Jakarta. Malang-based comic artist Aji Prasetyo poignantly chronicles the tensions between big businesses and foreign investors with the locals in Indonesia with a wry, scathingly amusing eye reminiscent of Doonesbury.
In one strip, the 39-year-old’s observations portray Papuan tribesmen in their struggle against American mining juggernaut Freeport. In another, small-time residents and tradesmen stand their ground against the auxiliary police and hired thugs intent on driving them off their land.
“If the state is reluctant to side with its own people against big business, then the annual fireworks ushering in the new year won’t bring any new hopes,” Aji notes morosely.
But the Akademi Samali comics community stalwart still signed off on a defiant note by rehashing Gerard Butler’s iconic “This is Sparta!” cry from the 2006 film “300” with the pun “This is swasta [private enterprise]!” The closing panel also took a page off the blockbuster by depicting the tradesmen kicking their tormentors off a cliff.
“As a comic artist, Aji uses the medium as a way for social criticism, to fight back against injustice,” Akademi Samali administrator Beng Rahadian said. “His hard-hitting strips make him a proponent of this genre, while other comics stay true to the medium’s goal of self-expression.”
Aji’s strip is part of “Retrospektif Komik Indie 2005-2015,” or “Independent Comics in Retrospect 2005-2015,” an exhibition showing the genre’s development in the past decade. Held at the Bentara Budaya cultural center in Jakarta, the event features the works of 24 indie comic artists, among them Dodi Irwandi, Athonk, Tita Larasati and Daging Tumbuh.
“Members of the Akademi Samali community have giving comics a new place and platform through their nationwide network of young artists. Comics have always been with a hybrid art form, because visually they're classified as a graphic or fine art, but in content they enter the realm of literature,” Bentara Budaya executive director Hariadi Saptono said.
While Hariadi hails the comic-book artists for portraying their times, he also issued them a challenge.
“While the rise of Indonesian comics can be traced to the ‘Put On’ comic strips in the Sin Po newspaper circulating in Jakarta in the 1930s, who will be ‘Put On’s’ contemporary counterpart? It seems that movers and shakers in the comic industry will have to find one themselves, or set a new benchmark for the craft.”
Beng agrees with Hariadi’s observations.
“The use of indie comics as a way to defy mainstream culture and the domination of major publishing houses is practically finished. But their longstanding billing as ‘photocopy’ artists, which was derived from their use of photocopy machines to distribute their works, continues, as they now use the Internet to make their works go viral,” Beng said of the work of the comic artists who are among Akademi Samali’s 4,000-strong members nationwide.
“Nowadays, their challenge is to see if they become more profit-oriented as they make inroads in the comic industry or stay true to their ideals ... to see if they would continue protesting like many of the artists in the exhibition. Most of all, comic-book artists are a part of society as well as its chroniclers, so this exhibition reflects our gratitude and appreciation for their works.”
Jakarta-based comic artist Dodi Irwandi epitomizes the spirit of protest to the hilt with his black-and-white McClown series, which was made in a style similar to underground comic greats R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar. Made in 2011, the veteran comic artist also has Crumb and Pekar’s darkly sardonic sense of humor, as he depicts McDonald’s icon Ronald McDonald as a crosshatched villain similar to Pennywise the Clown, the antagonist in Stephen King’s novel “It” and its eponymous miniseries. Depicted as a burglar, the clown’s habit of breaking in seems to show how McDonald’s or the globalization process, in sometimes insidious ways, intrudes on and changes the lives of people in around the world.
Dodi’s fellow comic artist Sapto “Athonk” Raharjo has a similarly tongue-in-cheek outlook, as seen in his series of sketches of Old Skull, a punk who lives in Yogyakarta. From 2003 onward, Athonk has made his character take on an unflinching look at the city’s seamier underside, a world of police brutality, drug abuse and a vignette on inmates in the province’s Cebongan prison. That last part, particularly a newspaper clipping on Old Skull’s popularity among inmates, struck a note due to its subtle reminders of the 2013 Cebongan prison massacre.
Other comic-book artists like Dwinita “Tita” Larasati describe the foibles of backpacking overseas and in Indonesia, while Sofyan Syarief’s over-the-top “Methal Pertiwi” explores heavy metal’s continuing popularity in Indonesia.
“Retrospektif Komik Indie 2005-2015” will also feature an extensive collection of indie comics dating from the genre’s rise in Indonesia in 1995, as well as workshops and discussions to shed light on this little-known yet multifaceted genre. Comic books and merchandise will also be on sale at the event.
Info: “Retrospektif Komik Indie 2005-2015” Through May 16 Bentara Budaya Jakarta Jalan Palmerah Selatan No. 17, Central Jakarta Tel. 021 5483008 ext. 7910/7911 bentarabudaya.com Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.