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Peter van Dongen: Getting it right

  • Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, October 27, 2014 | 11:18 am
Peter van Dongen:  Getting it right

(JP/Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak)

Dutch graphic novelist Peter van Dongen is a bit baffled finding out he has a lot of fans in Indonesia.

Although he was suffering from jet lag, Van Dongen autographed and doodled in the first pages of all the books his fans presented.

'€œAm I really that famous here?'€ Van Dongen asked.

He was featured for the first time in a local magazine in 2005 upon the release of Rampokan Jawa (Java Looting), a tale set in the troubled years after the declaration of independence in 1945.

'€˜Rampokan'€™, as described in the story, has a double meaning; Javanese traditional tiger hunting and also looting.

Only last year Gramedia published the Indonesian translation of the novel. Due to high demand, the publisher recently released a repackage with Rampokan Celebes (Celebes Looting), a sequel set in Sulawesi.

'€œCelebes was never released because the publisher [in Netherlands] was a small company. Jawa had been sold out for years and a lot of people were waiting for it.

'€œIt'€™s good that Gramedia published the two novels in one book,'€ he said during a break at pop-culture festival Popcon Asia last week.

Indonesia is not foreign to Van Dongen. His late grandmother came from Ternate, North Maluku, while his mother was born in Manado, North Sulawesi, in 1941 and spent her childhood in Makassar, South Sulawesi.

These two women shared stories of his ancestors'€™ land during the independence struggle that piqued his interest.

He came to Indonesia in 1992 for research, going on trips to museums, city halls and looking at archive photos to get a clear picture of the country at that time. The research took six years before he started to work on the novel.

Dubbed the champion of the Tintin-esque, ligne-claire style of drawing, Van Dongen graduated as an advertising artist from the Grafische School in Amsterdam where he learned one or two things about becoming an original artist.

'€œThere was a Vietnamese classmate who was very good at drawing. But a teacher told him in front of the class that his drawing was a good copy but he'€™d failed to add something personal to it. Well-drawn, but empty. I can imagine how it is to be a [syndicated] artist. They'€™re just asked to draw the pages but the story is made by someone else. I can'€™t do that. I don'€™t have that high level of skill.'€

Growing up idolizing Hergé'€™s Tintin series, 6-year-old Van Dongen honed his skills by tracing the Tintin drawings and at 10 he made his own Tintin comic.

'€œEventually, [the style] became part of myself,'€ he said.

He published his first comics in Rebel Comix and Balloen, and in 1990 released his debut Muizentheater '€” one of few books depicting Amsterdam without a single canal in it.

The novel, a tale of two men growing up in Amsterdam during the Depression years, won the Dutch Best Comic Book in 1991. Co-designed by fellow ligne-claire specialist Joost Swarte, Van Dongen'€™s Rampokan Jawa earned both author and publisher the 1999 Dutch Prize for Best Book Design in 1999.

Van Dongen was exposed to the Indonesian comic scene after attending an artist convention in 2002 in Haarlem where he got acquainted with Pidi Baiq, Anto Motulz and Tita, who at that time were living in Holland but now have returned to Bandung, West Java.

In 2005, he organized a series of expositions with artwork by Tita and Motulz at several locations in Java.

Van Dongen was also the illustrator of Farewell to the Indies authored by Hans Vervoort, who was born in Magelang, Central Java, and belonged to the last generation of Dutch writers who spent their youth in the then Dutch East Indies. The book was published in 2012.

At about the same time, Van Dongen visited Jakarta to give workshops to students and together they made a comic on the heritage center of the city, Kota Tua, and to find a publisher for Rampokan.

Observing the comic scene in Indonesia, he saw many influences that were dominated by Japanese manga and the US superheroes comics. However, Van Dongen said, there were artists who, despite those influences, had pulled off their own style.

Van Dongen said he was impressed by the works of Yogyakarta-based Apri Susanto, who he said had the European, Don Lawrence style; ligne-claire specialist Sheila Rooswitha Putri and Beng Rahardian.

He could also spot mistakes in details in Indonesian comics in which Dutch marines were being drawn in the uniform of American troops or that Dutch soldiers were riding on a Canadian Chevrolet truck.

'€œI make mistakes, of course. But it'€™s important to me to get the details as accurate as possible. If I used a car manufactured in the 1950s in a story whose setting was in 1946 and somebody could recognize the car, I think I'€™d dread that.'€

Doing research has become a past time for Van Dongen, finding details on the houses or the automobiles in a period that has been long forgotten, the story settings he specializes in.

Another reason for his obsession about detail is that he wants to balance the information on his comic pages.

'€œI didn'€™t describe as much as I wanted to in the comic. I can'€™t write a 600-page book,'€ he said, adding that he gave up reading Craig Thompson'€™s 592-page Blankets after the first 50.

For the new project he was working on with Swarte, he went further back into the 20th century '€” to the birth year of his grandmother in 1901 '€” to capture the changes in civilization.

'€œThirty years ago, talking face-to-face over the phone was science fiction and now it'€™s happening. My grandmother grew up seeing the invention of cars and airplanes. It would be an interesting story to tell,'€ said Van Dongen.

He had finished penciling in the pages of the first book and would go on with the inking and coloring that would take, well, another two years to complete.

'€œI'€™m still doing it the old way. My friends have offered to teach me how to draw digitally. Their work on the screen is impressive, and a lot faster. I might have learned how to work digitally in coloring. But I haven'€™t, for a simple reason that I always told my friends. Your original drawing should be on paper, not on the screen, not on your hardware. Or, maybe, I'€™m just lazy,'€ he said.

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