The buck-toothed, card-carrying Penangite Joe G returns amid the current pandemic, observing how Covid-19 has changed and affected life in his beloved state and country.
In a different take from Azmi Hussin’s original comic book Tanjong Life published in 2015, Joe G’s second book of adventures tackles not only the humorous, cheerful side of Penang, but also the sombre elements of the new reality we find ourselves in.
Azmi, a familiar face in the Penang art and cartoonist community, says the idea came about when George Town Festival (GTF) director Jack Wong approached him to create a book for this year’s 12th installation of the festival, held annually across July.
“GTF is producing two books this year: a photography book by four photographers (Stories From The Lenses) and The New Norm.
“I managed to finish the drawing of this book within two months and the publisher and I chose yellow for the cover, which is my favourite colour and coincidentally, the colour of GTF as well, ” says Azmi, 37, who is hunkering down during the lockdown at his home in Farlim, Penang.
A lot of Azmi’s own pandemic emotions and experiences – happy, hopeful, sad, confused, scared – have found their into the pages of The New Norm. From panic buying to cutting our own hair and social distancing to domestic tourism, Joe G takes us on an illustrated journey of the strange changes the pandemic has brought about.
“Drawing this book was a different experience. In normal times with cartoons, we try to make it funny but this is a time where people have lost family members and jobs so we need to be careful about how we present the comics, ” explains Azmi.
“Unlike the first Tanjong Life, Joe G doesn’t appear in every panel. He is a funny, cheerful character so I didn’t feel that it was right to put him in scenes like ‘Quiet Streets’ that focused on trishaw riders in Lebuh Armenian who have no customers, ” he adds.
Involved in the Penang art scene now for eight years, Azmi, who is from Butterworth, has dabbled in documentary-style comics for other projects – a method in which empirical data is collected to inform accurate drawings of real events.
Locally, this type of documentation has been called upon increasingly frequently to capture heritage elements in George Town that have disappeared or are quickly fading.
Azmi says inadvertently, one of the drawings in The New Norm fell into this “lost heritage” category.
“There is one picture of the ‘squatting’ porridge stall on Magazine Road. I actually drew this picture last year during the first movement control order and put it on my Instagram. I didn’t know that when I drew it, it would soon be no more, ” says Azmi, referring to the closure of what was popularly known as "Ah Jin Porridge" that had served customers for over eight decades.
The stall, which ceased operations at the beginning of this year, is named after 80-year-old owner Tan Jin Hock and was the last Teochew porridge stall in the state where patrons sat on small bangku (stools) piled on top of each other.
The New Norm features a total of 92 pandemic-related topics and takes readers on a journey from the very start of the pandemic to the current mass vaccination exercise.
Suitable for both adults and children, it represents a snapshot in time of a landmark pandemic of which we are still battling today.
Dealing with challenging times
In some ways, it is peculiar to remember how things were before Covid-19 turned the world upside down.
Back then, Azmi had just secured a small storage unit at Kompleks Lebuh Pitt in George Town from the local city council.
The small, five-by-five stall, just on the rim of Little India and smack in the centre of a traditional Indian-Muslim hub was perfect for him to store his art materials for his street caricature drawings.
Visitors and tourists were plentiful and when Azmi was not engaged with murals or commissioned work, he offered live caricature portraits on the heritage city’s streets.
In fact, it was just a stone’s throw away from the shorefront where he made a life-altering decision in 2013 to go into art full-time.
A self-described lazy student who barely scraped through his Form 5 exam, Azmi was deep in debt at the time with a third child on the way.
“That was the hardest time in my life. I just lost my motorbike, my car was in an accident, my children were sick and my wife was pregnant with our third child.
“I was totally broken. I borrowed money from my mother and from my friends. One day, I was sitting at the Esplanade scrolling through my phone searching for someone else who would lend me money. I only had RM2.50 in my pocket, ” he recalled during a TED talk delivered in 2019.
Having tried his hand as a warehouse assistant, concrete technician, mee goreng seller and auxiliary policeman, the resilient but unlucky Azmi was due a break and he was about to get one.
Noticing a bus full of tourists getting down and entering Fort Cornwallis, Azmi was struck with the idea of drawing portraits for tourists.
He rushed back for his materials – long abandoned after being convinced as a child that art could never be made into a career – and set up shop under a tree.
Rusty after years of not sketching, Azmi looks back and ruefully pities his first few customers who ended up with caricatures that looked “totally not the same” as their faces but he walked away that day with RM210.
A RM10 note, which came from an elderly European gentleman who was his first ever customer, is still kept by Azmi.
Thousands of faces on paper have followed, along with now four books and two Malaysia Book of Records awards – one for the most number of caricatures drawn in 24 hours (320) and another for his 101m “longest coffee painting” depicting Penang’s picturesque skyline.
Azmi's second book Little Mamak (2016) was his breakthrough hit. It explores the roots of the Indian-Muslim community through the eyes of a young boy. The book was selected by National Book Council of Malaysia as one of the “50 Best Malaysian Titles” list for the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2016.
These days, murals in Penang make up a big part of Azmi’s work. From the Beach Street Fire Station in the heart of George Town to the Fishermen Community Hall in Teluk Air Tawar in Butterworth, Azmi’s creations grace the walls of corporate buildings, homestays, cafes and private residences.
One of his most recognisable projects can be found at the Penang City Stadium, where he painted six of Penang’s legendary footballers late last year.
Like other freelancers, especially those in the arts and culture industry, the pandemic has hit Azmi hard.
“Since March last year, there are no more tourists in George Town so I’ve let go of my unit in Kompleks Lebuh Pitt.
“Also, all live events have been cancelled – (the iconic month-long funfair) Pesta Pulau Pinang, the (Penang) Hot Air Balloon Fiesta...
“I usually did my big live caricature sessions at events like these, ” he says.
Azmi, who has gone into large-scale paintings in recent years, also has seven murals on hold – three each commissioned on the island and mainland, and another in neighbouring Kedah.
“I still have some commissioned caricatures and portraits that I can do at home.
“I am a bit lucky because I am not the kind of artist that does just one thing. When one door closes, I can jump to a window and still survive, ” concludes Azmi.