Comic Scene Indonesia

Indonesian Comics: Another Adventure, Anyone?


It is very much like an epic drama, the once famed hero was left behind wounded and forgotten; now he regains the strength to rise, this time with new spirit, new power, new strategies, and new allies ...

Puteri Melur, © Jan Mintaraga, 1965
Give it a try and find some youngsters in a café or in a shopping centre, then ask them: “What kind of comics do you read?” You might have to ask about 40 persons until you finally hear what you were expecting. The young people you interview may reply with foreign comic titles and characters. Indonesian comics and characters won't cross their minds. You shouldn’t be surprised if they don't even know that Indonesian comics exist. Worse than that, they refer to Indonesian titles such as Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu (English: The blind man from the ghost cave) or Gundala Putera Petir (English: Gundala, son of lightning) - characters that last appeared some 30 years ago!

Take it as a fact and slap your cheek! Both sides! Don’t end up wondering, confused or blaming these kids. It isn't their fault that they don't know any local comics. It has been 30 years since the kids were introduced to foreign comics and their Indonesian translations. The imported comics were more colourful, the books were bigger, the stories much more varied, the fantasy seemed unlimited, anything, you name it. We Indonesians were offered new meals on the table and we had more choice. And we loved it. Then we forgot the meals we had enjoyed before.

The kids you just asked are part of a later generation, they have never been in touch with Indonesian comics. The only comics they know are the once from abroad and their translations. You cannot blame them for their ignorance. You should blame their parents!

Anyway, no reason to mope, let’s go and visit another group of youngsters. From afar they look just the same as the other boys and girls who don't know local comics. Some of them wear casual clothes, some are formally dressed. You may say that some of them are college students, some are middle class workers. But perhaps you can recognise that some of them are artists. At least some items they carry along are indicators for that fact: paper, note-books, pencils, ink, laptops, and – comics!

Don’t be surprised that they carry along, read, buy and sell and discuss these comic-books. And don't be surprised that these comics are no imported or translated ones. They are in fact, yes it’s true, real authentic Indonesian comics! And they are no old hats. They were recently published. Who are these young people? How do they know that these books exist, while most others don't know that?

The birth of Indonesian comics in fact took place long before the country's independence from Dutch colonization, even before the country named Indonesia could be found on the world map. It was Kho Wan Gie, an Indonesian-Chinese native, who introduced his comic character Put On in the newspaper Sin Po in 1930. The four-panel comic strip featured Put On, a young, single, middle-class Chinese man and his adventures in Jakarta. The series lasted for 30 years. Following Kho Wan Gie's example, the country saw many fellow artists who produced their comic-strips and published them in different newspapers. Among the most popular ones is the title Mentjari Poetri Hidjaoe (English: In search of the green princess) by Nasroen AS (1939).

However, it was Raden Ahmad Kosasih, or better known as R.A. Kosasih, who set the benchmark for the Indonesian comic industry, and who’s influence was still noticeable more than half a century later. Inspired by the American comic heroine Wonder Woman, Kosasih created the character Sri Asih (1953). The series ran for five issues, and its popularity launched the comic book format as a viable medium in Indonesia.

Mahabharata, © RA Kosasih, 1955
Far from resting on his laurels, Kosasih followed up on his early success with comic book adaptations of the two great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Depicting scenes inspired by Indonesia’s rich tradition of the shadow play Wayang and its different modes of performances (such as Wayang kulit: leather puppets, and Wayang golek: wooden puppetry), Kosasih's adaptations were another huge success. And the artist Kosasih become an inspiration for many young cartoonists of later generations. By transferring Wayang stories into a comic book format, Kosasih proved that comics were an accessible medium through which the traditional Indonesian culture could be vividly expressed.

About the same time, i.e. in the late 50’s, in Northern Sumatra artists like Taguan Hardjo and Zam Nuldyn created comics that dealt with various contexts, starting from folklore via science fiction up to patriotic stories decrying the Dutch and the Japanese occupations. There were other popular genres, particularly in the bigger cities, such as stories of romance, history-fiction, martial arts, adventures, superhero, fantasy, horror, thriller, and biography. This varied spectrum of genres emerged in the period between 1960 and 1980.

Despite the political repression, it was a period considered by many to be the Golden Era of Indonesian comic history. The quality of the books, the production volume, the distribution and popularity of local comics during the 70s marked the glorious years of the industry. This era came to a close in the late 70s with the arrival of Indonesian translations of American and European comic books and magazines, followed by the explosive import of Japanese mangas in the 80s. Local comic artists reacted too slow on the flood of foreign comics on the market; they were distracted by their respective involvement in other artistic pursuits and careers (such as painting, movie scripts and traditional theatre), they showed little interest in meeting deadlines or in improving their drawing and storytelling skills in order to compete with their foreign counterparts. Indonesian comics entered a dark period. Soon, publishers and readers embraced the colourful-translated comics and abandoned the local ones.

The late 1990s, however, experienced a renaissance of local comics, though not in mainstream publishing. Indie comics began to emerge on the campus-sites of many colleges and universities. The young creators produced and distributed their works through college communities and networks. Known as Fotokopian (or photocopy and Xerox comics), these comics were free of commercial constraints and interests and became a popular medium of self-expression among Indonesian youngsters. The majority of the Fotokopian expressed a deep concern of social and politic issues of their creators. It was the era of underground resistance to the government, which then spread throughout the country.

Before the era of Fotokopian, most people thought that one needed a special talent or formal education to become a comic artist. Fotokopian shattered that paradigm: in fact everyone could make a comic. All you had to learn was to arrange your story in sequenced panels and let your story flow. The drawings were mostly rough and not exactly 'beautiful' but still they were a means of personal artistic expression. Soon, everyone was a comic artist, and there were thousands of them. The book design and packaging was rather plain and simple. No fancy lay outs inside and outside, only black ink on coloured (or white) paper. Even though the creators seemed not to put much effort, the results were inviting to take a closer look.

Wayang Purwa, © S. Ardisoma
Some of the Fotokopian-artists were later found in other art projects and studios, such as Eko Nugroho and Imansyah Lubis; some developed an even more artistic (if not more professional) approach and succeeded with some smaller comic publications, for example Beng Rahadian, Bayu Indie, Diyan Bijac, Wahyu Sugianto etc. The phenomenon of Fotokopian lasted until the mid-2000’s and faded in the next decade. Some of the artists produced one or two works per year, but they were only very few. Meanwhile, most of them had other professions not any more related to art.

When the Fotokopians began to disappear, a new breed of comic emerged: digital comics. Just like in other countries where people were exposed to the glamorous internet technology, the digital world became the new stage of comic adventures. In the early 2000s, many communities were established through social groups and social networks. Soon, people with the same interest from all over the world and across borders gathered for one reason: to share their love for a single subject. In our case it is of course: comic!

Many initiatives today originate from social groups and social networks, such as festivals, exhibitions, bazaars, garage sales, comic studios, documentaries and databases, children’s art education, short term projects, fund raising for senior cartoonists, discussions on intellectual rights and dissemination, introductions of personal portfolios, digital magazines, online stores, and even the involvement in the government’s long term programme of implementing a masterplan for the creative industry. It is amazing that all the activities actually start from cyber-talks between a few people who have never met in real life before but share the same concerns.

The internet also plays a major role in introducing a cartoonist’s portfolio to a larger audience. The internet can catch the eyes of talent scouts, publishers, writers, art exhibitors, and many others including movie makers, museum curators, and foreign cultural institutes. Every single encounter can bring up a new fruitful collaboration. And in deed, some of the artists attracted the attention with their outstanding works and are now presented here on the platform Comiconnexion. Find out and see yourself how good they are and why they were selected.

Isn’t the Indonesian comic wonderful? It is evolving and progressing every day. What will come next?

Surjorimba Suroto
Head of Curator, Comiconnexions
is the founder of, occasionally hosts Progressive Rock Radio, and he is a freelance writer of articles on music and comics.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Indonesien
September 2011