Laughter, the Best Medicine
By Kyaw Hsu Mon 29 August 2015
“Today is not a good day,” two famous twin sisters are always saying, but always with a wink.
It’s still a good day for their devoted followers when another story featuring the long-suffering Lay Mon and Htwe Mon and their bachelor uncle Maung Maung Za appears on the newsstands in the children’s weekly journal Pu Tet, Ta Tine Mhwe.
The trouble-prone trio are among a dwindling band of survivors of more sheltered and perhaps more innocent times when comic books were at the center of everyday Myanmar culture, beloved by children and young-at-heart adults alike.
Who now remembers characters like the 70s-era detectives U Shan Sar and U Dein Daung, or the crazy inventor Pho Seik Phu?
Actually, quite a few people remember, and a glow of nostalgia is starting to surround the old comic books and characters of decades gone by.
But that’s mixed news for the talented cartoonists who still ply their trade in what is also fast becoming a declining sales market.
“Thirty years ago, my daughters always read comic books. But today, my grandchildren prefer computer and online games,” said famous cartoonist Maung Maung, 73, whose almost six-decades-long career started in 1956 when he drew cartoons for newspapers at the age of just 13.
100 Years of Smiles
Comics in Myanmar date back to around 1915, when they were introduced by British colonial officers.
Cartoonist Shwe Ta Lay [U Ba Galay] at Rangoon College Magazine found early fame, and a roll call of celebrated names followed who often critically addressed the political and social issues of the day.
In the mid-1950s, a comic book written by then prime minister U Nu and illustrated by cartoonist U Ba Galay became the “first stand-alone comic book in Myanmar,” according to an article published by the Goethe Institut last year.
During that decade, the government often used comics as a propaganda tool against communism, according to the article titled “When Lines Shine a Light in the Darkness.”
Maung Maung was inspired by the work of pioneers Maung Sein, Ba Gyan and others when he started drawing in that decade as a teenager.
In the 1960s, Maung Maung’s work appeared in “Sandar,” a popular magazine published by actor Win Oo.
When Maung Maung started his first full comic books in the early 1970s, up to 6,000 copies were printed.
‘‘U Aung Shein and U Than Kywe were among the most famous cartoonists back then. Many of their characters were popular. Most were copied from foreign comics, but the audience accepted this because they appeared as Myanmar,” Maung Maung said.
The characters were loved by young children and the illustrators were hailed as Myanmar’s answer to Walt Disney.
Many comic books were circulated during the Burma Socialist Programme Party era, including Shwe Thway and Tay Za Yoke Sone for children and youth published by the government-run translation society Sarpay Beikman.
Famous cartoonist Poe Zar published his first illustrations in Tay Za Yoke Sone in 1975.
“Most of my early comics focused on youth education. This was between 1980 and the early 2000s, which I’d say were the golden years for cartoons,” he said.
Now 59, Poe Zar echoes fellow cartoonists’ concerns over the struggling state of the industry. Comic books that used to sell in the thousands now struggle to reach sales of a 1,000 copies.
“I don’t see new cartoonists today, largely because it’s not easy to create a comic book in the current market. It takes at least one month to complete a book. That’s why I’ve had to focus mostly on weekly short comics in journals,” he said.
Some characters continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Poe Zar’s famous bachelor uncle Maung Maung Za and his nieces Lay Mon and Htwe Mon are still going strong, and the twins still end every story with “Today is not a good day.”
Also good news is that cartoonists nowadays are much freer to discuss once-taboo topics. These days amorous uncle Maung Maung Za talks about politics, not just his unfulfilled love life.
“Today, we can freely criticize everything,” said political cartoonist D Yay.
But new freedoms bring new challenges.
“Publishers today produce low-quality cartoons and offer low pay rates, [forcing] cartoonists to look to other professions,” D Yay lamented.
The tenuous state of Myanmar comics might also spill over to children’s literature, he added. Comics at one time were a peerless tool to fuel young readers’ interest in reading.
Poe Zar remains bullish, maintaining that the comics industry will soldier on. Fashions and times may change, but there is still magic around the old classics, and people always want to laugh.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.