A few weeks ago, I was reading an article in Wired magazine all about the advent of manga and its impact on the American culture. I can’t remember all the figures off the top of my head but the shear number of folks reading manga in Japan is astounding; so much so that it’s almost incomprehensible when you try to compare it with the popularity of Western comics. That got me thinking about the creators behind all those books we’ve never heard of.
Stateside comic names such as Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Stan Sakai, Mike Mignola, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Alex Ross are all familiar to the pullbox set. Even if you don’t buy their titles, you’ve seen their work or heard their names in passing. But when it comes to the comics scene outside of the states, at least on my end, it starts getting a little hazy. Don’t get me wrong, I can throw out Clamp, Nihei Tsutomu, Moebius, and Sergio Aragones if pressed. But aside from that small group of creators, I’m drawing a serious blank.
Inspired by fellow Indie Pulp contributor Matthew Brady who recently attended a signing for Israeli graphic novelist Ruth Modan’s book, Exit Wounds, I decided to rectify my sad, sad situation by checking out a graphic novel from an international comic’s creator I’ve never heard of.
Lat, or Mohammed Nor Khalid, is the Malaysian creator behind Kampung Boy and Town Boy. Aside from the notoriety he’s gained in his home country, Lat’s work is well-regarded throughout Southeast Asia and Europe. His first book, Kampung Boy, was published in 1979 and was recently reprinted and released in America through First Second Books last August. Although I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy of Kampung Boy, I was able to read the recently released Town Boy, also published by First Second Books.
After moving out of a village and into the first low-cost housing complex in Malaysia, 10-year-old Mat and his family begin to settle into their new metropolitan world. Mat attends school in the city of Ipoh; an urban center filled with crowds, swarms of bicyclists, frantic buses, and corner markets. Although he takes a relatively low key approach at his new school, Mat can’t hide his love for music and participates in a small school show. Mat survives the affair without drawing too much attention to himself but his singing is enough to catch the ear of fellow classmate Frankie. Frankie’s father owns a coffee shop and a pretty sweet record collection that includes Elvis, Bobby Darin, the Platters, and a new up and coming group from England calling themselves the Beatles. In one of the neatest moments in the book, the two kids take a moment after school to thoroughly enjoy Bill Haley & His Comets’ cover of "Rock Around the Clock"...
Unfortunately, when Mat returns to his family and implores his parents to get their own jukebox, his appeal falls on deaf ears.
The story features slices of daily adolescent life that translate beyond countries, languages, or time periods. It may be an autobiographical account of the author’s life in 1960’s Malaysia, but the moments could easily be episodes from The Wonder Years. Getting caught for cheating in school. Mustering the courage to talk to that really pretty girl in your math class…
And talking about the future…
Artwise, Lat’s linework reminds me of Cartoon Network’s Ed, Edd and Eddy. Town Boy’s black-and-white pages are filled with the same nervous, thin brush stroke sketchiness seen in the cartoon combined with the “comix” quality visible and made popular in Robert Crumb’s work. The widescreen layout allows for single illustrations to take over an entire two pages or the more traditional single-page, panel breakdown. As for the characters, Lat’s rendition of Mat, Frankie, and assorted classmates has a Peanuts quality that’s both simple and exaggerated. Even as the characters age from 10-year-olds to young adults, the basic visual qualities Lat assigns to the kids remains the same and makes them easily distinguishable.
Although they’ve only been around for a little over a year, First Second Books has made a nice name for themselves with the release of American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, The Black Diamond Detective Agency by Eddie Campbell, Laika by Nick Abadzis, and Robot Dreams by Sara Varon among other quality titles. Now that I’m aware of Lat’s work and his reputation in the international comics community, adding Kampung Boy and Town Boy to their catalog gives First Second even more credibility in my eyes. As a publisher, they've made a great decision in reprinting both titles for the American market. While Lat’s books are being positioned for the Barnes and Noble faithful rather than the cape-loving fanboy, I hope daring and open-minded pullboxers are willing to give Town Boy a try.