Before he was Lat, he was Bulat (Malay for "round."). And before that, he was Mohammad nor Khalid. But his fans, in Malaysia and in the West, have always known him as Lat. The popular Malaysian cartoonist is best known for his comic strips that appear in Malaysia’s New Straights Times, and for his book Kampung Boy (published in the U.S. by First Second). First Second released the sequel, Town Boy, last month, and plans a third Lat book, Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today.
Lat’s autobiographical comic book series follows him from his childhood in the Kampung (as told in Village Boy) through his young adulthood in Town Boy. Kampung Boy: Yesterday and Today is about friendship and the games that children make up. “It has such poetry to it,” said First Second editorial director, Mark Siegel. “It’s something very soft and there’s an innocence to it without it being schmaltzy.” Kampung Boy has gone to a second printing, and Lat's cartoonist admirers include Eddie Campbell and Matt Groening.
Lat first began his career as a cartoonist at the age of 13, drawing comics for entertainment magazines in Singapore. At first he was paid with movie tickets which he would use to bring his father to watch Dean Martin movies. But by the time he was 17, he was earning an income from his comics which appeared in newspapers in Kuala Lumpur. “We need cartoons everyday for commentary and humor,” Lat told PW during a recent visit to New York.
Now as he closes in on retirement age, Lat’s work focusing on rural life in Malaysia is gaining a fan base in the U.S via the universal themes of childhood, adolescence, and first-love. “When I draw,” he said, “it is to gain friendship and to do something that would appeal to readers—so that they feel good about it no matter who they are. The whole idea is to make people smile and feel that they are part of the whole thing, no matter what the subject. In Kampung Boy, Southeast Asian landscape may be physically different, but in the summers, we still jump in the lake as children.”
“It’s the memoir of a Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia,” said Siegel. “There is an absence of politics or the fundamental side. It’s a window into a different kind of life.” Siegel, who wants to introduce comics from around the world to U.S. audiences, feels that Lat’s comics are gateways for noncomics readers. “There are certain graphic novels that are door openings for the medium. You don’t need to be a comics geek or a voracious reader of graphic novels to get it.”
“You can do a lot of things in this medium.” Lat said of comics. “It all depends on how much work you want to do. I tell young artists ‘try to do this for three months.’ Some don’t make it. The question is: do you want to use your cartooning talent to communicate with people. If you do, then [just] do it.”