Malaysia’s comics scene may not be as well-known as the DCs and Marvels out there, but if the recent Pop culture, Lifestyle, Art and You (a.k.a Play) Exhibition at White Box @ Publika is anything to go by, there is no shortage of talent in the country.
A collaboration between the Facebook-based MY Comics Community’s (MYCC) page, Publika and its various partners, the event is the brainchild of Lee Heng Kok, founder of the MYCC page and publisher of local self-published comics anthology Garaj Komik.
The event offered a gallery style showcase of local, foreign and unorthodox artwork, accompanied by a series of intellectually stimulating forums.
Among those involved were internationally recognised talents such as Alan Quah, Zid, Areila Kristantina, Foo Swee Chin and Sheldon Goh as well as locally established names like Azhar, Sam Hepburn, Arif Rafhan, Mimi Mashud, Daniel Kamarudin, Liew Jun Kang, Kael, Vomit Thunder, Zehe, Stan Cheow, Tan Zui Hui, Legolads, and Jarold Sng, a concept artist and acclaimed statue sculptor.
With so many established names in the local industry involved, we decided to use this opportunity to take a good look at the state of the Malaysian comics industry.
A rising force for good
Among the positive developments in the local industry right now is the rise of a young pool of comic creators such as Liew (Dream Eater) and Hepburn (Welcome To Agency X, Questionable Quote Book).
Quah credits the emergence of a pool of talented young artists to the many local colleges that now offer illustration as a professional course.
“Back in my day, there weren’t many institutions like that. My growth as an artist is basically self taught and through learning from mistakes,” said the veteran comic artist, who currently illustrates DC’s The Vampire Diaries series and the Dark Souls comics adaptation, among others.
“Now, young artists can get the best guidance and learn techniques, and by the time they graduate, are already well grounded to take on the challenges of professional work. We may see more talents from Malaysia working on Western Comics soon.”
Another established comics artist, Sheldon Goh (Grimm Fairy Tales), who works for Zenescope Entertainment, loves the fact that Malaysia has produced world-class artists and writers who are able to deliver content on par with anyone else in the world.
“I also like that we are seeing more diverse material now, especially in the indie space with publishers like Maple and Fixi,” he said.
Freelance artist Jon Tham appreciates that the comic scene has evolved from being a “kid’s hobby” and has become more mainstream, while Arif Rafhan (Pelempang Realiti, Garis) feels that there is a rising sense of unity amongst artists, as they come to realise that the industry is small and that being united is vital for its survival.
Teething issues in local comics
However, there remains some issues within the comics community that need some ironing out.
Despite the proliferation of comics domestically and globally, Hepburn feels that there is a lack of originality. She thinks that artists are only latching on to popular topics and styles instead of looking for their own distinct voice and developing that over a long period.
Liew feels that one stumbling block is lack of media exposure, especially for new comic artists.
Meanwhile, Quah reckons the comic book fanbase in Malaysia is not as big as it used to be, as many collectors are from an older age group, and kids these days seem to be more interested in computer games. He proposed that the situation be addressed by creating more comics that appeal to the younger generation.
Goh brought up another thought-provoking local issue in the Malaysian comics market – the segregation of titles according to language.
“I really dislike the fact that the local creator community is still arranged in silos along race and language lines,” he said.
“Comics, and their respective creator communities, are still quite segregated into their respective markets and unfortunately, those seem to be language-based (i.e. Malay language, Chinese language etc). I wish that we had a more unified showing at comic events where we could have more inclusive participation across the spectrum of creators.”
Money, money, money
After all that’s been said, one big question remains: is it possible to survive, financially, as a comics creator in Malaysia?
Mohammad Yazid a.k.a Zid (Skull Island: The Birth Of Kong) strongly feels that you can’t survive by just drawing in the local scene.
“You have to diversify. Even general illustration does not pay well in Malaysia. You may have to do odd jobs and take up multiple gigs as your side income, or the other way around,” he said.
“Culturally, Malaysians are not appreciative of the arts scene enough to make it a desirable choice of career. Some of us are lucky enough to thrive by doing work overseas. Some might even treat us better!”
Goh concurred, adding that it is only possible to be financially stable if you can secure a regular gig for a publisher who pays fairly and on time, every time.
“Otherwise, you’d need to supplement your income with other things,” he added.
Quah, who also recently designed Royal Selangor’s pewter collection of DC and Marvel characters, said drawing comics alone isn’t enough to pay the bills, and dues need to be paid in order to achieve some semblance of success.
He reckons that many artists fail due to their high expectations and the long hours.
“Some can’t accept criticism of their work and refuse to change, which eventually leads to their art not improving and became redundant,” he said.
“To succeed in comics basically means the willingness to work long hours, evolving your skills consistently, be your own biggest critique, draw like there’s no tomorrow, and finally, live on a long instant noodle diet at the beginning of your comic career!” he said.
“Unfortunately, financial stability will only arrive after many, many years of perseverance and most importantly, through your love of drawing comics.
“You need to suffer for most parts of your career, honing your skill while getting published at low page rates and if you can keep at it, your time will come.”