GRAPHIC NOVEL REVIEW: Kampung Boy & Town Boy
It can be a bit disconcerting to discover that whole comics industries exist in previously unsuspected places. We all know about the large French-Belgian comics market, and of course the massive world of Japanese manga, but who suspected that there was a great Malaysian cartoonist?
Well, there is, and his name is Lat. He’s been working in comics since the late ‘60s, but his work has never been published in the US before. His stories first appeared weekly in the newspaper Berita Minggu when he was thirteen years old, and he was awarded the prestigious Malaysian honorific title Datuk in 1994. (Think something along the lines of “Sir” or “Lord.”) According to Wikipedia, Lat’s real name is Mohammed Nor Khalid, and much of his work seems to be political or topical cartoons for the major Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times. (The Wikipedia entry has a list of his titles, and many of them sound like compilations of previously published work.)
Kampung Boy seems to have been his first standalone graphic novel, and begins his autobiography; Town Boy continues the story from the point Kampung Boy leaves off, and brings him up nearly to the end of his schooling. Kampung Boy is laid out more like a children’s book than like comics; the art spreads across the pages, accompanied by hand-lettered text set like captions. There are no panel borders, and only the occasional word balloon. Town Boy starts off in the same style, but turns into more traditional comics for much of its length, with long stretches laid out as panels with word balloons. The difference is that the purely narrated sections – all of Kampung Boy, and the parts of Town Boy covering general information or longer stretches of time – are done in the first style, while detailed, dialogue-intensive scenes need the immediacy of balloons and borders.
Kampung Boy begins like a traditional autobiography: Lat is born on the first page. The rest of the book chronicles his life in a very rural village, or kampung, up to about the age of ten, when he is sent off to a boarding school in the town of Ipoh. The details of his life are exotic, but the rhythms of rural life, and of boyhood, are very familiar and well captured. Lat may be a Muslim boy on the other side of the world, in a region that farms rubber and mines tin, but the life of a boy in a village, falling asleep during lessons in a small school and swimming with his friends in the river, is not all that different from Mark Twain’s childhood.
Town Boy becomes a bit more exotic, because Lat (called Mat in the book, for no reason I can see) is now a teenager, living in a larger town, and interested in the strange and foreign (to him) world of Western rock music. It also focuses more on Lat/Mat’s friendships, schooling, and his appreciation for Normah, the most beautiful girl in Ipoh. But, again, he’s a boy at school in the middle of the 20th century, hanging out with his friends and hoping to do well on his exams – the universals outweigh the specifics, and make a story we can easily enter into.
Lat’s drawing style is very energetic and stylized; he creates very caricatured, idiosyncratic people and incorporates a lot of motion into his drawings. There’s something reminiscent of Don Martin or Sergio Aragones in his work, though clearly coming out of a different artistic tradition – he’s drawing funny pictures to make his readers smile and laugh, and uses much of the same visual shorthand to do so. He’s a cartoonist rather than an illustrator, and I mean that as praise; he knows how to make his drawings lively and funny. (His depiction of teenage boys’ slouching, no-hurry walk is exceptionally good.)
First Second is aiming a lot of its books at the Young Adult and library market, and Lat’s autobiographies are a natural for a young (particularly male) audience. But there’s no reason why Kampung Boy and Town Boy should be restricted to younger audiences; they’re suitable for young readers but not restricted to them. Anyone interested in humorous cartooning and coming-of-age stories should find much to enjoy in Lat’s books – so I hope First Second will publish more of them.
First Second, 2006, $16.95
First Second, 2007, $16.95