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Kampung Boy Review (Which goes completely off the rails about half-way through.)

by  in Comic News Comment
Kampung Boy Review (Which goes completely off the rails about half-way through.)

Now Listen. I’m not saying that the greater availability of translated works by non-English speaking cartoonists isn’t a great thing.

What I am saying: I’m an American. Hell, I’m an American who lives in Iowa. So when I’m readviewing something like Lat’s Kampung Boy or Joe Daly’s Scrublands or Japanese produced Manga in general I gotta figure that this work isn’t really aimed at me as it was originally conceived.

Hi, I’m MarkAndrew. You may remember me from such posts as this Alias the Cat Review where I forget to include a review and this review of Moomin where I talk about some problems I have with translated work and demonstrate my hateful xenophobia towards non-American trolls.

As with Tove Janson’s Moomin, Kampung Boy provided me with my first exposure to a cartoonist who is both unknown in America, and spectacularly famous in their home country. Here, the cartoonist is Lat, nee Mohammad Nor Khalid or Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid*. (Edit: Commentator Khairul informs me that Datuk is actually a title granted to distinguished artists, granting the recipient somethin’ analogous to British Knighthood.  Wikipedia says there are only 400 folks with this title at a given time.)

Here’s a picture of the artist as a young man.

And JUST like Tove Janson, hollllleeeeee crap but Lat is one hell of a mofo cartoonist. If I had to compare him to an American artist I’d say his stuff most resembles Sergio Aragones’, but unlike Sergio (and the vastvastvast majority of American comics) Lat isn’t content to define his characters with one set of stylistic traits. Instead he imbues his characters with a variety of different body types. If the backgrounds weren’t so damn consistent, I’d swear I was reading the end-product of a jam session between four or five great cartoonists.

Lat’s men

don’t look like his women

who don’t look like his children,

and the flat-headed, fritzy-haired and chubby self charicature that Lat uses for himself doesn’t look like any of them. Lat’s also amazingly adept at using static drawings to convey frantic motion. His characters zip along the page, often combining a line-drawing technique that ain’t so different from those Family Circus Panels where Billy explores the neighborhood with more frentic versions of Japanese speed lines to propell L’il Lat through a panel. Maybe the toughest thing a cartoonist can do is make it look like one character is performing a bunch of different actions in a single panel, but Lat makes it look natural an’ easy.

On top of that Lat’s got an astute eye for both comedic and dramatic body language and a some mad background skillz which provide JUST enough details to anchor the characters in a believable relality without distracting the reader’s eye from the action of the main characters…

Well, PURELY on the strength of Kampung Boy I’d call Lat as good a cartoonist as I’ve ever seen working in comic books.

Although, as Matt Brady points out, Kampung Boy might not technically *BE* a comic book.
Most pages have onle one BIG panel and the text is folded, spindled, and mutilated to fit around it. (Actually text and graphics are integrated quite well.) So, structurally, Kampung Boy is more traditional children’s book than cartoon. But I’d still call it a comic, or at least MORE a comic than a book. Lat’s art is very much rooted in comic-style cartooning rather than children’s illustration, and, like a comic, the visuals are given primacy over the text.

Although as a traditional comic and book reader, I did have occasional trouble processing this unique cross-breed. The text tends to end up in a different place on every page, and I experienced some mental disconnect tryin’ to find it. It didn’t ruin my reading experience and I adapted fairly quickly, but I did have few “What the hell am I supposed to be looking at here anyway?” moments which jerked me out of the story.

And the “book” part of Kampung Boy absolutely did what it was supposed to do. Provided a goodly amount of information about the culture of 20th century rural Malaysia without cloying the reader with minutea. It provides names of places, some geographical details, even a handful of words in (what I assume is) Mallay. “Kathi” is judge. “Rebana” is drum. But the visuals are really the “hook” here.

“Which was my problem,” says MarkAndrew the Iowan. While the words provide interesting insight into the vanishing rural culture of Malaysia, the cartooning, as awesome as it was doesn’t do quite enough to provide an immersive experience. At least for me.

Everything I’ve read in the hasty-ass web research I do for these posts says that Lat’s work is either (A) rooted in or (B) commentary on the history and culture of Malaysia. And it seems as those his audience is also modern Malaysians, probably modern URBAN Malaysian’s. Greg McElhatton from Read About Comics points out that there wasn’t much in the way of actual PLOT in Kampung Boy, but there’s a reason for that. Despite the fact that this is basically autobiography, I figure that Lat’s primary aim here isn’t to tell THE STORY OF THE LIFE OF LAT. He’s creating a first person historical document, trying to preserrve and account of a way of life that’s fading into non-existence in the face of increasing urbanization.

But here’s where the audience disconnect thing comes in. If a Malaysian reads this book, I figure they’ll know enough about what their country looks like to get a real sense of place from Lat’s kinda sketchy art. The closest I’ve been to Malaysia is England. Or else California. Or maybe Alaska. (Geography: Not my strong point.)

Anyway, throughout Kampung Boy I kept wishing for more detail in the art department. I wanted to see exactly what Lat’s Village looked like. Which is a strange reaction from me, ’cause I’m usually much more a fan of cartooning in comic art than I am of true(ish) to life illustration. Even in visual art I tend to aesthetically prefer more abstract stuff to, say, Millet.

So this got me thinkin’ about comics art in general.

And I had a thought.

*Ahem*

In most cases cartoon-y comic art is the better choice for telling stories about people. Realistic illustration is more useful for telling stories about places.

To expand: In pure cartooning artist can communicate emotional truth through symbolism. Exaggerated beads of sweat explode off R. Crumb’s brow, showing nervousness. Harvey Kurtzman’s cowboy stalks the landscape with his eyes completely shut. Here is one laconic dude! Smiley Bone’s eyebrows detach themselves from his face in malevolent, free-floating swooshes. Cartoon characters feel things much more physically than real people. (Although, conversely, realistic art probably works better for stories about hidden or buried emotions. Think Adrian Tomine.)

On stories about places: I’m not sure how wide a category this is. Kampung Boy is about preserving a PLACE in cultural memory, but that’s not the only category of stories about places. I think that the primary aim of Watchmen was less offering wry commentary on the feasibility of superheroes and more about creating a fictional universe, and making it feel as true to life as possible. Just, y’know, with superheroes. Again, place is the most important thematic element of the story.

Countertheorem: Tales of the Beanworld. My favorite comic ever. It’s completely about place-not-people, and it’s drawn with a very simple cartooning style. On the other hand, “It’s not just a place, it’s a process!” Or it’s really more about concepts than world-building.

Now, granted, this ain’t the unified field theory. I’m imagining TWO separate continuums** here, and there are many comics that fall outside both of them. Comics can be about ideas, feelings, or internal continuity. And there are plenty of artists who are either both cartoonist and illustrator or neither. Jaime Hernandez melds elements of both in about equal measure. Bill Sienkiewicz is something else entirely.

In Kampung Boy’s case, of course, the cultural context is changed a hell of a lot depending on whether it’s being read by Malay folks or American me, possibly changed ENOUGH that it goes from being a story about people to a story about a place. Which would require a different style of art to reach a different audience.

I complained a bit about the translation of the Moomin books, but conceded that the were probably insoluble dilemmas. And here I’m reading a book that was originally written in English*** and I’m STILL running up against translation problems. It makes me a little bit sad that I’m probably never going to be able to COMPLETELY appreciate this comic. I mean, there are elements of any genius level or art that I’m probably not gonna get, but there are more here ’cause of my lack of understanding of the cultural context.
It also makes me wonder a bit about all the fifteen year kids I see sprawled on the floor at Borders reading translated Japanese Manga. How much of it do they understand? How much are they just not equipped to contextualize? I mean, I’m old enough now to understand how shit I don’t know, but I wasn’t at fifteen.

Anyway, I still recommend Kampung Boy even to fellow Iowans. It’s a must-read for any cartooning afficianado, and it does provide at least a glimpse of life in rural Malaysia of the fifties. But I did have some trouble relatin’.

* Source: An unsourced article on Wikipedia. So feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

** Firefox spellcheck is pretty good. So it makes me feel smart when I use a real word it don’t know. But I got it with continuums. (It also doesn’t recognize “spellcheck.”)

*** I *Think.* I didn’t actually find a completely definite answer as to whether or not it was translated. But I know that most of Lat’s work was in English, and I didn’t find any mention of Kampung Boy bein’ translated.

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