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Meet the 80-Year-Old Grandma Trying to Save Indonesia’s Classic ‘Wayang’ Comics

Before Batman fought the Joker. Before Wolverine popped his claws or Naruto perfected his slack-armed run, Gatotkaca, the bald magical warrior, was the comic hero of choice for most Indonesian kids. Gatotkaca, a character from the Mahabharata, was a common figure in wayang performances—a traditional shadow puppet theater where ornate puppets acted out the stories of Javanese mythology for an audience of children and adults.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, Indonesian comics were a much more local scene. These comics were the stuff of our youth, the kinds of crudely drawn stories you would inherit from your older brother or cool sister. The comics, stories of ancient battles between mythical warriors, magical pencak silat masters, and hellish torture yarns, were once so popular that every local newspaper ran their own wayang-theamed comic strip.

But then these comics all but vanished. Today, Japanese manga is the hottest seller in Indonesia. So what happened to our local comic scene? I tracked down Ibu Herlina, 80, to find out. She’s the late wife of Markus Hadi, the owner of Bandung’s legendary comic store Maranatha, so if anyone knows what happened, it would have to be her.

VICE: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Maranatha?
Herlina: Om Kus (Marcus Hadi) loved to make comics. Western comics, especially, and he loved to scribble everywhere. At the time, John Lo—my uncle—wrote comics about Tarzan and Putri Bintang. Melody had published his works. He eventually told my husband, ‘let’s write an Indonesian comic together.’ In 1961, we opened our own publishing house and bookstore on Jalan Kopo, in Bandung, before finally moved to the current location in 1971.

John Lo started with light children stories like Malin KundangTangkuban Perahu, and Bawang Merah, Bawah Putih. These were popular tales but there wasn’t an illustrated version yet. So we printed the comics ourselves independently. We did our own promotions and distribution, put them at available bookstores ourselves. We told them we were willing to not make a single penny if the books didn’t sell.

What was the reaction like?
They sold like crazy. Initially, we printed 1,000 copies per title, but since those bookstores ran out of copies, they asked for more. Toko Buku Bandung, on Jalan Alketeri for example, said that 100 copies were sold out in just one hour.

How did you find the artists?
We advertised in newspapers, saying ‘we’re looking for new talent who can tell a compelling story with illustrations.’ A lot of people came and submitted their work. Om Kus was overwhelmed by the number. Fortunately, John Lo liked some of them and helped guide them along. At the time, we could print 2,500 copies for a title per day. The demand was that high.

You guys didn’t start producing wayang comics right away?
No, we started with wayang comics in 1963 out of R.A. Kosasih’s recommendation. He said he had a Mahabaratha story. R.A Kosasih was so talented and he was able to draw intricate inscriptions of wayang on their crowns and pendopo.

So your first wayang comic was the Mahabaratha?
Yes. It was created by R.A. Kosasih. He didn’t deviate from the Hindu origin of wayang stories. But the names were changed into Indonesian names to make it easier for people to pronounce. The landscapes were also adjusted to reflect Indonesian scenery with many rice fields, mountains and rural environments.

The popularity of these comics were so widespread that one person came from Pameungpeuk, a super rural town in West Java, and said that at his village meeting hall, people were actually reading Mahabaratha. The popularity of wayang comics grew and grew until there were so many comic artists who were submitting their stories and illustrations to us that they were willing to not even be paid. Perhaps it’s because wayang was so closely associated with Indonesian culture. Like in small villages, people loved to watch wayang golek or wayang kulit. So, many of them were already familiar with wayang stories.

How long does it take to finish one edition of wayang comic book?
Titles like Lahirnya Arjuna or Lahirnya Bima were like 62 pages thin, so we could finish one in about three weeks. We had so many illustrators. We would move their artwork onto a tin plate, then print the individual pages with a hand press. So it was all manual. We didn’t have color printing or offset technique until the 1980s.

How long did wayang comics dominate the market?
Things changed in the 1990s. The number of comic books printed, either wayang or local folklore just dropped dramatically. Back then, we had 17 people working on cutting, arranging, sewing, and other stuff. Now, we only have three people. We’re just preserving things here.

Today we print 1,000 copies for one title every two weeks, and it’s not even a new title. We only rehash stories. Usually it’s the Mahabaratha series since it has a few different volumes: there’s Wayang PurwaSastrabahu, Leluhur Hastina, Mahabaratha 1 and 2, Baratayudha, Pendawa Seda, Tari Kesit, and Udrayana. Usually, people who want to get into Mahabaratha have to read them all, since the stories are all connected.

Why do you think the comics fell out of popularity?
I think because people found more interesting things to do. In the 1990s, there were many good television shows. In the ’60s and ’70s, barely anyone had a TV set, so their main source of entertainment were books.

Especially now that there’s internet, kids would rather play with their phone than read. A few times, some parents came here to find old titles that they used to read as teenagers. They wanted their children to get into them as well. But these occurrences are few and far between. In this past month, we’ve had like one or two people visiting the shop.

Do you have a plan to keep Maranatha going?
I want to restore this store to its initial state. But we really can’t compete with Japanese manga or Western comic books. Plus, kids these days don’t like to read. Even my grandkids don’t want to read wayang comics, so I definitely don’t have any successors. I’m only preserving wayang comics and enjoying my old days.

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