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Artists draw characters during the Comiconnexions Festival at the Goethe-Institut, Central Jakarta. (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)
Despite developing the themes and style of Indonesian comics, a failure to make them readily available in bookstores would waste the artists’ talents.
Many series have been one-hit wonders, being printed only for one issue because of poor sales. Unlike manga comics, which have been printed into hundred thousands of copies, a local series is considered successful if sales exceed 10,000.
Comics and pop art observer, Hikmat Darmawan, said only cartoonists Benny Rachmadi and Muhammad “Mice” Misrad have enjoyed good sales since 1998.
“Today, our local comics still face some challenges, such as expensive paper and the huge availability of imported comics from Japan,” he said.
The duo’s pioneering Lagak Jakarta (Jakarta Style) and Trend dan Prilaku (Trends and Behaviors) sold more than 11,000 copies each in their respective first years, while a second book, Profesi (Profession), sold about 10,000 copies.
Their precision in capturing the irony and comedy in everyone and everything around them has been an endless source of inspiration for their work.
Later, books such as Jakarta Luar Dalam (Jakarta Inside Outside) and 100 Tokoh Yang Mewarnai Jakarta (100 Characters that Color Jakarta) each had at least 50,000 copies printed for their first round of publication.
While the duo split in 2010, their individual works are still popular with readers.
Chandra Gautama, editor for the Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG) publishing company that produces the duo’s comic books, said that Benny and Mice’s fluency in presenting social criticisms but with humor made their work universal.
“The good illustrations and strong storyline underpinning the social themes have attracted second-graders on up to 70-year-old senior citizens enjoying Benny and Mice’s work,” said Chandra.
With the same satirical spirit, cartoonist Veby Surya Wibawa, aka Vebi Djenggotten, has started to see similar success. The first volume of his 33 Pesan Nabi (33 Messages of the Prophet) series had 20,000 copies printed in the first round and another 12,000 on the second round, despite its indie publishing and distribution.
Now entering its second volume, the series is set to be published in Malaysia. Unlike Benny and Mice, who often deal with politics and urban life, Veby focuses his criticism on the lives of Muslims in the country.
Gundayana, the latest graphic take of the Mahabharata epic, is also another favorite. Drawing on the influence of Javanese Hindu epics in the local comic scene, the work of cartoonist Is Yuniarto focuses on the quest of a young girl, Kinara, with her best friend, the mythological bird Garuda, in a Mahabharata-like setting.
Highly influenced by the manga technique, Gundayana has an independent plot that is not found in the original epic.
M&C! Comics’ publishing editor, Ardi Mardika, said Gundayana was among the company’s local best-sellers.
“Our top-three local comics are Garudayana by Is Yuniarto; Garudaboi by Galang Tirtakusuma; and Real Masjid by Tony Trax. Despite the upbeat spirit in producing Indonesian comics, our works are still far from being able to go head-to-head against foreign comics,” he said.
As an example, each new lcomic gets around 5,000 copies in first-round production and production grows depending on market demand.
“[The manga series] Hai, Miiko!, for example, has had around 100,000 copies printed so far for all 24 series,” said Ardi, whose company published about 40 comic titles between 2010 and 2012.
According to the top two comic publishers in Indonesia, Elex Media Komputindo and M&C! Comics, the best-selling manga titles include Naruto, Bleach and One Piece (action adventure stories for boys over 10); Detektif Conan (detective fiction, drama-comedy for boys aged above 10); and Hi, Miiko! (comedy for children).
Avid comic fan Surjorimba Suroto and the founder of komikindonesia.com, a website about Indonesian comics, said that comics were typically written for children.
“One thing that all adults must notice is that comics are just like any book, film or newspaper — not all the contents in them have to be child-friendly,” he said.
Back in the golden age of Indonesian comics, during the 1970s-1980s, Indonesian comics were household names around the country compared to the relatively small number of foreign comics.
Despite the apparent influence of American and European comics in style and themes, local series still ruled because the themes could be closely identified by their readers.
Hikmat said the child-friendly argument was once used by a major publisher to reject Indonesian comics in the 1980s, when themes started to be saturated, opening the way to the manga titles that were aimed more at children.
Beng Rahadian, a comic artist famous for his Koran Tempo comic strip and various titles of indie comic books, admitted that up to now comic works were thriving.
“In general, the number of people who produce comics and those who are enthusiastic about them is still very small. But I believe that we have promising potential in comic works,” Beng told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the Comiconnexions comic festival at the Goethe-Institut in Central Jakarta.
Beng blamed the industry, especially bookstores, for not fully supporting the movement by offering inadequate display and treatment to Indonesian comics.
“Financially, we are still struggling. From the publishers, for example, they apply royalties in their payment system, which requires a stable continuance of the works. But for now, our artists just can’t do that because of the costs involved in producing comic books.”
According to Beng’s calculations, a comic artist can break even after selling 1,500 books out of 3,000 in first-round printing. “But, publishers cannot support themselves from only one item. Hence, they need
The founder of the Akademi Samali comic artists group said that he and his team were in an ongoing process of promoting better conditions in the industry in order to boost Indonesian comics.
“We know that the public want to read worthy comic books, so we are carrying out the necessary first step,” he added.
Cartoonist Veby said that current conditions in the local comic industry were still tough.
“We are not confident enough to get up and walk. In bookstores, we have to deal with translated comic books from overseas for the displays,” he said, “I see that now our own comic artists are turning to digital platforms [websites, blogs and social media sites] to get their work published.”
Utilizing these platforms, comic works these days have been transferred into digital form for tablet computers, such as Dark Horse Comics, Marvel and DC comics as well as Indonesia’s own Mobile Comics Puppet.
Indah Setiawati contributed to this report.