The Thinker: Valuing Our Comics

By Oei Eng Goan on 11:35 am Jul 30, 2013
Category Columns, Opinion

Comic books have been a beloved pastime for generations. More than just entertainment, comic books cultivate positive reading habits from a young age, attracting children with their densely illustrated pages.

Reading comic books broadens a child’s knowledge, fires their imagination and enhances their creativity, not to mention prompts admiration for the heroes in the stories.

Unfortunately, the number of local comics is much smaller than the number of translated foreign ones, mostly from Japan and South Korea. The illustrations in these imported books neither reflect local traditions and values nor depict Indonesian identity, which parents often encourage their children to embrace.

This does not mean that foreign comic books are unsuitable for Indonesian children. On the contrary, “The Adventures of Tintin,” depicted by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who assumed the pen name Herge, have stolen the hearts of millions of Indonesians. The same is true with Walt Disney comics and other graphic novels from abroad.

Why are local comics, found in abundance in bookstores two or three decades ago, so rare today? Perhaps the scarcity is caused by a lack of young cartoonists in the country or a dwindling interest among illustrators in producing comics due to pay they consider incommensurate with their artistic works.

To meet children’s demands for picture stories, publishers rely on cost-effective ready-to-publish foreign comics in Indonesian rather than producing new and costly artistic creations.

Indonesia has had scores of professional comic drawers including R.A. Kosasih, S. Ardisoma, Siauw Tik Kwie, Hans Jaladara, Ganes Th., Taguan Raharjo, Delsy Syamsumar and Teguh Santosa. Their works, drawn in a realistic style, ranged from wayang tales to action and patriotic stories. Their figure drawings and landscape settings were done in detail and accuracy, proving that their works were not inferior to those of the foreign comic illustrators.

Kosasih and Ardisoma focused on wayang stories, based on the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata and Ramayana that had been adapted to Javanese and Sundanese traditions and values. Siauw presented readers with legendary Chinese warriors of the Tang Dynasty, while Taguan and Delsy recounted true stories of national heroes fighting against colonial rulers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Like Superman and Spider-Man, the superheroes in the US Action and Marvel Comics, Hans and Ganes’s protagonists, respectively Panji Tengokrak, the avenger who wears a skull mask, and Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu, the Blind Warrior From a Ghost Cave, have been made into movies.

The films, shot and released in the authoritarian New Order era, were widely welcomed because they depicted the bravery of lone fighters who defended the weak and rebelled against tyrannical power.

All the comics produced during this time were simple, but morally educated readers. They are dramatized with swords duels and hand-to-hand fights, but nevertheless emphasized the importance of perseverance, honesty and justice.

Several years ago, a prominent local publishing house produced a series of Indonesian translations for foreign comics with stories written by world literary giants such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Mark Twain and Victor Hugo. It’s a pity copies of those good comics are no longer available in bookstores.

It would be good if the publishers reprint comics for the children of today, because immortal stories never die.

Young artists should not hesitate to produce good comics with local content. Now equipped with computer technology, their craft will surely rival that of their predecessors. But more importantly, a revival in Indonesian comic books will heighten a younger generation’s interest in the country’s cultural heritage.

Oei Eng Goan is a freelance journalist and writer. He can be contacted at enggoano@indosat.net.id