Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Unnamed Comics Weekend Workshop

Amidst an extremely busy schedule, I found myself at Rimbun Dahan in Kuang, telling a bunch of young comics artists about how bad things are in the Malaysian comics scene.

Setting the Scene

I was invited to give a talk by Unnamed - a South East Asian collective of comics people from the region who wish to , I dunno , do something, I guess.

I only know Unnamed as Max Loh and a group of leading female comics artists from Malaysia. Eisner-nominated Reimena was one of the founders who set up an FB group maybe two, three years ago. Or is it months ago?

I was surprised they managed to organise a weekend comics workshop, or that they wanted to do anything. Comics artists are hardly an organised bunch. So it was a pleasant surprise when I reached Rimbun Dahan and there were no post-apocalyptic scenes of cannibalism or even a Thunderdome.

I came on Saturday even though the workshop started Friday, so I missed a few of the presentations. What happens is, the participants present their current projects and everyone else comments or give ideas on the thing. Some of us were invited to give talks, share insights and contribute stuff.

The talkers were myself, Mimi Mashud, fine artist and Rimbun Dahan resident Charis Loke and international comics sensation Fishball.

I regrettably missed Charis' talk, about artistic inspirations, research and worldbuilding. Mimi and Fishball gave an amazing joint presentation about making comics that cover storytelling, narrative flow, characterisation, panelling, etc. All of them should start lecturing. They're very good and I found the talk useful for my own current projects.

All the participants gave thorough descriptions of their projects. You got young artists with stories about magic libraries and warehouses, corporate hell, witches, surreal avant garde melding of music and comics as well as engineering comics and a bunch of other things.

So when faced with all this positivity, it's natural for me to be the one to deliver the bad news.

The Gutter Between the Panels

I didn't prepare any slides because the week prior, I was knee-deep in slides. So I decided to wing it by sharing my experience setting up and running Maple Comics.

I set up Maple Comics around four years ago (five in December this year) with Fairul Nizam/Roy Ablah. We spent RM70 to register the company at SSM and put in maybe RM5,000 each to produce our first title. The profits from the sale of one book will pay for the next book. It's been four years and we have 27 titles already without having to add more money than the initial investment.

We are published in Japanese and Vietnamese, in those territories though not all titles get to be chosen by the publishers in those countries. We had a limited UK distribution and some copies are available in North America.

Whatever profit we registered every year helped pay for operations - warehousing (yes, we rent space at a warehouse), logistics, company secretary fees, tax filing fees, GST previously, online costs (website, some software) and booth rental at fairs and events. Capex is mostly printing new books and reprinting successful titles.

I told the kids that Maple Comics was set up to solve certain issues. There are currently very few outlets for comics creators in Malaysia to publish their own titles without giving up their IP. Maple Comics doesn't hold on to any IP other than our own, which is our logo and concepts for some corporate projects.

I told them horror stories about copyright issues, but not ALL of them. I advised them about contract signing. You always need a lawyer or a bitch like me to go through the fine print, or you might end up losing your IP - all of them - past, present and future, in this universe or all other universes known or unknown. These are actual terms in contracts involving creative rights.

I also told them that 99.9999% of IPs are worthless. Most things are not Star Wars. IF your IP is desireable, you then need to find a way to make money out of it, which means turning your IP into merch that people want to buy or sell the IP in other formats. This is actually extremely difficult and requires a lot of work, and you have to face potentially evil people every step of the way.

I told them about various funding opportunities and each of their pitfalls. Most creative funding in Malaysia is not good, terrible or downright evil. I went through each one, giving objective observations and anecdotal evidence.

What I Didn't Tell Them

I never told people that I felt guilty setting up Maple Comics. I always have this fear that people would quit their jobs to do comics with me and then not become millionaires. I have always managed everyone's expectations by giving the worst case scenarios but being a creator means you're a dreamer and you will have hope. I really don't want to crush anyone's hopes or be part of a system that provides bad or mediocre news at every opportunity.

When I set up the company, I sensed some people feel it's in good hands - that they're in good hands because I'm in it. I think someone told me that they believe since I'm doing this, there must be money in it.


I make money elsewhere. Roy makes money elsewhere. Both of us have taken probably RM2K or RM3K from Maple Comics in total during these four years, which is still less than the RM5K each we have put in. We are proud that we have set up something that is sustainable and is turning a tiny profit every year that goes back to publishing more comics. We haven't made any real money.

It was set up to ensure comics creators have an outlet to publish their wonderful comics that might not make it with other companies that may have lopsided copyright deals or have stringent censorship policies.

We keep censorship at a minimum in order to give comics creators freedom to explore themes and issues. Given this almost carte blanche opportunity, not a single one has submitted nude drawings or anything generally offensive. I'm not sure I'm happy or unhappy about this.

So whenever we pay royalties to people who publish their works with us, I personally feel guilty that it's not enough to sustain them for a year. Most of them have their own jobs so they won't starve, but I can't help what I feel.

There are people making money in Malaysian comics. Gempak makes money, through sheer volume and marketing muscle. PTS comics division makes money. Keropok Comics is making money through exclusive deals, I believe.

There is also the elephant in the room, and I'm not talking about me. The Sword of Damocles that hangs over everyone's heads. The Internet. Malaysia and Vietnam remain the only two Asian countries where comics earn more money in print than online.

The rest of Asia is making as much as 70% or 80% of total revenue from digital sales. Even Japan was 50-50 two years ago after holding out for so long with print. When will the shift happen in Malaysia? Are we prepared?

Omnia mutantur, nihil inherit. Everything changes, nothing is truly lost.

We might have some interesting announcements in June or July. Maple Comics' mission remains the same. Hopefully some new developments will be a positive turning point for everyone involved.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Avengers: Endgame (SPOILERS)

After going out of the cinema, having watched Avengers: Endgame, I was  overcome with a sense of relief, satisfaction, and also a mild disappointment.

I will be posting spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, so if you don't want that, please don't read past this point.

Spoiler Warning

He is Iron Man

I am so very glad they gave Tony Stark the death he deserved - the character and the actor has done a wonderful job starting and keeping the fire alive for 11 wonderful years starting with Iron Man. It was an apt conclusion because as long as Tony was alive, he would be compelled to do something whenever there's trouble.

Also, though not entirely his fault, Iron Man is a fuck up. In every single movie he's been in, Tony Stark fucks up, and he and his friends spend the rest of the movie solving the fuck up.

In Iron Man, he spent decades manufacturing weapons and building his company - weapons that were supplied to terrorists by one of his trusted company people, Obadiah Stane. In Iron Man 2, he's been pushing people away and not addressing his health problem with the arc reactor and has to win them over again, to face the man whose father his own father made enemies with.

In Iron Man 3, he created the villain with his attitude and then challenged the most dangerous terrorist by giving him his home address via the media.

In Avengers, his constant bickering with Cap almost killed everyone, and in Age of Ulton, he again created the villain, Ultron. In Civil War, he came up with the Sokovia accords that led to the split with Cap and half of the team.

Iron Man's stories are always about him fucking up. Tony Stark's confident, flamboyant exterior belies a man fraught with anxiety, shown in Iron Man 3 when he suffered a very public panic attack and in Iron Man 2, when his self-destructive behaviour endangered people around him and pushed people away.

It was a painful thing to see him again blaming himself at the beginning of Endgame, for failing to stop Thanos when he so very nearly did. To have him do the snap at the end, defeating Thanos and his army, was fitting. And to have him die so he could finally rest is a great goodbye. They even showed his funeral where the kid from Iron Man 3 and his daughter, Morgan or something, are present. Those two are now top contenders for the next Iron Man or Iron Heart or help Iron Heart or whatever.

We're done with Tony Stark, and possibly Robert Downey Jr, but Iron Man will return.

O Captain, My Captain

Steve Rogers got the life he left behind, choosing to stay in the past and growing old instead of returning. Captain America has always been a man out of time, the perennial fish out of water, an old man shouting at the clouds. His '40s values don't gel with today's values and makes for interesting stories - in fact, the best movies in the MCU - but it was torture for the character who also has a strong sense of responsibility, just like Tony.

Captain America has been a constant in the MCU. Their moral compass, the one who would sacrifice himself first for his friends. We see this in First Avenger when he threw himself on a dud grenade during training, in Winter Soldier when he decides he would allow Bucky to kill him rather than fight the guy who was his friend, in Civil War when he would fight the entire planet for friendship and honour.

Cap was not infallible. He didn't tell Tony about his parents' murders. But faced with choices to keep the peace and avoid violence, Steve always makes the right choices.

In GE14, some of the messaging I put out was based on Steve's lines. People responded because when it was a fight between morals and cash, integrity and dignity versus corruption and fear, there was no character that embodied integrity and dignity more than Steve Rogers.

In all of the MCU, Steve Rogers is my favourite character. Chris Evans is my favourite actor. Captain America is supposed to be a stick in the mud, but he still made the guy fun and charming.

Death, Where is Thy Sting

I was surprised they killed off Black Widow. She has a movie coming up, which I now hope will be like the first Kingsman, to find the next Black Widow to replace Natasha Romanoff.

Nat has been my favourite side character in all the Avengers movie she's in. You can never fault her level-headedness and thinking and I believed she would have been given the time to shine, finally, in her own solo movie.

Nat was a pragmatic soldier, unencumbered by morals, politics or emotions. She's very effective and is the character I most hoped to be. She was pragmatic to the last, when she fought Hawkeye over who gets to make the sacrifice for the Soul Stone and fittingly, Nat was the soul of the Avengers all these years.

The Wars Fought Before

Now on to the movie as a whole. Endgame is, as one of my friends put it, a love letter to fans and I get it, but I was mildly disappointed because it is the sloppiest work by the Russo brothers in the MCU.

Captain America: Winter Soldier was amazing! That elevator scene is the single best piece of action sequence in the MCU and Cap had his best costume here. WS elevated the genre to greater heights and Civil War, was something else.

Civil War had the most beautiful structure of any MCU film. It started with a global conflict (the very first battle sequence), turning into a family feud (airport scene) and then three guys fighting in a military outpost, and then two guys fighting in a room, and as the scale grew smaller, the stakes grew bigger. Sheer poetry.

Infinity War was a thrill ride from start to finish. You start with the Asgardians getting attacked by Thanos, then Hulk crashes in NY, NY gets attacked, then Vision and Scarlet Witch gets attacked, Cap shows up, then Wakanda, meanwhile Thor joins Guardians of the Galaxy, it was a thrill ride from start to finish with no let up.

Endgame, meanwhile, was NOT a thrill ride from start to finish. The pacing and energy were irregular, bumpy. The fan service and callbacks and set ups for the three major deaths were prioritised over pacing. You have long stretches when nothing happened.

Also, they fought Thanos in the beginning and it ended in maybe 10 seconds. Granted, Thanos had no will left to live, much less fight, but to kill him off - the guy who dominated the entirety of Infinity War - with a meh bookend was disappointing.

Some of my DnD friends disagreed violently (over WhatsApp) on this. One guy said they needed to bring the energy down or else the movie wouldn't have anywhere to go after that.

I disagree. I understand the point, but I disagree. That scene, to me, was like Luke Skywalker throwing away the lightsaber at the beginning of The Last Jedi. Here's this thing/person you cared so much in the last movie - now I throw him/her/it away.

If they wanted to bring the energy down, they could have started the movie right away with the five years later point. Or at least made the early fight with Thanos longer and a bit more difficult. Just a bit more. That's my take.

Back to the Past

Things really got better once Ant-Man came back from the Quantum Realm. In these early scenes, I like the one when Stark got back to earth, sickly and thin and getting angry at Steve. That's my favourite scene. Like, fuck your morals and integrity, Steve. We lost.

There was also that moment when Ant-Man - Scott Lang - met his daughter who's now a teenager. That was touching.

Time travel is confusing and messy. Choosing that as an out is risky and opens up a Pandora's box of shit. Now nothing is impermanent. If say, a country gets destroyed, you can always time travel using Stark and Pym tech and prevent it from happening, if you want to. But arguably there's hardly any other way to write themselves out of the ending of Infinity War and the Infinity Gems being destroyed.

The time travel itself was peppered with scenes from previous movies, like the iconic 360 of the team in Avengers. It feels kind of cheap, though, reusing the footage without inserting the actors into those scenes, a la Back to the Future II.

Another favourite scene is a throwback to that wonderful elevator scene. But instead of fighting these guys, Steve this time uses his brains and whispers "Hail Hydra" to the Hydra plants. That was great!

So they got the Infinity Gems and Stark made a gauntlet for it and Hulk snapped everyone back.

Final Fight

And then we have Thanos. Yes. Thanos from 2014 re-emerges and he is a shadow of his self in 2018's Infinity War. Instead of a character doing what he thinks is best for the universe, the ultimate Malthusian, we have a one note purple baddie who growls about what terrible things he's going to do.

And then we have the biggest superhero fight in all of the MCU movies. It was fan service galore, bigger than Ready Player One. It was really good, but also reminded me of the comic Bersama Selamanya.

I like that Cap lifted Mjolnir, but calling lightning with it was a bit too much, I think. The setup was way back in Age of Ultron, but that showed Cap could only lift Mjolnir a little, and not summon bolts of lightning with it.

I like the Scarlet Witch moment with Thanos when she could very well have killed him if she had sure footing.

And then Tony stole the gems and snapped so Thanos' army turned to dust, along with Thanos himself. And then he died. He could have used just the reality stone and turned everyone into bubbles or paper, but he snapped his fingers anyway and killed himself in the process.

End Thoughts

So, as a fan service movie, as a bookend to these amazing 11 years of 22? 23? movies, it was great. I mostly enjoyed it. But I was hoping for more from the Russos. They always come up with really tight stories and tight action sequences, but the ones in Endgame felt a bit lacking. The plot has holes, the action, to me, a bit weaker. As a fan, I loved it. But as a movie, it suffers from too many things that shook me from enjoying it too much, as I did Infinity War or Civil War.

So what's in the future for the MCU? I don't know. I don't really care. My three favourite characters died or retired, as I hope I would someday. I no longer feel compelled to watch EVERY MCU movie every year. I might watch them on Netflix or the new Disney streaming service.

I'm done with the MCU not with hate or much disappointment, but with a satisfying finish to something that has coloured my life for over a decade. And for that, I give my thanks.

Avengers: Endgame: 3/5 stars

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ulasan Filem: Bella & Jamie (FEATURING LISA MANOBAN)

Bella & Jamie ialah filem yang teruk. Watak satu dimensi yang tidak dikembangkan dengan sempurna, seorang sahaja lelaki muda yang wujud dalam dunia Bella & Jamie untuk Bella atau Jamie jatuh cinta, Bella dan Jamie yang hanya bercakap pasal lelaki dalam hidup mereka dalam hampir setiap babak dan - YANG PALING MENJENGKELKAN - babak-babak animasi yang menceritakan semula apa yang terjadi dalam skrin untuk mereka yang benar-benar dangkal.

Sketsa-sketsa animasi ini seperti satu tukul yang menghentam kepala penonton. Contohnya, Jamie terjaga dan ternampak ex-boyfriend dia call Bella dan panggil dia sayang. Tetiba ada animasi yang ceritakan segala isi hati Jamie. Nampaknya macam memek muka Jamie saja tidak cukup? Malah, sketsa animasi digunakan beberapa kali untuk menerangkan benda yang sudah jelas.

Contoh penggunaan elemen seperti itu yang bagus kita sering nampak dalam siri TV Korea Selatan seperti Real Men 300:

Dalam snippet di atas, Lisa takut-takut sebab baru masuk kerahan tenaga. Sebagai orang Siam, dia juga tidak begitu fasih Bahasa Korea. Kadet lain juga takut-takut, jadi beberapa animasi digunakan untuk accentuate atau 'menimbulkan' benda ini. Kesan animasi yang sedikit ini tidak mengulang, tetapi menguatkan atau mencadang apa yang terjadi.

Sketsa animasi Bella & Jamie hanya ada pada permulaan cerita dan pada penghujung sekali cerita. Amat tidak perlu.

Bella & Jamie juga satu filem yang mengisahkan gadis 'girly girl' atau kegadisan dan tidak empowering atau memperkasa kendiri seperti Gol & Gincu 2. GG2 mengisahkan pasal isu-isu semasa gadis dan wanita muda, manakala Bella & Jamie pasal kahwin-cerai mak Bella dan bapak Jamie, macam filem Parent Trap in reverse.

Kalau nak buat kisah 'girly girl', Blackpink ialah satu kumpulan penyanyi Korea Selatan dengan semua ahlinya menonjolkan sifat girly girl, menurut seorang pon-err-pengomen tersohor Twitter.

Saya kongsi video Blackpink House episode 7. Pada awal episod, kita dapat cadangan yang Lisa dan seorang lagi tidaklah mesra sangat antara satu sama lain, jadi mereka keluar untuk cuba acara memanah dan kemudian bermain trampolin.

Ini episod penuh dengan sarikata Bahasa Inggeris:

Kedua-dua watak Lisa dan seorang lagi ada personaliti tersendiri walaupun kedua-duanya feminin.

Kalau dilihat pada GG2, watak Diana Danielle dan Ummi Nazeera - Zak dan Yaya - pula memang mempunyai personaliti berbeza, menjadikan senang untuk anda berasa empati kepada mana-mana yang lebih dekat kepada hati *cough* Diana Danielle *cough*. (Boleh tengok Gol & Gincu 2 di saluran Astro First sekarang!)

Tambahan pula, beberapa rakaman babak Bella & Jamie keluar fokus atau fokus pada benda salah. Framing juga lari.

Anyway, saya nak demam ni sebenarnya, mungkin sebab kerja keras sangat, jadi saya akhiri dengan video yang agak creepy ini:

Bella & Jamie: 1/5 Stars
Blackpink: 5/5 (untuk Lisa)