Indonesian Alternative Comics from Yogyakarta, Indonesia

by Sugathi Putranto and Nita Purwanti


The Background: The Collapse of Indonesian Comics

The golden age of Indonesian comics was in the 1960's and 70's when comics like Si Buta dari Gua Hantu by Ganes TH, Godam by Wid NS, and Wayang Purwa by R.A Kosasih were quite popular and successful. However, since that time, Indonesian comics have been in trouble. The problems started from publishers' assumptions that local comics would not sell when faced with competition from foreign comics and from a lack of artistic innovation and significant exploration of new techniques and themes. These problems were made worse by a weak marketing system. Together these problems have helped to cause the Indonesian comic industry collapse in recent years.

In addition, the Indonesian comic industry never considered or incorporated aspects of the unique local cultures which contain and express the local people’s self esteem. The people who ran the comic industry in Indonesia just adopted other nations' practices and themes which may have fit with those nations' cultures but did not fit with the local culture. On the other hand, comics which did contain local themes were not sufficiently marketable because their themes were not considered "trendy" by some people. There was another assumption that people expect only entertainment from popular art, not deeper meanings or social commentary. Because of this, Indonesian comics missed an opportunity to include materials that could attract people's interest. Indonesian comics in fact can apply Western techniques and quality while at the same time incorporating elements of the local culture.

During the 1950’s, Indonesian comics were highly influenced by the European-American 1930’s comic style. However, Indonesian comics in that period were not using what is called "the uncommon angle and perspective" for narrative story lines. Generally, this technique would affect story building through picture sequences. Another weakness was that there was not enough encouragement to explore new innovations, especially visual cinematographic aspects such as wide angle, unusual viewpoints, etc. The lack of a marketing network was the other disadvantage. Compared to Western comics which were supported by aggressive promotion and advertising and often followed by special merchandising products such as movies, toys, and games (in Walt Disney comics for instance) Indonesian comics were left far behind.

The major decline period of Indonesian comics was in the 1980’s. The arrival of Japanese, European and Hong Kong comics started the elimination of Indonesian comics, although they still appeared in the mass media such as "Hai" and "Humor" magazines and the Pos Kota newspaper.

Indonesian Comics Nowadays : Attempts at Reinvention

Recently, some groups have been trying to save Indonesian comics from this decline by considering comics as an industry from a business perspective. They have been inspired by the foreign comics industry, especially Japan, which is flooding the book shops nowadays.

As part of this effort, some groups of comic artists in the cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta have emerged. They consider their groups as "incorporated companies" or "foundations". Some of these groups are: Koin (Jakarta), Animik, Sraten, Icon (Bandung), Kirikomik (Yogyakarta), etc.

These groups maintain networks and relationships with publishers in ways that they were not aware of before. Now they get some royalties and perhaps also register their comic-characters to be copyrighted. So at this point, Indonesian comics seem to have started from the beginning again. However, there are problems. The global mass culture (as expressed by MTV) exerts great influence on local people, making the effort to establish local comics very difficult. Reflecting Indonesian’s political and economic turbulence, current comics are unclear about new cultural patterns and have not found a clear vision to present to readers about today's society and how to live in it. In addition, the existence of these national comics depends on the marketplace and so the comics do not feel free to express every idea. So although Indonesian comics’ quality as artwork is considerable, in the marketplace they remain peripheral and unprofitable.

The "underground" comics movement is one answer to this continuing crisis situation. The price of drawing tools, inks, paper, printing, etc., is too expensive for many comic artists, so they cannot create many different comics. However they have devised creative ways to publish comics by reducing the production cost. For instance, rather than traditional printing, they use copy machines. Of course, these are black and white comics and are distributed to a limited audience. There are around 15 groups and comics studios who are active in "underground" comics making. They can be found in many places, such as Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and Denpasar.

Underground Comics from Yogyakarta: Apotik Komik

This group was formed by 13 students from Yogyakarta’s Indonesian Institute of Art on April 25, 1997. The name Apotik Komik was randomly chosen. (Apotik is a kind of drugstore which remind us of medicines which are used to heal illness. So, perhaps Apotik Komik wants to heal their audiences' (social or cultural) illness by reading comics.)

Their first creation was a large (about 700 m by 2 m) mural exhibition on the wall of a student’s residence with a theme of "flying".  The local community ("kampung")  reacted favorably to their Wall Comic Exhibition ("Pameran Komik Dinding").  From this wall painting, Apotik Komik shifted to printing comics. Since they are not a big organization, they photocopy their comics and distribute them by conventional hand to hand marketing.

exhibit1.jpg (40510 bytes)A more recent wall comic was titled "Public Art Exhibition" using the theme "Sickness Continues" (Sakit Berlanjut) in July, 1999. The artists used corrugated paper which was cut, pasted and painted in Indian inks. They nailed hundreds of figures on the wall around the city of Yogyakarta. The shape was no longer two dimensional but more nearly a relief. An interesting aspect is that the artists were prepared (and willing) to let passersby collect pieces of the artwork.

By making comics more visual and producing alternative comics, they hope to have more space to express their ideas so that they can interact with the society which has been isolated from art by galleries’ walls for so long. They have also brought an individual spirit and vision with art idioms full of metaphors (which perhaps only the middle class will understand), although they have also introduced actual sociopolitical issues as well. Their style is influenced by pop culture and is considered "playful".

One significant development in recent Indonesian contemporary art is the recognition that drawing should be treated equally with other art forms. Pop art's artists explicitly started this recognition, by making comics, book illustrations, and graphic arts which have broken into mainstream industrial capitalistic culture. Collaboration art "Under Estimate"(1999) from Apotik Komik (Ari Dyanto, Popok and Samuel) has assured it this new recognition.  This work uses ink drums cut into two with collages and added comments. Seeing Apotik Komik art is like entering a jungle of signs and pop symbols, but the visual richness does not detract from the message (e.g. "History began... when we all together hand in hand, side by side realized that fate is in our hands... and it's our right to work on built our legacy"...etc.)

These works made it clear that such art (collaboration art) could also be considered as comics. So comics - for them - is not just two-dimensional paper published materials but also a much wider range of materials and modes of expression.

While the initial activity of Apotik Komik was in making wall exhibitions, they also have produced alternative comics, such as the serials Komik Seni (Art Comic), Komik Underground (Underground Comic), Komik Ampyang (Peanut Candy Comic), Core Comic, and Komik Haram (Forbidden Comic).

Apotik Komik shows us the development of contemporary indigenous art in Yogyakarta, and the social phenomena behind it. It, and comics like it, tell us about another aspect of life. They are not about the beautiful panoramas and the myths of Indonesia that are so widely known, but present a broader, more disturbing view of some aspects of Indonesian society such as its reckless government, amoral bureaucrats, poverty, religious conflict, and the rise and fall of its democratic life.

"Kirik" is another example of comics with this kind of social and cultural criticism.  Although its content may be objectionable to some, it is an attempt to air the issue of religious intolerance in the guise of a fable, and is presented as an example of the new vigor and relevance of these alternative comics.

lempar.gif (10642 bytes)"Come on... keep throwing..."
"Get Out of here!!"

(Kirik runs quickly because he is pelted with rocks....)

Read the complete Kirik comic