June 28, 2010

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Kampung Boy

Written by LAT
Illustrated by LAT
First Second

A young boy from rural Malaysia grows up before the eyes of the reader in this loosely autobiographical work from LAT, a cartoonist well known in his home country but making his debut in English here. Watch as he experiences life without the constraints of adulthood and slowly learns what a boy in his country can and cannot do, forming friendships along the way.

I'd actually read "Town Boy" first a few years ago, but I'm glad to have gotten the chance to read this book, LAT's first in what I hope is an ongoing series, though I only see this and its sequel on First Second's website. I always enjoy getting to read comics from other countries, and because this one is autobiographical in nature, it's even more of a treat for me.

I love getting to learn about other cultures through the medium of comics, because the author usually isn't trying to make things better or worse than they actually were. Plus, given the constraints of space and time within the comic, there's only room for so much and the boring crap gets left out. Is there exaggeration? Of course, but then again, what autobiography is free from that sin?

In LAT's case, he's honest that these early adventures are tinted by the lens of his mother. After all, who remembers what happened to them when they born? Soon enough, LAT is school age, sent to a strict master, who gets to discipline the students with the rod, a practice that might seem harsh until you remember, this is the 1950s we're talking about, and it was just as common in the United States.

An imp who's bound to remind you of the fictional Calvin or front cover blurb writer Matt Groening's Bart Simpson, LAT's avatar gets into all sorts of adventures with his new-found friends. They fish and swim and experience things for the first time, like powdered milk or fleeing from the police. It's all very innocent, which is probably a bit of polish on LAT's part, but the key is that, though the specific items might be different, anyone reading this is going to make connections to these young boys. I know how much fun it was to just duck into the woods and stay out all afternoon, never knowing what I'd find. My first wedding puzzled the heck out of me, but I'm pretty sure my dad never cut a rug on the dance floor. Maybe yours did.

Regardless, I can't see anyone coming away from this book not making connections to LAT and his world. While some things might be so very different, there's a commonality to the experience of growing up that shines through on every page.

Kampung boy also helps to get a feel for what it was like in Asia during the same time period that America was feeling the chill of the Cold War. LAT uses illustrations on every page that, in their scribbled detail, give us a picture of what daily life was like, from the setup of buildings to the jungle to the dress of the people he meets. LAT is definitely of the school of artists who use loose, exaggerated lines to tell his story, but despite (because?) of the long necks, huge bodies, and other visual tricks, I feel like we get a very vivid picture of the world in which he grew up.

First Second is really good at finding these gems and putting them out for an English audience. If you like stories of growing up or just want to sample the comic art of another country, I can highly recommend Kampung Boy. It's a great book, and I wish we'd see more from LAT in English soon.