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Can Indonesian Comics Rise Up in a Market Dominated By Manga Translations?

Adi  Renaldi

Adi Renaldi

"The climate of the current industry doesn't properly support comic artists to realize their aspirations," said Kharisma Jati, of Sarekat Dagang Komik.

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One cloudy afternoon, I decided to go to a mall in Pejaten, South Jakarta, to kill some time. I was wandering around the bookstore, looking for something interesting to read, when I realized how few comics there were in the "Fiction" section.

"Are these all the comics?" I asked the store clerk. The young women said no and pointed to the back of the store where rows upon rows of comics sat on the shelves. But every single one of them was a Japanese manga translated into Bahasa Indonesia. There wasn't a single Indonesian comic to be found.

Most of these translated manga were published by PT Elex Media Komputindo. If there's anyone behind the flood of Japanese manga on our shelves it's PT Elex Media Komputindo. The company has about 60 new titles coming out every single month–feeding a market that, according to some surveys, is the second-largest in the world.

There's a common narrative here, that Indonesian comics lack shelf space because they can't compete with superior Japanese imports. But is this perception based on actual evidence? I don't think so.

At this year's Popcon Asia event there were plenty of quality locally-made comics. Varsam Kurnia and Sakti Yuwono's Ceramic Sky: Iris Night, Erfan Fajar and Jaka Ady's Manungsa were available in small runs. Many quickly sold out. Nurfadli Mursyid, the creator of Tahilalats, has more than one million followers on Instagram. But it's difficult for many of these artists to find a larger audience domestically. These comics are produced independently, in print runs that number in the 1,000s. It's common to see artists selling their work through mail-order or at special events like Popcon Asia.

Independent publishers such as Barasub Press, Sarekat Dagang Komik/Kartel Komik, Binatang Press, Milisi Fotocopy, and Tantraz Comics have enough followers to keep them going even though the mainstream public has not embraced their work yet.

Kharisma Jati, of the indie publisher Sarekat Dagang Komik, argued that the industry needs a local alternative to mainstream comic books. Local comic books have a chance to become an oasis of unique ideas and themes not found in manga, Kharisma explained.

"The climate of the current industry doesn't properly support comic artists to realize their aspirations," Kharisma said. "So we are trying to come up with an alternative production-distribution system and promote discourse to the audience."

Kharisma began to pour his energy into independent comics in the early 2000s. He doesn't care much for the Japanese manga that currently crowds the selves. Instead, Kharisma focused on untold stories and perspectives that he couldn't find in imports. But it's been difficult to get his books into stores.

"We choose to be independent for the freedom it gives us in expressing ourselves," Kharisma said.

Acung, the owner of South Jakarta-based Binatang Press, said they too never wanted to be a part of the mainstream comic industry. The small-scale publisher used Risograph RZ 330 photocopy machine to create Nyampah—a collection of comic strips by EmTe (real name Muhammad Taufiq). The total run numbered 500 copies.

"This printer is pretty old and hard to find in Indonesia," Acung said. "We don't wanna overwork it. Finding replacement parts would be difficult."

Nyampah from Binatang Press. Image courtesy Binatang Press

The company has no intentions of placing its books in traditional book stores.

"We're looking for small stores with similar vision and mission," he said. "Other than that, we use Instagram and our web shop as a medium of promotion. Right now, Binatang Press is not making money, but then again we do this out of passion."

Not that there is much space available in the market. Andika Pramadya, who works in promotions at PT Elex Media Komputindo, recently told MetroTV that his company had no plans to start publishing Indonesian comics in the near future.

"The market's taste still leans towards Japan," he said.

So while Indonesian comics are out there, don't expect to see them and manga in equal numbers on bookstore shelves anytime soon.