Forget Batman, Spiderman or Superman. There is another breed of action heroes out there in the brightly hued land of comic books. Their names have a more local take, like Gatotkaca, Arjuna, Abimanyu and the twins Nakula and Sadewa.Don't expect Captain America-versus-Superman high jinks or super-criminals threatening the world. This comic offers the real actions of heroes from the epic Mahabharata or Ramayana, which are sometimes portrayed symbolically by puppet masters.
Within the last few years, Indonesian comics have awakened from a long sleep since the invasion of Western comics in the late 1970s and 1980s. Comic-lover communities have been sprouting up here and there, sharing interest in old Indonesian comics, while also promoting the re-publishing of both old and new ones.
Earlier this month, the publishing of the comic Riwayat Pandawa (The Tale of Pandawa) has brought together the monumental works of late comic writer Teguh Santosa on Mahabharata, Bharatayudha and Pandawa Seda in one bundle.
Publisher Pluz+, a special publisher set up by comic lovers, spent two years collecting pieces from the series from collectors and bookstores around the country before reprinting them using a special technique.
These comic strips have never been published before. They were first published as a supplement in children's magazine, Ananda, in the 1980s.
"The old publishers never kept hard copies. So we had to restore old copies of published material, and then reprint them," says comic lover Andy Wijaya, who was involved in the process.
It all started when several comic buffs got together through a mailing list and Website, komikindonesia.com, back on June 20, 2004.
The online platform was able to draw together comic lovers nationwide, which later on went to mediate comic copyright holders and publishers to re-publish quality comics. As of today, the number of active members in community has reached more than 2,000 people.
"As comic lovers, we know which ones are still wanted in the market and we also help the copyright holders with legal matters so they don't feel reluctant to re-publish their comics," says Andy, who owns the comic-book shop Anjaya Books.
To date, the group has helped negotiate the publishing of no less than 15 old Indonesian comics, including selected titles of superheroes series such as Gundala Putra Petir, Si Buta dari Gua Hantu, Godam and Dina.
However, sales are not that rosy.
"We sell at most 300 copies of each title, from a target of 1,000 copies," says Andy.
Driven by the determination to rejuvenate Indonesian comics, but at the same time facing the reality of the business world, Andy joined hands with fellow comic lovers Gienardy S., Asrin Nirwan and Erwin Prima Arya, in founding Pluz+, dedicated to publishing selected Indonesian comics.
Having their own company, they re-publish only limited edition of comics upon order from other comic lovers. This helps shorten the distribution chain, as they can sell directly to readers or specialty bookshops.
The digital printing technology has also helped them realize their business ideals. In the past, more than 3,000 copies of any one title had to be printed to make it financially feasible, but now a 500-copy print is sufficient.
"The printing cost could have been much higher, but with limited editions, we spend less money and we don't have to spend money on storage," says Andy.
"We don't have to chase after sales targets, and can comfortably rely on our own links, because sales from these cover the production costs."
Andy, a fan of Kus Bramiyana's Laba-Laba Merah (Red Spider), believes that old reprinted comics still have their own market, and with better printing techniques, people will still long to browse through comics in remembrance of their long-lost childhood memories.
"We've been targeting a segmented market, where people actually buy nostalgia, and for whom money doesn't matter," says the man who gave up a career in Singapore for one in rejuvenating the local comic scene.
Comic researcher Seno Gumira Adjidarma says comics based on the Indian epics have a unique position in Indonesian history, born as they were from political repression.
The first such comics, popularly known as "komik wayang" (shadow-puppet comics), were published in 1954-1955, when writers struggled to find a safer form of comics, as they were deemed a representation of imperialism.
During this time, the publisher Keng Po printed Johnlo's works: Lahirnya Gatot Kaca (The Birth of Gatot Kaca) and Raden Palasara. Meanwhile, Bandung-based publisher Melody issued R.A. Kosasih's series of Mahabharata. For his efforts to preserve traditional values through comics, Kosasih was later named the father of Indonesian comics.
"As a schoolboy in the 1960s, I remember the time comics were seized from students and burned, as they were seen as a representation of imperialism; so comic writers came out with something safer to produce. This is why we have comics based on wayang," Seno says.
Pluz+ co-founder Gienardy S. says the reprinting of the Indian epics was just the beginning of the effort to rejuvenate the Indonesian comic scene. The publisher will also support the production of new comics and comic merchandise.
"A new generation of Indonesian comic writers has been hired by foreign comic publishers. We just need to support them to be better in developing characters and solid plots," says Gienardy.
The decision by comic lovers to reprint the Mahabharata, Bharatayudha and Pandawa Seda, says Seno, is not just to scratch around for documentation, but a resistance to the business hegemony of the big comic industry, which offers cheap and low-quality comics in bulk.
"It doesn't matter if our kids don't understand Naruto *a popular Japanese anime*. But if they don't understand the Mahabharata, it's like losing their identity," Seno said last month during the launch of Riwayat Pandawa.
Teguh Santosa is not the first writer to draw comics absed on this Indian epic, and he has drawn parallels with his noted predecessor, R.A. Kosasih.
Although both writers rely on original Indian repertoire, which has been locally developed in certain versions, in certain parts Kosasih only wrote them in his narration, while Santosa draws them in his pictures.
"This is really an enrichment. We have different versions of visualization," says Seno.
Whereas Kosasih's works are filled with Indian-styles temples, Teguh's works are filled with Javanese character, particularly in architecture.The fact that these stories were treated only as an insertion in a children's magazine clearly shows its inferior position, despite the fact that Teguh Santosa was an important figure in the history of Indonesian comics.
If Wid N.S. was known as the creator of superheroes Godam and Aquanus, Teguh was known as the creator of many martial arts figures. He was the first Indonesian comic writer hired by the world comic publisher Marvel Comics in New York as an inkman for the serials Conan, Ali Baba and Piranha.
His style of presentation is also unique compared to the latest comic styles.
"If the strength of Japanese manga is in their movement, Teguh's works are like paintings. His surrealism gives his scenes the effect of a painting. We love staring at them. Although the costumes are weird, the imagination is strong," says Seno.