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From urban satire about life in Jakarta to an encounter with Islam in the Facebook Age, a new breed of cartoonists is trying to find a place among the feisty footsteps of Indonesians.
As children of pop culture, comic books mirror the triumphs and follies of an era. How people think and perceive themselves.
In Indonesia, a developing nation with volatile political and economic conditions across the decades, enthusiasm among people to tell their own stories has been both high and low.
Today, after years of idolizing Japanese manga, the story of Indonesian comics has begun a new chapter. Comic artists have leaned more on local culture than on swallowing foreign influences. The works are often autobiographical, with comic book writers using themselves as the main characters, criticizing misfits and the stumbling progress within society.
The first and, so far, most notable works are from Benny Rachmadi and Muhammad “Mice” Misrad, who satirize the ugliness of urbanization and the hedonistic lifestyles of people in Jakarta. Starting with their ridicule of urban lives in the Lagak Jakarta (Jakarta Style) series in 1997, the duo later developed their self-mocking caricatures, Benny and Mice, in the fourth volume, Krisis oh Krisis (Crisis oh Crisis).
Taking Malaysia’s Kampung Boy as the major inspiration for their drawing style, the duo’s characters gained fame, leading to their regular comic strip, Benny&Mice, for the Sunday edition of the Kompas newspaper, which ran until 2010. Unlike Kampung Boy’s Lat, however, their stories were not always personal accounts but took themes from the world around them.
The duo’s drawing style and themes have influenced artists that have emerged in the past five years. Cartoonist Veby Surya Wibawa, popularly known as Vbi Djenggotten, said he looked up to the duo for his drawings.
Finding humor and parody in the everyday lives of Muslims is the central theme of his 33 Pesan Nabi (33 Messages from the Prophet) series.
In one example, Veby presents a small boy who keeps on refusing his mother’s request to perform his prayers as he is “Facebook-ing”. Presented in a light way, Veby also points out the boy’s sins in disobeying his mother’s order.
Another episode shows a quarrel that breaks out between a traditional Muslim and a moderate Muslim over who is to blame for the stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists. He ends the story with the two fighting each other, causing fear to passersby, children and a cart vendor.
Similar themes also appear in Real Masjid (Real Mosque), the work of Tony Hernanto, who is better known as Tony Trax. Working with other illustrators, he put his personal experience of living near a mosque and experiences with his friends in order to criticize Muslims.
Comic-art connoisseur, Surjorimba Suroto, said the development of comic books in Indonesia was much better now compared to 10 years ago. “We have so many more themes now, and different illustration styles and platforms,” the fan of Herge’s Adventures of Tintin told The Jakarta Post.
He said that foreign influences on the art form had always been present in the country, but they had never become permanent, so leaving enough room for local comics to blossom.
“Foreign comics, from the US and Europe, are set in their own eras. We had a time when they [US and European comics] were flourishing, but we don’t see that many now,” shared Surjo.
The influence of manga is already waning with sales having slumped over the past few years.
Bobby Pramita Wahyu, promotional staff for Elex Media Komputindo, a large publisher of translated comics, said the slump affected all comic-book titles — including the notable manga.
“Take Naruto, for example; its sales are now down to around 180,000 copies per year, while two or three years ago, we sold around 260,000 copies,” Bobby told the Post, referring to Japan’s famous manga title, which has been made into animated films, or anime. “For us, it’s a real-deal figure in sales.”
Bobby sees several reasons for the slump: the price of comic books, the original stories being updated into digital form for the Internet, and boredom among readers if stories are dragged out for too long.
“These were some of the comments made by comic fans in our online forum,” he added.
Bobby added, however, that a title could become priceless if and when the artist passed away.