I gave this talk at Squishface Comic Studio in Brunswick VIC on November 23. I worked on it for about a month after leaving Indonesia, and finished it in time to beat the Christmas/New Year rush in Australia. In that time, I transcribed about 10 hours of interviews, and organized them as best I could. Inevitably, I ended up with a quite simple analysis, and I would certainly like to accomplish more nuance the next time I use this information in something I publish! I talk about some of my future plans for this in the presentation.
The small group that I presented to at Squishface were very eager to ask questions, discuss, and compare comics in Indonesia and Australia. Some topics that we discussed were censorship, the role of Gramedia (Indonesian book publisher and book seller) and forms of competition. In this talk, I set up print manga translations as the main competitor to Indonesian comics, but nowadays a bigger competitor is free online content.
Further feedback is always appreciated!
A big thank you to everyone I interviewed, including the people whose voices I wasn’t able to transcribe and cite in this stage of the project. Thank you to Ben Hutcho at Squishface for letting me present, and for everyone who came to listen and ask questions.
This presentation was written and presented on stolen land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. The challenges to comics industries that I talk about here are themselves tied up in the history of Dutch and Japanese colonization in Indonesia, and continued repression under capitalism and white supremacy. It’s all connected.
Further reading in English:
Hikmat Darmawan’s 2017 book Comics in Indonesia (1929-2017): Equatorial Imagination was very valuable. I got my copy directly from him, but I’m going to ask about other ways to get it. It was released at the Equatorial Imagination exhibition in Brussels.
These articles got me into Indonesian comics:
A note on alt text
I used two kinds of ways of displaying photos on WordPress, to share the drawings I made for this presentation. One kind of way supports alt text for image descriptions. The other, that I used to tile the double page spreads, doesn’t, so I put the text for those in the image’s scrollover text instead. That’s why some images have those captions.
Ok. On with the show.
Hello! Thanks for coming to my presentation. Every year the Watson foundation, which traces its money to IBM computers, pays for a year of travel for 40 recent American university grads. This year I was one of those chosen. I decided to spend that time exploring comics communities in Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and Germany. I want to make a comic book in which I’ll try to answer the broad question of how and why comics communities sustain themselves.
Before coming here I spent two months in Indonesia. This presentation is me answering that question of how cartoonists sustain themselves, there. I’m drawing from several interviews to explore people’s strategies. I’m going to talk about the history of Indonesian comics and it’s present challenges, about the particular structures of neighborhood, school, and industry that underlie comics organizations, how cartoonists and their organizations find the MONEY for all this, and what, to my knowledge, are the outcomes in terms of style and storytelling.
I became interested in Indonesian comics after reading a few articles about how they were rebuilding the comics industry after the censorship and economic depression of Suharto. (Laine Berman’s 2005 Comic Heyday! at Inside Indonesia, and Adi Renaldi’s Can Indonesian Comics Rise Up in a Market Dominated by Manga Translations, 2016, Vice Indonesia)
When the markets opened up in the 90s, as part of the Indonesian reformation, Japanese comics swooped in and cornered the market. So I was interested in the struggle to a) make space for Indonesian cartoonists, and b) build an Indonesian style of comics, or an Indonesian visual identity, that is independent from Manga and other foreign influences.
I think I started with this very high minded, abstract way of looking at these goals, like looking at it on this theoretical level. In talking to people, I became more grounded in the idea that things like a “national style” exist foremost to serve the communication needs of individual, complex artists and readers. Making comics is fun, cathartic, and exploratory! Everyone, in an ideal world, would have the opportunity to embrace those things. I saw this sentiment most strongly embodied by teachers of comics. From Alva Zpalanzani, a professor of comics and games at the Institut Teknologi Bandung:
The point of the content that we deliver is how we manage or how we develop our signature of comics by ourselves. So we tend to make them free to choose their visual forms and visual styles, but we develop more on how they develop the story or how they depict the story, and pour it into a series of sequences and visuals that depict Indonesia on his or her way.
That’s our main objective in delivering comic studies or comic course in our school. …That people say “oh! I know this kind of story! I know these people, just like my neighbors!” That’s the goal that we develop.
More than style, Alva is interested in empowering students to share their realities. Danang Catur, a Yogyakarta based organizer, teacher, and zine distributor, has a similar goal for the summer camp he runs for high school students:
Sometimes we don’t think that the student someday will be a great artist, but now we think that’s why the student needs to join the workshop. Because comics is one of medium, media, for they to say something or for they to want to talk about their environment.
TLDR, there is a desire to promote comics as a means of self expression and reflection, and a need to create venues to do this.
So, On what ground is this community built? Many of the folks I talked to are trying to sustain, in some capacity, these venues for self-reflection, as well as building the industry. Organizations that teach comics and help cartoonists promote their work emerge from preexisting social structures. As comics editor and producer Jho Tan says, Community is embedded in our blood – the skills and desire to organize are already there, particularly in Indonesian culture.
This concept was introduced to me by cultural worker and academic Terra Bajraghosa, when I asked him about the tendency towards grassroots comics and street art collectives in his hometown of Yogyakarta.
Before the school, before the university or the art school, and the high school … we have the kampung, the village. In the village we usually get together also, do something, make something. And maybe after we go to school, we make something, call them communities. And after we go to the university, we meet people with the same hobby, the same idea. We group. …. And I don’t know why, but when we do like this, from comic-comic point of view, it’s easier. ‘I want to make comic, but I only have four pages. How many pages you have?’ ‘I have eight’. ‘Then, why don’t we make a compilation?’ So from there, they make comic communities.
The culture of the kampung, or the village, forms an underlying framework that has some degree of influence on school and university groups. In Yogyakarta, comics collectives largely come out of the art classes at Institut Seni Indonesia, or the Indonesian art institute. Not every regional comics scene has that degree of connection to an art school. Nonetheless, many of the conventions are put on at universities, and they’re a big part of how people build professional connections. According to Alva, “the comics events sporadically activated by the students, especially university students.” University clubs are scattered throughout the fabric of Indonesian comics publishing. When I asked her about breaking into comics during the turn of the millennium indie comics trend, cartoonist Azisa Noor offered some historical perspective about the role of Institut Teknologi Bandung in building up the present community:
I started making work around ‘99 (…) in ‘99 there was this really big (…) comic exhibition. It’s called Komik Merdeka, or ‘Comics for Freedom’. And it’s in ITB, and they basically manage to scrounge up all of the comic collectives in Java to be in one place! And that was the first time I saw, wow, there are Indonesian comic artists. Like, alive.
Various universities continued to develop connections between collectives. Writer and filmmaker Hikmat Darmawan describes how different schools helped develop different regional popular styles.
Jogja is very different (…) from Jakarta and Bandung. While in Jakarta, I think in 1990s period, we could always see the distinction between comic artists: the independent, the indie comics artist; that have background from art academy; and other university. Like Tri Sakti and Puncasila: the artists from Puncasila University or Tri Sakti University usually develop a greater affinity to manga style. So many of them aspire to be a local mangaka.
When I talked to cartoonist Nadiyah Rizki, she had recently started her own club at Institut Teknologi Bandung. She said that most of the other members were still interested in the manga style. It’s sort of a staple there.
… this year, my friend and I made a new collective in the student union. It’s called Gadjah Komik. It’s for the students of all majors who want to draw comics together, and share about comics.
When I asked Alva, “So in terms of the broader comic community, people sort of socialize or make connections based on their university?”, he replied that yes, that is often the groundwork of comics community, but people continue to organize through life as they pass into the wider industry:
Usually based on a university, the community of comic readers, and also comic artists. The second one is when the comic artists usually gather through their preferences, they will create (…) specific communities.
He goes on to cite, for instance, urban sketchers as one such specialty group. Like Terra, Alva is also interested in professional groups as a ground for production in volume. (combining your pages to make a compilation, for instance)
Such groups are also a place where people can address topics through their work that they might not otherwise have time for. Azisa, who has three studios with other cartoonists, explains the need for studios as both professional and social spaces:
If we don’t have the studio, we would not have the drive to make comics about things that we really want to, because we work in comics.
Independent studios could be, for some folks, what keeps the spark alive with them and comics.
In short, comics communities can be modeled off of neighborhood or school dynamics, or be tailored to the concerns of the industry. There are also some complications when trying to organize! I heard about challenges related to generational divides, gender, and the challenges of coordinating across islands.
One recurring theme was the challenge of sustaining a particular group or event as the original organizers aged out. It is a challenge to connect people of different ages, so that new folks can step up. Azisa says:
…there seems to be a lack of regeneration of people who actually take care of these communities. I used to take care of a community in Bandung, but then I had to work. But then I had no one to pass it on, so no one hosts these meetings. And so eventually we ended up only in these comicons.
Alva suggests that big events are needed to help bridge these divides and foster intergenerational appreciation:
I think cultural events (…) is the best venue for interaction among generations. Because some of the activities that I saw, and the events, “Oh! There is an old comic like this!” For the younger generation. Or maybe the older one will see, “Oh! It’s new development!” And sometimes they appreciate if the younger generation create comics inspired by the previous generation’s IPs, and also contents.
BUT it’s a self-fulfilling cycle, if you can’t find young people to take on organizational roles to sustain the festivals! One solution has been implemented by cartoonist Beng Rahadian – setting up discussions between older and younger members of the community to try to build those relationships.
Another challenge in sustaining comics groups, and drumming up support for cartoonists, is exacerbated by geography. Indonesia’s dominant cultures are those of Java and Jakarta. My work also skewed this way, because I spent all my time on Java. Much of Indonesia is remote from these centers – a challenge for those who want to access the industry from outside the metropole. The internet has started to change this, somewhat, but it’s still a significant issue. Jho, who is based in Jakarta, hopes to find ways to embrace Indonesian diversity in the market through her role as a producer:
Indonesia is not a continent, right… We are comprised of very different cultures. So the temperment is all different. And I think that that could be our strength, but for now we’re still trying to find our ways. The way we handle people, you know. (…) Right now we’re working with Malang. Artists from Malang, writers from Malang – which is near Jogja. We work with two Yogyakarta artists… We try to employ more people from different provinces. Because they usually bring different, you know, je ne sais quoi.
She also works with artists from Kalimantan, Sumatra, and Sulawesi. As everywhere, there are also city-by-city differences within Java. I talk about how Jogja is more indie, Bandung has a manga inflection, and Jakarta is more commercial and the seat of the industry.
Another baked in complication, wherever you’re trying to organize people, is the pre existing prejudices of the society. A few comments about gender in comics scenes struck a note for me, for instance. Azisa called out guys not pulling their weight in organizing the fests:
Most of the community that actually does things is because there are girls inside! If it’s just a bunch of guys, then they’re just gonna smoke in a circle.
I also encountered a desire to remake existing comics traditions with more gender-inclusive content. Of the Indonesian martial arts genre Cerita Sila, popular in the 70s, cartoonist Stephani Soejono says:
I was thinking … it would be interesting to have a woman do something in that time period, ‘cause not a lot of people have been tinkering with that time period. Not a lot of women. From what I have read a lot of men have been doing kung fu stories back in the day, and then the girls are like, “Oh! Thank you! You saved me!” You know, it’s like very chivalric.
(At the same time, Stephani is careful not to erase the presence of female warriors such as Sri Asih in Cerita Sila canon.)
Finally, Azisa talked about the very practical dangers of IRL communities, specifically in the early days of the Indonesian comics renaissance:
… I think that’s why a lot of offline communities right now are very small: it’s just four people, five people, because it’s safe. As someone who grew up as a female comic artist in the indie phase, it can get a bit unsafe, as a girl. (…) We grew up in this time, through the indie comic phase of it, and we have a collection of stalkers … That’s what happens, because I mean, some of these guys have not interacted with girls before, and so for a lot of those comic artists at that time, we were the first girls that they interacted with. And because we feel like we have to be nice, then like, ‘omigod, she’s nice to me.’ And so we collected…
Thankfully, it seems like women have built a bit more safety for themselves as their corner of the comics world has expanded. But Azisa’s words were an interesting caution, that tempered my broad desire to cheerlead growth in IRL groups. It’s important to have strategies to address abuse. These conversations enforced, to me, the idea that any group is a microcosm of the broader community, with prejudices and other challenges baked in.
Beyond negotiating these social, interpersonal challenges, there is the obvious question of how one is going to pay for the printing, the web hosting, the studio space, etc. Nadiyah paraphrases Reimena Yee’s suggestion to fund the industry “by getting money from abroad … like publishing artwork out there, and then getting our money from that. Because the currency imbalance is real. 10 USD: we can get a lot of things here with 10 USD.”
There is relatively little access to grant money in Indonesia. Terra says of the prevailing government grant, BEKRAF:
Government has the support. But as I can see, the government is lazy.… Analogy: When you see the diamond, they don’t dig the diamond, because it’s waiting to shine. After they shine, they just…Polish it.
In other words, he complains that BEKRAF is unwilling to take risks or invest in scouting new talent.
Organizer Sukma Smiti has had some success in getting foreign grant money – she was recently here in Melbourne with her printmaking collective, Krack!. However, she wonders how she can share these resources with the broader community.
We are always thinking that negative thinking about our government, or funding support for some of us young artists, and some of Krack! members think that it’s getting very hard to reach some funding or support from the government. But we try it, and we make it. But the next question for us is like, after we get funding for the travel grant, what can we contribute to our collective? Are we just going to travelling, getting new experiences, get new friends, and looking for a new world? And then what? For me that’s quite a big question. There is a lot of support from other countries’ organization, art organization, for Indonesian artists who did good work. But then sometimes it’s hard to… take it back.
Going off of the discussion around outside funding, a follow up question might be – can the comics industries support themselves? Many indonesian comics publishers have come and gone. Most people I talked to had all but given up on the future of print comics, focusing instead on web, foreign publication, or film or game tie-ins. Hikmat quipped, “ that’s actually the miniature of Indonesian comic book industry. Nothing can last.”
Jho and her business partner Sunny Gho have transitioned into producing, after they struggled as a comics magazine:
We transitioned from publishing to producing. Because publishing, you know, like I told you, the traditional production and the publishing doesn’t make that much money when it comes to comics in Indonesia
In general, publishing on web platforms seems to be the solution for this deep challenge in sustaining print media. Salaries at Line webtoon start at about twice the Indonesian minimum wage. It’s a much needed sum for many artists, but in my interviews opinions varied on whether it was a good trade off. Stephani says:
With the advent of Webtoon and Webcomics culture, artists can finally make money like their predecessors in the 60s. Back in the day artists make money from their floppy/magazine issue sales, and now with Web Comics/Web Toon artists do the same. The tradeoff is the punishing schedule, you have to come up with webcomics in color every week, if not multiple times a week.
Sunny talked about some specific challenges that artists faced working for the print mags during the 2000s.
There’s no way you could make money doing comics, this way. But I think I introduced now you can get paid for doing comics. I mean, you can get paid per page. Because back then, there’s no way a publisher will pay you page rates. However low it is. … Just royalties, which you only have after six months.
Though Sunny himself has been instrumental in popularizing Indonesian comics so that magazine cartoonists can get paid, the magazines themselves are still in precarious straits. So it seems like webtoons are where it’s at now; an important driving force in the industry, and source of freedom for cartoonists.
With the challenges of both web and print media, it’s no surprise that many people in the comics world have set their sights on selling intellectual property to movies and games. The IP conversation was interesting to me, because it showed a lot of different ideas about how independent comics should be. How intrinsic is the medium to the story? Hikmat is worried that webtoon and social media value popularity over story quality. He worries that if the trend is to create a cult around a character or characters, IP farming will become more viable than committing to a story.
The success of IP model based on how many followers, how many subscribers… not really the story. So you can create a character, and your universe, and submit it to a copyright institution, and hope that you could make money from that characters, without really creating a stories. Many people, for example, and many young artists, only concerned about the followers and how big the money you could get. … So I want to have story industry in Indonesia. Comic is part of story industry. I don’t want to lose the story. I don’t want to just have industry. I want to have story industry. That’s the first thing about comics!
Jho and Sunny’s company, Kosmik, creates new story concepts every month, and is working with film studios. Their task seems to be balancing market viability with the desire to put comics first.
(W)e are working closely with producers of movies as well. (…) I mean, they are looking for content. But thing is, they need particular content. But we want is for our comics to become movies. Not that we create a specific story to become movies. Because we do believe comics, you know, we like comics.
Whether through sales, grants, or IP, there’s a frustration with trying to sustain the industry. Stephani worked in animation for years, but burnt out on the animation studio grind. She now has a graphic design job, and makes comics on the side. She’d also like to go back to teaching, which she did briefly – but her work as a university lecturer didn’t offer quite enough security.
My trajectory so far has been independent. I am not against working with the bigger publishers but in my experience the tradeoffs they ask of me isn’t something I’m ok with. So I figure, if I’m going to be creating something, I might as well get a day job and let me do my own thing.
Hopefully this has shown some of the ways Indonesian artists are working to support themselves. In the last 20 years, despite market challenges, they really have managed to revitalize Indonesian comics in a big way! So, one of my questions always was, what are the outcomes from this? What do Indonesian comics look like, now? This was almost never a straightforward question! It turns out, you can’t really point at anything and say, “That’s Indonesian style”.
Again, because I started this with the notion of Indonesian style being developed in reaction to manga, that’s what I often asked about.
There is a complicated relationship with manga aesthetics; and, I ought to mention, the American aesthetics that influenced the midcentury period of classic Indonesian comics. (ie Hasmi or Taguan Hardjo)
In earlier years, there was tension between people who wanted to copy manga aesthetics, and those who wanted to turn away from them as they worked towards local style. According to Alva, that isn’t necessarily the case any more.
Well, in Indonesia, in early 2000s there [was] polarization, between people who like or prefer some kind of style, and reject, especially, the manga style preferences. And sometimes they also deny that ‘it’s not Indonesian comics!’ … But recently, luckily, and also fortunately, the readers are shifted towards the centennials. And the centennials doesn’t have such kind of preferences.
Indonesian artists’ relationships to manga are also informed by gendered factors! Azisa says that manga-inspired magazines had space for girls when the indie scene, the supposed torchbearer of national style, didn’t.
Especially in Indonesia, anime and manga gives a lot of space and a lot of breathing space, actually, for girls — that other genres, or, you know, other styles of comics or styles of the media, even, does not give. I think it banks a lot on feelings, and respecting feelings, and girls experimenting with feelings… so I think it’s a very good gateway to understanding and connecting to fellow girls. I love that for it.
People I talked to were generally more likely to ascribe Indonesian-ness to a comic’s writing than to its drawing. As Hikmat says, even the most staunchly manga-inspired artists are still telling Indonesian stories:
The Japanese influenced, the manga influenced artists now, speaking fluently about creating Indonesian comic industry, and try to tell a story of Indonesia that they show.
Alva is of the popular opinion that a native visual style is pointless to try to cultivate artificially, especially given the diversity of Indonesian artists’ backgrounds and inspirations.
It is an everlasting discussion, maybe debate in Indonesia, what kind of form represents Indonesia. In my point of view, and also several colleagues in ITB, we made a statement that it’s not the form that define Indonesian comic, but how we deliver the story, how we depict the daily activities, or the activities that represent Indonesia in itself. Whether it’s in how they talk, how they create something, or how they develop relationship. It will represent itself as Indonesian comic or not. Whether the visual or the form using American comics visuals, or Japanese comics visuals. There is also European comics visuals. It doesn’t matter, because we made that assumption because our students, if we ask about “what kind of comics did you read,” when they said “from my childhood I read comic, manga, I read manga.” And it will be obvious when he draw or she draw, using manga style. So the form itself is not the ultimate identity. Or the ultimate representation. The representation itself is how they depict the story, how they deliver the story through panels or sequence in the comics itself. That’s my point of view… And, well, actually our research is – the ulterior motive of our research in comics mainly how we could develop our identity, our industry. How we could be the master of the house in Indonesian comic industry.
I take being the “master of the house” as meaning having a hold on the means of artistic production, and being able to express oneself and reflect oneself – creating representation for the benefit of both readers and creators. Right now, it seems like this is a more important goal than codifying a visual style.
I entered into a series of conversations with people in the Indonesian comics industry, with the amorphous question “How and why do comics communities sustain themselves?” The answer to the “how” seems to be, to me: Using the organization systems of the broader community. Dealing with the differences and prejudices within the community. Trying to make money in a bunch of different ways. And the “Why”: For fun, healing, representation, and self-determination.
….. I’m not sure how geographically specific that thesis is. But it was interesting to hear about the particular challenges and agendas of people working in Indonesian comics. I’ll continue to work on this topic, and I hope you were entertained in the meantime.
I’m here if you want to ask questions.
Thanks for listening!