Thursday, October 27, 2016

Meet Benjamin Chee, Writer/ Artist of Comic Book Charsiew Space!

As someone growing up in Red Dot Island, where most people are food-crazy, reading Benjamin Chee's self-published comic book "Charsiew Space" was like nomming on comfort food. To be more exact, it was like savouring yummy local dishes while nonchalantly trotting about on a wild space adventure.

In a sector of a certain galaxy, pork including the traditional roasted version called charsiew, has been banned. Sow, a shrewd elderly Ah Mm (i.e. "old lady") teams up with a space smuggler and his robot to bring the delicacy back on the menu, but not without re-pork-ussions from the citizens of Pig Planet.

Red Dot Diva thought "Charsiew Space" was such a lively and hilarious comic that she recently sent a copy of it to Paul Levitz (formerly the president and publisher of DC Comics) as a small birthday gift . He thought Benjamin's art was "charming".

She also wants to share the love for this delightful piece of work to the comic book geeks out there, and enticed Benjamin (via a portion of fragrant charsiew) to answer a few nosy questions:

Red Dot Diva: Hi, Benjamin! Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the career of illustration and graphic design.
Ben: Hello, I'm Ben, or Charsiew Space! I studied animation in school, then got a job as an artist making mobile games. Along the way I've met people who did a bunch of comics for fun, and I thought that appealed to me, so I began making comics as well on the side. 

Red Dot Diva: How would you describe your art style? 
Ben: Cheerful with a dash of grunge, a lil' rough on the edges. 

Red Dot Diva: Who are your artistic heroes and what do you gather fron their particular styles? Have you ever infused any of their ideas / styles into your own? 
Ben: Naoki Urasawa ("Pluto", "Billy Bat") and Chen Mou ("Ravages Of Time") have completely blew my mind with their storytelling. I also like the works of Gabriel BΓ‘ & FΓ‘bio Moon on "Daytripper" for two entwining inking styles that work together cohesively. Guy Davis's ("The Marquis", "BPRD") art though, I think speaks to me the most. I really love how he stylizes his characters...and monsters, presenting them with grit, texture, and a lot of raw energy in the finished drawings, poses, and framing. I've found myself flipping through his books a lot, when I get stuck on how to deliver a scene. 

Red Dot Diva: How did "Charsiew Space" come about, and were you dreaming of charsiews prior to when the idea was conceived? (Be honest. *grin*)
Ben: Okay this is a funny story, but no dreams. When I went to 24-Hour Comic Day on 2013, I had no idea what to draw other than my story has got to have spaceships in it. Jerry Teo ("Rex Regrets") and I were getting breakfast at the Bugis hawker center, when a friend called and asked me to buy some charsiew for him. So Jerry joked that I can combine delivering charsiew and spaceships to make a "Charsiew 21XX" story. I thought that could turn out fun, so I did just that. The next year, Ray Toh very kindly allowed me to share his booth space at STGCC, and I needed a comic book to sell there. I thought about what would work best, and in the end I pulled that story out from my folder, adapted and rewrote it into a 64-page book, named it very simply "Charsiew Space", because it's about charsiew, in space. 

Red Dot Diva: Do you know of anyone else who does comic books where food and the love for food is prominently featured? Do you have a favourite title/ creator of such books?
Ben: "Silver Spoon"! It's by the creator of "Fullmetal Alchemist", Hiromu Arakawa, and made even richer because it's informed by her experiences growing up in a farm. "Dungeon Meshi" is another manga I recently stumbled upon, which has RPG-ish adventurers basically treating the monsters they encounter in a dungeon as cooking ingredients, so they come up with recipes to cook monster mushrooms, scorpions,'s really fun. 

Red Dot Diva: What are 3 key things you learned after you've completed "Charsiew Space"?
Ben: (1) I found that I'm more suited at sprinting to finish up a complete book, than to come up with something ongoing at a regular pace. So I've thinking of my stories as something - short and spontaneous - that happens in the same universe at different times or place, rather than a huge epic of any sort.
(2) Clarity is important to communicate a story, whether it's sequencing of events, their depiction, to the words used in telling it. For self-publishing folks who do not have editing professionals working with us to ensure that, I think it's important to rely on beta readers who can point out problems or how to improve your story.
(3) Getting a finished product out is a satisfying feeling. Holding a trimmed and bound book, fresh out from the printer when it had just existed inside your computer for the past two months, feels really good! I think that is one of the reasons I would continue to do this, and I'd recommend similarly interested people to try that. 

Red Dot Diva: What's your take on self-publishing and boothing in Singapore and Malaysia. Any tips for newbies?
Ben: Going from being in a con as a visitor to having a booth there, definitely offers a different perspective! You can empathize with fellow booth-owner-artists better because you see the other side of the aisle, having to prepare cash, packaging, peddle items, while also experiencing the excitement of the con at the same time. It's a lot to take in, I remember not being to sleep after boothing on Day 1 of STGCC 2014 because I was still pretty excited at 2am. It's an experience that I'd recommend to younger creatives, self-publishing is a concrete way of investing in your own work, and a commitment to market it to other people!

Red Dot Diva: What is your opinion about people who leave their day jobs to "pursue their dreams"? 
Ben: I think being willing to do that is an incredibly brave thing, and it requires a lot of persistence to see it through. 

Red Dot Diva: Now. Let's get serious. If a battle consisting of an army of wantons vs an army of curry puffs were to ensure in a bid to take over the world, whose side would you be on? And, why?  
Ben: If the wantons win, they would start a civil war amongst themselves to determine whether Pork Wantons, Prawn Wantons, or Pork+Prawn Wantons are the superior race, then they would drown the whole world in soup to be habitable for them... so I guess I'm going with curry puffs, then at least I could bow to my crunchy and crispy masters on dry land.
Red Dot Diva: Hopefully, there won't be a heated curry puff civil war between the triangulars and the semi-circulars!

Red Dot Diva: You have also published two more books from the same universe as "Charsiew Space". Tell us a little about those, and did you try to do anything different in these books? 
Ben: Both are shorter stories. I made "LYCHEE QUEEN" while being giddy over a Chinese TV show called "Nirvana in Fire", so it has a period setting. It's about a queen who loves lychees, so she is gonna make sure there'll always be lychees to eat, and her efforts propagated even until the space age. "THE ALCHEMY OF OIL" is more of a picture book, about food - the loving mother who cooked them, and the beloved son who ate it all up. It's set on Squid Station, the central location in "Charsiew Space". I'm experimenting with this format because it uses a first-person voice, to see what the outcome is.

Red Dot Diva: Any other projects on their way? *feeling hungry now
Ben: Yes! Charsiew Space-related projects would be on hold for a while though, I'm working on a history comic (and for the first time, in collaboration with a writer!). I also have a short story about jiangshi (mood whiplash!) collected in "Asian Monsters", soon to be published by Fox Spirit Books.
Red Dot Diva: Ooh, I love monsters. Can't wait for that one!

Interested in getting hold of a copy of "Charsiew Space" and Ben's other comic books? You're in luck! He will be having a table at the Illustration Arts Fest's marketplace, held at LASALLE College of the Arts this weekend, 28 to 30 October. Look for him at Table D-7!


Dn't forget to follow Charsiew Space on Facebook for more updates!


Charsiew: barbecued pork of Cantonese origin, usually eaten with rice, noodles or as fillings of steamed buns.

To see what charsiew looks like, here's a blog article by foodie johor kaki about one of the stalls at Old Airport Road who is well known for their succulent charsiew. *drools*

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