Monday, June 29, 2015

Maple Comics

Maple Comics is a new comics company in Malaysia who is making waves at CAFKL and Cooler Lumpur. Even with just three titles so far, you get a sense of their curated approach. Set up by Amir and Roy, I managed to ‘sit down’ with Amir and get the lowdown on Maple.

What is the genesis of Maple Comics?

Both Roy and I wanted to do comics - write, draw and publish them. So we decided rather than bitch about how bad things are, we'd go and do something.

Roy was in Gempak and then he published a comics magazine - Komikoo. It had a great start but couldn't maintain the momentum because the business model for comics magazines is not sustainable without massive investment.

I was never in the comics publishing business until Maple Comics. I read a bunch and got into credit card debt in part because of comics. I also spent 12 years in magazines, TV and newspapers though.

What is the meaning behind the name, Maple?

It's maple as in "mah-pleh". A common word in the 90s to denote 'makan place' or something. We came up with the idea of a comics publishing company at a maple, so we decided to call it Maple Comics.

What is the strength and weakness of the Malaysian comic scene right now?

We have an abundance of talent. A lot of it world class. And we have unique treasure troves of stories either with our folk tales, our culture, colour and also the very unique Malaysian perspective - this kind of identity is something others dream of having.

Weaknesses - we are way too whiny. Everyone's complaining and not many are actually doing something - anything. You want comics to be accepted? You can't simply tell the public to accept comics. You have to make comics that the general public will embrace and enjoy.

What do you mean by you are way too whiny?

'We are too whiny' is directed at some parts of the comics community who simply complain about a lot of things but hardly ever get anything done.

But we also believe that we can't promote the scene/industry by simply finding who is at fault. I don't believe we can rely on Governments or feel entitled enough to say that everyone should read more comics. These things have to come from the grassroots and of their own volition. You can't force people to love you or like you. You just have to keep at it until you get it right and be there IF the public wants comics.

It is very possible that at the end of all this, at the end of our lives, people still don't give a shit about comics, and that's fine. We just want to be there, if and when they decide to pay more attention to comics.

What niche is Maple fulfilling in the Malaysian comic publishing scene now?

Well, there are the hobbyists and convention people, and then there are the big players Gempak, PTS, Karangkraf. We want to be somewhere in between - we publish professional, high quality graphic novels like only the big boys do, but we want to be opened with our themes and genres.

In terms of content niche, we would like to have our comics to work on multiple levels, with different ages getting different things. We also hope to publish more adult comics with heavier themes. Something that works on teen, young adult and above. And we publish fiction and non-fiction comics.

Are there particular genres, art style or stories that you are inclined to?

We want Malaysian stories. This takes some explaining. It's not the locale or the people, or the clothes that make a story Malaysian, though it helps. We want stories that only Malaysian storytellers can tell. If it's a generic action comic or a manga style princess story set in Kyoto, I bet a lot more artists can do the job better. So we want stories and perspectives no other comics publishers in the world can do.

What are your titles so far?

We have three - Kuala Terengganu in 7 Days, Invasi and Taubat Si Tanggang. This year, we hope to have six or seven titles.

Invasi was a novel published by Buku Fixi. Written by Raja Faisal and adapted by the author as well as Azhar.

Kuala Terengganu in 7 Days is sort of a sequel to Beijing in 7 Days which Mimi self-published in 2013.

Do you see Maple as part of the pulp fiction wave in Malaysian publishing now albeit in graphic form? (e.g. using a 90s slang like ‘maple’ for your name)

We would like to tap into the pulp fiction wave but after six months, I can tell you that these are different markets. We hope to build our audience as the indies have done but the way comics are, and the way readers are, we see a long and winding road ahead of us before the thing can cross over and hit critical mass. We are hopeful, though.

In the near future, the website will have more titles as we open it up for products from other publishers. We aim to make a one-stop shop for all ASEAN indie comics. In fact, we are in talks with Epigram Books from Singapore and a few publishers in Indonesia to hopefully bring some titles over, in Bahasa Malaysia (BM).

Is language still an issue - ie to reach a wider audience, you need to publish in BM?

Yes and no. We see our country as having a huge opportunity cause we're all multi-lingual. Maple Comics prioritise getting things out in BM and we are also doing some titles in English. Our first book is in English - Kuala Terengganu in 7 Days, and it's our best-selling book so far, so it's really not an obstacle at all.

Language is a consideration, but it is not a problem. Marketing and distribution - that's an issue. We usually ask the artist - what language is right for the book (with a choice between BM and English)?

How has the comic scene changed/grown? There are indie cons now like CAFKL.

The indie cons are great, and we at Maple Comics believe some of these con-folk are ready to hit mainstream bookstores - they are that good! We hope to bring more of the artists out of the con and into the real world. You need to graduate from this very wonderful, supportive, tight and friendly community, to take on the greater Malaysian public. We hope to find some comics that will eventually make the whole scene mainstream and sustainable for those who may want to quit everything else and just do comics (like ourselves).

What's next?

We're doing something with Alan Quah - very excited about that. He's doing something personal that could be one of his greatest books ever.

Also, we're doing these anthologies in colleges called Donk! (Dongeng Kontemporari) where we get students to reinterpret and reimagine traditional fables in a contemporary setting. The project is to get college kids interested in comics, really. We are doing an all-star professional version of Donk! ‘cause the concept is great!

We are also publishing another travelogue called Pelempang Realiti (Reality Bitchslap) by Arif Rafhan. And there's a Japan travelogue with one female artist and she's just amazing. Jonsuraya is one of our greatest talent that needs a platform - we hope we're it.
We're doing our first adult/mature title - Iblis dan Kugiran Kambing Hitam. It's about some school kids summoned Satan and he actually appeared.

We have a crime/drama title coming up next year.

There's Nafiri - an epic fantasy that is late, but hopefully worth the wait.

There's a bunch of other stuff but we'll announce them when they're ready.

Also, it is our dream to one day publish Lat. We know we'll do a great job of it, if only he'd say yes...

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

[Read! Fest 2015] To Singapore with Love: Personal and National History in Comics

This is happening this Sat.

Date: Saturday Jun 27, 2015
Time: 04:30 PM - 06:00 PM
Venue: Multi-Purpose Room in Central Public Library

[Read! Fest 2015] To Singapore with Love: Personal and National History in Comics

Amidst Singapore’s rapidly changing cityscape and way of life, there has been a growing surge of nostalgic creativity that pays homage to an era long left behind. Find out from our graphic novelists what inspires them when they tap on personal memories or historical events to create their comics.

About the speakers:
Andrew Tan (aka drewscape) is a freelance illustrator from Singapore. His work consists of drawing storyboards and illustrating for advertising agencies as well as magazines. He enjoys creating comics just for the fun of it. He’s often experimenting with various styles and mediums, hunting for new art tools and discovering new graphic novels with fresh, interesting drawing styles. His inspirations come from daily life, manga, European comics, and watching science fiction. He blogs at

Cheah Sinann is a former editorial cartoonist with The Straits Times, where he also produced the popular comic strip The House of Lim for eight years. His cartoon strip Billy & Saltie, which highlights environmental issues in a humorous manner, appears in The Borneo Bulletin in Brunei, and in The Daily Frontier in Bangladesh. His collection Billy & Saltie: Cool Croc was published in 2010. Visit his website at The Bicycle, a graphic novel about the friendship between a Japanese soldier and a street urchin during the Japanese Occupation, was published in 2014.

Koh Hong Teng is a comics artist and painter based in Singapore. He published the two-volume Gone Case: A Graphic Novel, Book 1 and 2, with writer Dave Chua in 2010 and 2011 respectively. In 2011, he received the Arts Creation Fund from Singapore’s National Arts Council in support of Last Train in Tanjong Pagar. The graphic novel Ten Sticks and One Rice, illustrated by Hong Teng and written by Oh Yong Hwee, was published by Epigram Books in November 2012 and won a Bronze Award at the 7th International MANGA Awards. Hong Teng has also produced comics and artwork for the National Library Board’s irememberSG project and Project LAVA respectively, and is an external examiner for final-year illustration projects at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Lim Cheng Tju is the co-editor of Liquid City Vol. 2, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics published by Image Comics in 2010, which was nominated for an Eisner award for best anthology. He is also the country editor (Singapore) for the International Journal of Comic Art. He writes and edits comics sometimes.

The Borneo Boys review

The Borneo Boys by Tom McLaughlin, Natasha Rusdy Wong and Helena Goh

Having a daily cartoon strip in Brunei about the wildlife in Borneo, it was to my surprise and delight to find out there's another cartoon work about the world's third largest island in the form of The Borneo Boys, a manga-type comic book set in Sarawak.

The story in the book centers around the legend of an antique giant vase which tests the friendship of two boys, one from Peninsular Malaysia and the other, a Sarawakian in East Malaysia.

Dzul is a young lad from Kuala Lumpur who moves with his family to Kuching, Sarawak where he meets Hong Huat, a local boy with whom he shares going to school. On one occasion, Dzul is mad at Huat for being late for their meeting at the weekend so he confronts the latter at the antique shop where he works. Eerily, a giant vase inside the shop begins to glow as if with shiny jewels inside it. Thinking as such, both boys dive into the vessel which is actually a time portal. They are met by another boy, who tells them they are in Kuching in the early days when there are no malls and cinemas and guides them through the history of the city.

While The Borneo Boys, aimed at younger readers, is a simple read, I also find it informative. Interspersed with facts about Kuching, there is also a historical centrespread on how the region came to be.

A good job and there is so much diversity and culture in Borneo, I would welcome more works to promote this great island.

- Cheah Sin Ann draws a comic strip set in Borneo, Budi and Saltie. His latest book is The Bicycle, published by Epigram Books.

You can see some images of The Borneo Boys here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Growing up reading comics in Singapore in the 1970s meant you have the diversity to choose between American superhero comics, British weeklies like The Beano and The Dandy, Hong Kong action comics, Taiwanese pirated reprints of Japanese manga, comics from Malaysia, China, India, etc. While the comic scene today is dominated by manga and superhero movies, one lone UK bastion from the 1960s has survived till today. Commando, published by the ubiquitous DC Thomson in Dundee, is an institution and rightly so. Here is an interview with Calum Laird, the current editor of Commando and currently pursuing a PhD on British war comics at the University of Dundee.

1. For those unfamiliar with Commando, what is your one line sales pitch?

“Stories of action and adventure for boys of all ages” or “68-page compact graphic novels”

2. British comics has a long history of war comics. Titles like War Picture Library, Combat Picture Library and Battle Picture Library, weeklies like Warlord and Battle. Most have come and gone. What explains the longevity of Commando? (since 1961)

This is a tricky question and there’s no concrete answer, really. When Warlord and Battle launched, boys’ comics in the UK were in decline. The only part of the market that was untroubled was the area where Commando operated — exclusively war stories. However, Battle and Warlord — while hugely successful in their concentration on war stories — ultimately closed down. The only differences between them and Commando were the size and anthology format. My feeling is that Commando and the other “libraries” had the appeal of being self-contained so they could be enjoyed on a one-off basis without having to buy every week to get to the end of the story. In addition, the longer stories that were allowed in the libraries gave greater potential for complicated plots and characters.

As to Commando outlasting the other compact format offerings, I've often wondered. The market was definitely shifting away from war stories by the 1990s, probably due to the events of World War Two moving further into history. It could be that our economics lent themselves to continued production where the others' didn't. At that time, we (DC Thomson) did all our print production in-house and handled much of our own transport. We were also producing a raft of titles from Dundee. This might have meant some of our costs were significantly lower than theirs.

I don't think there is room for another war comic like Commando or like those of old. If there was to be something launched, I think it would have to be more contemporary in both tone, content and appearance. Bearing in mind the changed age group that buys many comics (older than before) a more "adult" tone could be adopted.

At the moment, though, mainstream comics rely heavily on TV/film/toy tie-ins to be successful.

3. Is it jingoism?

Being honest, I really don’t know. Most of the time, I think not (and it’s certainly not on the part of the Commando editorial team) but sometimes, I’m not sure. On balance, I think most people read them for the entertaining storylines and the players, not any misplaced patriotism.

4. This harks back to the Cold War of the days of MAD, but it is still relevant today. With the stockpile of nuclear weapons that we have to destroy the Earth many times over, why are readers still fascinated with war comics, movies, etc?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot and I don’t have the answer. There is a certain amount of escapism involved and a certain nostalgia for a time before the Bomb when things seemed clearer and more human in scale. The main thing for me, though, is that a war setting allows story-tellers to suspend a lot of society’s normal rules, freeing their characters to act in a way that they wouldn’t be expected to or permitted to in the normal course of events. All fiction tends to be more extreme than fact; war fiction is no different. The other thing to bear in mind is that most war stories are not really about war itself, they are about the characters in a war setting.

5. How have war comics changed over the years?

Generally the plots have become more advanced. In the early days, secret weapons and special missions were all you needed for a successful story (although even then, Commando gave a bit more). These notions have all been done to death so more subtlety and sophistication is needed. The stories in general, and I mean here across the whole genre, have reflected the growing knowledge of wars and the effects conflict has on those caught up in it so they have become more thoughtful, more reflective. Even those titles that concentrate on action and adventure reflect this trend.

6. Which conflict is the most ‘popular’ today? (WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, the recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq…)

With our readership it’s WWII, in Western Europe and predominantly featuring ground troops.

7. Has Commando done comics on the war on terror? (Especially in light of the London bombing of 2005 and the ISIS public outcry of the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning by Jihad John)

No, we haven’t. To do comics on these subjects is far too far from Commando’s current editorial stance. From a story-teller’s point of view it would be very difficult to get a good action and adventure story out of such conflicts/situations. In addition, doing them as a Commando could potentially be seen as trivialising them.

8. How did you become the editor of Commando? What do you do, your role and responsibilities?

In 2007, I was offered the job of Commando Editor while I was assistant editor on one of our publisher’s — DC Thomson — other titles, The Dandy comic. Prior to this I had worked on Commando in a junior capacity for various periods of time since 1981. In between stints on Commando I had worked on teenage magazines, women’s magazines, a specialist motorcycle title and one of our commercial departments.

As Editor I am responsible for all aspects of Commando whether it is work I have done myself or work done for the title. This covers stories, art, proof-reading, feature material, graphic design, advertising, promotion and so on. I am part of a very small team so I have done just about everything; from maintaining our web presence to speaking at comics events to collaborations with our local Art College.

I think that Commando’s biography below will give you an idea of a lot of things I have to keep an eye on. One of the most important is making sure our contributors are paid. We rely heavily on our freelances so we like to look after them.

9. How do you go about commissioning new stories? How is it done and how do you decide on the writer/artist/conflict?

As I’ll indicate in Commando’s biography, everything starts with a blank sheet on to which goes an idea. Normally this comes from one of our freelance writing contributors but we might suggest something to one of them if we think it’s something that might appeal to them. They’ll build up a synopsis either on their own or with us. Once that’s agreed, they deliver a finished 135-frame script of 12 – 15,000 words.

Once we have this we will select the artist whose style and talents best suit the story. That’s based on experience but sometimes if it’s something new or unusual we’ll check with the artist just to be sure. Maybe they’ve drawn too many stories with horses, for instance, and would prefer something with ships.

Generally the conflict is decided at the synopsis stage. If we’ve had a run of similarly set stories we might turn down an otherwise promising story. Too many WWI stories one after another tend to get a bit boring for the readers…and the editors.

10. What are the sales and circulation figures of Commando like? It is sold widely in Singapore and Malaysia. Which other countries or territories is Commando doing well in? (Is it Commonwealth states?)

That’s an interesting one. Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand are all good markets for us and they’re Commonwealth states. Yet we are no longer asked to supply the market in South Africa or Canada, again Commonwealth states.

Commando on sale at Kinokuniya, Ngee Ann City, Singapore

11. Do you get letters from the UK and overseas? What sort of feedback and response do you get from the Commando readers? As a matter of interest, any idea whether Commando was on sale in Malaya and Singapore in the 1960s?

Commando never had a letters page. But thanks to the web, we get communications from all over the world now, and in much greater volumes than we did in the days of pen and paper. Lots of readers are quick to pick us up on all sorts of points or to send us an encouraging note if we’ve done something they like. Very, very few are wholly negative. Yes, we were on sale there throughout the 60s. As you’ll know, we launched in the UK on June 27th 1961 and export sales rapidly followed the successful launch.

Commando on sale at Kinokuniya, KL

12. You have some titles that are about the ‘War in the East 1941-45’. Do they sell better in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia? Were there titles on conflicts like the Malayan Emergency?

I don’t have broken down figures for the sales of those titles in South-East Asia so I can’t really comment on the first part of the question. We supply comics based on the numbers requested by the local distributor but I think they generally ask for the same numbers irrespective of the storylines. For the second part, yes, there were (and are soon to be more) stories on the Emergency. Our popular recurring characters Ramsey’s Raiders were involved there in our most recent foray into Malaysia.
We had previously done a series of stories to coincide with the anniversary of VJ-Day. Nos 4315-4322 are definitely set in Asia and SE Asia.

13. What did you read as a child? Did you read Commando?

Yes, I really did read Commando and it was my favourite. The other title I read regularly was Victor, also by DC Thomson, though I had no awareness that it was a publisher in my home town of Dundee who was responsible for both.

14. Which are your favourite Top 3 Commando stories, writer, artist and cover artist?

My top three Commandos have yet to come in. The best part of this job is looking to the future to see what fresh notions and art will come through the door. We have had, and continue to have, some absolutely wonderful contributors but the nature of this business is such that there is little time to look back.
[ct: if I have to pick, it would be the late Jorge and those gorgeous covers by Ian Kennedy.]

15. Which is the most collectible Commando issue?

Copies of No 1 in good condition have been sold for silly money, but anything in the first 100 are sought after and will sell for a good price. Some collectors go for particular artists (inside or cover) but most try to secure a complete run from 1 to 4800+.

16. How are the Carlton collections selling? Have they helped to bring a new generation of young readers to Commando? Or do appeal more to the older fans/collectors?

The Carlton Collections have sold very well indeed. However, they have definitely peaked in popularity and we will have to find a new product to entertain readers. We don’t have precise information on the age group the editions are bought for but at signing sessions, it’s a mix between old and young.

17. Finally, for those uninitiated to Commando, how and where should they start? (which issue, collection or conflict?)

They should start at the latest ones out and, if they like them, carry on. With our policy of re-releasing re-mastered classic issues, they’ll be getting a mix of old and new tales. There should be enough variety in there for them to make their own decisions after a month or so.

Calum’s biography:

"Born in Dundee, home of Comic Kings DC Thomson & Co, there was always a fair chance that I would end up working in the comics industry. No-one, however, had told me that and I took a science degree at St Andrews University in the late 70s. Once I’d graduated, though, the comic magnets were switched on and, after a brief spell as a labourer at the firm’s print works, I landed a job as a trainee on Jackie Magazine. After 18 months there I moved to Commando Comic which became my home from home. Despite several “postings” to teenage magazines, women’s magazines, a motorcycle title and one of the commercial departments, I returned to Commando in 2007 after three years on The Dandy Comic. I was in the fortunate position of taking over from the man who had mentored me in my early days and was delighted, if not a bit overwhelmed, to be doing my best to fill his very large footprint. I suppose I’m expected to say this but it’s true – Commando was my favourite comic growing up. To be responsible for nurturing this national treasure is a privilege, a dream come true…and one big responsibility.

I recently graduated from Dundee University with a Masters Degree in Comics Studies, one of the first intake to a new and exciting development at the University. I am now studying war comics for a PhD at Dundee. Anything to help keep Commando the UK’s most popular series production action title."

Commando’s biography:

"What is a Commando?

Physically it’s a complete 63-page story of around 135 black-and-white illustrated frames with text in panels and balloons to provide the narrative.

This is wrapped in a full-colour cover which wraps around the back of the book where lies our trademark dagger and the back cover write-up.

Between the covers lies the story. These are always fiction but they’re always set against an authentic background based in solid fact and the author’s research.

But a Commando is more than just paper and ink. It’s the story of a struggle against adversity, a tale of action and adventure that can be set against the background of the Roman invasion of Britain, the battlefields of Nazi-occupied Europe or, sometimes, the imagined battleground of the future.

The action can take place anywhere from the depths of the ocean or the dizzy heights of space.

Where does an individual Commando come from?

Every Commando starts with an idea. These can be the slightest thing and can be prompted by almost anything. They could be born as the result of seeing a piece of military equipment, the tale of an actual event, an imagined piece of dialogue. There’s no formula, every writer is different and may come up with ideas a hundred different ways.

All we know is that the ideas come and we’re glad of it.

So, you’ve got your idea, what’s next?

From the idea, the writer has to build his story into a plot with a beginning a middle and an end. And characters. Commando revolves around characters. Square pegs in round holes, the fearful, the daring, the compassionate, the cruel. All must overcome or be overcome.

When all that comes together it’s written down as a synopsis, a stripped-down outline of the incidents and the players who will bring the tale to life.

Next there’s the script. It follows a format and contains a picture description for the illustrator to follow, a panel or panels to carry the plot forward and balloons to reveal what those vital characters are saying or thinking.

This completed script is given form by the artist. He gives faces to fighting men, gives them guns and uniforms, gives them life. And, where the script demands, he may bring death to them too.

Once he has done his bit, the words and pictures finally meet up on the finished page.

And all that from a chance remark or observation."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Angouleme 2014

So the Angouleme Comic Festival 2015 ended earlier this month. Last year’s Grand Prix winner, Bill Waterson did not make an appearance but he did draw a touching comic strip about the comics. This year’s Grand Prix winner was Katsuhiro Otomo, who was also one of the finalist for 2014. Here’s some nice pics of Angouleme this year. Gosh, I miss the food.

I made it to Angouleme in 2014 and wrote a report for the International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA). A version of this appeared in the Vol 16, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2014 issue.

A First Timer’s Visit to Angoulême (30 January to 2 February 2014)

A stint in the UK has given me the chance to visit the Angoulême Comics Festival, Europe’s largest comic festival, for the first time. Being the centennial of the start of the First World War, a strong sense of history dominated the festival, which appeals to me as a history teacher. But it was another historical controversy from the Second World War that grabbed the headlines.

IJOCA readers may have known about the Korean comfort women manhwa exhibition put up at this year’s Angouleme. Much has been written about it and the AFP story has made its rounds in Asian and Southeast Asian newspapers. It was Korean soft power at work to punish Japan diplomatically, in the comics field which Japanese manga has dominated for the last 15 years. Korea has protested to the UN about the issue of Korean sex slavery in Japanese military units during the Second World War. Now it has taken the battle to France in an attempt to open a second cultural front. But it is a longer conflict than that (Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945), one that stretches to the present day.

While in 1993, Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono had apologized to former comfort women and acknowledged Japan's role in causing their suffering, in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to work as sex slaves. In 2013, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto made a similar statement. In a public statement, Korea's Gender Equality and Family Minister Cho Yoon-sun made it clear that the exhibition was to show the world the cruelty Japan had inflicted on Korean comfort women. It had a political agenda, not just a cultural one.

On 30 January 2014 (the first day of the festival), Flowers That Never Fade, opened to much fanfare with Cho officiating the opening. 20 manhwa and 4 videos were shown. Korean media reported that more than 17,000 people visited the exhibition during the four days of the festival.

These are links to some of the visuals of the exhibition.

Korean comfort women cartoon shown at the exhibition

Taiwanese news report about the exhibition

The Japanese ambassador to France lodged his disappointment with the festival organizers while the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan Fumio Kishida responded at a press conference on 31 January: "It is disappointing that this action does not follow stated goal of deepening international understanding and friendship through comics."

By the time I reached Angouleme on the evening of 31 January, the first shots had already been fired. At the press centre I found a press release by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining their position about the comfort women issue – that the government had already apologized, and letters signed by former Prime Ministers had been sent to former comfort women. An image of one of these letters was included in the 2-page press release (Fig 1). It also mentioned that Japan had set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which provided funds for medical and welfare support to former comfort women, and also “atonement money” amounting to 2 million yen per person. The French and Korean versions of the same press release were found at the press centre the next day.

Taking all these into account, it would seem that the Japanese government has owned up to the comfort women issue since the 1990s. The problem is that while the Japanese government has acknowledged the existence of the comfort women and apologized for their treatment of them, what irked Korea is that conservative Japanese politicians now claim that the women had not been forced into sex slavery, but had been recruited. There was no abduction. This has led to another round of Japan-Korea diplomatic rows for the last few years. Taking it to Angouleme this year was Korea’s way of forcing the issue at an international platform, in a pop medium which Japan has gained much global popularity and success.

Views of the Korean comfort women issue in Japan are not monolith. There are Japanese women activists who fight for the truth to be revealed, not just about comfort women from Korea but the ones from China as well. I met one such Japanese female activist-researcher at a War in Asia international workshop at the University of Essex one month later. The work she does in documenting and exhibiting about the comfort women issue is very inspiring. Unfortunately, only binary views of the issue were shown at Angouleme. It would have been good if there were a general discussion held at Angouleme about the war in Asia and how it was presented/remembered in comics as the war involved not just Japan and Korea, but also China and countries in Southeast Asia. No one made the connection that Zhang Leping’s classic Sanmao strips from the 1930s and 1940s were reprinted in French and launched at Angouleme. A bulk of the strips was about the Chinese war of resistance against the Japanese from 1937 to 1945.

Some people I spoke to at Angouleme were not happy with the fact that while a huge space was given to the Koreans for their version of history (the Korean exhibition was housed on the first floor exhibition hall of the Angouleme Theatre), some Japanese artists who tried to display their manga showing the Japanese version of the comfort women issue was not allowed to at the Little Asia tent (the term Little Asia itself is problematic – why is Asia labeled as little? Is this indicative of an Eurocentric bias?). (Fig 2) I didn’t get the chance to see the controversial manga or talk to the Japanese artists. But it seems to me the crux of the issue is the definitions of politics and culture. Nicolas Pinet, the Angouleme official in charge of Asia was reported as saying, "It is not political to tell people an unknown fact; what is political is to tell people a distorted fact. The South Korean exhibition is art in nature for artists tell their memories and history, whereas the Japanese booth was extremely political in nature. So we had to tear it down."

An image of the manga can be found here.

Edward Said once said the cultural is political. It is difficult to separate the two, so for the festival organizers to differentiate the actions of two quarreling countries is to tread on thin ice. I decided to ask the Koreans about this affair. With the help of Nick Nguyen, a fellow reporter, as the translator, I spoke to one of the curators of the Korean exhibition. Basically, he stuck to his guns: this exhibition was cultural and not political, and the Japanese artists booth at the Little Asia tent was shut down because it was political and not about comics. He was aware of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release but as he had not seen it, I gave him and his colleagues a copy of the Korean version. They immediately pored over it. After a while, they said the issue was not about financial repayment to the comfort women. For them, this exhibition was about giving voice to the stories of the comfort women through comics.

It is precisely this point that perplexes me. After viewing the Korean exhibition, I got a sense of what the Korean government wanted me and all the other visitors to learn about the comfort women issue. Most of the comics were commissioned for this exhibition. Only one of the comics had been published before. Other than short narrative stories, there were single panel cartoons, illustrations and animation on display. Interestingly, they were done in a manga style – were the Korean manhwa artists deliberately appropriating the more popular Japanese style and using the ‘enemy’s weapons’ to attack them? (Fig 3)

The stories of the Korean comfort women I ‘hear’ at the exhibition were mediated by the agenda of the government. Some critics at the festival said that the work was didactic. But I was more disturbed by the fact that the ‘true’ voices of the comfort women had been lost. In the narrative of comfort women in Asia, it is often the case that they have not been allowed to ‘grow up’. Even at an old age, they are still stuck in the role of victim, of being comfort women in their youth (Fig 4). They are still being ‘used’ by governments in their countries’ fights with one another. The exhibition has since travelled back to Seoul and was exhibited at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History from March to April 2014. The opening was officiated by the Korean Prime Minister Chung Hongwon.

That is why as much as the Korean comfort women exhibition fits in with the other exhibitions in Angouleme in dealing with the cruelty of war (Tardi, Gus Bofa), I tried not to let it overshadow my overall experience of the festival. In direct contrast to the theme of loss of innocence in the Korean comfort women exhibition, the innocence of Mafalda cheered me up tremendously. This year marked the 50th anniversary of the well-loved character and the Angouleme special exhibition was a trip down memory for many (Fig 5).

I also had the chance to interview Alison Bechdel, whose graphic novel Are You My Mother? was up for a prize at Angouleme (it didn’t win). She felt a bit overwhelmed by the whole media attention, and the schedule of interviews that had been lined up for her. “I don’t know whether I am coming or going,” she deadpanned. The interview before mine asked her if she had seen the latest Wolverine movie. She was still musing on that. (Fig 6)

Bechdel was surprised at how far her book had travelled, been translated and been nominated for an award at Angouleme. To her, Are You My Mother? was an odd book. The earlier book, Fun Home, was more universal. But while there was a story in the sequel, the emphasis was on ideas. “That’s what I love about comics, that it can convey information other than action. It could be an essay…I like to figure out how to create comics that can convey these ideas.

“Fun Home deals with the Oedipus story. It is more straightforward. Are You My Mother? is a pre-Oedipus story, pre-psychoanalysis, before that symbolic organization of language. It is more murky, a less direct story.”

It was also a tougher read, I told her. Bechdel admitted that she felt bad when she had completed the book. But two years on, she felt better about it. “I felt ambivalent about exposing myself and my mother. My mother hated the fact that I was writing about her. This story is basically about how I negotiated the writing of Fun Home with my mother. When I started on that, I had to tell her about it and it was scary. So the main action of Are You My Mother? is the creative time when I was writing Fun Home and dealing with her reactions. It was difficult but it was a great psychiatric growth for me to confront my mother, to go against the rule of my family in making my story public.”

I felt that I had learned more about women issues in my short chat with Bechdel than at the Korean exhibition. It is a pity that this year’s edition of Angouleme has been dominated by political discourse. Such discourse is important but it should not distract us from the comics. Fortunately for some comic artists, they focused on the comics and not nationality. A last run to cover some booths I have not seen led me to the Misma booths. I ran into Takayo Akiyama, a London-based Japanese comic artist I got to know recently and she was showing me her Y-Front Mouse comics published in French by Misma. I asked her about the Korean comfort women controversy. She said she heard about it, but she did not have the time to look at the exhibition as she was manning her booth. She then introduced me to the comics of her booth mate, L’Aventure de l’homme-chien, drawn by Yoon-sun Park, a Korean comic artist based in France. This simple act of camaraderie between a Japanese and a Korean comic artist in that corner of Angouleme reminded us that the festival should be about the comics, and not just politics. In fact, I suspect the two did not even consider their nationality when they draw their comics.

There were many good, historical works that were launched at Angouleme. Of particular interest to me (as someone who has taught modern Chinese history) was the French reissue of Zhang Leping’s Sanmao, a wordless comic strip from the 1930s and 1940s about a young vagabond whose hard life on the streets parallels the story of China, from being bullied by Western capitalism to waging the war of resistance against Japan.

Zhang is one of the pioneers of Chinese cartooning, together with Feng Zikai, Liao Bingxiong, Ding Cong, Hua Junwu, Huang Yao, etc. It is rare for that generation of artists to gain attention in the West. Through the efforts of John Lent and Xu Ying, this journal has published many articles about them. In 2004, I put together a small section of Feng Zikai and Liao Bingxiong’s cartoons in Rosetta Vol 2 (Alternative Comics). In 2009, the Library of Congress and George Mason University organized an exhibition and conference on Ding Cong. The granddaughter of Huang Yao, Carolyn Wong, has continued to promote of his work through the Huang Yao Foundation. Now publisher Xu Ge Fei has worked with Zhang’s son, Zhang Weijun, to release a handsome volume of San Mao cartoons for the French market. I had had the opportunity to chat with Xu and Zhang junior at Angouleme and they shared with me the long process of bringing San Mao to Europe (Fig 7). They were confident that the book would do well in France. Their optimism reminded me of San Mao himself, that little rascal whose indomitable spirit represented hope for China in the 1940s and still does so today.

If comics are supposed to be an international language and medium beyond America, Europe and Japan, then it is important for us to know the past masters of comics and cartoons from different countries. The efforts of companies like Fei Editions in bringing Asian comics to the West should be noted. Overall, this first trip to the Angouleme Comics Festival has been an enriching learning experience and I look forward to attending another one in the near future.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The World of Larry Feign

(please click on the images to see them bigger)

Thanks to Sin Ann, I managed to get in touch with Larry Feign, the famed cartoonist of The World of Lily Wong strip which ran in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s. The American animator was at the right place at the right time, arriving in the former British territory in 1985, at a time when Hong Kongers started to question their fate when HK was to return to China in 1997. This was reflected in the movies like A Better Tomorrow, and the It’s A Mad Mad Mad World series directed by Clifton Ko, which deals with HK people’s obsession to migrate to the West before 1997.

Feign, who is married to a Hong Konger, did not quit HK and stayed on till today, living on Lantau Island with his wife and two daughters. This is despite the fact that his Lily Wong strip was cancelled by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in 1995, allegedly under pressure from Beijing.

Lily Wong was revived a few years later in time for the handover in 1997 and the strip went on for a few more years. Sadly it is no more and Feign has since gone back to animation and writing.

I used to buy Lily Wong books when I visited HK in the late 1990s and ordered some books from Feign’s website as well. So this is a good opportunity to catch up with an old friend, someone whom I have only met in the funny pages. This interview was conducted over skype on 18 Nov 2014.

The first Lily Wong strip

Q: What is Lily Wong doing now in 2014?
A: To be honest, I don’t know. Lily left HK and went to Australia and I have since lost track of her.
I lived with her day in and out for 15 years or longer. She became very real to me, like another person. I stopped the cartoon in 2001 and a couple of years later, I felt some spirit left me. She’s gone and I don’t intend to bring her back.

You are not the first person to ask me this question. So I don’t know. Her kid, he should be a teenager by now. (Lily was pregnant and gave birth in the story)

The strip stopped 13 years ago. The newspaper which I was contracted to to do the cartoon went out of business. I had nowhere to publish Lily. I could have done it online. In fact, Lily Wong was the second ever daily strip to go online in the 1990s. Dilbert was the first.
Drawing Lily for almost 15 years was a full time job. It took 40 to 60 hours a week to produce the strips. It might sound heartless or awful but I couldn’t continue drawing Lily full time without pay. I had a family to support.

Q: What have you been doing since 2001?
A: I went back to animation production and started an animation business. It was fun for me. I enjoy that, a change from the dying newspaper industry. These days, I work on animation part time. It is commercial work, for websites, etc. My wife is a psychologist, so we are able to support ourselves. The writing does not support me. There are books that I have written that await to be published.

Q: Was there ever an interest to produce a Lily Wong animation?
A: There were earlier attempts in the early 1990s. A local TV station in HK tried that, a short 3 minute cartoon for a variety show. But it was a terrible job. They changed the characters. It was awful, so it was abandoned.

Then there was a movie producer from Japan who actually commissioned me to do a script. They tried to raise money for it, but nothing came out of that.

The most interesting one is from 1991 when a Broadway producer from New York wanted to buy the rights from me. So we negotiated the contract and a script was produced. 15 minutes of full musical treatment. The producer hired an experienced songwriter to write fours songs for it. It was produced on stage in front of investors. But they couldn’t raise the money. So somewhere in the house, I have a terrible handheld video of this 15-minute Lily Wong musical. The actress was a Filipino.

So there were these three attempts.

Q: When did you start drawing cartoons? And why did you stop?
A: I drew cartoons since I was three years old. It was a disease that I just can’t do without. But in 2007, something changed in me. I lost the disease. I do not have the desire to draw or publish cartoons anymore most of the time. But now with the HK protests, for the first time in a long time, I have this desire. But I don’t have an outlet anymore in HK.

So this creative urge has been redirected to writing. Cartooning is a hybrid art. So do you write a cartoon or do you draw one? For me, drawing is the hard part. I don’t enjoy it as much. For others, drawing is second nature to them. Like Bill Waterson. After retirement, he went into painting. Others retired from cartooning to write novels. I went into writing scripts in animation. I oversee the art design but I do not draw.
In 1995, when I was forced to stop the strip by SCMP, there was no outlet for me. I felt physically very bad. Lily Wong was an outlet for me for many years, and now it was shut off and I felt like exploding. But I do not feel that way anymore. I am just focusing on writing. I got pretty good at cartooning, so it’s a shame that I have stopped. But I like what I am doing now.

"Cartoon that got me fired"

Q: What are your views of the recent HK protests?
A: For many years, I was critical of HK young people in the universities. They were only interested in their grades, career and money. But now they have changed. I am ashamed of myself for having such views previously, but I am excited now to see these young people because they care about this place. Whether you agree with them or not is another matter. But this next generation cares and that is good for HK’s future.

I support the developing democracy in HK. I am on their side. I do not agree with all their tactics. They are naïve. But the government is stupid and stubborn, and has many missed chances to make this problem go away. I have been out on the protests. I have seen the political changes in HK for the last 25 years and it is not all good. I am worried.

HK in the 1990s was the most interesting place in the world. It is still a fascinating place to observe this experiment of one country, two systems, which is not seen elsewhere. But I am pessimistic.

Q: How did you end up in HK in 1985?
A: I was working in a LA animation studio in the early 1980s. My wife is from HK and we were both students in Hawaii and we got married there. I was offered a job at Tokyo Disney studios in 1985, but it was a long wait for the paperwork to be done. So we went to HK to visit my wife’s sister. It was strange but I felt no culture clash. I fell in love with the place. There were no animation jobs, but I was asked by a text book publisher to illustrate text books. This was three weeks after I arrived in HK. I had to hire assistants for the project. So I said forget about Disney, I’m staying on.

And the gamble paid off. Two months later, I did some sketches for a daily cartoon. SCMP was not interested, but the Hong Kong Standard was. So it was a dream come true, to have a daily strip within six months of arriving in HK. So I stayed. It was good luck and good timing. I have no regrets.

Q: You have stopped drawing Lily Wong, but you are still selling the collected books online. How are the sales?
A: They are small but steady numbers, especially to Europe. So I have orders from Finland, Germany, Holland. But not so much from America or Canada. I do some have orders from Singapore and Malaysia. The New Straits Times (NST) in Malaysia ran the strip in the 1990s. When the strip was cancelled by SCMP, NST asked if I can continue the strip for them. But they had no budget, so that didn’t happen. NST reran the whole strip again.

It almost ran in The New Paper in Singapore in the 1990s. An assistant editor from America was interested but his editor turned it down. The idea was to relocate the cast of Lily Wong to Singapore and it will become a Singapore strip.

When Lily and family visited Singapore

There is another Singapore connection. In 2001, I went to Singapore for the Asian TV conference. A Singapore government official tried to lure me to move my studio to Singapore. There was to be subsidized rental and guaranteed work visas. Every couple of months, he would call me. I was so tempted. I love the food in Singapore. But my wife is so well established in HK, so that didn’t happen.

The last Lily Wong strip

Thanks, Larry and Lily. Hope to see you again soon.

More Zunar news

Since I posted about Zunar's new books a few days ago, here are more O_0 news.

Jialat la. How to tahan? Some more today's headlines - Nabjib will not repeal ISA. Zunar will say this is to be expected. The pen fights on.