By Shazwan Zulkiffli
For this week’s Youth of the Nation segment, we interviewed the two juggernaut comic artistes of Keropok Comics – Michael Chuah and Nixon Siow, regarding their origin story, their shift from Mandarin to English, online comic artistes and their new books.
Michael Chuah, or formerly known as C2V, has been in the industry for more than 16 years. His most famous works were from his Gempak-Starz days, notably Gengki, while Nixon Siow was one of the first online comic artistes to emerge through blogs and later, Facebook before the arrival of the latest surge of new wave comic artistes. Both artistes are signed under Keropok Comics for their respective titles, “Office Survival” and “Like That Also Can Ah?”
We sat with the gentlemen at the Keropok Comics office to korek even deeper about the lives of a comic artist.
How do you feel about writing a book under Keropok Comics?
Michael: This is considered my first official English comic for Keropok Comics, because I used to do most of my comics in Mandarin so my readers are mainly of the Mandarin market. Although, I do read English/Western comics, this is the very first time I participate in the English market. So this is new thing for me.
Nixon: I’m actually facing the same situation with Michael. I did Chinese/Mandarin comics before so this is my first English comic with Keropok.
So how’s the experience so far?
Michael: So far Keropok Comics are quite open-minded, we discuss, we do planning on how to market to the English language readers. So they give us a lot of suggestions on what content to put in, what is more suitable to Malaysian lifestyle. So far the progress is quite smooth, no hiccups.
Nixon: It’s a little bit tough, especially when deciding to change from Mandarin to English, I had to take a few days to decide whether I want to change to English or not. Translation was also another issue; I had to find a person that can help me to translate everything from Mandarin to English.
Michael: And certain parts in Mandarin are difficult to translate to English because the joke is not there, so in certain parts, we actually took down the content because you can’t get the joke so the readers might not understand that part. We had to filter the content to make it more suitable.
Is there a huge difference between this market and your former market?
Michael: From my observation of the BM, Mandarin, and English market, it’s totally different. They vary in demands, prices, packages. So far English is the one that can actually accept everything.
Nixon: I think the English market is easier than the Mandarin market. Because in Malaysia, the population of Chinese is only 20% and for people who like to read Mandarin comics is like 5-10%, so the market is not wide and competition in the Mandarin market is also tough because there are a lot of Mandarin comic artists. But the English market has only western comics and we don’t have many choices for Malaysian English comics, there’s Ernest, Lat but there’s not much choices. So for most of the readers, they feel like this is fresh.
So do you think the current surge of Malaysian English comic artists is benefitting every comic artist in Malaysia? Do you think there’s a scene blowing up anytime soon?
Michael: Things are changing very fast lately, especially with the internet, there’s a lot of Malaysian comic artists who do their comics online that don’t go through publishing. They have their own channel, followers and they actually do Malaysian content. The whole world is reading it so there’s no such thing Malaysian content can only be understood by Malaysians, so it is more open now. Now youngsters are more open to everything so for us, putting them to published content is a bit of a challenge but we’re up for it!
As someone who has been through scenes in the past, you’ve been with Gempak and all, along those years, what is the difference between the scene now and the scene then?
Michael: I think we have too much entertainment. We have so much entertainment that we have limited time to do them all. Back then, if we get a book, flip it through a few times and keep it. But youngsters these days, spend time on their phone, sometimes on the book but they might not read it back. Only readers who really love your work will buy books and keep it as a part of their collection. It’s like buying a CD for collections, most of the time we’ll just play it on Youtube. But the good thing is, readers are more open up to things now, they don’t have to go to bookstores to buy certain things, they can look for content anywhere and if they like it, they can support it. The good thing is, things are more accessible for readers now, they don’t have to go to bookstores to look for comics. They can read comics anywhere on the internet and if they like it, they can support the artist directly.
What inspired you guys to become comic artists?
Nixon: I like to draw, drawing is my life. I studied Graphic Design back in college, and at that time blogging was a trend, so sometimes I blog about my life. I wanted to try something new, so I used my tablet to draw, to describe my life and then it becomes a life comic. After that, I wanted to try something new. Like the first few comic strips are from the blog, afterwards I shifted my content to Facebook and surprisingly the response is really good and I start off my own Facebook page and I start building my fan base. All my comics are from my facebook page and I compiled it all into a book.
Michael: Mine is traditional, I also graduated from a Graphic Design school, I work as a graphic artist. One day, I found out that the Gempak publisher is hiring a comic assistant so I told myself that “okay I like creating characters and telling stories so okay” . So I became a comic assistant, and it is more like a trainee, so I applied for the job, got hired and start to do lots of things, I have to do translations, file things, arrange a lot of things. From there, I had to learn two styles, to finish their work, only when I get home I get to draw my own things. The good thing working with a publisher is that you get to meet all the talented comic artists. When they come and submit their work, you get to view their work first, you get to discuss with them. So during the period actually, I grew quite fast actually because things were very intense, so I got to publish my book within half a year, my first comic; Genki. Since then I’ve been working with them for 7 years, and actually I reached to a level that I don’t draw anymore so I do management things like going to meetings and read emails. So after staying there for 7 years, I resigned and start generating my own content. But I do blog and Facebook, but I missed out the golden period. I only recently build up my facebook page but it’s too late! Because the ad thing control thing came up right. It’s fine with that, but I believe good content can always attract readers. But then yeah, I’ve been doing comics for 16 years.
When you wrote Genki, you were still new in the scene right?
Michael: Yes, and there were no restrictions back then. I remember after the first or second chapter, I heard a student actually hit the teacher. So I got a warning letter from the government, that its not a “a good example” for the children so I was like “oh gosh, I got this letter” *chuckles. During that time, I was more daring when it comes to my content. Since then, I always wanted to challenge that. So far, I don’t have a second one, and I’ve polished a lot and there’s no R-rated content in this.
Why ‘Office Survival’? Why this concept?
Michael: Before I started my own studio, I worked for a boss and it was terrible two years working with him, it was a nightmare working for him.The boss actually tortured me for 2 years, so he gave me a lot of ideas on creating this comic. After working with him, I realized that a lot of us when we go to mamak, we always talk about our job so there’s ideas everywhere. When I meet new friends, they talk about their life and I have friends who are also bosses so they talk about how they deal with their staff and things like that. So, I think this content is quite interesting. I start with these 2 characters, the panda is actually human but he only becomes human when he gets to sleep. But he doesn’t actually get to sleep, so he’s in his panda form for some time. Panda is actually myself, as boss always gives us weird challenges and we don’t know why he did that. So I started the early content with the workers’ perspective and later on towards the boss’ perspective. I always wonder why bosses always make these kind of decisions, but when I got my own studio then I realized why bosses do these decisions.
Nixon: So you do stupid decisions also?
Michael: I don’t know, maybe for my workers they think I do.
So Nixon, why ‘Like That Also Can Lah’?
Nixon: They wanted a title so I was always like “Like that also can lah”. Because when I do webcomics, I don’t have a specific title, I just throw in an idea and I don’t feel like giving it a title. I picked this theme because it’s easy to relate, I get inspired from Lat- He draws a lot of comedy and political comics. I draw a lot of political comics before and the response is so strong, viral, and easy because everyone can relate. Everyday news in Malaysia always has something to joke about, if you think today is the worst, tomorrow is even worst. I also picked this title because it’s the most Malaysian phrase.
Do you have any plans? Are you writing another book?
Nixon: Yeah, but I don’t have a firm concept yet, I’m still working on it. It’s possibly not another series of this book but a new one.
Michael: I’m still doing this, but at the same time I’m doing a horoscope comic that would be geared more to girls. Because I have enough guy fans already, so I want new girl fans. My first intention is actually not to draw Genki, I wanted to draw romantic comics, but my publisher says “Your work is so funny! You cannot draw romantic things”. Since then I’ve been drawing more comics for 16 years, so now I’m going to change fashion/passion (I think he meant genre). I picked horoscope because when we meet new friends horoscope is always a good topic to start with, when different horoscope person meets another different horoscope person, they have different chemistry, so it’s fun to do the content and having to study and research about this.
So do you have any message to your fans?
Nixon: Read our comic, especially ‘Like That Also Can Lah’.
Michael: Buy our books, so we can survive.