Malaysia's own 'Stan Lee' showcases a lifetime of cartoons and illustrations


Stan Lee is gearing up for his retrospective exhibition at Awegallery in Petaling Jaya, which runs from March 13-28. Photo: Stan Lee

When you hear the name “Stan Lee”, you immediately think of the legendary late American comics creator, who created some of the world’s most famous comics characters, and is almost synonymous with the word “comics” itself.

In the 1970s, when Malaysian artist Lee Cheow Hee began his own illustrious career in art and comics, he naturally decided to take on the name “Stan” as well!

A quintessential artist. Backroom boy. Passionately creative. These are the best descriptions for Malaysia’s very own “Stan Lee”, who started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil, at the age of three. What’s even more remarkable is that even today, at the age of 68, Lee continues to draw and create art.

This writer recently managed to catch up with Lee, ahead of his upcoming art exhibition entitled A Retrospective Exhibition – Looking Back To Leap Forward, which is scheduled to run from March 13-28 at the Awegallery in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

'When 'Apazine' was launched (in 1985), there was no Internet nor access to apps. Publishing a book like that then would have been beyond the means of individual artists, who lacked the funds,' says Lee. Photo: Handout'When 'Apazine' was launched (in 1985), there was no Internet nor access to apps. Publishing a book like that then would have been beyond the means of individual artists, who lacked the funds,' says Lee. Photo: Handout

The exhibition will be officiated on March 16 by acclaimed artist Zunar, followed by a session on the legendary Apazine Malaysian comic anthology, presented by one of its artists – Azlan Razif.

While Lee may not have been a full-time comic book artist, he was instrumental in creating Apazine, which was one of Malaysia’s earliest fanzines back in 1985.

Having spent five decades (and counting) working in the creative industry, he was keen to share his journey, experiences, and views.

"This exhibition will be a very informal one, with none of the stiffness of a regular art gallery setting. I want people to come and enjoy the art, ask as many questions as you want. We will also be having a couple of (art) discussions, so you can look out for the topics that will appeal to you, or just come and sit in, learn something new. If you're an expert in any of the fields mentioned (especially AI and art), maybe we might learn something from you, too," said Lee.

A classic fanzine

Lee’s (aka KULit) art journey began back in 1955, when a Superman comic inspired him to start drawing superheroes. This was later fuelled by exposure to The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man titles.

Growing up in difficult living conditions with no electricity nor running water, the Muar, Johor-born artist found solace in comics. Lee moved up to the Klang Valley when he was in primary four, and he was educated at the Dharma Institute in Puchong, Selangor, which was run by the late Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam of Pure Life Society.

Lee’s upcoming exhibition will feature works from different phases of his career. He is also taking on an archival project to document his artworks from a wide range of creative industries. Photo: The Star/Art Chen Lee’s upcoming exhibition will feature works from different phases of his career. He is also taking on an archival project to document his artworks from a wide range of creative industries. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

“I harboured dreams of drawing for Marvel Comics, and when I was 16, I sent an application letter complete with 20 pages of pencils to the 'real' Stan Lee!” he recalled.

“He graciously declined my application by telling me that Marvel only works with New York-based artists. There was no Internet then and the correspondence took three months!”

That “rejection” did not deter Lee though, as he continued to pursue his dreams of becoming an artist. He started with a job as a freelance book illustrator for schoolbooks with a company called Universal Publications, before furthering his career in the advertising industry with a few agencies.

A slice of history

While Lee never actually got to draw for Marvel, he did however contribute to a significant landmark in Malaysian comic book history.

In 1985, a group of local comic fans and artists came together to launch Apazine (Amateur Press Association Magazine), which was the first collective showcase of English-language amateur comics art and stories that was 100% created by Malaysians.

Lee may not have drawn for Marvel, but that has not stopped him from indulging in his love for comics through his art. Photo: Stan LeeLee may not have drawn for Marvel, but that has not stopped him from indulging in his love for comics through his art. Photo: Stan Lee

The fanzine provided a platform for comic book fans to share their artistic and creative talents, with 15 short stories published in its first issue.

The artist who drew the cover of that landmark issue was none other than Lee, who did both the front and back covers.

At the time, Apazine was launched to encourage local talents to showcase their comic art skills, and this eventually paved the way for some of these artists to launch their comic art careers internationally.

Although, he looks back at the project fondly, Lee doubts that Apazine would have done better today.

“When Apazine was launched, there was no Internet nor access to apps. Publishing a book like that then would have been beyond the means of individual artists, who lacked the funds,” he said.

A sketch work of a Malaysian scene, with traditional food and games highlighted by Lee. Photo: The Star/Art Chen A sketch work of a Malaysian scene, with traditional food and games highlighted by Lee. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

“Today you can quite easily put together a book like that using a software or app, and publish it via social media.”

He also reckons an Apazine sequel may be redundant today, as there are so many kickstarter projects today that can help launch careers.

‘Ad’ the fore

While he might not be a household name like his more illustrious Marvel namesake, Malaysians would have seen some of his art before. Lee’s advertising output - from the 1970s to 2008 - was prominently used in the property, F&B, and automobile markets, in which he provided artist impressions for their marketing materials.

What made his career even more remarkable is the transition process he underwent to achieve this success.

According to him, learning how to use the airbrush in 1982 was instrumental in furthering his freelance art career in the advertising industry.

“It was new, it was exciting, and with very little competition, I had a free run of the market! It also helped that I was versatile, willing, and able to accommodate many different styles and mediums requested,” he recalled.

While Lee is technically 'retired' now, he continues to create art at his own leisure. Photo: The Star/Art Chen While Lee is technically 'retired' now, he continues to create art at his own leisure. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

“Often, art directors would show me a piece of art style that they wanted me to emulate, and I did my own version of ‘machine learning’ to arrive at a reasonable style.”

“In 1994 we embraced the computer in our workflow, and started a 3D rendering farm that opened up a whole new world of digital art and animation in our home studio, a full 30 years ago,” he said, adding that he has been working out of his home studio for 50 years.

“I was the original work from home guy!” he added with a grin.

Past and future

Lee says the objective of the upcoming exhibition is to revisit his art career, especially how it took off when he discovered the airbrush.

The exhibition will feature his works from different periods, and he also welcomes any artists to come and visit to share their works and views.

“I see this exhibition as a way to take stock of the art business and as an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, make new ones,” he said, adding that in the process, he also hopes to make some sense of what is happening in the modern art industry with the advent of artificial intelligence, and how it will affect or impact the livelihoods of millions.

Malaysians might remember some of Lee's art, notably from his advertising output - from the 1970s to 2008. Photo: The Star/Art Chen Malaysians might remember some of Lee's art, notably from his advertising output - from the 1970s to 2008. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

Lee hopes that the exhibition will inspire the new generation to walk the path less trodden.

“It can be a fun and rewarding career. But you must be prepared to adapt and change with the times to keep pace with development,” he said.

Besides the past, Lee is also interested in the future of art, particularly the issue of AI, which is a hot potato topic within the arts and comics world, and one that Lee will address in a public discussion on March 17, 2pm, at the exhibition.

For his part, Lee is not against AI per se, but he just does not want to see it become the “be-all-and-end-all” of human creativity.

“When 3D first came into the picture, those who refused to embrace it went out of business. This (AI) can be the next watershed moment for artists,” he said.

A festive piece from Lee's sketch series. Photo: The Star/Art ChenA festive piece from Lee's sketch series. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

In his view, artists can try to use AI, but with the pace at which new AI art is being generated, the major concern is that artists may be the ones who will be replaced next.

“Until May 2023, I was still of the opinion that we artists are safe. I used to say ‘no worries, no machine can ever match human creativity’,” he said.

“But what I am seeing today tells me otherwise. You can learn how to use it, but so can anyone else, including your client. The trick now is learning how to do it better.”

While he is technically “retired” now, Lee continues to create art at his own leisure.

“We artists cannot stop drawing! I still get the odd commissions for concept art, but now I have the luxury of time to do things I love.”

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