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Lat’s rollicking Malaysian childhood

December 26, 2007 |  2:35 pm

Malaysian cartoonist Lat made an international name for himself with the graphic novel "Kampung Boy," attracting honors and such admiring fans as Matt Groening.

"Town Boy" (First Second: 192 pp., $16.95), Lat’s new graphic novel (and sequel), is a sweet slice of gentle humor. The liquid joy of this ongoing bildungsroman is a lot like "Peanuts" cartoons, only without that Schulz touch of sadness.

Townboy Set in Lat’s real home town, Ipoh, the book is a gentle portrait of a small Malaysian town written by the school prankster. The author and his best friend, Frankie, rock around the clock, play air guitar above Frankie’s parents’ coffee shop and get up to whatever mischief is at hand.

Lat, who adopted that pen name while cartooning for the New Straits Times (Mohammad Nor Khalid was too long for the panels), is Muslim. As he and Frankie discover their world, the boys compare religions, which for them mostly means food prohibitions. They bicycle around town and pull stunts. When they sneak into an arcade to watch a mechanical peep show, an angry adult hauls them out by their shirt collars. During a school race, they cheat and take a shortcut. And they long for Normah, "the hottest girl in Ipoh." There are dances, art classes (all the boys draw pinup stars) and band performances. Without noticing it, Lat and Frankie grow up.

What lingers is how honest and sweet the book is. Each person is doing or thinking something, and their interactions give a sense of family and community.

Charles M. Schulz’s wife, Jeannie, once told me that when Schulz liked a drawing, he said it had a "rollicking" line. Lat draws a rollicking world.

Laurel Maury

Laurel Maury, who reviews for The Times, is a critic based in New York City.