Equilibrium: Comic Books

(Warning: this is going to be one of those tedious blog entries along the lines of “ I woke up, brushed my teeth, didn’t make the bed and went to work. When I got there I …”)

It’s kind of amazing when you reach the point of “I’ve bought everything I want, and there isn’t anything else I want that money can buy.” I really don’t want anything else for Christmas.

That equilibrium doesn’t last though. Inevitably you encounter something that inspires desire in you, and no, it’s not available at the library for checking out.

But last night, I hit the sweet-spot when I bought Volumes 1-4 of the English translation of Dr. Slump comic strip (which originally appeared in Japanese.) This was one of my favorite TV cartoons when I was growing up. I understand Vol. 5 is in the works.

The interest in comics is a recent phenomenon with me, or so I thought.

I just realized I have a lot of comic books.

[It’s the indie comic strips that I’ve recently discovered. It started with the food writing workshop I recently completed. The instructor brought in various volumes on what else? Food. Including some comics such as Adams Sachs’ “Salmon Doubts”. The artist who produced our book cover, Thien Pham, is known for his restaurant reviews in the East Bay Express done in . . . a comic strip format. (They introduced me to Jason Shiga’s works.) Since then, I’ve been checking out the graphic novel sections of the library.]

I have the complete Asterix and Tintin (English version) collection (which I mostly got for cheap from India!), for childhood nostalgia’s sake. I used to check them all out from the Neilson Hayes Library. While I like the simpler looking artwork of Herge, the Asterix series is just plain funnier.

The comic books I collected earlier were almost like souvenirs from my travels, but unlike T-shirts, they provide longer-lasting insight to foreign cultures. Of course it’s easier to understand if they have no words or are translated into English. But you can tell a lot just from the drawings!

Thailand: has put out a couple of notable comic books in recent years, both written by HM the King. Both orginally appeared as regular books in text, but due to their popularity, bilingual (Thai-English) cartoon editions were produced. Both were illustrated by Chai Rachawat. “Mahajanaka” was a one of the Jataka stories (Buddha’s life throughout his various incarnations). “The Story of Tongdaeng” is about HM’s favourite dog: originally a stray dog from the street. The interesting thing about the cartoon version of “Tongdaeng” is that in it, the King’s image is not drawn but shown in outline or shadow form. It’s hard to explain why, but it’s due to the enormous personal respect he commands as well as concerns with lese majeste/sacrilege. This aniconology reminds me of how early Buddhist art would show symbols of the Buddha, i.e. a an empty lotus pedestal seat or a Pho tree, but not the human form of the Buddha.

North Korea by way of Canada!: Guy Delisle: recently came out with a book “A Journey in North Korea” on his expat stay in the Hermit Kingdom (where they don’t like you toting a camera too much) It comes across like China in the 60’s.

China: There’s several volumes of social-economic commentary cartoons translated into English/French/German published by New World Press and China Today Press in the late 80’s. Reading them today, it’s interesting to observe how things were not too long ago, before China’s long-jump into cell-phone-toting, SUV-driving capitalism.

Hong Kong: “Lo Fu Tse” (Old Master Q) by Wong Chak is/was a staple in many Hong Konger’s childhood. The words were all written in Cantonese as it is spoken, which is unusual.

Wong Sze-Ma died in 1983: he was only 43, but he had produced a wonderful mom-dad-son “Ngau-chai” strip in the Ming Pao weekly paper: a tender portrayal of family life. A gentler Calvin without the Hobbes, if you will. Wong Sze-ma has a funny name: Wong is a surname, and Sze-Ma is also a surname, one of the few Chinese surnames with two words.

Larry Feign had a Lily Wong cartoon franchise (based on an opposite of Suzie Wong, no sleaze here) in the 80’s and 90’s. The pro-Beijing factions didn’t like his coverage of the 1997 handover wui-gwei.

Malaysia: Lat’s comic books deserve to be known internationally. (Jason Shiga pays tribute to him in his “Double Happiness” comic book.) They blend social-commentary and story-telling beautifully, especially when he reaches into the past to the Malaysia of his youth.

Singapore: There’s the Mr. Kiasu series, and the cheesier SPG (Sarong Party Girl or Sexually Proficient Goddess) series. The latter targets Singaporean women with a thing for white men! I came across both in the Changi Airport bookstore, where to their credit, the books cost the same as downtown. Singapore’s Asiapac press also puts out a lot of ‘educational’ comic books with a Sino-centric bent (which seems in keeping with goevernment’s heavy handed push of Chinese culture). But I’m more turned off by their hokey-looking artwork.

India: “This is Suki” by Manjula Padmanabhan (she also spent time at the same elementary school I went to in Bangkok, but before my time).

Czech Republic: Jiri Sliva does Magritte/advertising art-style cartoons. I came across his book “Slovnik beze slov” on the bargain table in a Prague bookstore, where I went for reprieve from the cold. Check out “Café Fetish”.

Iran/France: Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” series poignantly captures Iranian exile.

Argentina: Quino is known for his Mafalda strip. It’s also been translated into Chinese, but not in English. I bought an anthology called ‘de Viaje con Quino’ in Mexico that has many language-free cartoons.
There’s also Maitena’s “Mujeres Alterada” series, which seems to be of a Bridget Jones bent. It’s text-heavy in Spanish, so I haven’t made much of a dent in it. (I got it in Madrid.)

Here home in America, I like Bizarro by Dan Pirraro, and the Fusco Brother’s by J.C. Duffy. And guess what, I didn’t know that the Simpsons also came in book form, until I bought a “Super Humor Simpson” (in Spanish!) in Tijuana!

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