Comic Culture in Myanmar When Lines Shine a Light in the Darkness

Comic books and publications were once the lifeblood of Myanmar pop culture. Everyone loved comic books, and not simply as reading material. If a young man wanted to send a girl a love letter, the best way was by giving her a comic book. Myanmar’s deep-seated traditions made it very risky to send a love letter. Quite possibly, a girl would refuse a love letter, but accept a comic book, as comic books were the main entertainment for young people during the 1970s and 1980s. Those boys who were first to get the new comic books when they were published each week had the best chance at sending a love letter to a girl. Many Burmese between 40 and 50 years of age will recall this experience when thinking about the importance of comics in Myanmar.

Comic books were first published in Myanmar in 1960. Though they quickly became very popular, Myanmar’s comic book culture does not reach far into the past. In the first decade of the 20th century, British officers introduced the Burmese to comics and cartoons. This resulted in initial attempts in the genre by the first local cartoon and comic creators, who sought to support their efforts through cooperation with poets. They found that if they combined their drawings with poems, the public was much more likely to take an interest in their work.

The cartoon and comics scene grew quickly, and by the 1930s cartoons and comic strips offered the best means by which intellectuals could criticize the social and political ills of the country. One of the earliest, but best known caricatures of this time depicts British officers refusing to take off their shoes at Shwedagon Pagoda. In the cartoon, because the British officers were unwilling to respect local rules and the local population were unwilling to change their traditions, Burmese were forced to carry the British officers into the Pagoda on their backs.

Another famous cartoon appeared in a local newspaper on January 4th, 1948, drawn by Ba Gyan, one of the founding fathers of Myanmar’s comic culture. The comic depicts the British General Sir Hugh Bert Rance leaving the country and wishing a Burmese family goodbye. He says, “Take care of your children.” But behind the family are children representing the damages of World War II: debt, reconstruction, and financial crisis. In Myanmar, this cartoon became very popular because it concisely expressed the situation of the country at the time.

Despite their increasing popularity, cartoonists were limited to magazines and newspapers as full comic books were not yet being published. From 1948-1962 most publications focused on and criticized the political situation. In the mid-50s, the government used comics for the first time as a tool for propaganda against communism. These comics were written by the then prime minister U Nu and drawn by Bagalay, the first Burmese comic artist. This type of propaganda comic became the first stand-alone comic book in Myanmar.

In Burmese, comic books are ka-toon sa-oaht, cartoon books and graphic novels are yoat pya sa-oaht. The difference between these two genres in Myanmar is that cartoons often have more distorted figures, while graphic novels feature more realistic imagery. When the first comic books were published, they were initially printed in booklets of 40 or 64 pages, and cost around 25 kyats.

The comic artist Bagalay started a journal which he named after himself - the Bagalay Journal. In it he published many short comics. Other cartoonists founded similar journals. People quickly embraced this new form of entertainment. Every day, two or three new books would be published. Even famous writers worked in the genre, writing their own cartoons and graphic novels which were illustrated by the cartoonists. Many new characters were created. The most famous graphic novel of that time was Ma Kha Ya Da, which centered around a mystic sword. The most famous cartoon character was Nga Htet Pya, a Myanmar hero who could be described as a sort of Burmese Robin Hood. Later, cartoonists created many other characters such as: Shan Sar, a detective; Ayaing, a wild Mowgli-like boy; Shwe Gaung Pyaung, a bald-headed fighting hero on horseback; Pho Seit Phyu, a goat wearing a shirt and glasses; Maung Ye Aung, a fairy-like child; and U Seit To, a fat banana grower whose bananas are stolen by the monkey Myauk Myo.

The 1970s and 1980s were the golden age of Myanmar’s comic market. In the 1980s, one of the main driving forces for comics was the failure of the socialist economic plan.  According to the socialist policies, films were a luxury item, and thus rare. Since the country could no longer import films, and could not make movies, cartoons and comics began to take on an even more significant role. This was the time when numerous masterpieces of the Burmese comic industry were published. Comic books began to include many more pages for each issue, and their audience expanded beyond children and young people to include adults searching for entertainment. Love stories and science fiction books were published as comics and graphic novels, and some adults began collecting them.

At this point, one of the most remarkable shifts in Myanmar’s comic and cartoon history took place. During the socialist era, Myanmar’s economic situation was so bad that average wage-earners were unable to afford books. The public’s desire to read, however, remained very strong. In addition, the government’s oppression of intellectuals was stronger than ever before. As a result, lending libraries opened on almost every corner in Yangon. From morning to evening these shops were filled with comic books, newspapers and magazines, all of which – with the exception of two major government newspapers - were primarily from private collections as such works were banned. Beyond the city streets, comic book rentals would come aboard from every train station, carrying baskets full of books. Readers could borrow these comic books very cheaply at the beginning of their journey, read them on the train, and return them when they arrived at their final station.

In hospitals, men roamed the halls carrying their mobile comic rental baskets, offering entertainment for patients and staff alike. Even in the public toilets you could find comic book rental stations. Cartoons and comics were thus the main source of entertainment for the people until 1988. Some well-known artists such as Ko Ko Maung, Myeik Win Htein, and Wathone produced their masterpieces at this time.

In the early 1990s, comic artists, like other intellectuals, were actively engaged in politics, and as a result, many had to leave the country. This left the comic scene much weaker than before. Nonetheless, a number of famous comics were introduced to the public including, for example, one by Myine Yazar Tutpi which featured a hunter whose actions were always wrong and who could never hit his target.

Despite all efforts, the cartoon and comic business deteriorated, and comics became a story-telling technique of the past. Publication occurred only in small journals.  Comic books became less and less authentic, and individual comic artists with their unique styles gave way to work from comic factories. All comics and cartoons began to look the same.

From the early 1990s, the video and TV market emerged in Myanmar, leaving the book and cartoon publications with even fewer resources and readers. At the start of the millennium, the comic market began to slowly die out and this remains the case today. Only a few comic groups continued their work: Myine Yazar Tutpi, Bo Bo, Mi Main Lay, Lay Mon Htway Mon, as well as a very few magazines.

Myanmar’s political changes and trial-and-error economy have created a situation that, for cartoonists and comics, is best described by a traditional Burmese saying: their efforts are like “drawing on water”— always fading, always fleeting.