Lat's take on his life

Lat's take on his life
Mohammad Nor Khalid (better known as Lat), at the launch of his autobiography, Lat: My Life And Cartoons, early this month.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In the 1950s and 1960s, The Straits Times was staple reading in the home of iconic Malaysian cartoonist Mohammad Nor "Lat" Khalid.

His pen name Lat is the truncation of "bulat", Malay for "round".

As the rotund raconteur recalls in his just-launched autobiography Lat: My Life And Cartoons: "We always had The Straits Times in the house. The headlines were always about Singapore and there were cartoons by Ping... There was also the Gambols strip (and) the Tarzan and The Cisco Kid strips too."

Those were, however, not Lat's only influences.

His father, army clerk Mohd Khalid Mohd Noh, would buy him second-hand British comics such as The Beano and The Dandy - by the kati or catty (one kati is about 605g) at Ipoh's weekly night market.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times here on Dec 10, just before he launched his auto- biography at Books Kinokuniya, the 65-year-old mused: "The Beano and The Dandy were perfect for children because even if we didn't know how to read or know the meaning of English words, the pictures were attractive."

Lat, who was a former crime reporter with Malaysia's Berita Harian and The New Straits Times (NST), proves as adept with words as he is with line drawings.

The concise, gliding narrative captures his firm, strident voice neatly and precisely.

He wrote it with Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, a former group editor of The NST Group.

As a boy, Lat would also pore through by-the-kati second-hand magazines such as National Geographic, Life and Post, which his late father loved to read.

Lat said his father could not afford the Classics Illustrated graphic novel series of abridged literary classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood.

"They cost about RM3 (S$1) each. You'd have to borrow them from Chinese friends," he said.

No matter.

His parents were just as supportive with money for the India ink and drawing blocks their son needed to publish his first comic strip at age 13 in 1964, when he was in Primary 6.

It depicted a beggar in a corridor and the Majallah Filem (Film Magazine) published it.

Shortly after, a Penang publisher paid him the then princely sum of RM25 for his 24-page comic book Tiga Sekawan (Three Friends).

That was no mean feat because he was growing up in the Golden Age of Malay cartoons, whose leading lights were Rejab "Rejabhad" Had, Raja Hamzah and Halim Teh.

Rejabhad, a soldier, wrote him letters of praise and later became his mentor.

In the interview, Lat said: "At one time, I was a bit jealous because my father was always laughing at Rejabhad's cartoons... and a relative would say, 'You should draw something that is local (like Rejabhad), not your stories about boys and girls with jeans'."

Lat added: "At that time, if you wore jeans, that meant you were either from Singapore or you had money."

Well, with 52 years of cartooning under his belt, an internationally acclaimed TV animation series and a movie and musical based on his life, Lat now has the last laugh.

This article was first published on December 25, 2016.
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