Kaoru is in the gallery of Kadokawa Gempak Starz in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, standing idly by a giant display of her artwork.
“This character is my creation,” she says, pointing to the life-size drawing of a boy with a floppy-eared bunny on his back, drifting over the moon’s craters. “I don’t think we have that graphic novel here, though.”
The manga artist, 34, looks questioningly at assistant media manager Khairil Syahril, who hovers nearby, balancing a towering pile of graphic novels in his arms. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Well,” she continues, before being interrupted by the photographer, who instructs her to move to the right of the manga character. She obliges, her lips curled into a soft smile. With a tousled bob and thick glasses, she bears an uncanny resemblance to Edna Mode, the comically imperious fashion maven of Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Like Edna, Kaoru is stylishly decked out in black: a black tunic skims her black leggings, while a pair of mint-green sneakers adds a splash of colour.
With her collection of graphic novels haphazardly stacked beside her, she ignores a gaggle of students passing by, their shrill voices reverberating across the room. A study in composure and professionalism, she strikes poses while answering questions.
But a press interview is nothing new to Kaoru: she has been in the trade for 17 years, widely recognised as the first professional female cartoonist in Malaysia. In the local manga scene, Kaoru is a big deal, a pioneer who has paved the way for a wave of female manga artists. She is one of the most prominent artists in Kadokawa Gempak Starz, itself the largest creator of comics and manga in the country.
Unlike her fictional counterpart, Kaoru (her pen name) is reserved and mild-mannered, with no airs and graces or stormy fits of temper. Upstairs in an open-plan studio, somewhere within the labyrinthine structure of the office, she types out a script for a new graphic novel. A stable of artists surrounds her, each hunched over their computers or sketch paper.
“I’m just finishing up this script,” Kaoru says. A mug of tea sits undrunk on the crowded table. On the far side of the room, a Guy Fawkes mask glowers menacingly. Action figures stand guard on every available surface.
“It’s a process,” she says. “First I write the script, then I do the panelling, also called thumbnails, then I sketch by hand with HB and then blue pencil, then it’s scanned and coloured on the computer.”
She opens a new page, and two finished characters appear on screen. They’re in an awkward embrace, the young woman wide-eyed and bemused, the young man glancing sideways at her, almost sneering.
Kaoru has spent her career creating Shojo manga, a genre targeted at teenage girls and young women. Shojo manga focuses on romantic relationships. Readers identify with the heroine, a typically naïve, unworldy girl thrust into desperate circumstances where she has no choice but to rely on a handsome hero to save her. One of the most famous Shojo mangas is Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers); the plot involves the impoverished heroine falling in love with the bratty, entitled heir to an empire.
“The audience for Shojo manga is mostly girls and young women from 14 to 25,” she says. “Every time I do love stories, I think about them. I think back to when I was 18 and what I cared about then, what I loved to do.”
“I think that readers who read romance comics don’t read them because they identify with a strong, independent heroine,” she continues. “It’s just not like that. They may be lonely and looking for romance that they can’t find in the real world.”
She reveals there are certain tropes she adheres to, which are in fact the hallmarks of the genre.
“They want romance – a guy who can take care of them, a guy who can protect them no matter what happens.”
You mean a knight-in-shining armour, ready to charge into battle to defend his maiden’s honour?
“It’s wish fulfilment, escaping into the comic and the story,” she says. “Maybe after reading the comic, they may feel happy like the heroine. I just want to give them a positive mood or emotion.”
The comics may not send the most feminist message, but they sell. Maid Maiden, a seven-novel series, is Kaoru’s magnum opus. It tells the story of a maid who falls in love with a rich, selfish boy. Like all of Kaoru’s comics, a happy ending is a must.
“I want to do a lot of happy endings,” she says, “because I don’t like sad endings. I’ve read comics since I was 15 and all my favourites have happy endings!”
Thus far, Kaoru has created over 50 original titles in Malay and Mandarin. She is restless with energy, and keen to create more content, more stories to unfurl in beautiful pictures.
“Being a cartoonist keeps me very busy. I do work at the office. But after work, I’m still working at home. Even on Saturday and Sunday, I still work. You just have to do it because a deadline is a deadline.”
Drawn by passion
Kaoru’s real name is Liew Yee Teng. She was born in Perak, but grew up in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. A fleet-footed child, she was more interested in athletics than art. In fact, growing up she had little more than a fledgling passion for drawing.
“I only started drawing at 15. Before that, in art classes I got Cs!”
The budding artist took out her sketch pad and devoted hours to sketching comic strips after she read the manga Slam Dunk. Even though she was clueless about basketball, she was hooked, bitten by the manga bug.
“I loved the story very much …It’s very touching. That’s when I started to dream of becoming a cartoonist, because I wanted to tell a good story, like the sensei (Inoue Takehiko) … I wanted to create stories that I would love, that other people would want to read and that would touch them.”
As she speaks, her eyes widen, shining with joy and conviction. She nods eagerly, her helmet-like bob bopping up and down.
Lacking the funds for art school, she came to work at what was then Gempak Starz as a comic assistant. It was the most junior position, which meant she had to perform menial tasks for more senior artists while working on techniques like inking and touching up.
But she was propelled by passion, determined to master the wizardry of manga style. Panel by panel, she grew in confidence, ready to try something new, to launch her own career as a manga artist. She had a deep well of ideas from which she would draw inspiration for stories.
“I spent all my time drawing. I never stopped. In the office, I would do what they told me. But after work, I went back home to create my own stories,” she says. “I would finish them and hand them to the senior artists. Sometimes they would be accepted, sometimes they would be rejected.”
As the only woman in an all-male team, she had to fight to be heard. In a chorus of male voices, the sole female voice could be completely drowned out.
“Sometimes I would feel alone or that my suggestions were not accepted because I was a woman. Perhaps they thought that a woman thinks differently because they were more focused at that time on Shonen manga (action-style, targeted at boys). It was a hard time, but now I think it’s better,” she reflects.
While male cartoonists still outnumber female cartoonists at Kadokawa Gempak Starz, Kaoru has mentored and trained the contingent of female comic artists at the office. They’re an earnest bunch, bushy-tailed and bright-eyed. Together, they work as a team to create Shojo manga and educational graphic novels for kids.
“I always tell them that they have to be patient and passionate. Sometimes if they become a bit lazy, I encourage them because we have deadlines every month, every week,” she says, taking on the role of a doting big sister. “You have to keep going. That’s the career of a cartoonist.”
Kaoru may be one of the most lauded manga artists in Malaysia, but she’s not resting on her laurels. She has characters to create, scripts to write and stories to tell. Her bubbling cauldron of creativity threatens to spill over, even after years of experience.
“Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I got here,” she marvels, astonished by her own popularity. “When I look back, it hasn’t been easy. It took me 17 years. I don’t think I’m the best comic artist or the smartest cartoonist in Malaysia, but I feel very happy that people love my stories and love the way that I think. I feel like I can keep doing this for the rest of my life.”