Unleashing the power of panel art

Stacks of comics at Lau’s comic bookshop in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. — Photos: AISYAH ANESEE/The Star

A CLASSIC way of telling stories using visuals is through comic books.

Readers flip the pages and get pulled in by the blend of colours, brush strokes, and artistic techniques as they take in the narrative presented.

Collecting comic books is a hobby enjoyed by many, including 70-year-old YF Lau, owner of a bookshop in Central Market, Kuala Lumpur.

He owns approximately 30,000 issues that he has bought and shared with his brother since 1964.

“Coming back home from school in Ipoh, Perak, we would go past stores that sold newspapers, magazines and comic books, so we bought from there,” said Lau.

At the time, the brothers were interested in the early, single-issue, superhero comic books featuring Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Batman and Superman.

“There was no technology back then, so reading comic books was a way to pass the time,” he added.

Educational tool

Lau showing one of his oldest comics to date, ‘The Cisco Kid’, a July 1954 edition.Lau showing one of his oldest comics to date, ‘The Cisco Kid’, a July 1954 edition.

Lau is a firm believer that people, especially those in the art scene, can learn something from comic books.

“Everybody is involved in the arts in some way.

“The clothes you wear, the make-up you put on, even the way you think.

“Designers can study the architecture and costume, while artists can always look at the colouring techniques, perspective and style,” said Lau.

The majority of books in Lau’s collection are from the two largest publishers of superhero comic books — Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

As some titles from these publishers have been adapted into films over the years, with more on the way, comics play a larger role in people’s lives than most think.

“Directors and actors can use the character’s facial expressions or behaviour as a guide when adapting the story.

“I had a customer who is an artist from Italy, who took home a whole stack of Chinese comic books for research,” said Lau.

The visuals may deserve much attention, but this is not to say that the language is lacking, he noted.

“We bought comic books because it was a way to learn English.

“These had lingo not used in daily conversation, which was especially helpful for non-native English speakers,” he added.

Sharing the same opinion is Ariani Soraya Saiful, 24, an avid reader of the Chinese comic book series Heaven Official’s Blessing, released in 2019.

Ariani Soraya with her favourite manga series ‘Jujutsu Kaisen’.Ariani Soraya with her favourite manga series ‘Jujutsu Kaisen’.

“The series was written by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and centres around Xie Lan, crown prince of the Xian Le kingdom, who was banished from ascending to the heavens twice, before finally succeeding on the third attempt as a laughing stock,” she said.

The manhua, or Chinese-language comic books marked Ariani Soraya’s first literary encounter with the beliefs and mythologies in Chinese culture.

“I learned a lot.

“Of course, it was quite intimidating at first because of how unfamiliar I was with the concepts,” she said.

However, she said that the visuals helped her understand the context.

Ariani Soraya is more familiar with manga, which are comic books or graphic novels from Japan.

She is a fan of Jujutsu Kaisen, a manga series written and illustrated by Gege Akutami.

Ariani Soraya’s ‘Heaven Official’s Blessing’ collection is arranged neatly on a shelf flanked by two character acrylic stands.Ariani Soraya’s ‘Heaven Official’s Blessing’ collection is arranged neatly on a shelf flanked by two character acrylic stands.

“It is easy to learn about cultures and lifestyles from manga.

“One socio-cultural fact I picked up over the years is that the fashion scene in Japan is diverse and unique,” she said.

Ariani Soraya named Paradise Kiss, Nana and Princess Jellyfish as some of the manga series that she loved for the characters’ fashion sense.

She also admires unique fashion subcultures such as Lolita and punk from manga.

“From there, I slowly started building my own style identity, which is something Japanese people value in real life,” she said.

Speech therapy aid

Comic books can also be useful in building speech, language and literacy skills, said Ariani Soraya.

“In primary school, friends with speech problems had a hard time reading novels because of the books’ more complex language structure.

“However, they started improving slowly but surely after coming across comic books in the library,” she recalled.

She added that the shorter and simpler dialogue and narration in comics helped her friends to make sense of the sentences, which in turn helped them to speak better.

Sonia explaining how a page from Fishball’s ‘My Giant Nerd Boyfriend’ can be used as part of a treatment plan.Sonia explaining how a page from Fishball’s ‘My Giant Nerd Boyfriend’ can be used as part of a treatment plan.

Sonia Swarmy, 30, a speech therapist with experience working with children, said novels and books that children were encouraged to read could be scary because they had so much text in a limited amount of space.

“I noticed that once these children encounter one or two words they don’t understand in long passages, they have to go back to the start and repeat.

“When that happens several times, they give up much quicker, so it’s harder to develop their reading skills,” she noted.

Sonia said the layout of panels in comics helped readers to move along the page step by step.

“The text is spread out and accompanied by colourful, striking pictures that provide context for them to understand,” she pointed out.

Narrated images are also effective to visualise instructions for those with behavioural issues, said Sonia.

“There was a student at school who was constantly told off for rocking his chair.

“His teacher custom-made a comic strip to show that he would fall and hurt himself if he continued doing so, and only then did he stop,” she added.

Another speech therapist Lajreena Sawlani, 31, who specialises in paediatric cases involving language delays, speech difficulties and stuttering, agreed with Sonia on the usefulness of comic books.

Lajreena flipping through the pages of Forever Malaysia, one of Lat’s classics.Lajreena flipping through the pages of Forever Malaysia, one of Lat’s classics.

“Comic books take the pressure off of readers compared to the compact, overwhelming format of paragraphs in novels or other kinds of books,” she said.

Lajreena said comic books were sometimes incorporated into treatment methods in speech therapy.

She cited the example of an older male individual on the autism spectrum who had a fear of going on trains.

“He loved drawing, so we guided him into making a comic book that navigated the journey.

“He created his own characters and filled the speech bubbles to tell a story of what happens on the train, the journey time and the surrounding situation to help him settle in,” she elaborated.

She added that the person brought the comic to read on the train and safely completed his journey.

Both Lajreena and Sonia found that learners with autism, who struggled with non-literal text and ambiguous language, could benefit from reading comics.

“I have seen them hate anything to do with language in social situations because what is uttered is not always what is meant.

“It doesn’t help when we explain with words, so having the images in comic books are a game changer for them,” said Sonia.

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