John A. Lent
This article surveys comics from two perspectives: as an entertainment medium and as a type of education and social change. Comic art here is divided into two parts, mainstream cartooning and outside the mainstream, a distinction that at times is not clear-cut or apparent. The emphasis is on the countries of the South - most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The world of comic art is no longer solely a children's domain. Perhaps it never was, although for sophistication pretences, most adults at another time would not have admitted to reading comics. Today, this barrier has all but disappeared world-wide, probably because of the universal preference for visual over textual forms, a corresponding acceptance of most popular culture, and the creation of comics and animation genres specifically meant for adults.
Nor is comic art strictly an entertainment medium. And again, perhaps it never was, as educators, military and industry trainers, and government propagandists used cartoons to serve their purposes. Today, such uses are rather commonplace, with some educational and conscientization comics selling millions of copies (e.g. Japan Inc.) and garnering top awards (e.g. Pulitzer Prize for Maus).
Comic art (animation, comic books and strips, political and gag cartoons) is having a rebirth (in some cases, a conception) world-wide. This is true for sure in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where comics and humour magazines often top all periodicals in circulation, where indigenous comic characters scramble for a place alongside American and European imports, and where animation vies for part of the huge domestic and global entertainment markets.
A few examples suffice: In the Philippines, komiks are the most read of all media and a source for many movie plots (Lent, 1989); in the Middle East, the comic strip-filled Mâjid is the most popular children's magazine; in Malaysia, Gila-Gila (mad about Mad) ranks second nationally in periodical circulation, and in South Korea, the all-cartoon Tooniverse network competes aggressively in a tough television market.
Although for the most part, South newspapers still depend on inexpensive United States syndicated comic strips, growing numbers of domestically created 'funnies' are showing up. South Africa can now boast of 'Madam and Eve', which has attained a large book and newspaper readership and a growing merchandise line. Many other countries (Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Indonesia, and Thailand readily come to mind) have also localized strips.
To generalize about the comic art of a region is risky, if not misleading. Comic books, political cartoons, comic strips, and other kinds of cartooning change from place to place, not lending themselves to easy categorization. For example, comic books come in various genres, sizes, and formats; political cartoons have differing formats, functions, and intensities of adversarial intentions.
In Hong Kong, one can find gambling and kung fu comics; Taiwan lays claim to nonsensical brainteasers, the Philippines to nobela (serialized stories, some lasting for years) and wakasan (short stories complete within an issue) komiks, and Latin America to photonovels. Sri Lankan comics papers contain sixteen pages, each page devoted to a different story by a different artist; Korean and Taiwanese comics, like Japanese manga, are hundreds of pages thick, while those of Thailand come in two sizes - traditional and pocket. But, many comic books of the South resemble those of the U.S. in number of pages and format.
Among political cartoon styles are the summary (a montage on a current theme or the news highlights of the week) and the now extinct editorial verse (one panel mixing poetry and comic illustration on a given theme), both indigenous to Thailand, a type of elongated panel in Sri Lankan dailies showing a group of common folk discussing a current affair (Hettigoda, 1993), and the tiny front page pocket cartoons found in some Asian and African newspapers.
Newspaper strips range from a gag-a-day style, found in Pran's self-syndicated 'Chacha Chaudhary' in India (Pran, 1993) or Lillo's 'Motojo' in Cuba (Lillo; 1991; see Lent, 1995b), to the four-panel, vertical strips that adorn the next to last page of Korean dailies and which were the nemesis of the country's long line of dictators (Kim, 1992), to a batch of Middle Eastern strips that deal with Arabism, Islam, radicalism, and nationalism, as well as more usual themes (Douglas and Malti-Douglas, 1994).
Nevertheless, there are constants in the cartooning of the South. First of all, in almost every country, comic strips fight an uphill struggle because of increased newsprint prices, dwindling sizes of newspapers, lowered readership levels, and competition from cheaper foreign-syndicated strips and the new media. Second, the foreign presence, whether European, American, or Japanese, plagues all forms of comic art, thus, Korean comic characters look like blood relatives of those of Japan; Philippine komiks titles sound peculiarly close to American ones ('Lastik Man' for 'Plastic Man' or 'Bulko' for 'The Hulk', and Malaysian and Bangladeshi humour magazines name and pattern themselves after Mad. Elsewhere, South African and Latin American comics creators strive to shed U.S. influences, while contending with the stiff competition provided by American comic books.
Third, political cartoonists have mellowed in their approaches throughout much of the South. (For that matter, so they have in the U.S.) Cartoonists explain that with the more carefully orchestrated, public relations style governments of late, controversial and/or detestable leaders of the ilk of Idi Amin, Marcos, Duvalier, Stroessner, or Lee Kuan Yew, are not out front where they can be targeted. Self-censorship is the norm everywhere because of the many governmental and societal taboos, terrorist and vigilante group activity, and the close economic liaisons newspapers have developed with big business and government.
In Colombia, where more than one hundred paramilitary groups threaten cartoonists, one easily sympathizes with Hector Osuna, of El Espectador, who said, 'We live in danger... we would be lacking in common sense if we did not censor ourselves' ('The Dangerous Life', 1988:27). In South Africa, cartoonists do the bidding of conservative editors, drawing 'fluffier and lighter' cartoons that oftentimes illustrate the day's editorial (Valentim, 1996; Nanda, 1996). A similar situation exists in Jamaica (Brown, 1993) and Trinidad (Williams, 1990). In Asia as well, most political cartoonists resort to doing safe 'social' cartoons that depict societal quirks. To get across anti-government messages and yet survive, cartoonists learn to be subtle, making regular use of stealth, insinuation, innuendo, and the double entendre.
Fourth, comic art has not been treated very seriously in most parts of the South. As a field, it was banished to the lower echelons of the art and journalism professions, its practitioners ignored and overworked. Significant gains (both in terms of respect and profits) have occurred recently with the sprouting of cartoonist associations, humour magazines, exhibitions, and training programmes in each of the regions.
Comics take on market forces
The most serious problem facing mainstream comic art of Asia, Africa and Latin America is the one that is playing havoc with all cultural and media forms - their internationalization and centralization by a few transnational corporations shaped solely by marketing considerations.
Among major consequences of this conglomeratization are the creation of a new international division of labour, the brain-draining of countries of the South, cultural homogenization, and ridiculously high levels of commercialization. To varying degrees, all affect comic art.
The international division of labour has been changed by conglomerates that shift operations from region to region, always on the lookout for inexpensive and strike-free labour pools. The animation industry has felt the reverberations of this tendency as U.S., Canadian and European studios initially farmed out work to Japan which, when its labour became expensive, subcontracted to South Korea and Taiwan.
In recent years, a tertiary level of subcontracting has occurred as Wang Productions of Taiwan and others set up major subsidiaries in China, Philippines, and Thailand. Complaints of labour exploitation have accompanied these moves; but, in some instances, this offshore animation has been credited with providing training and career opportunities for young Asians and with helping to foster indigenous animation industries.
Conglomeratization has also led to brain-drains as some talented artists and writers of the South have followed the glitter and money northward. For example, the Philippine cartoon community lost many creators a few years ago to the U.S. comic book industry, and within the past decade, to the Singaporean media combine Straits Times. Cartoonists throughout Asia, and some in South Africa and Cuba, have expressed strong desires to work in the U.S. for the syndicates, Marvel or DC, and animation studios.
The mergering endemic to building huge businesses has affected cartooning. United States comic book producers have merged with each other, with distribution firms, and with larger media giants, establishing a pattern to be (in some cases, already has been) imitated by more affluent countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Among results have been unfair competitive markets that through sheer volume shut out indigenous comic books and strips of the South; synergistic monopolization whereby corporate gluttons control not only comic art images, characters, and artifacts, but also all material products associated with them; standardisation of content, with much imitation of successful Western comics throughout the South, and the narrowing in numbers of those chosen to be arbiters of public taste.
The level of commercialization brought on by corporate cartooning has reached dizzying and ridiculous heights, with comic merchandise becoming more important than the work of art and its story. Thousands of toys, games, trading cards, posters, clothes, greeting cards, sculptures, and other cartoonized junk plague Western societies, and are making serious inroads into those of Asia, Africa and Latin America. When the creation of cartoon characters and stories are mere excuses for bringing out a line of highly priced, remotely related, and completely useless products for the small child market, the quality of work obviously diminishes.
Famed Chinese cartoonist and animator Zhan Tong (1993) warned of a 'crisis in cartooning as the profession is influenced by business and Western styles', while in the Philippines, the professional society, United Artists, pointed out that quality of work had deteriorated because of the necessity of cartoonists to speed up the creative process to make more money. Many cartoonists attribute low quality to publishers and editors who know how to make money, but not how critically to evaluate a work of art (see Lent, 1997).
Outside the mainstream
Much of what purports to be cartooning for developmental, conscientizational, and educational purposes falls outside the mainstream in that it is financed and created by governments or NGOs, rather than corporations, and has purposes other than simply turning a profit (see Lent, 1988).
While describing conscientization, Zecchetto (1988:7) showed how most comic books and strips of establishment media would not fit. He said conscientization referred to 'the level of rationality which helps us understand the process which forms people and society, to take a positive stand in solidarity with the oppressed, and to work for grassroots organisation and actions with programmes of liberation.' Conscientizing or popular comics, according to Zecchetto, are designed for specific projects, have new and alternative ideas, are passed around the community, and are owned/produced by democratizing groups not media conglomerates.
Comics lend themselves well to developmental and conscientization projects, having a number of favourable characteristics. Among these are: versatility, capable of embracing many forms, techniques, sizes, and uses, visualness, appropriate to a contemporary, visually oriented world; universality, both chronologically and geographically; indigenousness, emanating from folk art and belonging to the people, using their languages, mannerisms and aesthetics; adaptability, to different techniques, folk and popular forms, and all media; flexibility, shapeable according to uses, audiences, and formats and capable of making sense with or without words or action; inexpensiveness, piggybacking on other media for which the reader has already paid or appearing as relatively cheap comic books, and popularity (Lent, 1995a).
Recognizing these attributes, developmentalists have employed comic art to change people's attitudes and practices concerning a myriad of problems.
One project of rather large proportions, launched by UNICEF, has sought to uplift role models for girls in South Asia and Africa. Using the characters 'Meena' and 'Sara' in South Asia and Africa respectively, UNICEF produced a series of television and video animation episodes on the disparities in status and treatment of the girl child. Issues covered included sexual abuse and HIV-AIDS, child labour, forced and early marriage, peer pressure, and unequal treatment of girls. As McKee and Clark (1996) wrote, Meena and Sara represented 'empowered girl figures... able to act, to ask questions and to seek solutions to the problems which face them and their friends and family.'
To reach people without television, UNICEF developed Meena and Sara radio series broadcast through BBC's Bangla and Africa services, made available comic books, story books, audiocassettes, posters, etc., and planned to merchandise products for both. All Meena and Sara episodes have multiple language versions. A rather elaborate infrastructure, emphasizing the use of indigenous services and the training of local people, facilitated the animators' work. Some of the designing, production, and post-production work on Meena was done under the supervision of Ram Mohan of Light Box Moving Pictures (Bombay), but the bulk of the animation was completed by Fil Cartoons of Manila. Ram Mohan and members of his South Asia crew have helped train African writers, artists, and researchers in the Sara project.
UNICEF guarantees the continuation of these series through corporate sponsorship. Already, Hanna-Barbera has financed Meena, with the help of the Norwegian government. The agency has also set up the Animation Consortium, an attempt to implore commercial studios world-wide to help develop fifty-two 30-second animation shorts on children's rights (Kenyon, 1996:46), sponsored Animation for Development workshops, and brought animators from the Third World to work as interns at Western animation studios. In all cases, interaction and feedback have been goals. The Sara Communication Initiative involved twenty months of work and development by more than 150 writers, artists and researchers from all over Africa, and discussions with more than 5,000 targeted villagers and slum dwellers.
All across the South, printed comics have been used successfully in a variety of campaigns, ranging from safe sex to safe driving. The peak for their use in Asia was probably in the 1960s and 1970s, when the United Nations and other agencies tried to improve people's lives by encouraging family planning and good nutrition and sanitation practices. In the Philippines, development komiks were produced by the University of the Philippines Population Centre and the government-run National Media Production Centre and tested by the UP Institute of Mass Communications. Over the years, other komiks explained alcoholism, attacked the tendency to judge women solely by physical appearances, and persuaded guerrillas to 'return to the fold of the law and to favour kith and kin' (Jones, 1987:1).
Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysia's Creative Enterprises, through its children's magazine, Bambino, uses comics to promote poetry, moral lessons and stories of legendary Malay warriors; Thailand's Department of Non-Formal Education conscientized the public on topics such as breast feeding and workers' rights, and India's Amar Chitra Katha series, for more than twenty years, emphasized the need for children to know of India's history, mythology, and folklore (Pai, 1993).
In another Indian project, WHO and the Danish International Development Agency funded the creation of a comic book, Stories of Adventure, about immunization for rural children, with an adaptation kit for other countries, languages, and cultures. The book of four stories was carefully researched and field tested before it was translated into various Indian and other languages, and adapted for use in six neighbouring countries (Rani, 1986:279-280).
In Latin America, comic strips and sketches are part of written texts, pamphlets, leaflets, and short plays used for popular purposes. For example, Brazil's Centro Vergueiro has a simple graphics communications network connected with, and acting as the voice of, hundreds of groups in poor and slum areas, while Peru's El Día del Pueblo uses comic strips and a radio network for conscientization of poor urban areas. Comics for similar tasks exist in at least Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru. In the Caribbean, UNICEF, from its Barbados office, did 'Sex Patch', a comic strip about two teenagers living under a never ending set of rules; the message disseminated is that there should be more open discussion between parents and children on the topic of sex.
Comics have also become very prominent in African development campaigns during this decade. In 1992, a group of cartoonists founded the Tanzania Popular Media Association (TAPOMA), with the aim of using comics in development. With funding from the Finnish-Tanzanian Friendship Society, beginning in 1993, the group has organized workshops and lectures, provided material support to cartoonists, and designed the storyline for an important AIDS programme (Packalen, 1996).
Other comics-related development campaigns include Malawi's Family Life Education Project of the Ministry of Information, which had a comic about the 'night after' woes of a teenage girl taken in by a 'sugar daddy'; Tanzania's Mzee Matonya, a 30-page comic book on land conservation, and others on the need to build democracy in Kenya, learn from grassroots peoples in Senegal, and beware of the money racket in Ivory Coast (Packalen, 19945.
South Africa - a model
No country exhibits the enthusiasm for and dedication to the use of developmental comics as South Africa, especially during the ANP reconstruction since 1994. Graphics lecturer Rick Andrew (1996), credited with creating the first such books in 1987 in an effort to help people rebuild after that year's devastating floods, explained that for the time being, everyone wants to get in on the act of redeveloping South Africa. Even corporations sponsor developmental comics as part of their community services or social awareness sections, according to Savyra Scott, owner of Electric Rainbow, a one-person developmental comics concern.
One of Scott's important works was the comic book, Linda and Zakes, a very explicitly illustrated story about a couple protecting themselves from AIDS while having sex. More than 100,000 copies of the minuscule book were printed, many of which were stuffed into workers' pay envelopes with the co-operation of their employers (Scott, 1996). Although most comics deal with AIDS in a country where the disease is rampant, others from various studios have tackled road safety, sanitation, family planning, peer pressure, care for AIDS patients, and women's roles (Peden, 1996; Scott» 1996; Hawkins, 1996).
Of all those working in developmental comics, the largest and most productive has been the Storyteller Group of Johannesburg. Started in 1988 to promote a reading culture, the group has been committed to creating books based on extensive research, consultation, and genuine participation. Founder Neil Napper said his staff, which at one time numbered twenty, interviews members of target audiences and conducts focus group discussions and workshops all over the country, allowing potential audiences to help draft stories and seeking other feedback. Until 1994, The Storyteller Group was abundantly financed by NG0s, but since then, money has been harder to obtain.
Storyteller books generally have huge circulations; for example, Open Talk distributed 3,075,000 copies. They usually revolve around crucial issues (AIDS, environments peer pressure, etc.), emphasizing the need to make choices and to have dreams, in the process forsaking immediate gratification for later gains. As Napper said, 'we are not giving people answers, but we're challenging them, giving them a chance to debate' (Napper, 19965.
Comic art has made great strides throughout the Southern hemisphere, serving valuable functions in entertainment, information and development. Much still needs to be done to upgrade the profession and to find ways to fund comics and animation, short of heavy dependence on outside conglomerates and meaningless, glutinous commercialization.
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John A. Lent (PhD) is internationally known for his research and writing on Third World, Asian, Caribbean mass communications and popular culture. A professor at Temple University, USA, he is the author or editor of 49 books and hundreds of articles. Dr. Lent is founding chair of the Comic Art Working Group of IAMCR, founding managing editor of WittyWorld International Cartoon Magazine, an international editor of Comics Journal, editor of Asian Cinema, editor of Berita, associate editor of Asian Thought and Society, chair of the Asian Cinema Studies Society, and founder of the Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei Studies Group.