Town Boy (:01 First Second)

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Malaysian artist Lat pairs spacious storytelling and a simplified art style in this sequel to the critically lauded Kampung Boy.

 

 

 

192 pgs. B&W; $16.95 softcover

(W / A: Lat)

 

With every major bookstore chain’s shelves clogged with Japanese comics (as well as Chinese and Korean books that borrow much from them stylistically), it’s nice to have books like Town Boy reaching American shores to show that there’s much more to the world of Asian comics than the stereotypical "manga style." Credited in the book’s promotional material as "one of Southeast Asia’s most beloved cartoonists," Lat (a.k.a. Mohammed Nor Khalid) works in an unusual style that feels like the halfway point between the classic cartoon-iness of Sergio Aragones and the exaggerated anatomy of "Keep On Truckin’"-era R. Crumb. Characters’ faces are illustrated in a caricature-ish visual shorthand of massive overbites and snout-like noses, their movements captured with bowed legs and impossibly arched backs that look like they could snap in half at any second. At first blush, the art can seem crude and simplistic, but working "widescreen" with a series of full-page illustrations and two-page spreads, Lat is able to cram so many subtle details onto the pages that he opens up a whole vibrant new world.

The cover to Town Boy by Lat. Click for a larger image.First published in Lat’s native Malaysia in 1980, this sequel to Lat’s earlier Kampung Boy—which, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out I have not read—once again follows Mat, a young boy coming of age in Malaysia in the middle part of the 20th century. Where Kampung Boy followed Mat’s daily life in a small village, Town Boy opens with 10-year-old Mat moving to the big city of Ipoh to attend school. There, Mat befriends a young Chinese boy named Frankie, who introduces him not only to another side of Malaysian life but also to Western pop culture in the form of American movies and rock music. About halfway through its pages, the book jumps ahead to 1968, where a 17-year-old Mat discovers the world of art even as he struggles with teenage troubles like grades, girls, and playing flute in the school marching band.

More than anything, Town Boy is a series of moments. Frankie and Mat play air guitar to Bill Haley records. An overly-energetic teacher encourages a class full of boys that art can be anything, and their reply is a whole heap of drawings of half-naked girls. A chance encounter with town beauty Normah leads to possible romantic entanglements. Each one is told with poignancy and impeccable craft, using minimal words and simplistic pictures to brilliant effect.

The problem, however, is that these moments don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Though the individual scenes are often excellently executed, as a whole the book seems to lack a purpose, goal, or unifying theme to unite the work. The huge time gap doesn’t help either; the stories of Mat at ages 10 and 17 don’t feel connected, yet neither one is complete enough to stand as a story in its own right. The book ends up reading less like a fully formed coming-of-age story than a simple series of vignettes, and the book’s final pages fail to tie these vignettes together in any appreciable way. Ultimately, Town Boy feels disjointed and half-formed, in spite of the incredible skill displayed in its finer moments. | Jason Green

Click here for a 12-page preview, courtesy of :01 First Second Books!

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