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.