Thursday, October 19, 2017

Meet Writer/ Artist Max Loh Who Defended Local Flavour with C.B. Cebulski

When Red Dot Diva thinks of food *and* comics, the first name that comes up in her mind is Marvel's VP and talent scout C.B. Cebulski, who is also a foodie and has his own blog called Eataku.

Locally, a well-known food related comic called Dim Sum Warriors by couple Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, comes to mind. Dim Sum Warriors was were recently adapted into a musical production staged in China.

Others include Red Dot Diva's friend Benjamin Chee of "Charsiew Space", who relished in depicting charming stories surrounding food (yum yum!), as well as Max Loh, who has a self-published book called "About Food". Max recently collaborated with C.B. Cebulski to produce a limited edition superhero food-related postcard entitled "Defend Local Flavour" at this year's STGCC.

Regarding this semi hush-hush collaboration between the two, you might have spotted something shady going on near the Walk of Fame on the first day of STGCC. Somewhat like this:

And if you gave fan love to C.B. Cebulski  at his STGCC Walk of Fame sessions, you should already have received the "Defend Local Flavour" postcard specially signed by him! The postcards were available *only* during STGCC 2017.

Max Loh, the illustrator of the special postcard, is a self-taught artist with a very science-y background. He graduated in Biomedical Science, and has worked as a Research Officer for the past 7 years. You can find his works published in anthology books, "Liquid City Vol 3" (Image) and "Driving Malaysia" (Maple Comics). The later was commissioned by the tech company which owns the popular ride-hailing app.

Max also has a few self-published books like "The Road Not Taken" and "Pointes de ContrĂ´le". Red Dot Diva finds his writing and drawings deeply personal and contemplative, which may help put things into perspective for those who have musings in similar subjects.

Here's a nosy interview with Max regarding his experiences in his journey of being a mostly indie comic book writer/ artist.

Photo by Nicholas Lee
Red Dot Diva: You mentioned that you are a self-taught artist. How did you improve on your craft since you started drawing comics?
Max: Well, I've been to art classes as a kid, so that might not be considered as strictly 'self taught'. However, those were mostly landscapes and posters for school work.

I've learnt the visual language of comics through guidebooks (does anyone still remember the "How To Draw Manga" series of books from the early 2000s?) and emulating things I like from comics I've read. I put out my first self-published comic with friends in 2003, and I think it was only back in 2012 that I started finding my footing in terms of style and the kinds of stories I want to tell.

Red Dot Diva: I got hold of a copy of your graphic novel called "The Road Not Taken" awhile ago, where you told us about your life story in and how you decided to study Science in the end, although your love and passion is Art. How do these two parts of you get along? Are they consistently squabbling?
Max: Haha, you know, I’m glad that I did "The Road Not Taken" when I did, because looking back from where I am now (5 years later), I think the emotions I felt have mellowed down a bit from back then, when I completed my studies and started working. At the time it was difficult for me to accept that I couldn’t do what I felt was my calling full-time, but now I think I’ve come to better terms with it, but balancing both sides (‘Science’ and ‘Art’) will always be a challenge for me. I say that because I think as we grow, our priorities and challenge change, and the question for me has evolved from ‘Am I denying myself the opportunity to work in a field that I’m happy in?’ into ‘What sacrifices am I willing to make in order to keep making art?’ In a way, being caught in between Arts and Science has allowed me better appreciate both fields, and the deeper you dig into each, the more similar they are, philosophically at least.

Red Dot Diva: Oh? In what way do you consider the two fields to be similar? 
Max: I mean it in the sense when you talk to a Mathematician or Scientist who really loves what they do, the more they talk about it, they begin to use terms like 'beautiful' and such. I know that just because they start to describe it almost like an art doesn't make it one (the skills required in the technical aspects of these fields are wildly different), but I think at the essence of it you would require a certain understanding of aesthetics on how these things work? On the other hand, when you start talking to an artist on the more technical aspects of their work/ how they work, does it not feel more and more scientific and precise, only because there are so called 'rules' and 'methods' to achieve certain desired results? Perhaps the closest example of this is the idea of the Golden Mean, but in recent years this has been called into dispute too (and perhaps that's also an example of processing art through a scientific lens)  

Then, there are also the examples where dreams (which fall into the intersection of Art (Philosophy) and Science (Sleep Studies)) have led to scientific breakthroughs.

I often think of Leonardo Da Vinci when talking about the intersections of Art and Science, and how his understanding of one informed the other. The idea of the Renaissance man, a person who has expertise in diverse subject matters has seemed to wane in today's world, and I'm not sure when this happened but somewhere along the way our culture has put Science on a higher pedestal than Art. Maybe this was partly due to economic pressures, but I still think both are necessary for mankind to advance.

Red Dot Diva: Since that 24-Hour Comic Book Day which resulted in "The Road Not Taken", did you make any conscious changes to your thought processes in producing a story, or changed the way you draw?  
Max: "The Road Not Taken" was my first attempt at doing a self-contained long-format story, in a drawing style that I’ve grown comfortable with. I did mostly journal comics, recording a visual diary of my days in Singapore. Up until then I’ve never done a story of that length or attempted 24-Hour Comics Day before, so I had to do a lot of mental preparation to convince myself that I’m up for the challenge. When I completed it, I had a tiny breakthrough of sorts, that ‘Hey, I did it!’ moment that made me feel that I could do more. I was also galvanized by the response I got from people who read the comic and told me that they enjoyed it.

Jumping off of that, my thought processes regarding how I make comics nowadays relies heavily on the story. "The Road Not Taken" was a story I wanted to tell for the longest time, and it was cathartic for me to finally put it out into the world. From then on, I realised that I work best when I have something to say. I relish this aspect of comic making, figuring it how to say what you want and communicate it in a visually interesting and entertaining manner that is easily followed by a reader.

Red Dot Diva: How do you describe your art style? Is there any other style you would want to explore with? 
Max: Full disclosure: I started drawing comics trying to emulate the Japanese manga style. Something about the liveliness and simplicity of the artwork appealed to me, and I learned how to draw people through How To Draw Manga books. Still, something about my art back then felt stiff, and it wasn’t until I discovered Craig Thompson’s Blankets did a light bulb go off in my head. I can’t really put a finger on what happened, but I knew I wanted to make comics like that. I started picking up brush pens and have never looked back since.

I work mostly in black and white, but I would like to attempt a comic done with watercolour and inks in the future.

Red Dot Diva: You have boothed and sold your creations at various conventions and art fairs around South-East Asia. What has the experience been like? Any practical tips to pass along to newbies? 
Max: It’s been a great experience! It was only this year that I decided to try boothing at an Indonesian convention for the first time, and it was truly a learning experience. I usually booth at Malaysian and Singaporean conventions, and the visitors at various conventions (even within the same country) draw different crowds. From my experience, I’ve learnt that webcomics are a big thing in Indonesia, and that Singaporeans tend to favour merchandise such as badges, stickers, and keychains over books compared to Malaysians.

Practical tips for newbies: Always try to be present at your booth, physically and mentally. I realise stuff moves faster when the artist is behind the booth peddling their own wares, and people are more likely to end up supporting you if you engage them in a conversation without the lingering pressure to make a sale. Prepare name cards or some small print with your website/ portfolio/ social media accounts/ e-mail so that people can get in touch with you because you never know where your next opportunity may come from.

Red Dot Diva: Now, back to that "shady thing" that happened at STGCC 2017. How did the collaboration with C.B. Cebulski's limited edition food-related postcard come about?
Max: Ooh, that’s an interesting story. C. B. Cebulski tweeted that he was looking for an illustrator to collaborate with on a postcard image to give out during his signings at STGCC 2017, and some of my friends replied to him recommending me. I was offline on that day when all this was happening, so you can imagine my surprise when I logged on and was met with all these messages. From there I dropped Mr. C. B. Cebulski an e-mail and we hit it off.

Red Dot Diva: How was it like corresponding with C.B. Cebulski about the design? Was he the one you proposed the initial draft visual idea? Were you nervous?
Max: C. B. Cebulski is one of the most professional and lovely people I have had the pleasure to collaborate with (cross my heart, and I’m not trying to flatter him). He had some ideas on what he wanted: he wanted to do an image with The Defenders, with a focus on local food. During his previous visit to STGCC in 2015 he did a postcard collaboration with Gary Choo, featuring The Avengers. So after knocking out some details back and forth through e-mails, I did a rough sketch of how the final image I had in mind would look like, and sent it to him. He approved it and took a pretty hands-off approach with me, but I still sent him updates on the milestones (preliminary sketch, inks, flat colours, final image).

Red Dot Diva: What were the challenges you faced while working on this commissioned piece?
Max: My challenge doing this commissioned piece was the fact that I hardly draw superheroes! I mean I do practise drawing anatomy from time to time but I don’t really draw muscular people on a regular basis, so I had to do quite a lot of referencing. Thankfully it turned out well (I think)! 
Red Dot Diva: It turned out very well indeed!

Red Dot Diva: Was it your first time meeting C.B. Cebulski at STGCC 2017? Did you wrangle a mini portfolio review with him?
Max: I met C. B. Cebulski for the first time during STGCC 2015 actually. I gave him a copy of my self-published zine ‘About Food’. I honestly didn’t think he remembered me because my interaction with him was just a hi-and-bye in his signing queue, so when I met him again during STGCC 2017 I wanted to pass him a new copy of the same book. It turns out that he remembered me and the book, which pleasantly surprised me. Then again, it’s a testament to his memory and the work he does with Marvel. Sadly I didn’t manage to do a mini-portfolio review with him! He was really busy running around during STGCC 2017, and he flew in from Japan just for the event so I figured it must’ve been pretty tiring for him as well. Maybe another time should I be so lucky!

Red Dot Diva: Are you working on any other new books or projects right now?
Max: Yes I am! I’m currently working on a new book for a collective, which is a comic geared towards young adult readers. It’s the longest comic I’ve worked on to date, and it’s also the first time I’m collaborating with a writer, so it’s a great learning experience.

I’ll be heading to Yogjakarta at the end of October for a 2-week residency with the Comic Art Workshop, and I’ll be bringing a new project there to work on. I’ll also be doing Inktober this year, which I’ll be updating on my social media accounts! Busy times ahead!

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