Sun, 25 Nov 2001

R.A. Kosasih still an idol for cartoonists

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

He looks like an ordinary grandfather, with white hair and only a few teeth remaining. His hands tremble sometimes but, overall, he appears healthy despite having reached 82 years of age.

Dressed very modestly, with a black kopiah (rimless cap) and sandals, no one would guess that the old man is an important figure in Indonesia's pop culture history.

He is R.A. Kosasih.

If you haven't heard his name, think of him as Indonesia's Jerry Seigel or Joe Shuster. Or the Bob Kane of the local comics industry.

Kosasih is the most senior of Indonesia's comic artists. His books span many genres, from children's, romance, martial arts and superhero comics, to traditional Indonesian wooden puppets (wayang golek).

His masterpieces belong to the latter genre, with stories taken from the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.

"I'm a big fan of wayang golek. I often see the shows and collect the pictures. I know all of the characters by heart," he said recently at an event held by the British Council.

His voice is still clear, although you have to speak a little bit louder if you want him to hear you.

Kosasih sometimes forgets facts but don't let this fool you into thinking he is senile. However, he was hard pressed to answer some questions, like why local comics are now less popular than during his era.

"I don't know. I don't know why it doesn't work out now."

Kosasih's first comic book was published in 1953, but he said he had liked to draw since he was a child. Because at that time paper and pencils were hard to find, he drew on the ground in the front yard of his childhood home in Bogor, West Java, where he was born.

Having graduated from high school, Kosasih began working as an illustrator at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1939.

After the country achieved its independence in 1945, Kosasih found inspiration in the comic strips being published in the newspapers.

"I read many comic books back then. Mostly in English. I cut them out and collected them," he said.

However, the comic that spurred him on to produce his own was Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon.

So Kosasih applied to the Bandung-based daily Harian Pedoman as a comic illustrator. His first stories were about female superheroes called Sri Asih and Siti Gahara.

Both of them could fly like Superman, the difference being in their costumes. Sri wore traditional clothes, while Siti had a costume like those worn by the princesses in the 1,001 Nights tale.

Kosasih's comics became so popular that he decided to quit his job at the ministry.

"Comic strip artists received more money than civil servants. Especially during the Orde Lama (Old Order) era when inflation was not so high," he said, recalling the time when US$1 was worth Rp 30 (compared to about Rp 11,000 now).

Other comic books followed and Kosasih created another female superhero, Sri Dewi. Then came Panji Semirang, a protagonist from folklore, and of course the Mahabharata and Ramayana series.

Kosasih was so productive that he claimed he could draw three pages a day.

"I forgot everything when I drew. Sometimes I got bored, but what can I say, I needed to earn money," he said.

But what kind of comic book was his favorite to draw?

"Any kind of comic book, because I'm a seller, I made comic books that sold," he said laughing.

Kosasih has inspired younger artists like Jan Mintaraga to produce comics. Author Seno Gumira Ajidarma is also a fan, which is evident from the many illustrations he included in his latest book, Kematian Donny Osmond (The Death of Donny Osmond).

"R.A. Kosasih is quite extraordinary. Nobody can beat him," Seno once said.

"His books are still being published today, even though local comic books don't sell. But the cruel thing is, he only receives a 5 percent royalty from the publisher," Seno said.

When this was put to Kosasih, he admitted that the amount of money he received from royalties was very small. He said the sum was equal to the amount his grandson got for pocket money.

"Well, it's not like in other countries where royalties can be very large. That's why it's better for comic artists to publish their own books," said Kosasih, who lives with his wife and his only daughter's family in Rempoa, South Jakarta.

Rumor also has it that he no longer owns the copyright to some of his books. But Kosasih only shrugged when asked about this.

During the interview, Kosasih also signed autographs for some of his fans.

"Sorry, it's no good. See, my hands are trembling," he said.

It's because of his hands that Kosasih hasn't been able to draw for the past 10 years.

"I heard that there's an American artist who is 90 years old and can still draw. I don't know if that's true or not," he said.

A young comic artist from the Jakarta Arts Institute handed Kosasih a tabloid that contained the creations of some young artists.

Kosasih looked at the comics carefully, commented on how different they were in terms of style and story from his day, but praised them nevertheless.

"Ha! We weren't allowed to draw something like this back in the 1950s and 1960s," he said, pointing to a woman in a swimsuit.

"We couldn't draw too much blood in the fight scenes either," he added.

A moment later, he ended the interview.

"Enough, OK? Now, where's my grandson? I'm going to go home," he said.

Before Kosasih left, several young comic artists asked to have their photograph taken with him. After posing for the photo, the old man walked away with his only grandson.