What happens when a couple of engineers from Chennai that set up a STEM laboratory in schools are locked up during the pandemic and schools start operating online? Abishek RK and Nandini Chilkam, the duo who used to teach coding to school children as a part of this startup decided that it was the perfect opportunity to revive the comic book movement.
A trip down memory lane takes us to evenings after school—flipping through Amarchitra Kathas, Asterisk & Oblix or TinTin and Saturday mornings on the comics page of the newspaper that featured Garfield or Calvin and Hobbes. What happened to these comics? “Somewhere along the way, the younger generation lost the habit of reading with the omnipresent video content these days,” says Abhishek.
That was the inspiration behind their startup—Learn with Comics. The duo and a few engineers from their previous startup began making a couple of comics centered around simple scientific concepts or topics of historic significance like the invention of the telephone. “We then sent it to some of my friends in the publishing industry to do some editing,” narrates the co-founder, “We even made a basic, average looking website to put up the comics,” he pauses with a chuckle before revealing that the process has been a constant learning curve. Very soon they onboarded a core team member to manage the website. Since then it’s been redesigned four times—adaptation was key.
Just then, a grant of 1 lakh rupees from an angel investor based in Mumbai, Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, came in as an enabler for the young startup. “With half of the amount we redesigned our website, expanded our core team and pushed out ten comics,” he resumes his narration, “We then went back to Dr. Malpani to ask him how we could repay him.” The investor’s response came as a pleasant surprise to the co-founders. He encouraged the young entrepreneurs to dream bigger and spend the rest of the money on whatever they felt fit. Furthermore, he offered to fund the organisation and its cause until they could stand on their own feet.
The start-up was now geared up with a core team of nine members and the latest technology to support them. It was time that they looked into how they could bring out the best from local talent. The Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai was their first stop. Students were handpicked to become Learn with Comics’ illustrators and provided with the tools to enable them to use their skills to create digital artwork. “There was so much untapped talent! Giving these students recognition was of great importance to us, so we ensure to add their names wherever they contribute.”
The next step was to focus on expansion in the tier-2 cities of Tamil Nadu. The entrepreneurs then onboarded student interns from the best engineering colleges in Tirunelveli and Namakkal. While they would focus on creating new content, school and tuition teachers from these districts—who are now exposed to a wide range of resources thanks to YouTube—were brought in as an advisory board to ensure the content was relevant and relatable to the students of these districts.
Although the initial focus was on getting the content out in English and Tamil, Learn with Comics also partnered with several other volunteering groups and NGOs to help translate the content to Telugu, Hindi and Kannada—rewritten to suit the local flavour.
Along the way, reviving the comic book culture not only became a great way to encourage the new generation to read more but also became a form of creative self-expression for the student interns who associated with the organisation.
As of now all of the content is available for free on the Learn with Comics website. Next on the cards is a microlearning course titled ‘Byte Sized Learning’ priced at a cost comparable to the price of a Samosa or a Puff. “You cannot expect a seventeen-year-old to pay 500 rupees on a course,” explains Abhishek, “Besides, we don’t want to burden parents with the expense of ‘just another course’. We want kids to think of this as a fun activity they want to do rather than a mundane task they have to do.”
Additionally, to encourage the habit of reading, Learn with Comics has launched two campaigns, ‘Padhe Bharat’ and “Tamizhil Padipom’. It is a hundred-day reading program where those who enroll gain access to two new comics, in all available languages, on the website every day.
Although the pandemic saw the inception of Learn with Comics, one of the biggest challenges for the 14-month-old startup has been getting in touch with schools for partnerships. “Schools have not been easy to access as they are only open on a few days and there are a lot of people waiting in line to meet the management on those days,” he sighs, “It’s a new concept. Some people were intrigued, some raised eyebrows.” Nevertheless, the entrepreneurs did not shy away in the face of hardship. With persistence, they managed to partner with fifteen schools all over India, concentrated around the tier-2 cities.
While the content has been focused around content for grades six and above, this year will see some new content tailored for the younger students. “We are currently working on content that would help kids learn English through their vernacular language.” Abhishek gives us insight into the kind of content we can expect.
Learn with Comics currently has 1005 comics (inclusive of all translated content) on diverse topics from how to make pizza to understanding decimals. “There are twenty-five crore students in the country and five educational boards,” reveals the entrepreneur stating the organisation’s goals to reach the entire student population in Tamil Nadu, the rest of India and eventually a global student-base within the next three years. The immediate aspiration is to collaborate with the Education Minister of Tamil Nadu to scale Learn with Comics to government schools.
Amidst the ocean of sixty-second multimedia content and mindless scrolling, it is evident that passionate readers are becoming an endangered species. “That’s why thirty-second reads are the best,” he chuckles, “A lot of people spend time in the restroom and that is the window we have for the conversion!”