What a Lovely Weekend

*Now my weekday will hopefully(!) involve three posts in one day. This, then the rest of that new installment of my column (which seems to have bounced to an every-week-and-one-half schedule... the next one's not going to be up until next Wednesday to be sure, what with all the stuff I have to sift through for it), then the usual Monday new releases blather. But for now:

Town Boy

This is from First Second, one of the last two books of their current wave of releases. It should be in stores on Wednesday. It's a 192-page landscape-format softcover, priced at $16.95.

It's also a sequel. Last year, First Second released the first volume, Kampung Boy, which I recall Tom Spurgeon named the best comic of 2006. I also liked it. Both books are new editions of autobiographical works released a quarter of a century ago by beloved Malaysian cartoonist "Lat" (Mohammad Nor Khalid), who's otherwise invisible to most Western readers. But invisibility does not equal inaccessibility; told mainly in vast full-page illustrations, Kampung Boy related breezy scenes and fascinating details from a village childhood, sometimes bursting into bravura volleys of wide sequential action, only to slow down and take the events of a youth recalled page-by-page.

Town Boy, originally published in 1980, covers the life of Mat, the artist's stand-in, after moving to the city of Ipoh for school at the age of 10, through his later teenage years. As the young man discovers art and rock music and girls and the like, Lat mostly retains the wistful narrative style of the prior book, selecting certain key sequences from Mat's life, usually played for broad humorous impact, which accumulate into a sentimental overview of a certain stretch of life. Western readers will likely take away a sense of interplay between specific cultural details and universal human experiences, although I expect this is more attributable to Lat's preference for vivid human comedy than much of an eye cast abroad.

As before, the art is very good, although it's also slightly different. Lat's pages here are somewhat more segmented, at times specifically divided into panels (sometimes upwards of 10 on a page) so as to more sharply define his narrative 'beat' in collusion with his long splashes. Note the construction of this sequence - the first page is divided into two conversational panels, the next two pages contract into squares as Mat follows his friend up the stairs (anticipation), and then the next two pages explode into a full-bleed double splash of the new environment discovered by the boy. It then calms, and subdivides again into panels for more discussion, only to expand again with the energy of dancing. This conceit effectively juxtaposes the might of experience with the simplicity of conversation, the latter giving way to the overarching former, which dominates Lat's broad take on his youth.

These environments are also marvelously lived-in and crawling with activity, smartly reused as the years pass to indicate change and stasis, and Lat's caricature-prone drawings bristle with life. His comedic timing is excellent, and -- perhaps new to this book -- he displays a fine ear for unwittingly revealing dialogue. A sequence in which the 17-year old Mat attempts to impress a girl he's taking on a quasi-date is loaded with as much nervous give-and-take as any contemporary relationship comic, but Lat's unerringly giving attitude toward human relationships highlights the care behind such teenage encounters, and leaves us with the feeling that everyone eventually gets a little better, even for the embarrassing bits of youth.

Not a rueful bone in this body. There's also no desire for historical sweep, or epiphanal bombast; there is only fondness and wry observation here, and a visual acknowledgment of the way environments swirl around young, developing people. Sometimes, this leads the artist into some mild trouble - his cast is a little too big for his approach to realize many of them as more interesting than winning caricatures, and his account of Mat's growing interest in art is bumpy (maybe this is due to a deviation from the artist's own experience - Lat himself was a published artist by age 13). But at its best -- and its best rises high indeed -- the book makes a great case for sweeping strokes and generosity, and the indelible force of funny drawings.