With over three decades of experience in business development and community marketing, Azlan Tahir decided one day to branch out and help local communities as well as micro businesses to market themselves.
With the help of a former colleague, Adely Ariffin, the duo began a consulting arm and shared their wealth of experience with all sorts of businessmen and women, even sidewalk roti John and kacang goreng pedlars.
“We started breaking down the development concepts that we had learnt in the corporations into smaller building blocks so that others could also reap the benefits, ” said Azlan, who is now director at Andaman Consortium Group of Companies, during an interview at his office in Kota Damansara, Selangor.
“We were trying to teach these small business owners how to understand their markets and develop their products accordingly.”
Along the way, Azlan and Adely began dabbling in a hobby that has ended up becoming a one of their main passions today.
The duo, along with group of other young men who are crazy about comics, writing, sci-fi and art, decided to try their hand at developing a product – a graphic novel – which they could then market, and use as a platform to show other like-minded business folk the process of marketing a product from scratch.
And that’s how the “Unity Macroverse” was born.
The what, you ask? The Unity Macroverse is a “canvas” created by Azlan et al on which creative communities can collaborate together. Since June last year, the team (they call themselves Uniteers) has come up with one comic book, Marooned (actually a three-parter that has been consolidated into one compilation) as well as several other comics which explore an entire alternate universe.
“We are storytellers at heart, ” Azlan shared. “Because Adely and I come from a community of collectors, when we first churned out this book, it was catered for the collector community.”
Azlan related how they tried to sell their product online and spent quite a substantial amount of money but found that the returns were not good enough.
“That’s when we decided that we would focus our efforts on ground and went to Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya – the response was overwhelming!” Azlan enthused, adding that they then began amassing data from people who were buying the comic book. “We were able to build our own database. People were buying into our story, and that was great because the intention of doing this was always to sell stories, not comics. We are not comic or merchandise sellers. These were just peripherals to help sell our stories, ” he said, while showing off a collection of merchandise and games that have come about, alongside the comics and short stories that continue to be churned out by Uniteers regularly.
Azlan and gang began by creating an alternate universe from scratch.
“We created an entire universe with its own set of rules, geographical location, the works.
“What we did was we tweaked history a little. We went back to the 13th century and started to build anew. We wanted something with depth so that if people qeuried the backstory, we’d have the answers for them.
“We also told ourselves there had to be some component of social commentary. And we chose the name ‘unity’. We knew that things are not so rosy at the moment. And when you tell stories it needs to be about selling ‘hope’. Hope makes people want to buy in.”
It was at about this time that a young biotech student, J.H. Tan, presented them with the storyline for Marooned 1,2 and 3.
Azlan said: “He came to us and said he wanted to do this. By that time we had already formed our universe. So when his story arrived, we took it and that became the starting point for our whole journey, which begins in the 24th century.”
Marooned tells the tale of the crew of The Tigris, a flagship tactical vessel of the United Nations of Earth (UNE), as it investigates recent conflicts on a mining extract colony on the Jupiter Moon of Ganymede.
What’s especially cool about it is that the protagonists are local players – Captain Olivia Chu, Commander Zulkifli Hassan, Lt Commander Sayumi, Captain Bakar, for example – and the tale is peppered with Malay words and incidents close to home you’ll even find a newspaper clipping of a former prime minister in there! Azlan added that the storytellers have also tried to include many Eastern values into their tales in the hopes that this sci-fi story will resonate with local audiences.
The way of the Uniteers
While it was initially a little rough trying to keep the overhead and costs low, somehow the Uniteers managed to find their groove.
And from Marooned, stories started pouring in from the community that was slowly but organically forming. There are now five new storylines, which are separate adventures and story arcs that intertwine and cross each other. These include Journey’s End, Fog Of War, Retribution (Malayan Rangers adventures), drifters (children’s adventures) and Awakenings.
“When we first got the community involved, they were like ‘what the heck is this?’, ” Azlan admitted. Indeed the Unity Macroverse, and even the individual comic books can be slightly overwhelming at first – there’s a lot to digest.
“But somewhere along the way, people started snapping them up. We began engaging passersby at Amcorp Mall and slowly building up our base, we talked to them and explained what we were doing. Most people were very surprised that it was a Malaysian comic book and done by a local community of creative people contributing ideas.
“We explained to them that because it’s done by a community, the work’s not perfect and one should expect typos and minor errors. But they seemed to like it, and they were willing to buy the comics. It was exciting because we eventually sold out all our copies of Marooned! We only have six copies left.”
What’s more is that stories began pouring in, so much so that Unity is now releasing “micro stories” or little (eight-page) booklets which eventually can be compiled into a mini story.... and before you know it, you have a novel” Azlan said.
Since last November, over 2,000 micro comics have been printed, with 14 titles in this community-based project.
“We tell our community that when you write, your story is important, not the premise. The premise can be anywhere. You get your story right. And we will curate it into our universe, ” Azlan said, adding that every week it’s all hands on deck, editing, designing and publishing new stories to be released to the community.
Each micro story is sold at an affordable RM2.50 and proceeds are shared by the entire community.
“Anytime we sell any of this, everyone gets paid.”
There’s a community of about 25 people involved in the making of the products including Dave Liew, Paul Low, Akmal Izzat, Adam John, Wan Kedah, Rusnajaa, Nur Ruhizan, Rizal Jaapar, Hanan Ismail, Tawfik Zulkifli, Lee Ken Wen, Lee Heng Kok and Abraham Joel Victor.
There are also businesses, organisations and colleges that support the community including Dream Studio, Kelantan Collectibles Museum, Tawfik Ismail, Vivae Boardgame Cafe, Gibran Method, Puak Payung, Dayang Saleh, Kelembai Studios, GilaPoster KL, UCSI and KDU.
And on top of the stories, the Uniteers also build their own merchandise (with a 3D printer) and have developed a live action role-playing (LARP) game as well.
Azlan is pleased with the fact that the community is writing, reading and collecting, and what’s more is that a real sense of camaraderie is being forged among the Uniteers.
“You know when I was growing up, I remember waiting for the newspaper vendor to come and he’d have my favourite comics, Beano and Archie, and magazines like Look And Learn. That’s how kids like me developed a reading habit, and it was something that my friends could relate to as well, ” Azlan shared.
“I feel that’s so important for this new generation. I want them to have that anticipation of getting something new every week. It’s a great feeling when we see parents coming back to Amcorp Mall looking for new stories. That keeps us going.”
For more information on the project, head to UnityMacroverse.com.