(by Lat. First Second Books, 2006.)
Say, how much do you know about growing up Muslim in rural Malaysia in the 1950s? What’s that? Nothing? Almost nothing? Then why the hell don’t you own this already!!
Lat a.k.a. Mohammed Nor Khalid’s renowned autobiographical “graphic novel” (originally published in 1979) is probably not really a comic at all. It’s more like an illustrated book: there are no word balloons, but there are illustrations of various sizes with accompanying text. I’m not going to dismiss this, Prince Valiant, or various Kyle Baker projects for that reason, but it might be a turn off for you.
It shouldn’t be. Lat has a scratchy art style (I once heard he influenced Larry Gonick) that is reminiscent of… I don’t know… William Steig? But it is very precise and evocative in its draftsmanship.
Having spent flashes of time in rural villages in my own youth, I’m a sucker for village stories, and Lat’s coming-of-age tales feel completely honest and welcoming. Though not much happens story-wise, just seeing a different kind of life, however “mundane,” of Lat playing with other boys, swimming and fishing is riveting. The uniqueness (to me) of his school life and religious ceremonies are almost a substitute for “incident.”
Not that the book lacks incident from time to time, like when Lat trespasses at a tin mine, or the simultaneously alarming and fascinating circumcision sequence.
But there is no “background” per se. You don’t get any inkling of what’s happening in Malaysia politically etc., because Lat the kid is too busy living in his own universe — his kampung (village). He’s not the precocious urbanite that Marjane Satrapi is. But then, that’s its own universe as well. There’s room for plenty of them, and I’m grateful that the industry has evolved into something which can support these kinds of projects.