaurant, where they discuss dosas for no reason, and they just casually drop that Mysterio’s powers were due to a magical Gada (mace). Have there been magical Gadas in Indian mythology? Nope. There have been mythological heroes that wielded them but no magical ones. There are mythical tales about how some evil Rakshasas conjured several heads/limbs, though, Why not lean on that? But this book insists on being surface level in its Indian cultural references. Even their light-hearted comment about dosas is a bit weird and kind of offensive. Peter asks if these dosas are as good as his universe, and Pavitr says they could do with a “dosa fresh chilies”. Dosa can be best described as a rice crepe and typically doesn’t have chilies. Why would you set up such a lame pun that is also incorrect? Suddenly the scene gets all somber and the trio talk about their motivations. This could be a deeper conversation, but they vaguely talk about “seva” which loosely would translate to “service to others”, but it is left at just that. Don’t expect any Swami Vivekananda references or exploration of the concept of seva from the rich Indian philosophies. Hopefully, in future issues, we see this explored through Pavitr’s experiences, though I wouldn’t count on it.
The second part of the story deals with Pavitr in his universe. We see the origin story of a popular Spider-Man villain here, without spoiling too much. However, there is no new variation added to their origin, and we don’t get much of their character. Pavitr seems without agency in this part and feels like a McGuffin. The new villain has a belief that people must be allowed to give in to their instincts to realize the full extent of their powers. This bit is clever, and it ties into the larger theme of this story presented at the start: the contest between putting oneself first versus putting Seva first. I wish this character was given more time to develop depth. Personally, I would’ve sacrificed the other subplot going on for more focus there. I must admit that there is a montage in the middle meant to convey the passage of time as Pavitr struggles to find meaning but it just comes across as an excuse to depict more stereotypes of the environment. The editor should’ve cut that.
Malsuni’s art is serviceable, but at times the anatomy is just a little out of whack, particularly the arms are drawn way too long. Menon’s colors and Caramanga’s letters are vibrant, and a departure from what I consider Marvel’s house style. This is a good thing and I only hope they go hard on this in future issues. Something about the colors and letters reminds me of the indigenous Indian comics of the 90s – a bit garish at times, but full of character. Something like a better environment design would make this a powerhouse, visually. Indian cities are being depicted in a big way in a major comic book and they should look lived-in, like the Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil books.
I wanted to like this book, but I did come in weary. A dhoti-wearing Indian Spider-Man having mystical origins and cheesy names that sound like bad puns of the original characters is in poor taste to begin with. This all-Indian creative team though could’ve been bold and either leaned hard into the Indianess or divorced themselves from the previous incarnation and retouched things. However, what they did was worse – write a story full of puns and tropes. They kept wanting to remind you of all the stereotypes that the West has had of Indians in the past – Indian food, chilies, and “Bollywood” dances (as seen in one of the montages), while bringing in none of the authenticity of an Indian experience. Stereotypes about Eastern characters and bad puns should stay in the era of Babu from Seinfeld. Overall this feels like a lean dish where some elements are outright unpalatable and don’t belong – like a dosa with chilies from another universe.