The Multifarious Body (of Work)
During the Dutch colonial occupation, the first Indonesian comic strip was published in 1931 in Sin Po, a Peranakan Chinese Malay-language newspaper from Jakarta. Si Put On was published once a week every Thursday, narrating a comical story about the life of a Chinese-Indonesian man living in Jakarta who never succeeds at finding a wife due to humorous mishaps during his everyday life. The author of this work — who only started signing it in 1957 — was Kho Wan Gie, a Chinese-Indonesian artist who also co-founded an organization of Chinese artists called Mei Shu Yen Tsiu Hui together with other fellow artists. Among them was the well-known comic artist Siauw Tik Kwie (Otto Swastika) who illustrated the story of Sie Djin Koei published in Star Weekly in 1952 among other comic strips he did for various newspapers (Siang Po, Sin Tit Po, Star Magazine, or Liberty). Before independence, comics were only presented in a strip format, and by 1949 US comics like Tarzan, Rip Kirby, or Johnny Hazard were also published as strips in Keng Po or through the publishers Gapura (Jakarta) and Perfects (Malang).
The period after independence is particularly interesting for the production of comics not only as they began to be printed in book formats and gained popularity, but it was also seen as a time when Indonesia’s nationhood and its links with the world were being vigorously negotiated on the wide cultural front. Being culturally modern also meant participating in new forms of popular entertainment. This was a period of intense cultural mobility and cosmopolitanism, when the question of Indonesian-ness was both an outcome of independence and modernity, as well as an issue of culture. During this heady time of nation-building, Indonesian responses to the question of culture and modernity were reflected in different forms of artistic expression. Literature, drama, painting, sculpture and music were more easily considered ‘modern’ because their newness was inherent in both the form itself (non indigenous) and the language (Indonesian).
Research has often focused on analyzing this period of Indonesia’s search for a cultural identity as one of conflict between the two main ideologies of the time that dominated artistic productions, namely between Lekra (People’s Cultural Association) and Manikebu (Cultural Manifesto). Yet there is scarce research related to how popular culture responded or marked this complex period, or the roles Chinese-Indonesian artists had within these complex socio-political and cultural changes. Comics were an even more visibly new and modern cultural form, which rapidly spread in the ‘50s as local adaptations of their Western counterparts. During this time, comics productions and the printing industry were mostly led by Indonesian artists of Chinese descent, such as RA Kosasih, John Lo, Siauw Tik Kwie, Lie Ay Poen, Kam Seng Kioe, Lie Djoen Liem, Kwik Ing Hoo, Kong Ong, and others. Amidst this search for an identity in post-independence Indonesia, what role did these comics producers play? How was the nation and the national identity imagined through the alternative world of comics and through the subjectivities of the authors?
As imported cultural forms from the “new” West (the “old” West from Europe was now replaced by the two new superpowers of American capitalism and Soviet socialism as the main sources of modern models), comics were increasingly penetrating the urban markets of Indonesia (mainly through Medan and other city ports) by the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s. During the first years of the fifties, increasing protests began to take place, by parents and educators demanding to stop the spread and consumption of Western comics considered to be a bad influence on the Indonesian youth. There was a need to seek out sources of national culture that could contribute to the shaping of a national identity, a need that publishing houses of the time quickly sought to fulfill. In 1953, RA Kosasih, also known as the father of Indonesian comics, was hired by the publisher Melodie in Bandung and began producing some of his most well-known comics, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, which were inspired by a repertoire of Indonesian folk stories. This marked the beginning of Wayang comics.
While this period focused on that search for a modern Indonesian identity in culture, and in comics as well, the traditional sources of national culture were being re-imagined and re-presented in various ways by the comic makers and producers of the time. These sources ranged between Chinese folk tales, Malay history, colonial warfare, and local super heroes and heroines adapted from Javanese, Minahasan, Minangkabau, or Sundanese legends, among others, or local adaptations of Western characters narrated in Indonesian language. John Lo was another Chinese-Indonesian comic artist who produced famous characters like Putri Bintang and Garuda Putih by 1954. Two years later, Wiro Anak Rimba Indonesia was published by Toko Buku Liong in Semarang as another way to imagine a local Tarzan travelling across the archipelago, a teenage white-skin Java-born Indonesian boy named Wiro.
How did Toko Buku Liong play its part in imagining the nation through the authors’ own subjectivities, as emphasized in the previous volume? Is the heterogeneity of the comics produced a reflection of how they perceived themselves as Indonesians and the nation itself?
Kammik Toko Buku Liong
Toko Buku Liong was a bookstore and independent comic production house a typical for its time when most comics were either imported by large newspapers, or produced by artists working full time in large publication houses like Melodie in Bandung. There were no independent comic producers at that time to publish timely comic books in the history of Indonesia as we see in the productions of Toko Buku Liong (TBL). Another important feature was that it operated through collaborations with various artists and writers, directed by the couple Lie Djoen Liem and Ong King Nio, as we see in Wiro (a collaboration between Lie Djoen Liem himself and Kwik Ing Hoo), Sie Djin Koei (between Kam Seng Kioe and Ben Be Thong Ling), and other anonymous comics that were a result of collective efforts (keroyokan).
Dapat dibeli dari Toko-toko buku di seluruh Indonesia atau langsung kepada: TOKO BUKU “LIONG”
Around 1954–55, TBL published Indri Sudono’s Dagelan Petruk Gareng in 12 signed volumes. This comic appears to be the first that brings the Punakawan stories (the clown servants of the hero: Semar, Petruk, Gareng, Bagong) in a comic format, opening a new sub-genre for Indonesian comics, “cergam Petruk-Gareng” that inspired other famous comic artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s like Tatang S.
Other local characters created at TBL were Pak Sabar dan Keluarga and Dagelan Hardjo Tingtong, also signed by Indri Sudono.
Siapakah! Siapakah! Jang dapat mentjiptakan SAM KOK dalam Tjeritera Gambar Berurutan Djika bukan LIONG’s KAMMIK?
Chinese folk tales were the main subjects published in volumes at TBL under the category of “Chinese Classics”, such as the tales of See Yoe, Sam Po, Hong Sin, Sam Kok, and Sie Djin Koei. This latter one, published in 1954, appears to be the first time the story has been compiled into a book format, spanning 9 volumes and authored by Kam Seng Kioe with illustrations by Be Thong Ling. It differed from the comic of Siaw Tik Kwie — which was translated by OKT (Oei Kim Tia) from the original story into Indonesian — as Kam Seng wrote a new story based on the original folktale.
In the list of books published by Liong, there are different categories of publications targeted for different audiences. Besides “Chinese Classics”, one could find “Entertainment for Young and Adults”, or the category for “Ladies” which included publications on food (Chinese, European, and Indonesian), adult and children’s fashion, tailoring, and photography.
Wiro Anak Rimba Indonesia, Volume 3. Credit: Archives of Daniel Lie
Ong King Nio, Lie Djoen Liem’s wife and partner, was instrumental in running the shop, managing finances, running errands, and taking care of the large family, all while also writing and producing small publications on fashion and food which she signed under the name “Eleonora”.
Based on the memories of Lie and Ong’s children, we now know that Ong King Nio was also involved in the creation of the comics, including Wiro Anak Rimba Indonesia, and was an active collaborator on many of the texts. The role of women in publishing or comics has been widely overlooked by historians and researchers. The comic industry continues to be male-dominated until today.
Toko Buku Liong stopped its activities in 1958, when the family migrated to Brazil. They only brought along fragments of their published comics, as well as a non-published comic still in the process of being written and edited. The rest are scattered in different private collections and many have been republished by other publishers, yet the issues of copyrights remain unknown to us.
An unpublished comic. Credit: Archives of Daniel Lie