Malaysian comics creator Reimena Yee weaves her own path to the future


  • Books
  • Tuesday, 10 Mar 2020

After a surprise Eisner nomination in 2018, Malaysian graphic novelist Reimena Yee is forging ahead with her career with a new book and big plans for the future. Photos and Artwork: Reimena Yee

In 2018, a then-unknown young Malaysian comics creator named Reimena Yee burst into the public eye with a surprise nomination for Best Digital Comic at the Eisner Awards, the international comic industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, for her webcomic The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya.

She may not have won, but the nomination thrust Yee into the limelight, and according to her, helped to cement her career as a graphic novelist, which she calls a “fancy name for comics creator”.

“At the time, I was a fresh grad, unsure if fully and suddenly committing to my passion for writing and drawing was the wisest choice, ” she said in an interview.

“The nomination and the events that followed after gave me the confidence I needed. I’m now working full time as an international author, doing what I’ve always meant to do, and for that I am grateful.”

This month, the Kuala Lumpur-born Yee marks another milestone with the release of a brand new hardcover edition of Volume One of The Carpet Merchant.

'The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya' was nominated for the Best Digital Comic Eisner in 2018.'The Carpet Merchant Of Konstantiniyya' was nominated for the Best Digital Comic Eisner in 2018.

Set in 17th century Istanbul and 18th century England, The Carpet Merchant is about the life, death and afterlife of a Turkish carpet merchant during the Ottoman era, who goes on a business trip and comes back a vampire.

Two graphic novel volumes of The Carpet Merchant had been published before in 2016 and 2018, which Yee says were the original editions self-published on her webcomic website (alcottgrimsley.com). Yee's The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya has just been released in a brand new hardcover edition with updated contents.Yee's The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya has just been released in a brand new hardcover edition with updated contents.

“The new version is the hardcover edition of Volume One, beautifully published by the London-based Unbound. The book has updated artwork and lettering, since the original art is four years old, but the important bits are the same.”

What is unique about reading it in this form, is that Yee designed the webcomic to be read like a book from the beginning.

“The artwork uses the physical aspects of book-reading (the act of flipping the pages, and the presence of the gutter between an open book) as tools to tell the story, ” she says.

“Having only seen the pages as flat images on a screen, to see my experiment actually work in practice was a delight. Furthermore, the book has high production value, and if you like the smell of a freshly-printed book, it’s got plenty of that too!”

Yee will be launching the new edition at Hikayat, George Town, Penang on March 27,8pm.

Future Yee

Yee currently works as a comics editor and assistant manager for Hiveworks Comics, a creator-owned comics and graphic novel publisher focused on free-to-read webcomics, and recently announced a new graphic novel called Seance Tea Party, her debut children’s graphic novel from Penguin Random House.

Yee's next book, 'Seance Tea Party', is set for release in September.Yee's next book, 'Seance Tea Party', is set for release in September.

“It tells the story of a lonely 12-year-old girl, Lora, who is afraid of growing up. But of course, she gets left behind as her friends happily become preteens. She doesn’t care, ” Yee says.

“Then one day during a play-pretend tea party, she makes friends with a ghost, Alexa, who will never age. But will their friendship survive when it’s Lora’s time to grow up?”

Seance Tea Party comes out on Sept 15,2020 and is available for pre-order now through online shops, and over the counter at Kinokuniya Suria KLCC.

Next, she is planning on finally working on her personal passion project: a retelling of the life and legends of Alexander the Great.

Besides her own work, Yee also co-founded and co-runs a grassroots collective called Unnamed, which focuses on building community, infrastructure and appreciation for comics in South-East Asia.

For the past two years, Unnamed has run panels, workshops, and participated in conventions in different countries. The collective will be holding a weekend-long series of workshops for Open Studios Penang from March 27 to 29 (unnamed.asia/weekend2020).

Women in comics

According to Yee, there are plenty of talented, successful female creators in South-East Asia, but the main problem lies in outdated institutions that don’t make the effort to include diverse voices in festivals, panels and the overall conversation involving comics.

“This is why in Malaysia we only see a handful of the same male names all the time. The guys aren’t bad, but if you’re only featuring them, it misrepresents the industry (as a whole), because it shows a limited view. It’s like teaching outsiders about Malaysian food but only focusing on rendang, ” she says.

Still, she thinks that these are exciting times for a female comics creator in Malaysia, as there is a new generation of creators telling diverse original stories, usually self-published and online on sites like Webtoon and Tapas, and getting international attention.

Yee says that the Eisner nomination helped cement her decision to be a full-time graphic novelist.Yee says that the Eisner nomination helped cement her decision to be a full-time graphic novelist.

One of the artists Yee recommends comics creators to follow is Malaysian illustrator Charis Loke.

“She is generous, offers practical industry advice, and opens eyes to what local illustrators can do (she travels the world to draw),” she says.

Besides Yee, other Malaysian female comics artists making waves currently are Nisrina AN, who illustrates the webcomic adaptation of Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky (currently on Webtoon); Fishball, creator of the hugely popular slice-of-life webcomic My Giant Nerd Boyfriend; and Hwei Lim, who provides the dreamy artwork for Image Comics’ Mirror series, written by Emma Rios.

And finally, what would Yee say to an aspiring Malaysian female creator who is looking for a breakthrough?

“Do whatever you can to get closer to your dream, while making sure you still take care of yourself.

“Don’t switch to a freelance career if you don’t have savings or can’t guarantee a future income, for example. Always reach out and participate in the comics community (we’re very friendly).

“Most importantly, own up to your ambitions, never reject yourself, and always pursue opportunities openly. When it comes to your goals, it’s not a matter of whether you’re deserving; it’s about whether you’re ready to rise up to the challenge.”

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