By HARIATI AZIZAN
IF you think reading comics is an offence in most parents' books, can you imagine what uproar the announcement of one's career choice as a comicbook talent would create?
Luckily for 30-year-old Apoh (real name John Pek), he did not have to go through a family feud to get to where he is now. Arguably the biggest selling local cartoonist, the designer turned comic artist ventured into the creative field quite by accident.
“I love comics but am no fanatic. I started out as a part-time illustrator for (local comic magazine) Gempak and decided to join them fulltime after discovering that I actually enjoyed it.”
After almost 13 years in the domestic comic industry and a lot of perseverance, the Fine Art graduate has created a niche for himself.
“The industry in Malaysia is still young and you will not get rich, but if you have passion for art and comics, there are opportunities for growth,” he said.
Apoh should know. After starting his career as communications designer in advertising, he pursued a less profitable life as a cartoonist.
“I can be quite a commercial person and I don't pigeonhole myself rigidly as an artist or cartoonist, though I have been able to get what I want out of this field,” he muses.
He is thankful that his experience in advertising has given him the necessary business savvy which balances his creative work. At the end of the day, he adds, it is a business and cartoonists only make up a small part of the production line.
Gempak's success is testament to how the business can grow. In four years, the local comic magazine has become the biggest selling Malay language comic with 80,000 readers nationwide. While it sits comfortably in the Malay language market (with competition only from Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore), potential for crossovers abound.
Interestingly, many of Gempak’s cartoonists are Chinese with manga-styled artwork.
“In the comic world, we don’t care about race, colour or age, as long as your drawing is good,” Apoh says.
Take one of Gempak's pioneer cartoonists, Tan Eng Huat, for example, who has moved on to greener comic pastures in DC Comics land.
It all depends on your artwork, says Apoh. “If your artwork is of world-class quality, then you can break into any market.”
Even for Tan, he adds, it didn't happen overnight. “When he was discovered, he was already the best cartoonist in Malaysia, but he tirelessly tried to get exposure for his craft and networked at all the international manga conferences and summits he attended.”
The rest is any local comic head's dreams. As the legend goes, DC's group editor Andy Helfer discovered Tan's work at the World Manga Summit in Hong Kong, and after a chance encounter and a query about his portfolio, the deal was clinched.
The good news for local comic wannabes is that Helfer was taken by Tan's manga and Chinese style.
For Apoh, although the global market holds promise, the possibilities in the local scene are boundless.
What does a cartoonist do?
Gempak comes out fortnightly, so a cartoonist will have to produce at least one six-page artwork every nine days. We also have regular brainstorming sessions.
I have my own comic character, called Mat Gempak, which I have to produce for each issue too, but fortunately now I only take a day to finish my drawings. This gives me more time to focus on my other responsibilities as a head cartoonist: going over submissions from resident cartoonists and attending to administration work. I also have to look at the submissions by freelance cartoonists for each issue. And when required, I also have to do publicity work or liaise with universities and colleges on Gempak's behalf.
What are the qualifications for the job?
In Malaysia, there are no specific manga or comic drawing courses as in Japan and the US, so anyone with talent and interest can take a Fine Art course or other art-related programmes if they want to hone their skills. It is optional though, and the finer points of comic art can be learnt on the job. Many start out with comic drawing as a self-taught hobby, especially by learning from established artists and creating their own artwork.
It is no use if you have talent but no exposure, so I advise anyone who has produced anything to approach comic companies and publishers.
At Gempak we receive a lot of artwork from budding cartoonists which, if deemed good enough, are published in a special section of the magazine. This works as a good launching pad for new talents.
What kind of personality suits the job?
Of course the person would need to be artistically talented; he or she should be able to produce good quality artwork.
Still, without the right attitude you will not succeed. You cannot use the excuse of being a “cartoonist or artist” to not work. You have to be disciplined and cannot pander to moods or lack of inspiration, because it is a business and you have to be professional, no way around it. If you have no “inspiration” but your deadline is the next day then you'll cry-lah.
Another requirement is teamwork and flexibility. In the comic line, there is no one man show, the cartoonist is only a part of the company staff.
Describe a typical day at work for you.
We are required to put in office hours, roughly about eight hours but some like to come in later and work into the night, so we can be flexible in that way. Apart from my regular Mat Gempak cartoon, my day can consist of meetings, outside appointments as well as administration work. I don't do as much drawing as a regular cartoonist anymore but I have to oversee the quality of the comic.
We use the advertising system, so cartoonists have to produce regular work for us to get a stockpile of cartoon stories which will then keep the content flowing for each publication.
What's the best part and worst part of your work?
The best part has to be meeting people. I love to be in the spotlight and meet other comic fans. The worst part is when you are asked to make unreasonable changes to your artwork. I know we work under strict rules - no religion, politics, or violence - but on a bad day it will be difficult to make changes.
What are career prospects?
The earnings are reasonable, you can live comfortably but don’t dream of becoming rich. The basic salary is RM1,200 but a freelancer can earn up to RM4,000.
To survive in the field, it is advisable to update skills, because a cartoonist is also the producer; so it is good to learn the other aspects of production, like management and administration.
A cartoonist will need to take the initiative to change position and move up. You may be the best in your area now but when a talented newcomer arrives on the scene, one with better artwork than you, what will you do?
You will disappear. This is a business after all, and if there is someone with fresher ideas to replace you, your value will be reduced.
Once you choose to be a cartoonist, you have to face the prospect of a new cartoonist becoming bigger, so it is better to constantly work on your art. It is also better to equip yourself with practical knowledge.
Many tend to think that since they're young and they can draw, they don't need to worry. The bottom line is, it is another job; but cartoonists are lucky to be able to combine this job with their interest or hobby.
Keep on exploring your ideas and the world can be your paper. And if your story and style can be accepted globally, you can then make it in any environment and market.