Earlier this year, local author Hanna Alkaf created much excitement in the Malaysian publishing scene with the release of her debut young adult novel, The Weight Of Our Sky.
The novel tells the story of Melati, a teenage girl struggling with mental illness. The tale is set against the backdrop of the May 13,1969 riots in Malaysia.
Hanna’s book was picked up by international publisher Simon & Schuster (under its imprint Salaam Reads), and released to much critical acclaim.
Now, fans of the book can also experience it in an exciting new format, as The Weight Of Our Sky has been turned into a webcomic at the portal Webtoon (webtoons.com).
The book was adapted by US-based Webtoon producer Susan Cheng and writer Alya Rehman. Both Americans are working with an all-Malaysian team of illustrator Nisrina AN and colourists Nurel and Toadfrogs (yes, that is the name he goes by).
The adaptation was a pleasant surprise for Hanna.
“To be honest, it’s not something I ever expected. I set out just wanting to write Melati’s story, I had no notion of adaptations of any kind, whether movie or Netflix series or, in this case, a Webtoon! I thought being published was a miracle in itself, ” says Hanna.
“But I’m so grateful that Webtoon chose to approach me to tell this story in this new, exciting way, and I’m excited at the idea that it’ll reach so many more people in this format. Also Nisrina’s art is just gorgeous, and seeing your characters come to life through somebody else’s talents is an amazing feeling, ” she adds.
Webtoon is a digital comic publishing portal set up in 2005. It contains thousands of creator-owned content from all over the world. Cheng has been working with a team of producers over the past year to acquire young adult novels for the portal. When she came across Hanna’s novel, she knew it was a good choice.
“I read The Weight Of Our Sky after a colleague recommended it to me, and I knew immediately that I wanted to pursue it, ” says Cheng in an email.
“As an Asian American woman, I rarely find stories that really speak to me. But Hanna’s book about a young Malay girl trying to cope with her OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and survive this terrifying moment in history – it struck me as being very real and timely while also not coming across as preachy.
“Hanna’s book contains so much beautiful and evocative imagery that I thought her writing just lent itself to a visual format. When you read her book, it really feels like you’re living through what these people experienced during the May 13 riots.”
Going into the project, Cheng knew she specifically wanted to work with a Malaysian artist. Finding one, however, took a lot of searching and testing rounds with many talented artists. Finally, she settled on Nisrina, who was discovered on Webtoon Canvas, the section of Webtoon where users can post their own stories.
Nisrina had previously worked on comics such as Empirik by Atiqah Safian and Dr Muharikah Survival by Muharikah. She brought Nurel and Toadfrogs on board, and soon, the team got to work.
Over email, the artistic team explains that turning a book into a webcomic is a complicated process, requiring the artist to fully understand the book’s mood, plot, characters and settings.
A webcomic’s format is also very different from a comic book’s. In a comic book, one page can only fit up to seven panels. A webcomic has unlimited space, and it can present a better reading experience.
“The most challenging part of the process was to depict Malaysia in a 1960s setting,” says Nisrina.
“This required me to make thorough observations of the fashion trends, culture, local beliefs and architecture in 1960s. I searched for old photos of Kuala Lumpur and the people in city. Some of the photos were given by Hanna and Susan,” she adds.
“I also spent time walking around KL to get a closer look at the old architecture. Not all the information was available on the Internet so I had to interview my mum and dad to know things like the interior design of a kampung house in the city. This information was very important so I wouldn’t make silly mistakes like including modern equipment such as a fridge, which I almost did!”
Nurel mentions that attention to detail is important.
“This webcomic required lots of details of buildings and home interiors. An in-depth study and references were needed before deciding the colours. Colours also played an important role in portraying the mood in this webcomic. It is interesting to experiment and play around with the palettes!” says Nurel.
The project had its fair share of challenges. The team had to go back to the drawing board a few times to perfect things.
“But that’s the best part, putting all the stress and pressure aside. It is always fun to figure out or to come up with a new, different style for the colouring, ” says Toadfrogs.
Nisrina also collaborated with local architecture students to create 3D models of landmarks featured in Hanna’s book, such as the Chin Woo Stadium, Stadium Merdeka, Sri Mahamariamman Temple, KL General Hospital and others.
“They helped me gather precise information on the interior and exterior design of these buildings in the1960s. Some of this is not available online, so they went to archives in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to research old books, ” says Nisrina.
Cheng’s team has been in production for about eight months now. Four episodes of the webcomic have so far been released, with the full story expected to be between 60 and 70 episodes.
“We don’t have a whole lot of historical fiction on our platform, nor do we have a lot of stories that tackle heavy topics like racism and the stigma around mental health, but these are important issues that I know our readers care about and want to see represented and examined, ” says Cheng.
You can read The Weight Of Our Sky webcomic at bit.ly/weight_sky.