Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sequart #30: Kampung Boy, Town Boy, Missouri Boy

This article was originally written for in 2006.
One of the really encouraging developments in recent years in the comics industry has been the increasing number of publishing houses that have started up a graphic novel imprint. This has been happening in fits and starts for some time now, but it seems like the bookstore market has reached a point where it's easier to sell things that aren't just manga or collected superhero comics. Of course, it's also helped that there seem to be smarter people running those new comics imprints, people with an eye for talent and stories that will sell in America.

One of them is Mark Siegel, who's the head of the First Second line from Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishers. Raised on European comics, he brings that sensibility to his line of books in terms of style and appearance, though they're published in a more standard American graphic novel format rather than the European album. This gives him a bit more flexibility with the length of his stories.

As far as the content goes, Siegel is all over the map. He's publishing a number of books aimed squarely at kids, especially books by Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. There are books closely examining historical events. Above all else, there is a strong international flavor in his roster. There are three Frenchmen, one Scot, one Belgian and the great Malaysian artist Lat in addition to a number of Americans.

In this article, I'm focusing in on two books that bear a lot of similarities to each other: Lat's Kampung Boy and Leland Myrick's Missouri Boy. Both are memoirs that look and feel completely different, both artistically and in terms of intent. Both are dominated by a current-day narrative perspective, but the authors employ this device for different ends. Myrick's book is complete unto itself and has a rather definitive conclusion, while this was just the first volume of many for Lat in describing his life growing up. Both are small-town boys in rural areas of their countries. Both love swimming and shenanigans with friends, and both try to gain perspective on their extended families. Beyond the surface differences of the two men, the primary difference between the two books is one of tone. There's an air of melancholy in Myrick's book that's absent in Lat's matter-of-fact but all-embracing account of his childhood.

That melancholy is expressed in the way Myrick breaks up his chapters and the sometimes overbearing language he chooses to employ. Each chapter comes from a different year in his life and essentially contains one anecdote. That sort of choppiness breaks up the smoother continuity we see in Lat's book, and it's a deliberate attempt at jarring the reader out of comfort. Myrick's anecdotes mix sweet, visceral memories with a background of discomfort. It's clear that as he grows older, he feels more and more out of place in Missouri. The later anecdotes, where he's working as an X-ray tech and details his encounters with corpses and frustrated love, feel like well-traveled ground in the world of autobiographical comics. The book loses the power it had in discussing his earlier childhood, especially the chapters where his friends go to a swimming hole and Leland wonders about the future.

The most powerful chapter is "The Resurrection", where young Leland engages in a game with friends where he hides in a pile of leaves and is supposed to jump out of it, scaring his buddies. Instead, they piss on him when he gets out. We can feel his rage and impotence. I liked the way he shows himself merging with the leaves, with some panels reminiscent of David B. His use of color intensifies his otherwise somewhat flat design choices here and throughout the book. The last chapter shows him leaving Missouri, developing the courage that he found himself losing as a young adult by learning how to ride a motorcycle and head to California. It's clear that at that time, Missouri is no longer home for him.

I think this is the central reason why I had some difficulty with this book. Myrick clearly viewed the journey from Missouri to California as the completion of a coming-of-age ritual that allowed him to fully develop as a person. The beach he encounters at the end clearly represents a new potential for freedom and the possibility of acting on his desires (creative and otherwise). This book largely seems to be an examination of those touchstones of memory that used to be important to him, but they are so heavily layered with his current perspective (represented by his somewhat stiff attempts at a poetic narrative) that it just feels like he's trying too hard. The chapters where Myrick tries to imbue each memory with Meaning through his narrative captions simply don't work as well as simpler chapters like "Old Man's Chair", where his father simply sits in a new recliner, the weight of the day ebbing from his face. It's clear that Leland hadn't thought of his father as old before this moment.

That chapter works well because Myrick trusts in the power of his images to get his point across. Ultimately, his inability to do this on a consistent basis is why Missouri Boy was not fully successful. His narrative text undermines his story at times, weighing down the images unnecessarily. The poetic language he employs simply falls flat at times, with lines like "Through a wispy umbilical of ectoplasm we didn't even know what we shared, arching between the living and the dead, connecting beginnings to ends, passing memories through the ether one belly to another" overselling a simple image of an umbilical cord shared by he and his twin brother in one panel connecting to their dead grandmother in another.

Myrick writes about alienation, but we don't have a real sense of why he felt impotent and incapable of expressing himself. The book concludes with some rather ham-fisted symbolism, as he decides to ride to California to start a new life there. He sprawls on a beach, with an ocean of possibilities before him and his old life gone. As he is traveling west, he cycles through his memories both sweet and sad, and we understand that he feels that he must shed their hold in order to become a fully-functioning person. But there's no insight as to why he couldn't do that at home, and why that symbolic and literal journey should be so transformative.

Contrast Myrick's melancholy to Lat's joyful and expressive account of his childhood. Lat's Kampung Boy is more illustrated text than traditional sequential narrative, with few word balloons or panel-to-panel transitions. Yet his holistic page design and knack for narrative flow unites the text and image on each page in a way that Myrick's book sometimes lacks. The cover copy compared Lat's work to Charles Schulz's, but Lat's work is more vibrant and kinetic. His pared-down face and figure work pops off the page, almost like a Sergio Aragonnes strip. The exaggerated teeth and facial expressions combined with his stumpy children and mops of hair draw the reader in and allow us to to empathize with young Lat. At the same time, he isn't afraid to use lush backgrounds and bold splash pages in order to emphasize his more adventurous escapades. Growing up in a rural Mayalasian kampung (village) allowed him to draw all sorts of beautiful outdoor scenery.

While the temptation to portray his childhood as exotic must have been strong, Lat goes completely in the other direction. His narrative tone is matter-of-fact and slightly wry. Though he views his upbringing with enormous affection, he's not blind to conflicts between his parents or his own fears as a child. Still, Lat clearly relishes recounting tales of the local swimming hole, learning how to fish, getting an education and otherwise becoming a good and studious Muslim. Even as Lat recounts a period of many years, the reader is made to experience them as one day slipping into another, rather than a jolt between each memory. The accumulation of small details builds up as the book goes on, giving the reader a vivid picture of life in the kampung.

A key in the rather divergent memories and accounts of the pasts of the two authors comes at the end of Kampung Boy. Lat must go off to boarding school when he becomes a young adult, and he is worried that his kampung may no longer exist in the way he remembered it. His parents were thinking of selling off their land to tin miners and move to the big city, and so the way of life he took for granted might completely change. Not being able to go home again terrified him even as he relished his opportunity for a new life. The possibility of this loss made him treasure those memories even more, but he still retained enough perspective so as not to gloss over them too much. Lat's mischievous nature and curiosity got him in trouble more often than not, but his genuine respect and love for his family & culture was just as palpable. Lat is perhaps a bit less introspective than Myrick, but in no way is he less self-aware. That's the key to the success of this work; its pleasures are small and not earth-shaking, but the author understands this and lets this be enough for him as a creator.

Lat in his own account was someone who was constantly acting. Myrick, in his story, was someone who reacted or was acted upon until the very end. As a reader, that spelled the difference between a warm reminiscence of one's origins and the navel-gazing that plagued Missouri Boy. The latter almost felt like something the author needed to get out of his system, while the former had stories and memories that simply poured out of its creator. For Myrick, growing up in a rural environment was something that he can only start to appreciate now, and only through a filter of poetic language. For Lat, this was something he could treasure all along.

Town Boy by Lat, the second book in a series of autobiographical reminiscences, is a smart, knowing look at the ridiculousness of the teenaged years. Above all else, it's about the ways in which boys connect. It has a combination of wit, warmth and total mastery of the comics form that delighted me from beginning to end. These books recall his childhood growing up in Malaysia. The first book details the bucolic charms of growing up in a forest village and interacting with nature. This book is all about his adolescence in the city. It's divided into roughly two parts: the first gives us glimpses of Lat (named Mat here) as a 13-year-old, trying to fit into a new way of life; and the second is about him as a 17-year-old, now too cool for school.

The book seems to be quite episodic at first, stringing a long a series of amusing stories that appear to be unconnected. Lat later picks up threads in unexpected ways, adding emotional resonance to some stories and humorous weight to punchlines in others. While Kampung Boy put much of its focus on his family, Town Boy is about his teenaged friends. As such, the memories put down on the page are more whimsical than wistful, and one can imagine Lat laughing as he was drawing these anecdotes. The first section of the book sets up his friendship with a Chinese boy named Charlie, who loves rock 'n roll (it's the 1950s), and they form a bond through music. Kampung Boy presented a way of life very different from the typical city dweller (not to mention American), but Town Boy is filled with familiar situations and feelings.

The latter half of the book is remarkable for both warmhearted recollections and hilarious set pieces--with both going on simultaneously. Lat's narration is very dry and straightforward, letting his visuals do the work of expressing his sense of humor. The way he depicts himself and his friends as teens is a wonderful bit of ego-deflating. They all wear sunglasses; walk with a purposeful, leaning strut; and like to hang out in public places, leaning up against walls. Lat relates all sorts of tales about his eight school chums, but the best is when the prettiest girl in town asks him for advice about art. After he critiques her work, he manages to talk her into seeing a movie with him. His friends, stunned and slack-jawed at Mat's achievement, stare at them through a cafe window and then follow them at a distance as they walk to the movie theatre. All the while, their astonishment never leaves their collective faces as they follow them.

This sequence speaks to Lat's mastery and imagination as a cartoonist. He isn't afraid to vary his composition and page design dramatically and rapidly. We might see a two-page spread of a single scene with no dialogue, just a short bit of narration. We might see a standard page with a familiar grid and plenty of word baloons. We might see close-ups, pages with a single panel and lots of negative space, pages jam-packed with detail and motion, and completely silent pages. Lat never changes his linework; he evokes different feelings strictly through design and composition. His line is scribbly, frenetic and exaggerated--perfect for depicting the hustle & bustle of daily life. At the same time, he's capable of remarkable emotional subtlety with his line as he varies his page design.

In the date sequence, he manages to convey an obviously important bit of intimacy between Mat and this girl, with a wonderfully awkward conversation. Lat would draw two or three pages of this conversation in a standard grid format, flipping between the two of them. Unexpectedly, Lat would then pan back on the next page and we'd see his friends following them en masse, looking stunned, in the background. It's a tremendous running gag that gets funnier every time Lat turns his audience's attention back to the romantic date and then springs it on us again.

If Lat's books have a weakness, it's that these stories are almost too upbeat. There's no angst or tragedy; even when his best friend leaves for England, there's no tears. Of course, that can only be considered a weakness in the context of what I expect in a story about teenagers: lots of sturm und drang. It's pretty obvious that it wasn't Lat's mission to root out the negative experiences of what was clearly a pretty happy childhood. Lat was going after quotidian humor that a wide audience could appreciate and relate to, and evoked this with an astounding degree of skill. Lat's book details that need for companionship at its purest and most basic level. The joys found in this book reflect the joys he felt growing up with his friends. If there were no tears in that final scene, part of that may have been because he knew what he had shared with Charlie wasn't really ending, and part of that may have been because the nature of adolescent male friendships doesn't allow for that kind of display. Either way, Lat frantically bicycling down to see Charlie before he left showed us what this friendship meant to him, and devoting this book to that friendship makes it even clearer.

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