'Covid-19 Saga': How Malaysian cartoonist Ernest Ng finds humour during a pandemic

Cartoonist Ernest Ng captures the zeitgeist with his current run of the aptly titled 'Covid-19 Saga'— Pictures courtesy of Ernest Ng
Cartoonist Ernest Ng captures the zeitgeist with his current run of the aptly titled 'Covid-19 Saga'— Pictures courtesy of Ernest Ng

KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 — BIFF! BAM! POW! These are the iconic sounds of punches being landed in comic action scenes. Picture Batman, Superman, even villains like Thanos.

But what happens when it’s the monstrous embodiment of a coronavirus that’s landing these punches though?

Homegrown cartoonist Ernest Ng captures the zeitgeist with his current run of the aptly titled “Covid-19 Saga” that covers the ongoing local fight against the pandemic — with a little bit of humour.

And humour is what we need given the grimness of the situation.

Covid-19 case reports have become part and parcel of daily Malaysian life. Frontliners risking their lives to attend to patients and to perform much needed screening.

In Ng’s “Bro, don’t be like that la, bro” Facebook page, readers get a reprieve from the lockdown cabin fever by catching up on the latest instalment of his webcomic, in which local forces are depicted as heroes (some like samurai generals, others more akin to giant robot cats) against the invading virus.

Yes, manga style action all the way.

From sketch to finish: Ng’s take on the Covid-19 global “invasion”
From sketch to finish: Ng’s take on the Covid-19 global “invasion”
Manga style action
Manga style action

A Malaccan who majored in mass communications, Ng was first exposed to comics via Japanese manga such as Doraemon and Dragon Ball.

He recalls, “I didn’t really read American superhero titles as I didn’t have access to them but I did read a bit of Asterix comics.”

One key touchstone in Ng’s comic education would be Old Master Q, the classic Hong Kong manhua.

He explains, “My late grandma actually collected them and I would find myself reading them whenever I used to visit her as a kid.”

Some of that Old Master Q flavour of slapstick comedy finds its way to Ng’s work, though he has a gift of finding just the right wry, tongue-in-cheek moment.

What if  there was a Gardenia black market?
What if there was a Gardenia black market?

Case-in-point: the “What if there was a Gardenia black market?” strip, which was a single story gag and a nod to news of unopened loaves of bread being thrown away.

Ng says, “Once I find a key point on a certain topic I would then try to expand on it in a humorous way. For example, the Gardenia comic happened because I was trying to buy bread. I couldn't get any and I just thought about how I might resort to going to the black market to get my bread fix.”

One of Ng’s earlier viral hits, “SMK Fast Food”, was inspired by the McDonalds “Mekdi”  signboard in Bukit Bintang.

He says, “I noticed people creating memes of how other fast food restaurants would create a short version of their names such as Kepci. I realised nobody remembered A&W so I decided to draw that character as Endabyu.”

From that first spark, Ng decided to put all these characters into a classroom and a new comic was born.

The creative process: Ng at work in his studio
The creative process: Ng at work in his studio

He says, “I felt that it was like high school drama where there are cool kids and there are the not-so-cool ones (which is me).”

Despite having drawn comics since he was five years old, Ng never intentionally pursued it professionally.

He says, “I kept drawing until it eventually became a career somehow and I just went with the flow.”

The creative process begins with observation. Ng scripts the idea down in written form before translating it into panels. Once he has his script locked, he then proceeds with inking and colouring.

He adds, “Story-wise I am inspired by Japanese manga and by artwork style by mid to late 90s Saturday morning cartoons. The end result is just a mixture of both these aspects.”

'SMK Fast Food' is one of Ng’s viral hits
'SMK Fast Food' is one of Ng’s viral hits

For the “Covid-19 Saga”, Ng drew on current events for his muse. He says, “It all began during the political turmoil in Malaysia in late February. I felt that it had too many plot twists that warrants its own comic. Then the coronavirus pandemic happened right after and I just kept going.”

Ng has published five comic books, The Brofessionals being the latest title, and is hoping to produce more books and even animation in the future.

For now, he’s keeping readers of his webcomic tickled and eager for more “Doromon Mode!” (You have to read “Covid-19 Saga” to see what that entails.)

Read the latest instalment of the Ernest Ng’s “Covid-19 Saga” online via his “Bro, don’t be like that la, bro” pages at www.facebook.com/dontlikethatbro/ and www.instagram.com/dontlikethatbro.

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