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Telling stories through cartoons

Interview with famed SEAsian cartoonists Lat and Sonny Liew shed light on the cartoonist industry. -NST

Sat, May 02, 2009
The New Straits Times

[top photo: Lat (left), as Datuk Mohamed Nor Khalid is better known, is one of the most followed cartoonists in Southeast Asia, and, his fame is spreading beyond the region. A growing legion of fans, including children, intellectuals and politicians, faithfully follow cartoons on his and the personal lives of fellow Malaysians as well as subtle political comment. Sonny Liew (right) , the Seremban-born Singapore-based comic artist-illustrator, is best known for his work on Vertigo Comics' "My Faith in Frankie" together with Mike Carey and Marc Hempel, and "Re-gifters" from DC Minx. Among Liew's other impressive works are his illustrations contributing to the paper's comic strip titled Frankie and Poo. He published a compilation later, including censored strips. Shortly after his graduation from Rhode Island Liew met The Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont who was impressed by his portfolio of work. Claremont not only showed him around the convention, he also gave Liew his first break into the comics industry, by letting him illustrate for "Iron Man" in Marvel's Marvel Universe Millennial Visions title.]

When Lat and Sonny Liew sit down to discuss issues such as royalties and concepts, they naturally do it through cartoon-tinted lenses. They find a rapt audience in M.K. MEGAN and KOH LAY CHIN


Lat: Cartoonists should not think too much about the copyright for their work. They should just dra money should come as a reward.

We are in a business where our job is to produce something that is good and meaningful and that people will enjoy reading. And that is not easy.

It is easy to be funny but being rude can hurt people's feelings.

People pay money to read them (our cartoons) and the more they enjoy it, the more they buy and we need not worry about the money. It will start coming once that happens.

At the same time, we also have to look after our work. We should not blindly sign the rights away to the publisher.

Most of the time, the copyright for a piece of work belongs to the publisher.

Sonny: Usually the publishers, especially those in the United States, don't pay much but they want the copyright or they pay us nothing and let us keep the copyright.

Lat: In cases like that, give them their money's worth. If they pay you RM200 (S$84), give them a drawing that is worth RM200, not something that is worth RM2,000.

But if you are a beginner and you are testing yourself to see how the public will accept your creations, it is best to accept whatever is paid.

There will be a time when your work is recognised. Then you can negotiate.

Sonny: Many in Malaysia don't mind low payments as long as their drawings get published. They get the satisfaction of seeing their work in print and that is the best reward.

But they must have a mindset that the situation should improve in the long run. They must come up with good pieces so that the publisher makes enough money to pay the creators handsomely.


Lat: Comics these days have more of a global concept and the new batch of comic artists who produce graphic novels tell stories about real life struggles, nature and science.

This (new trend) has been made popular by Western publishing houses and people who produce graphic novels.

Of course, these are very meaningful stories and, in Malaysia, we don't really have the opportunity to do good comics that tell long and interesting stories.

Sonny: Many local artists are not keen on local content because they are not paid well in Malaysia and Singapore.

Lat: But we can use local content to draw our comics for the international market. People around the world want to know about our cultures and traditions.

We have to get our work translated into other languages but it must be interesting stories.

We can publish them in Japan or Africa if they are interesting enough.

If you start a new comic, what would you base it on?

Sonny: It would be based on my personal life experiences. As a kid, how it was living in the city... maybe a futuristic city. I would want to capture the moments my friends and I had together.

I would also like to inject information that I had learnt along the way. It will be a combination of real-life experience and history.

Perhaps, unlike you, I would use a fictitious person as my character but it will be based on my experiences.


Sonny: There are some Malaysian artists who try to use local content for the foreign market but they cannot get publishers. They are finding it tough and therefore they publish their own work.

Lat: If you want to publish yourself, you must have a lot of money.

Sonny: But it is an investment.

Lat: We should leave it to people who are good at it. We create because we are good at it and leave the publishing to people who are good at it.

They have their editors and other specialist staff.

I published my own work only once and that was to celebrate my 30th year in the industry.

It was also to understand a little about the publishing industry.

(Generally) you need someone else to assess your work. It is better for someone else to have a second look.

Your work may, as far as you are concerned, look as though it is worth publishing.

But an editor or a publisher may point out what people might like or some aspect of your work that may be sensitive or are suitable for certain segments of society.

We should not have that much freedom to publish our work. What will happen if everyone wants to publish his or her own work?

All kinds of rubbish might get published. A publisher acts as a gatekeeper with his editors and proofreaders.

Sonny: Are your works always edited by the publisher and his editors?

Lat: My drawings hardly get edited.

But they correct my grammar and sometimes the dialogue. We have to work together.

Sonny: That is where the problem is. I have done some editing, too, and I had difficulty telling the creator the drawing could have been better or stronger.

I did not tell the creator because I thought the story was personal. I cannot impose my views on it. So, if the artist thought it was good enough to be published, we should let it be.

We also face the dilemma of when to tell them to change or leave it as it is.

Lat: First we must stick to what we do best. We should not be editors when we are the creators.

We should not be afraid to discuss our work with the editors because editors come and go but we creators are here for good.

I wouldn't want to be an editor. I give my work to an editor and want him to make sure it is okay or give me some ideas.

I want him to say if my work is suitable for the public. Of course, we do not argue with the editors or complain about them if they change some things.

If we strongly disagree with the editor or if we feel he is not good enough or not knowledgeable, we take our work to another editor or publisher.

Or if we cannot find another editor we forget about publishing that piece of work.

But we cannot lose sleep over the unpublished piece. There will come a time when we will be able to use it. I have had that experience many times.

(Lat explained that during the recent Umno general assembly he was asked to draw the candidate who would win the Umno Youth presidency.

He drew the two strong contenders -- Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir -- before the results were announced.

Only the cartoon of Khairy, who won, was used. But later when Mukhriz was appointed to the cabinet, Lat made minor adjustments to the cartoon and submitted the cartoon which was published.)


Lat: When we draw we have the public in mind. They should be able to understand it. But of course there are people who can never understand comics.

There have been a few times when people have come up to me and asked what my cartoons meant.

Sonny: Yes. Just like the cartoons of Gary Larson. His drawings are meant as cartoons but he receives many letters calling him all sort of names.

Some call him an evil man. People who read his cartoons do not understand him and call him all sorts of names.

His recent cartoon of US President Barack Obama, which came out looking like a chimpanzee with big ears, created a lot of controversy.

The cartoonist said he did not intend to portray it that way.

Nowadays anything you draw is interpreted differently by different people. We have to very careful when we are drawing.


Sonny: You have your own style and concept like the Kampung Boy. Do you think other cartoonists are following in your footsteps?

Lat: I am sure there are many budding artists following my concept by doing stories about their childhood and hometowns. It is not only happening here in Malaysia but all over the world.

I realise people focus too much on only one section and neglect many other aspects.

There are so many subjects in South East Asia that we can touch on. But we also lack the opportunity and forum to do it.

Like you (Sonny) and your friends were adventurous and did it yourselves.

Sonny: Yes. We had to do it. We had to go for the foreign market because there was so little demand in the local market.

We didn't get paid much for our work. We get paid a lot more in the US, no matter what we draw.

Lat: But we can still negotiate in Malaysia.

Sonny: Of course but only if you are an established cartoonist. Newcomers are at the mercy of the publishers.

Lat: You are right about that.


Lat: Usually before I draw something I visualise it in my mind.

But when I put it down on paper it always turns out better because in our mind we cannot imagine details but when we draw we have to pay attention to detail.

Eventually what translates onto paper is what matters.

But sometimes you cannot picture the whole thing but you can imagine the scene. You know it is there but what is actually transferred onto paper should be more interesting.

Sonny: My drawings now are similar to what I have in my mind. One day I dreamt that I was reading a comic which was drawn by me.

That is how I started drawing. To this day, my drawings resemble what I see in my dreams.

And we cannot disregard people with photographic memory especially those who draw their personal experiences. They can have in their minds exactly what they want to draw.


Sonny: I feel strongly there should be a union or some other body to look after the interests of cartoonists.

Now everyone fights for his or her own cause. When there is a union the voice is stronger and the cartoonists are not abused.

Many cartoonists are still not aware of their legal rights and copyrights. It is the same situation in many South East Asian countries. In the US, for example, all cartoonists know of a lawyer who helps them if there is a legal issue.

Lat: In Malaysia there is a guide book on the do's and don'ts. Also there is an ongoing discussion to decide on a minimum rate for drawings so that cartoonists are not underpaid.

But it is going to be difficult. How do we determine a base rate for a drawing? Do we charge according to the size, issue or topic?

Sonny: In the US how much a cartoonist gets paid depends on the publisher. The bigger the publisher the more you get paid.

But it is a tricky thing to fix prices for cartoon drawings and I strongly feel we cannot have that. But to help beginners understand the industry there must be some guidelines and that is why an association or a union would help.


Sonny: Manga drawing is becoming popular all over the world, including the US. The youngsters, especially, like this sort of drawing.

Lat: If we go into manga drawing we belong to it. We must stick to one style and cannot interchange.

But even if we choose manga drawing we must have our own identity. We cannot imitate the manga style of another country.

Why should people read our manga comics if the original is from elsewhere.

It is like a Malaysian who can sing like B.B. King but this person is not B.B. King. People want to hear the real singer, not the imitator.

You have seen many people in the US draw manga. Do you consider manga from the US special or should manga stick to its origins in the Orient?

Sonny: I always have this question in my mind. "Should people in the US draw manga style or should they have their own style of drawing?"

I still do not have the answer to that but there is a large following for manga drawing in the US.

The Malaysian manga drawings are not much different from those from Korea and China.


Sonny: The Malaysian cartoon industry is still far behind Japan and Korea. They are developing fast. We still have a long way to catch up with them.

Lat: In Southeast Asia, we should continue to represent this region in our cartoons. We should consider the region a special treasure which we want to show people all over the world.

We are different culturally and in our traditions and we want the world to know that. We can do that through our cartoons.

-The New Straits Times

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