Ear to the page.

*The Best Part of Waking Up Dept: Purchase delicious Wilkins coffee or young Muppets will end your life. Do check the sidebar at the link for many more adventures. (found by Brian Nicholson, from the other day’s comments section)

*Look for this.

Kampung Boy

This should be out in a few weeks, as part of the second wave of book releases from First Second. It’s $16.95 for 144 b&w pages.

It’s funny how things go with international cartooning. Every so often you get a superstar, a major commercial force in their homeland, an author of popular works that reached many scores of people, and often the only place you can hear any discussion of them is through the more ‘arty,’ ‘alternative’ channels of the English-speaking comics world. If you lean close toward the works of Osamu Tezuka, you can often hear the virile populist voice of the material resounding upward. And yet, his books are often published here with arms folded in the determination to put out good art for the sake of good art - they are rarely (if ever) hits, the particular environs of one comics culture transforming a sensation into a wizened nod of the head among the omnivorous. ‘Ah, Tezuka! Ah yes!’

But the voice of the work - lean in close.

You can hear Lat talking. You can hear him booming with popular force.

‘Lat’ (actual name: Mohammad Nor Khalid), is a hugely popular cartoonist in Southeast Asia, whose work has seen virtually no exposure in the US. He’s been written about in The Comics Journal, and he’s put in appearances in both volumes of the (very good) Alternative Comics anthology series Rosetta, but that’s about it. This is his first ‘solo’ book to appear on these shores. Are there cultural considerations at work? A barrier to entry that might make his material less accessible to those outside his native Malaysia? Surely that’s true for his acclaimed editorial cartoons. But a straightforward, unadorned autobiographical comic like Kampung Boy?

I say no. I declare that this work can shine anywhere. Oh sure, the 1950s setting might have struck a nostalgic chord with local readers in 1979, upon the book’s original release. That feeling is not going to spring up for you. But the power of Lat’s art, and his unassuming look at a youth gracefully remembered; that stuff is bound to work. As Seth wrote of this book’s 1981 sequel, Town Boy, in his recent Forty Cartoon Books of Interest: “It’s pure cartooning - entirely based on eccentric stylizations but grounded with an eye capable of wonderfully accurate observation of the real world.” Seth then notes that a particular sequence “rings true even a culture away.” He might as well have been talking about this earlier work.

Kampung Boy is a very fast read, and bears no evident desire to provide any sweeping statements on youth or society or A Time And A Place, or whatever. It simply tracks the author’s life from his birth to his departure from the Kampung (Malay for ‘village’), off to boarding school and his first taste of life away from home. It’s done with taste, good humor, a wry eye cast toward the little dramas of a child’s life, and some occasionally goddamned explosive cartooning. There’s a 10-page sequence in here, depicting the author running off for a swim with a trio of friends, that will make you sweat - the pacing, the directional drive, the use of space, and the virtuosity of Lat’s character art combine to form an outstanding sense of movement and joy, a boy’s view of an opening world ripped from the bloodiest depths of the heart and made golden and sentient on the page. I mean, gosh.

First Second has an extensive preview up, one that will give you a sense of Lat’s aesthetic. The book is presented in landscape format, absolutely necessary for the visual approach - Lat uses virtually no panels or captions, preferring to bounce from sprawling, full-page panoramas of local sights to multiple viewpoints of character action positioned in a sea of white, narration set out atop and around everything in a manner not entirely dissimilar to an early American newspaper comic. But Lat is working with a book in mind, and he skillfully doles out youthful adventures without ever bogging down the story’s fleet procession. We’re ‘helping’ Auntie with making rubber, and then we’re off to Koran class, and then we’re up for ritual circumcision, and then we’re shown the family plantation, and before you know it we’re away from home. A bit like real childhood - the novelty of a foreign culture’s mores will no doubt hold some attention, but the gilded-yet-heartfelt nature of Lat’s construction conveys a common feel for sweet, lost things.

There’s a bit of subtext. You can clearly glimpse the encroachment of industrialization on the village, and there’s some modest work done with connecting the status of the family plantation metaphorically to young Lat’s personal connection to his Kampung roots. It’s understated, quiet. One gets the feeling Lat won’t mind if you choose to ignore such things, and focus on the funny business of his expressive characters, reminiscent of the likes of E.C. Segar and Sergio Aragonés, but totally unique, and set against lively, lush backdrops of beauty and business. People live in these places, and you’ll understand how Lat’s gentle caricatures hit a chord with so many.

Will the same happen here? I don’t know. Kampung Boy has no catchy connection to current news, and no irresistible struggle against repression or danger behind it. It’s hardly shallow, but not ‘weighty.’ It’s just a nice book about sweetly observed days in a faraway (to us) place, and who knows how that’ll play? But I know this: the art of Lat has a strength that transcends any bounty. Time, place, culture, the page. The relativity of popularity. Its speech is still evident, upon a listen.