Snippets of Indonesian Comics with Iwan Gunawan

My first encounter with Pak Iwan was initially worrisome.

Why so? Because, that day I had to document hundreds of his comic collections for the content of the book he was writing, titled “CerGam” (pictorial stories) published by Afterhours Books. That day, it felt like I was witnessing a bit of Indonesia’s visual history. I am interested in knowing the history and culture of comics. From Superhero Comics, Romance Drama, Humor, to Silat (Indonesian Martial Arts) Series. Based on those experiences, we talked more about CerGam (pictorial stories).

Captain Indonesia “Membasmi Komplotan Naga”. Collection of Iwan Gunawan. Photo Courtesy of Afterhours Books

Since when did you start buying to collect comics? What type of comics were they?

Iwan Gunawan (IG) : Gundala at that time. I started buying comics myself instead of the ones my brother bought. I used to buy them in Kwitang, at the Terminal.

Do your children like to read your collection of comic books? If no, why not?

(IG): No, unfortunately, they prefer modern style. Although, I must say, the traces of Indonesia can be seen here. We can see our archipelago in these comics. It may be due to the current trend of visual culture. Since childhood, they have been given the exposure of what humans look like in the form of picture, that’s one. Second, through dialogue. Third, yes through the plot of the story, how to tell a different story. The visual culture is advanced, thus, the moment they see, they instantly resist. My son was born in 1998, he prefers it to be simple, face also simple, he doesn’t like realistic. For example, superman, he doesn’t like. Japanese style comics style he likes, because in terms of visual, it is more simple.

Do you still collect comics? I have been meaning to ask this question ever since I took pictures of your comic book collection, which ones were the most expensive, Pak?

(IG): I have started collecting again slowly, as they are very expensive now. So, I try to sort out by selecting. In the past, I would rarely buy the expensive ones. But when I started collecting, I was already working, I bought “PutOn” for Rp. 50,000. This was considered expensive at the time (year 1999) as other comics only cost Rp. 5,000. And another one titled “Wiro”. That one, I bought for Rp. 800,000, very costly for only one bundle. Now, it would cost in millions.

Collection of Iwan Gunawan. Photo Courtesy of Afterhours Books

I once spent a full day shooting Pak Iwan’s comic collections, but only the Wayang (Shadow Puppet) genre. Are you more interested in wayang comics? If yes, why?

(IG): In the olden days, there used to be a lot of comics. Wayang comics initially rose to fame in Bandung, one of them was Wayang Purwa. The most popular ones were the Kosasih comic strip. Even Medan comics created the same type of comics. Whereas, in those places Wayang wasn’t popular. At present, I continue to pursue my search for Wayang comics. The collection is still incomplete, (he laughs).

The story plot is, fun. But, from the very beginning, we always had wayang comics at home and well, I always preferred wayang in comparison to others.

Yes, this (pointing to Wayang Purwa) is how it originated. The origin of the world, there are 3: the upper world, the lower and the middle. It’s a mythical parallel, and it’s there everywhere. Maybe, unconsciously I started becoming keen on it due to the mythology.

As I observe Wayang, it means that they come from the original wayang stories right, would this mean Gundala Putra Petir, also come from Wayang?

(IG): No, that’s Superhero from America. So, Gundala was present during the Silver Age era(1960s). Superhero here follows the flow of American superheroes, from golden age, superman in 1938, to wonder woman in 1940.

Then, comes Sri Asih (golden age era 1950s), Putri Bintang, Garuda putih. It came to us in 1952 via comic strips before silver age, the famous ones were Flash Gordon, in the De Orient newspaper. At the time, they bought the license and published it here.

So, during that time what usually happened was, the comic artist buys, reads, and then that’s how the interest evolves. But, I have a story from late RA Kosasih, he used to find newspapers used for bundles in the market, and that’s where he saw superman and others. This is his story, laughs Pak Iwan. After that, he was motivated to create comics, he was a natural in illustrating at that time. That was the golden age, then came the era of Wayang in 950s (shadow puppets), legends.

Well, yes Sri Asih, she’s really cool, with traditional clothes she can still move flawlessly and graciously. Was Pak Kosasih portraying Sri Asih as the main female superhero?

(IG): Yes, but she immediately transforms and had the skill to multiply herself thus, this makes our superhero more powerful than wonder woman. Yeah, he created Tjempaka too.

Oh, so that means it was Wayang first then superhero.

(IG): No, superhero first, but the hype was just for a brief period. As there was a repression from the government, the superhero was a connotation of America, of all types, including capitalist. Finally, Wayang (1967), Silat (martial arts), so, in 1969 Kosasih together with Wyd, they created gundala godham.

It affected the same silver age comic in America. In the 50’s (golden age), that’s how the flash and, green lantern appeared. It was then revived again with a new design during 1960s (silver age). So, gundala and godham refers to that era. Hasmi and Wyd always created a local setting.

During that time, were the reader’s awareness awakened after reading comics that have the existing Indonesian culture? In Wayang for example there is the character of Semar.

(IG): That year, umm .. There were some. If in wayang, it is literally specific to be like Semar, etc .. If it is a wayang show, there is a goro2 act where the punakawan appears, it is usually hilarious. Well, in the comic as well, at random, there is exposure about corruption, family planning, or campaigns.

Especially in Wayang, there is a lot of it. If in martial arts it is basically simple where the hero is the main character not the law, but, using the law of the sword. For a small child it is actually quite good, in the sense it is not sadist, the moral values, what we must defend, etc.. I think it’s cliche, but practical.

For example female superhero, that is in this photo(pointing to Sri Asih), Sri Asih. Are they talking about what’s happening again in our country, or it can be other things? For example the incident of 1965.

(IG): The most obvious from kosasih would be pantjasila (in the file politics) The interesting part is, after Wayang, inside it there also exists “the punakawan”. Punakawan was a spin off, integrated into one of his own comic. So, there used to be the crazy family comic, it was the actual dialogue of that moment. Funnily, it articulates about tight clothes, tall hairdos, many dialogues that we can find in our daily lives.

A little bit about pantjasila, Kosasih was asked by religious Prof. Dr. Moestopo to invent comics, that explains about pancasila.

Ahh .. it connects to the comic of the archipelago.

(IG): The archipelago’s comic base is from folklore, legends, which is uncertain and mythical, it could be from wayang too. The belief of the archipelago is that wayang originated from us.

I feel ramayana did come from India, but maybe the character development was by us. We developed it. What is your opinion about this Pak?

(IG): I have another opinion about it. I think wayang is a world event. It happened worldwide. The war did not belong to Germany or anyone else but to everyone. Firstly, if I say the source is from Indonesia it will be too excessive.

Well, the location of the war, it was in Madura, and other places. Indonesians can write it in more detail, the story is more comprehensive, more characters and figures. So thus, it developed from all aspects.

This is the archipelago belief system, pointing to the opening page of Wayang Purwa. Once again, the pedigree and existence of God, from the archipelago is longer, if India : Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, for Javanese they have another world above it.

For instance, using post colonial theory, why don’t we change the perspective? Why don’t we think they were influenced by us. The source is from here. Where is the proof?

From the beginning, it has always been speculated that we have been influenced. Whereas, Melayu was once an international language during the trading era.

Do you still mix and interact with the comics community?

(IG): I like to meet the comic artists and chat with them, as I am curious to know what happened back then. I’m focusing on old comics. I regret as I didn’t get a chance to talk to Pak taguan, as for Teguh Santosa, I lost my chance to click a photo together. As in those years, we didn’t have camera in our mobile phones.

Can you draw comics? Would you like to create your own comics? If yes, what genre would it be and what would the story be?

(IG): Yes, I have but it is not yet complete, I am lacking in motivation and spirit. (He laughed). I am afraid it will not be good. For sure it will be relating to Wayang (shadow puppet), about the creation of the universe.

After having an inspiring conversation with Pak Iwan, we can conclude the influence of comic and it’s culture in Pak Iwan’s own words “It could be, all this, is not influenced from other countries, but from the archipelago itself.” Our culture is spread everywhere and it is adapted in our assimilation with other countries as well as our own. Let’s enrich our culture by evaluating the history and glorifying today’s creativity.


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