Last year I went gaga over a Malaysian comic from the seventies. Doesn’t a sentence that like sound cool? Like I’m some kind of obscure comic enthusiast with a penchant for the best overseas comics of decades past? The truth is far less sexy, I’m afraid. First Second brought to our American shores the comic book Kampung Boy, a title that original appeared in Malaysia long ago. Initially the format didn’t intrigue me, but after a test run I found that I liked Lat (the one-namer author) and his work quite a lot. The story was an unpretentious memoir of growing up in a small kampung (village) and the typical mischievous boy adventures that occurred in one kid’s life. At the end of the book our hero leaves his home to go to Ipoh to pursue his studies. This year the sequel, "Town Boy" is out and continues Lat’s story. With all the humor and visual aplomb of the first book, this second story crosses the critical boundary from being a boy to becoming a man.
Our hero, Mat, has moved from village boy to city boy and the transition has come with a host of different changes. His family has moved to Ipoh with him and the life and excitement that comes with such a transition is thrilling to them all. Other changes are in the works too. Mat befriends Frankie, a Chinese student, and when they discover their mutual love of music and records the two really hit it off. "Town Boy" follows Mat’s growth and adolescence. He falls head over heels in love with Normah, a stunner of a girl. He goes to dances, learns art, and is even in the marching band. But age brings change and soon Mat finds himself losing his best friend and trying to decide whether or not to follow in his father’s footsteps or find his own path through life.
What I really loved was how much of this book was a buddy story. Mat has never really had a best friend until this moment and Frankie’s character offers a direct connection to the time in which this story takes place. After all, he’s a fan of contemporary music, so that means a lot of Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, and The Beatles. The cover indicates how important their friendship is. I also really appreciated the character of Normah "the girl". In the hero’s eyes, every man she passes looks at her, but when you see her in person (not just a fleeting eyebrow) you see that though she is quite pretty, she’s also very sensible looking. No overthrust boobs or pouty lips. Just a gal who wears jeans and t-shirts and is very much the girl next door.
First Second took a bit of a risk publishing a graphic novel as thin and long as "Kampung Boy". Reading the sequel, I was struck by how necessary that move really was. To force this book into a square rather than a rectangle would be to cut off crucial portions of the action (not to mention some great visual gags). It would be the equivalent of panning and scanning a great film. So many portions of the book rely on full landscapes for the joke or the idea to make sense too. At one point we learn that Normah is officially the hottest girl in town. Yet our first glimpse of her is the top half of her head exiting a frame as an entire street scene of men on bikes, buses, and cars stare agog. It’s great. Almost as good, really, as the moment when our two heroes attempt to cheat a race by running across an illegal bridge, unknowingly heading towards their principal and disciplinary master hiding in the bushes at the far far far end.
I also really gained an appreciation for Lat’s art. For example, in one scene we see our hero explaining to his family at dinner how great it would be to own a record player. The next panel shows his father giving us, the viewers, a skeptical sideways glance. Lat does this entirely with the eyes and the eyebrows. It’s subtle but you catch the meaning immediately. It has been said that Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, has been a fan of Lat for years and I definitely believe it. They both have an eye for getting just the right amount of slack-jawed idiocy in a character’s face.
I was sorry not to see more of the dad in this book. He was such a strong character in the first story, and though you get a hint of that in the beginning of this book, for the most part he’s relegated to the background. I’ve heard some criticisms of "Town Boy" that says that this is a weaker follow-up to its predecessor than it had to be. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Certainly there’s less mischief involved. But where "Kampung Boy" dealt with the fears and trials of a boy, "Town Boy" assumed the much less physical and more emotional rigors of a young man. If the story slows, the artistic sensibilities make up for it by being more sophisticated.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)