What can we learn from the bubble dialogues and ink strokes of Lat?
Have you ever wondered how it was like having to share a television set with the whole neighborhood? Or running around barefoot and having an “upih pinang” race with your peers using fallen pinang fronds? Well, I don’t either but, it felt as if I had that part of childhood back in the “old times” whenever I read my father’s collection of comics by Dato Mohammad Nor Khalid or better known as Lat. As a late reader (I was only truly capable of reading and understanding a text when I was seven), I would go over the comics and marvel at the caricatures of life before the era of video games and mobile phones especially Lat’s interpretation of politics, recalling his rebellious phase in the momentous, Town Boy and the comparison between the yesteryear to what’s happening now in Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today. His work is essential as a time-machine and as a mirror, reflecting the distinction on how the society has developed in Malaysia since we have grown quickly as we try catching up with other young countries that have attained independence after the Second World War.
Lat’s comics became the epitome of the Malaysian life and provide a window for foreign readers to understand how we Malaysians perceive ourselves as well as our views on issues especially during the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is evident in his series, Scenes of Malaysian Life in the New Straits Times which documented Malaysian culture. Thus, what does his art mean to millennials and this generation of youths? Unknowingly and indirectly, Lat’s worldview may correlate with how young adults are adapting with recent issues such as refugees, the revolution of gender and street demonstrations.
Lat’s outlook on Malaysian political parties is fearless and humorous, but there is a degree of neutrality that is familiar to readers especially by those who comprehend the democratic aspect of the government. If Lat is still sketching regarding the world bulletin, he might address the controversial and very recent ‘Muslim ban’ proposed by President Donald Trump as he did on the involvement of Israel in the Middle East. This works well with the Peter Pan generation who are more exposed to having a flexible judgment on politics and tend to not take sides, including how well-informed they are by everyday news on social media. The Generation Y is also considered as a bit of an outcast (likewise Lat was determined to be a cartoonist at a time when creative ventures are still frowned upon) as they experiment with new ideas and accept a less rigid form of morality and conservativeness; enabling them to discuss on sexuality, economy and social issues. However, a trait that the millennials can acquire from the legendary cartoonist is the ability to be less antagonistic and be aware of subjects that are delicate; mainly race, religion and culture.
The younger generation can also appreciate another channel that Lat’s comics are famous for which is the introduction of his favourite music and bands. This is seen from Town Boy when his friend, Frankie invited young Lat to his house to show him his radiogram and remarkable collection of vinyl records. The two boys became closer after an afternoon of discussing about their differing lifestyles and listening to Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. There was also an anecdote of Lat discovering Bob Dylan when he had first heard his song on the radio and he had noted how peculiar that Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man (in which there are controversial interpretations of drugs and religion) was banned at its release in Malaysia, but not The Beatles‘ Imagine (depicting a borderless world with no beliefs).
The eminent style of ink and pen and colour using marker pens and watercolour brought forth a legacy that is Lat’s on-going tribute to Malaysia and a craft that is – and will be – an influence to the future compeers in realisation that his comic strips are more than mere comedy. As Lat quoted from his art teacher, “What is art? Art can be anything”.
Featured image: Cover of Lat’s comic book, Kampung Boy.