Comics have always been Stephen Kok’s passion. The Malaysia-born creator was just seven when his mother bought him his first Batman comic book, and he hasn’t looked back since.
A fan of almost all types of comics, from American superheroes to Japanese manga to his current favourite, Saga (the acclaimed series by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples), he cites Malaysian comics legend Lat as one of his early inspirations.
“Another big inspiration for me in my early days were the Lat comics that one of of my cousins had. It showed me that that comics weren’t just about superheroes, but can be used to tell any story,” Kok said in an e-mail interview.
“I started writing in early 2014 and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Comics is the closer thing to making a movie, without the high special effects budget!” said the 35-year-old, who was born in Petaling Jaya and moved to Sydney in 1988.
Though he is not a full-time comics creator (he currently works in the IT industry), his passion for comics eventually led to the creation of his debut 2015 graphic novel Tabby, which he describes as “Romeo And Juliet with cats”.
Kok funded the creation of Tabby through crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, raising about RM10,000, and it has turned out to be quite a success in Australia and New Zealand so far, with over 100 Australian and 15 New Zealand public libraries stocking it on their shelves. It later earned a distribution contract that saw it being sold in Australian bookstores as well.
Tabby is a charming tale that manages to convey the story of these cats without any dialogue whatsoever, which Kok says was intentional, as he wanted to tell the story using only artwork.
Kok has since released a second book, Tabby Sketchbook, which is a collection of artwork from Tabby plus an additional short story. He recently put out third graphic novel 5 Seconds, about a man who develops the ability to see five seconds into the future.
How did you get the idea for Tabby?
Tabby was initally a “secret life of pets” story that evolved into what it is now. I like to plan everything out first, so I did the initial plot outline first. However, as I was writing it, Tabby kind of took on a life of its own, with new characters being introduced and other characters being excluded.
The initial artwork was done by Eric Gravel (Canada), who did some amazing concept sketches of Tabby, and the final story was illustrated by P.R. Dedelis (Poland).
What was the journey towards getting Tabby published like?
Tabby was initially crowdfunded by Kickstarter to get the first print run completed. One library in Sydney picked up a copy and absolutely loved it. I managed to secure a distribution contract and before I knew it, Tabby was in bookstores across Australia and New Zealand as well as in public libraries in both countries.
The story for Tabby is told mostly without dialogue. Why did you decide to do it that way?
Because cats don’t speak! This was one of the writing challenges I had for Tabby – I wanted to use the medium of artwork to tell the story rather than words. I recently did an author’s talk in Stanton Library in Sydney in front of more than 40 kids and it was amazing! We went through the book page by page, and I asked them to tell me what they thought was happening. It was really using the comic format to its full potential. And by the way, the kids all understood exactly what was happening!
What advice would you give someone looking to make it in the comics industry?
During conventions I get asked the same question and I usually answer: “Just write, draw or both whatever your passion is.” I have to admit, I always wanted to write but procrastinated for the longest time, with lots of half-finished ideas and thoughts. There is no right moment but right now. Once you have built a small portfolio of work, get it critically reviewed by people you trust. Accept feedback and see how you can improve.
And lastly, and this is the scariest one: share it with the world. That’s the way to get out there. But be careful as not everyone will be supportive of your endeavours. Learn to take the good feedback with the bad.
Tabby is available from online retailers such as https://www.bookdepository.com/ and http://www.booktopia.com.au/