Cartoonist Arif Rafhan reflects on how travel shaped his way of thinking


'Reality Bitchslap' is the story of Arif Rafhan and his adventures with his college friends travelling in South-East Asia. Photo: Arif Rafhan

The late chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain once said: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.”

Comic book artist, pre-production illustrator and teacher Arif Rafhan would discover the truth of these words first-hand.

Between 2001 and 2003, a young Arif (then in his 20s) and a group of college friends decided to travel around South-East Asia. Away from his comfort zone, Arif encountered both good and bad things, some unexpected experiences.

The artist chronicled his adventures in a Bahasa Malaysia-language graphic novel Pelempang Realiti, which was published by Maple Comics in 2015.

Pelempang Realiti has the raw energy and hijinks of a group of friends from college. The sights they encountered during their trip shocked and drastically changed their mindset, so much so that Arif decided to record his experiences.

Earlier this year, the graphic novel was picked up by Singaporean publisher Epigram Books, and translated into English as Reality Bitchslap for an international audience.

“My publisher Maple Comics came up to me with this deal. It was their initiative and we went through the deal and that’s how Reality Bitchslap came into the picture, ” says Arif, 43, in an interview.

Arif's work has been published in more than 10 books to date by MPH, Buku Fixi, Maple Comics, and Marshall Cavendish. These include comics, content illustrations and cover illustrations.

“This Reality Bitchslap book is the most truthful work (of mine), so getting picked up is so satisfying. It's like, it's come full circle, ” he says.

Apart from the language translation, there aren't many huge (artistic) changes when Reality Bitchslap was lifted directly from Pelempang Realiti.

Drawn in black and white, Reality Bitchslap documents Arif's visits to places such as Hanoi, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cultural miscommunications, food experiences and even toilet misadventures on the road are all depicted through Arif's quirky storytelling.

He doesn't forget the heartwarming memories, like encountering a friendly band of musicians in Indonesia. Other memories aren't so cherished, especially when Arif and friends are deceived into visiting a seedy Thai brothel and almost get into serious trouble.

Arif served as the translator for Reality Bitchslap, working with Epigram Books and his friend Yanty Ishak, who served as his personal editor on the project.

His travel experiences were shaped by the fact that he went travelling at a time when technology was less advanced.

“We went to these countries before the time of smartphones. Nowadays, information is at the tip of your finger and you don't have to trouble yourself asking for directions or recommendations from the locals, thus, a lower risk of being swindled too! Much safer, yes but less adventurous, ” says the Ipoh-born artist.

'I love road movies. I love stories that started with a person turning into a better person at the end of the movie. That journey is so compelling that I wanted to make a similar story and looking back, our trips to these countries are the perfect story to tell,' says Arif. Photo: Filepic'I love road movies. I love stories that started with a person turning into a better person at the end of the movie. That journey is so compelling that I wanted to make a similar story and looking back, our trips to these countries are the perfect story to tell,' says Arif. Photo: Filepic

In creating his book, Arif mentions being inspired by cartoonists such as Robert Crumb and Joe Sacco right to road movies and the works of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Ed Burns.

The biggest challenge of telling a travel story through the graphic novel medium like Reality Bitchslap, he says, is to keep the momentum going.

“Like any other travel narrative, the story has to be interesting at every place and I had to decide what's best to represent each place and that's the dilemma. So for this book, I've divided the story into several parts to maintain the moods; such as social issues, foods and music and those elements have to be contextually beneficial to my story, ” explains Arif.

"It was truly an eye-opening experience; mingle with the locals, eat cheap local food and chit chat with the old folks... you will realise that we are all the same. We are connected human beings, through blood, values or cultures and we should be proud of being South-East Asians, ” he says.

Arif has been busy with various other projects this pandemic year. He worked with Singaporean writer/collaborator Melanie Lee on a new book, entitled Amazing Ash And Superhero Ah Ma. He is also writing a new graphic novel, a coming-of-age story of a kid in Taiping, Perak in the late 1980s.

Arif has also been working closely with legendary cartoonist Lat since October 2018 for Lat's upcoming graphic novel (ongoing) titled Mat Som 2.

“I've been working with him for the past two years now and it is a great experience for me. He's very accommodating, generous, and helpful and reminds me to be observant and spread positive vibes. I'm truly blessed to be given this opportunity. Maybe I will write a graphic novel about my experience working with him, ” says Arif.

Currently, travel is limited due to the pandemic, but Arif cannot wait to go travelling again.

“I think we will be able to travel again, but as they say, 'new normal style'. To me, this opens much fresher narratives and stories as the world is adjusting to a new norm which all of us are alien to. So I'm positive about this and can't wait to bring my family to travel again.”

More info on Reality Bitchslap here.

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