Independent comic artists explore newfound freedoms
One of the first things I noticed in the bookshops after Suharto's resignation was the amazing proliferation of books on sex. Then came humour books on every subject you can think of including politics. Finally and predictably, formal political commentaries flooded the shelves. For these few months, the Japanese comics that have been the best sellers in all Indonesian bookshops were pushed aside. Celebrating the freedom of the moment, Indonesians chose sex, humour, and politics over imported comics. Now, some two years later, enter bookshops and the window displays and shelves are again filled with comics. Sex manuals seem to have been shoved aside by religious books. Sadly, as I reported here in 1998, all of these comics are licensed, translated imports, with not a local comic in sight. The only local comic book found in some shops is Komik politik, which in its two volumes resembles New Order style hero-worshipping.
National Comic Week has since 1996 presented a yearly celebration of formally published Indonesian-made comics. Being restricted to those with 'permission' and slick presentations, it glorifies bad marketing, lack of distribution, translations, western copies, censorship, and ideological repetition. It also glorifies the 'Golden Age' - legend and silat (martial arts) comics from the 60s and 70s.
For the first time in 1999, local independent or underground comics were permitted to appear. Independents are those comics created by admirers of the art or those who simply choose to express themselves through the medium. These mini comics are 'self-published', meaning they are photocopied, distributed amongst friends, and occasionally sold in local shops. Illegal prior to May 1998, by the 1999 Comic Week fifteen 'studios' or groups from Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya and Denpasar were actively making and self-publishing comics.
For the indie comic artists, it was a moment of idealism, mixed with the thrill of legitimacy and finally seeing their work in the same exhibition space as the great Indonesian 'komikus' Jan Mintaraga, RA Kosasih and others. Wahyoe Soegijanto, head of the Indonesian Comic Community (MKI), claimed great things for indie comics, even while maintaining New Order discourse: 'We're moving ahead step by step to advance Indonesian comics as our contribution to the development of Indonesia'. By the 2000 exhibition, however, these independents were already reduced in number and confined to one corner of the hall.
What is so important about comics? For one, Indonesians love them and have a long, fond history of growing up with them. But if comics mirror the environment in which they appear, the 'Golden Age' was a time of heroes and legends, whereas now Indonesia is an occupied nation. Very few komikus have found their own voice under reformasi. The vast majority of comics on display at the 2000 Expo this past February were copies of western comics in terms of art, story, design, location, characterisation, and even language.
The poet Rendra once described freedom of expression as a reflection of the artist's degree of contact with the people, with life and nature. It was an ability to express the truth, or soul of society. So why are most Indonesian comics utterly removed from any direct contact with the everyday world? With reformasi, comics have the potential to reflect social and political life way beyond other types of communication. Where are these models of contemporary culture we would expect to see in such a genre?
Now let's go back to that little indie corner of the exhibition and see what comics look like when freed from the stranglehold of slick presentation or censorship.
First, there were the classics. Self-published comics had been a trend on campuses since 1994. By 1996 groups of Yogyakarta-based art students compiled their efforts into Core comic, Komik selingkuh, Kiri komik, Petak umpet komik, and Komik haram. They worked out of love for the medium, out of the need for self-expression, and in a vain attempt to revive a much missed local tradition. For the most part, and precisely like indies anywhere else in the world, they remain economically utterly unsuccessful. Like indie artists elsewhere too, many are self-conscious about presenting their work in public, evidenced by opening statements that justify their efforts as socially useful. 'Jakarta the hot and filthy can be transformed into a comic!!', said Rudi H in Komec perjoeangan, (1999). Rampok (1999, by Emte) avoided criticism by referring to the comic as garbage and without meaning.
The indie theme in the pre-reformasi era was predominantly despair. One of the earliest in the group comic output was Komik selingkuh (Deception, 1996). This comic-cum-manual is entirely devoted to deception with the ultimate goal of luring someone into sexual engagement. Success or failure both lead to the same ending: a fight with the wife, financial debt, unwanted children, divorce, misery, suicide, and the comfort and joy of imagining and/ or doing the whole sex scene again. Regardless of the consequences, sex as the reward for a good deception heavily outweighs the negatives, at least in terms of its presentational build-up within the comic.
Core Comics (1996) self-published a series called Berteman dengan anjing (Befriending dogs). Each volume contains compilations that conform to various dog themes, nearly all violent: dogs as mad scientists, dog heaven where dogs curse at and abuse people, space dogs fall in love with earth women, and others too weird to identify. Tanggaku kirik (My neighbour is a puppy) compiles stories based in dog worlds, where humans are the beasts, and dog dreams, aspirations for love, to become human, or to just survive. As a whole, nearly every story has a sad ending where man beats dog or dog aspires to greatness and fails.
Most of the New Order era indies share this pessimism. At the same time, and totally unlike indie comics in Australia or the States, they avoid any sense of a self within the social environment. By 1999, however, indies are beginning to show more autobiographical work, based on 'the material at hand' turned into a story or just a simple expos? of life. Not all of it is depressing or pornographic either, as seen in the Komec perjoeangan by Rudi H. His inscription reads 'Indonesia pancen oke lho' (Indonesia is definitely OK, you know). The comic reveals tidbits of the young man's life and experiences that are thoroughly normal and 'definitely OK'.
Nowhere to be seen at the 2000 Comic Expo was the work of the Yogya-based comic and organisational wizard, Bambang Toko. Bambang was the organiser for Core Comic and later moved to the far more interesting Apotik Komik. While extremely active makers of comics as autobiography, full of word plays and local trends, Apotik Komik also has taken comics to the streets through their humorous posters and by decorating walls and billboards. Their collective works have developed a good balance between telling a familiar story and using humour as a way to promote thought and different perspectives. Yet they and all the other Yogya komikus chose to boycott the 2000 Comic Expo. Hopefully, by the 2001 Expo, komikus, publishers, and the Indonesian public will make more effort to look forward instead of back and support a more lively, relevant local comic industry.
Laine Berman (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives and works in Yogyakarta.