BATU PAHAT, Oct 22 — Amid all the pandemic-related stories in the past few months, you’d be forgiven if you missed the announcement that local artist Erica Eng has become the first-ever Malaysian winner of an Eisner Award, the comics industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.
Eng, who is based in Batu Pahat, won the Eisner for her webcomic Fried Rice. The story is ostensibly one of a wistful young burgeoning artist named Min, who just happens to be from Batu Pahat too.
The protagonist of Fried Rice is an author surrogate, of course, and readers are immediately drawn into a series of mundane yet whimsical scenes of simple everyday life.
Eng says, “I loved writing little stories and illustrating them. I don’t think my drawings were any special, but I kept going at it when most of my friends had stopped. Mostly because I liked drawing a lot, and I can’t remember ever being sick of drawing.”
Family features greatly in Eng’s webcomic, which is no surprise as she recalls her family supporting her passion for drawing since she was only two years old.
She says, “Another childhood hobby that never died is my love of reading. I’d read everything as a kid: cereal boxes, milk cartons, signboards, encyclopaedias, restaurant menus, novels, etc.”
As Eng grew older, she became more serious about art and began following tutorials, joining online artist communities and dreaming of going to art college.
She says, “Webcomics sort of came later... I’ve always thought of my writing skills as sub-par at best, so comics were a good way to bridge the written word and the thing I knew better which was to draw.”
Publishing on the internet meant Eng was inspired by fellow online creatives such as other webcomic creators, vloggers, writers, filmmakers and musicians. Everyone of them is a storyteller.
She explains, “Usually, the stories that move me are honest, have a good sense of humour and are sincere and unafraid. A lot of the time, stories can become a mirror for where you’re at, what your values and priorities are. Heart posture is crucial when you’re learning from somebody else who is probably very different from you.”
The lack of a barrier to entry was also appealing. She says, “When it came time to make Fried Rice, I thought a webcomic was the way to go, especially since I didn’t know anyone in publishing, and because posting it online kept me accountable and forced me to be consistent.”
The Eisner win has made Eng busier than ever, to the extent she needed to overhaul her entire schedule last month. She says, “It has taught me how to say no and, more importantly, why to say no to certain things. Sometimes it’s better not to be available to certain folk, you feel me?”
On a lighter note, however, she shares: “The Eisner trophy itself is completely unassuming; it switches place about my bedroom, out of sight most of the time.”
What has become increasingly important for Eng is the need for meaningful connection: “I’ve just been thinking of what that means in storytelling, and how that applies in comics.”
Crafting a comic, from thumbnails to the final artwork, is a well-thought out process for Eng. She tries to put everything in their rightful place — such as the script in a document file, thumbnails in a sketchbook and her final drawings in a separate folder — so keeping track of what she requires at any time is a breeze.
Work is not limited to merely producing her webcomic, however. Eng has also experimented with fan support platforms both as a method of sharing and selling her artwork as well as gauging reader interest.
It took some adjusting though to find the right platform.
She says, “Patreon required me to fulfil and tick off goals every month for supporters. In the end, I didn’t want Patreon to be my job, I wanted the webcomic to be the actual job, and making paid-for posts was subtracting from the time I spent on the comic.”
Ultimately, Eng shifted to Ko-Fi, which she describes as “just an online tip jar for people who want to show their outright support for Fried Rice, a more time-friendly way of interacting with supporters. I’m thinking of expanding my shop on Ko-Fi when I have the time.”
Creating comics during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has been an experience like none other. Eng says, “It has taught me what things die in adversity, and what things stay vital. My relationships with close family and friends have mostly flourished, and social media in the way I used to view it has mostly died.”
Unsurprisingly, Eng’s schedule in the coming months is already packed. Besides speaking at the Georgetown Literary Festival, she will also participate — virtually, of course — in the “Sustained Creativity in Web/Digital Comics” discussion panel at the Singapore Writers Festival in early November.
She adds, “I’m always writing and I'm thinking of making a season-themed collection of short stories if I have the time. I’m looking for a literary agency to represent me at the moment. Hopefully that means Fried Rice gets published someday.”
Until then, Eng is helping to broaden the scope of what Malaysian comics can be, which is anything at all, limited only by one’s imagination. From fantastical warriors to gamers and giant geeks, the spirit of our country’s sequential art is absolutely “Malaysia Boleh!”
A line from Fried Rice — “Life is more than that” — reminds me of what Eng and her peers are creating. Malaysian comics are more than that, too, and can be much more in time to come.
Learn more about Erica Eng at: