Stan Lee, the comic book legend who co-created such enduring superheroes as Spider-Man and the X-Men, shared plans this week for his latest creation: an Indian superhero named Chakra.
Lee’s POW! Entertainment has joined forces with the Cartoon Network and Graphic India—a comic book and animation company based in Bangalore—to produce Chakra: The Invincible, a 66-minute, made-for-TV movie that will premiere at the end of November on India’s Cartoon Network (available in just 34 million households, a small fraction of the country’s 1.27 billion population). The story follows Raju Rai, a boy living in Mumbai who’s given a magical body suit that activates his yogic chakras and gives him superpowers. In a statement, Lee promised that the “thrill-a-minute superhero saga” will “captivate audiences in India and around the world with his adventures.”
It’s not the world’s first superhero from the subcontinent. India has its own comic and superhero culture, with dozens of beloved characters, such as Parmanu, Super Commando Dhruva and Nagraj, who is so popular that he’s been called the Superman of India. What’s different about Chakra is that he’s the first original superhero from India marketed to a global audience: Americans can watch Chakra: The Invincible in 2014, when the movie premieres on ToonsTV, a new online channel from Rovio Entertainment, creator of the Angry Birds franchise.
Jatin Varma, the founder of Comic Con India, credits Lee’s involvement for Chakra’s splashy debut. “It certainly is a big deal,” he says. “I hope we get to see more Indian characters marketed on an international scene.”
Until recently, there’s been a noticeable lack of Indian superheroes in U.S. comics and animated series, says Phil Hampton, a comic book marketing expert. “They’ve all been minor supporting characters. Comics companies are more likely to showcase a gay superhero than one of Indian heritage,” Hampton explains. “Possibly they’ve done their research, and an Indian superhero either wouldn’t sell or they’re not confident enough that they could portray such characters accurately enough, in line with their heritage, to satisfy readers.” Back in 2004, Marvel Comics attempted to court Indian readers with a character called Pavitr Prabhakar, an Indian version of Spider-Man who wore the familiar suit as well as a dhoti and curl-toed slippers. Hampton says it lasted just four issues.
Even if the world is ready for an Indian superhero, it’s debatable whether Stan Lee is the man to do it. He has created a lot of new characters over the past decade—for TV, comic books, and direct-to-DVD—and they’ve ranged from minor flops to huge embarrassments. Remember The Condor, a skateboarder-turned-superhero? Or The Mighty 7? Or, lord help us, Stripperella, voiced by Pamela Anderson? The Governator, a planned 2012 animated series based on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political career, got only as far as a teaser-trailer before being unceremoniously dropped.
Lee’s biggest blunder, the National Hockey League’s Guardian Project, with 30 new personalized superheroes created by Lee for each NHL team, was such a monumental flop two years ago that Oxford Metrics Group, a British tech company that collaborated on the project, blamed its failure for an 80 percent drop in the company’s annual profit.
Even if Chakra were Lee’s greatest idea since inventing Iron Man, he still has an uphill battle ahead of him. T. Campbell, a veteran comic book writer, says it’s increasingly difficult to introduce new superheroes in an already oversaturated market. “You have to think past the American comic book, which is not very receptive to new ideas,” he says. “The Indian comics market is more fluid, but the market really hungry for new superhero characters is TV.” He points to SheZow, an animated series about a 12-year-old boy who transforms into a girl superhero, which premiered on the Hub channel in June. Since then, the struggling network, a joint venture of Hasbro and Discovery Communications, has seen big increases in its ratings, thanks in large part to controversy surrounding SheZow. “TV is where barriers really seem to get broken these days,” Campbell says.
That appears to be Lee’s strategy as well. Chakra was originally released as a digital comic book in April 2012, and while it got some media attention at the time, it was nothing like this week’s announcement of the forthcoming TV movie. Lee may have a master plan after all—or maybe, as he told me in a 2011 interview, he’s putting in the minimal amount of effort. “Coming up with characters is the easiest thing in the world,” he said. “People make it complicated for no reason.”
The now-90-year-old writer added: “I’m very proud of being a hack. It’s why I’ve lived as long as I have, I think.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Bloomberg Businessweek.)