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July 20, 2007

CR Review: Town Boy


Creator: Lat
Publishing Information: First Second, soft cover, 192 pages, July 2007, $16.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781596433311 (ISBN13), 1596433310 (ISBN10)

imageThe follow-up to Lat's career-making, autobiographical Kampung Boy follows the young cartoonist through an extended period of adolescence. One of the more clever aspects of the book is that Lat shows the beginning and the end of the period in greater detail, mirroring the way memory captures those periods of uncertainty that bookend a moment in life more effectively than the great, routine expanse that makes up its bulk. So we get Lat's childhood as a cautious youth and a slack teenager, and we experience his first important out-of-the-household friendship at its genesis and when the pair separate, perhaps for good. It's a frequently lovely book, filled with striking pen and ink work and stuffed to the gills with Lat's broadly humorous and humane approach to character design. There are times when reading Town Boy feels like watching through a street fair after it rains, everyday existence altered by an event just enough to make everything stand out. You can get lost in the cityscapes. In fact, I recommend it.

Most people I know consider Town Boy a greater work than its predecessor, but for me the follow-up's narrative has an unfortunate tendency to substitute summary moments for a lot of the poignant specifics of Kampung Boy. The pace is quicker, and the cursory treatments of time and place fail to live up to the extended, offbeat reveries that Lat does so well. A marvelous scene in Town Boy's first quarter shows the protagonist visiting the home of a classmate. Watching the child settle into a bigger, better version of himself once returned to a familiar environment and seeing the children interact in the foreign but familiar staleness that is always someone's home when kids are left alone should remind anyone of all the first times they visited someone else's house. The by-the-books teenage slouching and pushier-than-they-need-to-be anecdotal sideshows can't compare. The encounter with the unattainable beauty that seems to serve as a climax offers up a few nice details (she's not haughty, just protected by her family) but not enough for it to transcend its general lack of insight and inauthentic feel. It's weird to be negative at all when a single sequence of Lat's work -- say the one where the teenagers rest against a grass background the moment right after the future became a little locked in and a bit scary, or a goofy monologue from a teacher seen through the students' eyes -- can be as wonderful as entire books from lesser cartoonists. In the end, I guess I prefer the smaller scope and more tender, circular experiences of the Kampung to the rush of firsts that arrive in Town.

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