By: Shafira Bella
Indonesia has a long history of comic readership. For most 1990s born like me, comics, especially translated Japanese comics, were something that we grew up with. However, the younger generations nowadays are more likely to be familiar with a “new” form of digital comic, which is LINE Webtoon. Let me briefly talk about comic in Japan and South Korea. Along with the development of technology, the sales of digital comics in Japan inclined by 27.1 percent in 2017 and is estimated to outnumber the printed ones over the following years according to The Research Institute for Publications (Nagata, 2017). A similar issue also happens in Indonesia with the arrival of Webtoon in the comic market. Originated in South Korea due to the decline of manhwa (Korean comic), web cartoons were born in 2003 and began to be exported by Line, a Naver (online platform in South Korea) subsidiary, in 2014 by translating webtoons to English (Park, 2014). Throughout this essay, I refer to Webtoon with a capitalised ‘W’ refers to the platform, LINE Webtoon, while the lowercase ‘webtoon’ refers to the digital comic.
This essay seeks to answer the questions: How does Asian popular culture relate to processes of regional integration and/or globalisation? How is popular culture affected by, and how does it affect in turn, the transnational flows of people and products within and outside of Asia? In doing so, I utilise a case study of My Pre-Wedding (2015) by Annisa Nisfihani, the winner of LINE Webtoon Challenge in 2015 (LINE Webtoon, 2015). Other than its popularity, this webtoon is interesting because the creator adopts Japanese comic aesthetics despite her Indonesian background. I argue that My Pre-Wedding illustrates the glocalised inter-Asian transnational flows of popular culture through comics while promoting Indonesian values.
As this essay was submitted as one my final papers, my delivery could be “too” academic in many parts but please bear with me (and my academic-ish writing)!
Contextualising Indonesian Comic
Indonesian comic might be less heard globally; however, it has a long history which can be traced back to the era of Dutch occupation. In 1930, Kho Wang Gie was the first Indonesian comic artist whose comic Put On was published in a newspaper called Sin Po and was loved by many because of its funny characters (Indonesia Kreatif, 2015). However, that comic stopped being produced when Sin Po was prevented from publishing during the Japanese occupation in 1942. Several years later, comics resurfaced again. In the 1950s, Abdulsalam is mentioned to be the most prominent comic artists; however, American comics reached its peak in Indonesia in 1952 (Bonneff, 1998, pp. 21-22). In 1954, Indonesian comic artists such as R.A. Kosasih started to adopt American comic storyline and drawing style but was localised by featuring Indonesian heroes and heroines (Bonneff, 1998, p. 24). The most popular comics at that time were Sri Asih, Puteri Bintang (Star Princess) and Kapten Komet (Comet Captain). Bonneff (1998, p. 29) continues that wayang (leather puppet show) comic became popular until it declined in 1960. Wayang comics are often mentioned as the most ‘original’ Indonesian comic.
Moving forward to 1990s, Japanese comics entered the Indonesian market. Kuslum, as cited in Sihombing (2014), stated that only 1 local comic out of 25 Japanese comics was released monthly in 2007 by Elex Media Komputindo. The constant influence of foreign comics has a purchase on the contemporary Indonesian comics. Ahmad, Zpalanzani and Maulana (2006, p. 93) argue that many Indonesian readers are hesitant to read comics in other drawing styles, most readers only accept comics with Japanese comic aesthetics. As a result, many Indonesian comics adopt the Japanese comic drawing styles with large-eyes characters and often the artists use Japanese pennames, for example, Magic of Love (2008) by Anzu Hizawa. The rise of Indonesian comic is marked by the existence of Ngomik.com since 2010. Five years later, LINE Webtoon opened in Indonesia in April 2015 and quickly became the centre of coloured digital cartoon platform in the country. Indonesia is the biggest Webtoon readers with more than six million active readers as of 2016, which outnumbered the readers in other countries (Agnes, 2016). The webtoons published are both from Indonesian authors and foreign authors, especially from South Korea and Thailand.
Webtoon Glocalisation: My Pre-Wedding
As I mentioned earlier, My Pre-Wedding is written and drawn by Annisa Nisfihani with a total of 26 episodes. My Pre-Wedding (MPW) is read by more than two million readers and each chapter is liked by 99,999+ readers as of May 2019. MPW narrates the story of Adelia ‘Adek’ Putri and Adimas ‘Mas’ Purnama who are both Indonesian civil servants in a sub-district in Tenggarong, East Kalimantan. During office hours, Adelia, a civil servant working in the sub-district office, receives an unexpected marriage proposal from Adimas who works as a district secretary next to Adelia’s office. The sudden proposal happens in Adelia’s office administration room filled with her workmates. They face several obstacles before marriage such as Adelia misunderstands the date of Adimas’ official proposal and thought he cancels his proposal, her father rejects Adimas’ proposal, trust-issue and Adelia’s ex puppy love ‘boyfriend’. This webtoon ends with Adelia and Adimas’ marriage.
MPW is a webtoon that features both local and global qualities. MPW is set in everyday life of Indonesia, particularly in the island of Kalimantan. The story happens in daily places such as in an office, a minimarket, a pharmacy, rocky road in the countryside and the characters’ houses. As civil servants, Adelia and Adimas wear uniforms—khaki, white, batik (Indonesian traditional fabric) and green according to the day. Everyday life narrative in the webtoon is the main point that the readers can relate. Canário (2015, p. 91) argues that narrating the mundane life can ‘create a meaningful connection between text and reader by appealing to a familiar background’ with a touch of ‘complexity and contradiction’. The conflicts that I mentioned earlier are also the ones that might happen in real life. Local values and wisdom featured in the webtoon become one of the main selling points that brought MPW to be loved by many readers. The setting of MPW is in a sub-district in East Kalimantan which gives areas outside Java to be featured in popular culture. Therefore, MPW offers a wide scope of readers in Indonesia, including those who do not live in big cities are able to find this webtoon relatable.
The characters’ jobs as civil servant become the core of the most Indonesian background story. Civil servants are often related to middle class. Civil servants’ salary depends on the rank and position to determine the basic salary and structural allowances. Being a civil servant is seen desirable because of the ‘guaranteed’ salary, small opportunity of being fired and easy access to healthcare. Moreover, the base of the story is about marriage without dating, which is commonly practised by several Muslims in Indonesia and is known as taaruf. Nilan (2008, p. 79) argues that many Indonesian youngsters see ‘marriage as a financial haven through which validating consumption, personal security and individual social status legitimacy’ after they feel like they are stable enough to start a family. The status quo is reflected in MWP in which both main characters are financially stable; therefore, marriage is the next goal. In this sense, through MPW, webtoon becomes a form of popular culture which connects Indonesian readers with the local-infused storyline which is close to the readers. Several points that come up here are civil servants, the rise of middle class, the importance of financial stability, marriage and the relatable characters. The accessibility of Webtoon as a free platform makes people regardless of their class who have smartphones and internet connection can enjoy reading this form of digital comic.
While the local aspects of MWP revolve around the narratives of everyday Indonesia, the global in this webtoon shows the complete opposite. Although the author constructs her story and characters in an Indonesian setting, the drawing style is heavily influenced by Japanese girls’ comic. The example of the Japanese girls’ comic aesthetic can be seen on the figures below:
Figure 1. Adimas proposes Adelia (Prologue)
Figure 2. Adimas is scared of a cockroach but he tries to keep calm (Episode 2)
Those two figures illustrate the way Japanese girls’ comic aesthetics is adopted to an Indonesian webtoon. The most obvious drawing style is on the similarities in ‘the physical drawings of women in girls’ manga—the large eyes and pupils; long lashes; slim torso, limbs, and hips; and the petite noses, mouths, and breasts’ (Schwartz & Rubinstein-Ávila, 2006, p. 45). Adelia is depicted as a brown-haired female with large eyes, slender figure and is shorter than Adimas. Moreover, Nisfihani also incorporates the use of onomatopoeia, glittery background for romantic scenes, dark and dramatic backgrounds are used to depict conflicts and even the choice of font that is commonly used in Japanese translated comics. As seen in the two figures above, Nisfihani is heavily influenced by Japanese girls’ comic drawing style, except that her work here is coloured. Although Indonesian comics start to flourish all over again through Webtoon, the drawing style of this popular Indonesian webtoon is still limited to the adoption of Japanese aesthetics, but with several tweaks to meet the standard of webtoon panels. The main differences between webtoon and Japanese comics are the panel and the colouring. Webtoons usually consist of 10-30+ panels each episode, drawn on 800 x 1280 pixels canvas.
Other than the daily life storyline, the adoption of Japanese girls’ comic aesthetic plays an important role in informing which drawing style is preferred by Indonesian readers. As I flagged earlier that Ahmad, Zpalanzani and Maulana (2006, p. 93) claim most Indonesian readers find Indonesian comic with Japanese comic aesthetics more acceptable. Another scholar, Sari (2018), stated that comic enthusiasts in Indonesia prefer Japanese comic because the theme of the story is close to the readers’ daily life, not only action or colossal comic like many of Indonesian original comics. As I mentioned above, MPW narrates a story about two civil servants who are about to get married. MPW features two characteristics that are desired in Indonesia: the use of Japanese girls’ comics drawing style and the daily life storyline. The combination of those two aspects rocketed MPW to be the winner of the 2015 LINE Webtoon Challenge and constantly became the most read webtoon even after the competition ended. Through the combination of closeness and familiarity, MPW helps to connect diverse Indonesian readers through a globalised form of popular culture.
Furthermore, the female agency in MPW is worth noting because Adelia’s character shows the pseudo-agency she has. Figure 2 above is the background story of why Adimas is interested in Adelia—partly because of her bravery in smashing the cockroach. During the flashbacks to the characters’ high school days, Adelia is pictured to be a ‘tomboy’ whom Adimas at first thought she was a boy. On the surface, Adelia is an independent woman who is not afraid of anything; however, at the end of the day, she still needs to perform her femininity by tying the knot. Schwartz and Rubinstein-Ávila (2006, p. 45) argues that in Japanese girls’ comic, ‘the so-called strong and powerful young female protagonists are also the ones who compliantly fulfill their caretaker roles (as good daughters, granddaughters, or girlfriends)’ and are ‘submissive and sexually available companion’ for the male main characters. Adelia is portrayed as having a lesser agency towards the end of the webtoon. The similar gender representation of this Indonesian webtoon compared to the many Japanese girls’ comics shows the proximity between the two Asian countries.
Befu, as cited in Wong (2006, p. 30) claims that ‘”similarity of the cultural assumptions and background – undeniably makes it easier for some Asian countries to understand and emphasize with performances and characters.”’; therefore, Japanese comics are able to go global, especially to other Asian countries. In the context of MPW, cultural similarities are the vehicle for the author to capture the readers’ hearts by utilising familiarity. Familiarity does not only come in the form of drawing style and the use of local Indonesian setting, but also in the ‘socially acceptable’ gender-based agency of the characters.
MPW is not only a contemporary form of globalisation but is also the vivid example of the glocalisation of Japanese (girls’) comics. Other than the Japanese girls’ comic drawing style, MPW has a strong Indonesian element attached to the webtoon. However, instead of decreasing the local value of the webtoon, the Japanese-influenced visual boost its popularity and familiarity. Iwabuchi, as cited in Wong (2006, p. 35), argues that Japanese popular culture is ‘culturally odorless’ because of the necessity to suppress ‘Japanese cultural odor is imperative if they are to make inroads into international markets’. By looking at MPW, the adoption of Japanese girls’ comics drawing style is possible because of the flexibility that the ‘odorless’ Japanese popular culture has to offer. Such glocalised digital comic is also because of the constant exposure of Japanese comics. The author also uses English title although the whole webtoon is narrated in the Indonesian language. These aspects show that it is possible for a webtoon to be local yet global at the same time. Japanese (girls’) comics drop the barrier between comics in different regions in Asia and Southeast Asia, and it obscures any possible differences under one comic visual quality. Through webtoon, Indonesian comic industry flourishes once again and becomes the symbol of glocalisation of Asian popular culture.
Webtoon and Transnational Flow
Indonesian webtoon becomes a space of comic glocalisation because of its local storyline but with a touch of global visual. Suter (2013, p. 556) argues that the strategy in using Western settings cannot be reduced as ‘the result of an inferiority complex towards Europe nor just a form of reverse racism that objectifies the West,’ because it shows the complex process of creative ‘reification’ and ‘critical reflections on gender and cultural norms’. However, in the case of MPW, the use of foreign drawing style is not only a result of Japanese comic exposure, but it also becomes the vehicle for an Indonesian webtoon to be consumed transnationally.
Webtoon is mentioned to be the next popular culture that represents Korean Wave. Jang and Song (2017, p. 183) argue that K-pop and webtoons are similar because webtoons ‘are in accord with the concept of glocalization that empowers local communities to balance the hybridity of global factors and local characteristics’. The concept of empowering local webtoon authors to create comics on a foreign platform can be read as a strategy to conquer the market by presenting contents that the local readers will feel comfortable in consuming while benefitting local creators at the same time.
The huge interest of webtoons in Indonesia as the biggest LINE Webtoon users shows that such strategy works. Moreover, encouraging local creators ‘cultivating local societies to create new types of webtoons’ (Jang & Song, 2017, p. 182) gives the opportunity for transnational readers to be as creative as they want. Webtoon as a free digital comic service does not only give the opportunity for transnational readers with any background to enjoy the stories in the platform, but it also becomes an alternative to aspiring authors who do not have the space in the world of Indonesian comic making. For stable authors, Webtoon can be a stepping stone to publish their works to international audience.
Upon gaining domestic recognition, MPW is officially translated to Thai (Kusumanto, 2016)
and Japanese (Kusumanto, 2017) to be published on the respective countries’ Webtoon sites. MPW is also translated by fans to more than 20 languages on Webtoon Translate, an official fan-translation website provided by LINE Webtoon. Despite the strong local Indonesian characteristics (the names, jobs and settings), MPW is still palatable to international readers, especially within Asia. The export of MPW is in line with Wong’s argument that ‘manga has the characteristics “representing the juxtaposed sameness and difference”’ (2006, p. 29). Likewise, this webtoon presents similarities and differences that the Asian readers can negotiate while consuming exported (digital) comics. Webtoon and its transnational ‘nature’ allows any digital comics regardless of the style and storyline to be globally acceptable. Looking at the broad range of language on the fan translation website, MPW (and webtoons in general) is enjoyed within and outside of Asia. However, MPW is officially marketed within Asia only. The Asian-centric marketing strategy is due to the core of webtoons: familiarity. Not only Indonesian webtoons being translated to other languages in Asia, but also other webtoons from other countries are translated and published in Indonesia. Cultural exchange through (Asian) popular culture happens through webtoons. The familiar culture presented in webtoons has the agency to break cultural boundaries between (Asian) countries.
In the globalised comic industry, MPW shows that even when an Indonesian comic, or in this case it is a webtoon, reverts to locality, it is possible to reach both local and global audience despite its Indonesian ‘odour’. However, it is also possible because the familiar Japanese aesthetics exist in the webtoon. Although my scope is Indonesian webtoon and Japanese girls’ comic, the platform that publishes the chosen webtoon is originated from South Korea. Both Indonesia and South Korea were once colonised by Japan. Despite the similar history of being a Japanese colony, while South Korea’s official policy forbids the ‘production or distribution of Japanese’ popular culture products (Wong, 2006, p. 34), Indonesia does not take such stance. Indonesian popular culture enthusiasts still consume Japanese products including comics, animations, TV series and movies. Japanese aesthetics glorification exists in the Indonesian comic readers’ preference in reading comics which adopt Japanese drawing style. However, the existence of webtoons obscures the history of colonisation and further integrates the countries, although the relationships between the countries are limited to business only.
Exporting MPW to the transnational audience can become a medium to introduce everyday Indonesia. Especially when the webtoon is re-produced to another form of popular culture such as film or TV series. In Indonesia, Terlalu Tampan (‘Too Handsome’) is the only webtoon that is made into a movie. In South Korea, there are many popular webtoons being remade into TV dramas; for example, My ID is Gangnam Beauty and Cheese in the Trap. Although there is no plan for MPW (and/or its sequel) to be adapted to different media product, a local news portal ‘invites’ their readers to imagine possible actors and actresses to be casted in the TV series version of MPW (Brilio, 2016). This shows that webtoons are flexible and adaptable to various kinds of entertainment. Although transnational co-production beyond webtoon has not happened yet, but it is possible with the growing global interest of webtoons. Webtoon’s transnational publishing is only the beginning of any possibility that webtoons will bring. Transnational popular culture allows readers and authors from different regions to ‘interact’ by creating and consuming webtoons regardless of their origins.
In conclusion, MPW is the result of Japanese (girls’) comic exposure in Indonesia which intersects with the transnational opportunity offered by Webtoon. MPW is a webtoon that features both local and global qualities. MPW’s local aspects lie on the naming of the characters and the settings in everyday Indonesia. The global in MPW is because of its adoption of Japanese girls’ comic drawing style, the use of English title and the fact that it is translated and published in Japan and Thailand. The strong local values in many webtoons, including MPW, does not limit the popularity of the webtoons when they are published outside the countries of origins; instead, locality can be the main selling point. Similarly, MPW deploys familiarity to be both locally and transnationally acceptable by creating a story that the readers can relate to.
Familiarity goes beyond drawing style and the everyday settings, the webtoon features ‘socially acceptable’ gendered agency of the characters. That way, MPW is the representation of (digital) comic glocalisation. When webtoons are exported to other countries, cultural exchange through (Asian) popular culture happens. The ‘familiarity’ of webtoons across Asia has the power to obscure cultural boundaries between (Asian) countries. Webtoon as a form of transnational popular culture shows the flexibility to be converted into different types of entertainment media and also the high possibility to be consumed by readers from various class, gender and racial identities. This transnational form of (Asian) popular culture should be celebrated because it has its own agency to move across various boundaries including spatial, linguistics, economics and cultural barriers.
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