A comic life

By SARAH CHEWeducate@thestar.com.my  

MAHATHIR Buang, 31, may have the same first name as Malaysia's former prime minister but the similarity ends there. 

Sporting rectangular, black-rimmed spectacles and a bald head, Mahathir – or Milx, as he likes to be called – is a comic artist as well as an art director. 

Why the name Milx?  

Milx says he has been asked this question a hundred times. 

“Well, artists usually have nicknames. I wanted to call myself 'Milk' but I thought, if I put an 'x' at the end, it sounds more 'cool'.”  

Milx explaining how writers and artists collaborate to produce a comic, using his currentproject, Jenny's City, as an example.

Milk? Surely that is an odd name for a comic artist in the first place. 

“Oh, I don't know why I chose it,” he says. “I just thought of it, there is no particular reason.” 

It is precisely this spontaneous streak in Milx that made him give up his aircraft mechanic job and dive headlong into drawing comics, when he had zero art background.  

“I worked as a cook and a waiter, while drawing comics, in order to survive,” he recalls. “I had no knowledge about art, everything was self-taught.” 

Together with six friends, he set up a company, Urban Comics, with the purpose of drawing and distributing their own comics. 

“I was the editor and the artist; I learnt the concept of design and layout from mistakes made,” he says. “I also picked up the finer points of publishing from scratch.” 

In the initial stages, they hardly made any profit but were noticed by the industry. Milx has since drawn comics like Silver Surfer for Marvel Comics in 2003; created character designs for board games and computer games for the Singaporean market; drawn storyboards for an advertisement for the Australian government, and recently, finished a comic book sequel to 30 Days of Night. 

My job involves ... 

... collaborating with writers if I'm working on a comic book because they are the ones who write the script.  

It's all about visualising what the writer wants. From his/her descriptions, I come up with a visual of the scene. I will go through the whole script with the writer and suggest things like, “How about creating a character that looks like this?”  

One of the comic book issues produced byMilx's company.

I have to think about the best camera angle, different perspectives, etc.  

Sometimes, the writers will say, “I want this and that in the picture” – I have to tell them whether this is possible or advisable. It's all about negotiation. 

After I have come up with the thumbnails and layout for each page, the writers will forward these to the editors, who will check the overall page layout to see if it's appealing to readers. 

Based on my experience, I find that I get a lot more freedom working with American companies. This is important to me. Some people draw comics every day, but don't have much freedom to draw what they want. 

Another alternative, which I also tried with Urban Comics, is to have creator-owned comics. That is when I become the writer, artist and editor all in one.  

I then push the comic to a publisher, and earn royalties. But the success of this type of venture depends greatly upon one’s reputation.  

I'm also an art director for a graphic animation company now. I also do character designs for board games and animation for television series. 

My morning starts with ... 

... going into my graphic animation company office to check emails to get the latest updates from clients. 

Usually, later in the night or in the wee hours, at about 11pm or 2am, I will meet with clients online and chat about on-going projects. I work based on the time zones in the United States. My day usually ends around 3am. 

To qualify you need ... 

... any art or graphic design background. Even a filmmaking background helps. My definition of comics is “storytelling in an art sequence”.  

The best person for the job is ... 

... someone who can draw and is passionate about art and storytelling.  

You also need to have the hunger to learn new things and be observant about everything around you. For instance, if I look at this glass of iced lemon tea, I would ask myself: What would the bird's-eye view of this glass look like?  

As a comic artist, I need to know a bit of everything – architecture, anatomy, shadows, human nature, camera angles, and so on. 

You must also be able to sell yourself and your work. Drawing something and then keeping it to yourself won't work. 

And every artist needs to be able to handle feedback and criticism from friends and readers. If they say it's bad, it means it's bad. 

Prospects for the future ... 

... are so-so at the moment. Most artists in Malaysia would rather go abroad, make a name for themselves, and build up a reputation. Comic books in Malaysia are mostly of the humour genre and this is not what most foreign investors want.  

But give it another 10 years ... I foresee a lot of positive changes in the industry. Just look at our Datuk Lat, for instance. 

I love my job because ... 

... I like to observe life and send a message through pictures. What drives me most is telling stories that can change people's perceptions of the world. 

What I dislike the most ... 

... is the fact that I have to be very disciplined. I work from home, so the bed is always nearby. I have to keep reminding myself that there are bills to pay.  

Will I be a millionaire by 30? 

It is possible. First, you need to create a comic book that people love and want to reproduce in other mediums like movies, sequels, games and television series. 

Then, if directors want to make movies based on your comics, you can ask to become the movie executive director or act as a consultant.  

You can also get royalties when people want to reprint your comics and secure exclusive deals with publishers. 

Alternatively, you may choose to draw spin-offs of your comic characters and branch into web comics. 

Some people are skeptical about making a living by drawing comics but there are many options and possibilities with these skills. In the United States, there is a huge market for single comic issues. In Europe, graphic novels are the rage, while in Japan, the focus is on manga. You just need to know your market and take the risk.  

I don't really bother about the money; I just love to draw. I can draw a few pages every day and earn up to RM50,000 a month if I really want the money.  

Marvel Comics and DC Comics pay per page. Sometimes, there is profit sharing, which means profits from the sale of the comics are shared by writers, publishers and artists.  



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