Citation: Anup Kumar Das, "Making of the Asian Comics", review of See Seng Tan, 2013, The Making of the Asia Pacific: Knowledge Brokers and the Politics of Representation. Posted on New Asia Books, November 2015.
A cartoon is a two dimensional (2D) drawing, while a comic is a series of 2D drawings accompanied by words in order to tell a story. Comic is a popular medium for storytelling, embedded with humour, caricatures or light moments of the characters it represents. Comic books are perceived to have a readership among children and teenagers, while political cartoons – the popular insertions in daily newspapers and weekly magazines – have a wide range of readership. Political cartoons are a popular medium for the formation of public opinions and to express ire against socio-political disorders, to such an extent that political-secular cartoonists and satirists are sometimes at the receiving end of death or other physical threats, which we recently witnessed in Paris at Charlie Hebdo. The situation in Asian countries is not much better, if not worse.
The book ‘Asian Comics’ is written by John A. Lent, a renowned scholar of Asian comics. Lent undertook a painstakingly long ethnographic journey, starting in the late 1980s, to discover comics of all forms in different parts of the Asian region. He undertook detailed fieldwork in various countries, interviewed about four hundred stakeholders in the Asian comics industry, including editors, artists, storytellers, publishers, festival directors, internet café and comics rental store owners, critics, comics academicians, regulatory affair officials, comics pirates and animators. Data collected helped the author to shape this comprehensive book, in which comics are viewed from the perspectives of history, industry and art. To the author, the book “sets out to provide as comprehensive an account as possible of the region’s comic art, defined here as comic books and magazines, graphic novels, newspaper comic strips and gag panels, cartoon and humor magazines” (p. 5). In the process, the book becomes an authoritative sourcebook of thriving and wide-ranging comics’ production and creativity in Asia. This book gives detailed accounts of country-level initiatives in three different sub-regions of Asia: East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia.
In the first part of this book, the author gives a broad overview of comic production in Asia from the eighteenth to early twentieth century, where Lent narrates works of several artists who slant towards humourist. Numerous painters and visual artists represented caricatures, satires and parodies in their paintings. They also brought humour, wit and playfulness to their crafts. In Chapter One Lent discovers a range of anonymous and lesser-known artists, who drew caricatures and satires on contemporary or native themes, without harming anybody’s sentiment or dignity. Here the author mentions four significant Kalighat paintings of nineteenth century, namely, ‘A woman leading her lover on a leash’, ‘Cat with a prawn in its mouth’, ‘Krishna astride an elephant of gopis’, and ‘Scene of Nabin beheading Elokeshi’. All these paintings were drawn by anonymous artists who lived around the Kalighat Kali Temple in Calcutta, but who became famous for their satirical appeal and sharp contemporary gossip. The author quotes Aruna Rao (1995): “With their trenchant wit and humour, the Kalighat artists were the first true caricaturists and satirical artists of India” (p.15). In this Chapter, Lent discovers that the Zen painting style brought comic spirit to Buddhism. However, he feels that humorous Zen paintings were meant for the upper classes only. Many Japanese and Chinese artists continued the Zen painting style, keeping the humorous traditions flowing for centuries.
In Chapter 2, Lent describes a transformation of popular forms of comic books from Lianhuanhua (illustrated story books) to Xinmanhua in China. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China prepared a group of professional comic artists to brush a heroic image of the peasants, workers, soldiers and more particularly communist leaders who led the Cultural Revolution. During the post-cultural revolution period, Xinmanhua became a popular comic style to regulate the fast-growing Manga piracy industry in the country, even though Manga is a widely popular Japanese style of comic, influencing a major part of the Asian region.
In Chapter 15, Lent describes comic production in different Indian languages. Some of the comic series are produced and translated into major Indian languages, keeping original storyline remained. Lent narrates the origins of several popular comical characters such as Narayan Debnath’s Bantul the Great, Pran Kumar Sharma’s Chacha Chaudhary; origins of several popular comical series such as Indrajal Comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Diamond Comics, Raj Comics, and Vivalok Comics. Many of these comics took storylines from Indian epics, mythical legends and also the lives of Indian legendary personalities or nationalists. However, contributions of satirist writer Sukumar Ray (1887-1923) were inadvertently missed out of this book. Sukumar Ray drew several humorous illustrations befitting his famous books of non-sense writings such as HaJaBaRaLa (Mumbo-Jumbo), Abol Tabol (Gibberish), and Pagla Dashu (Crazy Dashu). Ray’s own drawings of his humorous characters had broadened the imagination of successive comic artists in South Asia since the early twentieth century, including his son legendary filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray. Sukumar Ray’s contributions were neither mentioned in Chapter one nor in Chapter fifteen. On the other hand, Satyajit Ray’s adventurous fictions were comicized in graphics novel format, which he initially planned to do himself. Lent interviewed many Indian comic artists during his several visits to this country. Their works are adequately narrated throughout the Chapter. However, there could be a sense of parochialism among the Indian comic readers, as they are less familiar with other Asian comic series such as Manga or Xinmanhua than the Indian cartoon characters or the characters that appeared in televised cartoon channels.
Other countries covered in this book include Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan from East Asia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam from Southeast Asia; Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka from South Asia. Thus, this book provides an in-depth analysis of sixteen countries describing their country-level exemplary comic books, comic strips, popular magazines, popular characters and famous artists or cartoonists. Many of these famous series are made into animation movies or television serials to reach a new and wider audience. Lent also mentions about the adult comic strips as produced in different Asian countries, which also become part of popular culture to a segment of the society. However, he again missed out recently introduced adult comic series such as Savita Bhabhi – an erotic cartoon character representing ultra-liberal new India.
This book becomes a comprehensive sourcebook of Asian comics, as produced in certain Asian countries barring the Western Asia, Central Asia and Japan. This book is recommended for the researchers of popular culture, visual culture and history of comic studies in Asia.
Anup Kumar Das, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India