Max Loh on the Unseen Labour of Comics

In our previous Behind the Naratif post, we looked at how a creative team approaches the making of a comic. But what about comic artists who work individually? In this installment, comic artist Max Loh and editor Charis Loke discuss the unseen labour of non-fiction comics, fair wages, and how comics are more than the sum of text and image.

Portraits by Max Loh.

C: Max, you’ve done two longer comics for New Naratif: “What Makes Our Makan”, which is about food, heritage and authenticity in Malaysia, as well as “Duit Right: How to Fix Malaysian Political Financing”. What was the process of working on them like?

M: For “What Makes Our Makan”, I pitched the idea to New Naratif and worked on the script and the art myself. There was a lot of back and forth in the editorial process as we figured out the story and how it would be told.

For “Duit Right”, the script had already been written by Terence Gomez and Alethea Goh and edited by Deborah Augustin and yourself. My part in that process was to whittle down the text into a bite-sized version in terms of the visuals and explanations. It was painless because the writers trusted what I was doing—trusted that I knew what I was doing—because when you work on someone else’s script it’s very much about distilling the essence of it.

Making comics is quite different from writing. You want to make the fastest connection, take the clearest route from point A to point B to establish context and explanations in the piece, and make the text and images gel on the page.

C: Speaking of the page, something that people may not immediately think about is the fact that words themselves take up space on a page. How does that come into play when you’re planning your page compositions?

M: My process is derived from a lot of trial and error. When I started out as a comic artist, I was mostly making autobiographical comics, and I would do things on the fly a lot. Even with these non-fiction comics, the process isn’t necessarily straightforward. It’s not a linear path from written script to thumbnails to pencils, inks and final art. Sometimes, I’ll be writing the script and get a strong mental image of how I want to lay out a particular panel on the page, and I’ll sketch that out as I write, even though the text could change later—which it usually does! Sometimes after you finish the pencils, scan them in, and block the text onto the page, you realise that the panel doesn’t fit all the words you originally wrote. Certain publications have limits for the smallest font size they can accommodate, and even if you meet those, there might just be too much text on the page, making it too dense. So as a comic artist, you have to get quite good at trimming things, distilling sentences and ideas, being brutal in terms of rewriting and rearranging text to fit into a certain space.

C: What else do you consider besides word count?

M: Flow, readability. How you arrange speech bubbles, for instance. You have a lot of flexibility with how you move them around, but even then, there are unspoken conventions of visual grammar and comics that they need to adhere to. How do you as the artist ensure that the reader’s eyes go to the speech bubble for the character who’s speaking first, and then to the rest of the bubbles in the correct order, without being explicitly told to do so? It’s not that straightforward, even if it is something that comes with practice.

C: It’s also something that if you do well, people don’t notice. They only notice if it’s done badly. If the flow of the speech bubbles isn’t working or it’s counterintuitive to how people normally read, then it really stands out. But if you do it well, they simply read and don’t think about how you put thought into arranging the bubbles.

M: Yes! The challenge for comic artists, especially if you do everything yourself, is to not confuse your reader with how the panels flow, how they should be reading. You want them to be immersed in the story, to get the message first instead of tripping up on technical issues. And for that reason, it can be hard to notice or understand what goes into a comic. Because if you do it well, it should fade into the background. Then, because it fades into the background, it kind of becomes invisible labour. So sometimes people don’t quite understand what they’re paying for, in that sense, when it seems so easy to read.

C: We did make a comic about that ourselves.

M: Yes, we did. To give enough context for readers to understand, without making it tedious or overwhelming—that’s the work of a comic artist, especially if you do explainers.

C: It’s a lot of translating, isn’t it? The act of translating involves paring down and cutting what’s unnecessary, turning words or ideas into images, doing research on visual references, figuring out visual metaphors that in some cases can be a way of circumventing censorship. We had that discussion with “Duit Right”: do we depict human politicians? Do we show specific political parties? And we came up with the idea of showing nasi (rice) packets…

Character designs for the rice packets.

M: Ah yes, the nasi packets!

C: They are very cute.

M: In Malaysia, we have race-based political parties, but we didn’t want to go down the route of depicting skin colour and culturally-specific symbols. How do you show that members of a party share commonalities but also hint that there are different people, different factions involved? At first I thought: maybe we could have two types of food, like nasi lemak and…bananas, just battling it out. But then we realised it might be better to stick to one type of food and use flags or clothing to denote different party affiliations. Once we picked nasi, we could also feature a variety of rice packets from all over Malaysia.

C: Yes—some readers describe the comic as being about nasi lemak, but we were quite intentional in not having only nasi lemak, since that’s not quite representative of Sabah and Sarawak. 

M: Which is why we have tapai nasi, pulut, bak chang…although not every reader might have noticed that distinction. But that’s alright. We wouldn’t want the design elements to distract from the main idea of the piece, which is about the financing of politics. The same thing goes for the decision to render the money in purple (after 100 ringgit notes) rather than the conventional green, so they would stand out beside the green rice packets, and all the other visual choices.

I’m glad I got to work on “Duit Right” because it was really a challenge. I kept asking myself: how do I make it visually interesting without it coming off as notes from a history textbook? Even when I grouped some lines of text into circles at the top of a page, I was thinking: oh, this feels too much like a textbook kind of layout.

C: That’s an unfortunate space which some academic or advocacy comics fall into. With those, it feels like you’re reading a textbook. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a comic.

A panel from “Duit Right: How to Fix Malaysian Political Financing”.

M: If you’re not going to leverage the versatility that’s inherently present in comics, then I think you really are better off publishing an article.

C: Because sometimes it’s easier to read as well! Some things should just be a bullet point list. Not everything has to be a comic.

M: And not everything will translate well into a comic. Comics are great for outreach or as a gateway to the topic or subject matter. But if you really want to delve deep, then you may have to use other forms of texts. 

C: Or using the comic as a starting point for group discussions where participants can get further context, which has been done with New Naratif explainers.

C: Do you get to work on non-fiction comics a lot?

M: I’ve done a few for The Nib, a couple for New Naratif, one about rice production in Malaysia for Sourced Journeys—food and heritage is a particular interest of mine. In Southeast Asia, we don’t have a lot of platforms that publish explainers or non-fiction comics from artists within the region. Perhaps press freedom or lack thereof plays a part in that. There’s also a larger audience for slice-of-life-type comics and comics geared toward entertainment. All of that affects the pay rates for explainer and non-fiction comics.

Two panels from “What Makes Our Makan”.

Sometimes the folks who budget for publications will expect comic artists to do, say, a five-page comic for the same rate as an illustrator doing one illustration. There’s a huge difference in workload, a lot more labour involved. 

C: The typical New Naratif rate for comics works out to about US$70-100 per page, which, while it could be better, is also higher than what you’d get at many Southeast Asian publishers.

M: In my experience it’s on par with what some US-based companies offer. There are discussions of rates within the industry so people know what the average rate tends to be, and even for the bigger companies, US$100 to US$200 per page seems to be the ceiling. With currency conversion rates, that might sound good to artists based in Southeast Asian countries, but…

C: Geographical location is not in itself a reason to pay higher or lower, though. There’s a range of factors to consider when pricing as an artist. The complexity of the work, the skills you’re bringing to the table, how the work is going to be used, where the work is going to be used, who the client is, licensing…

M: Well, that’s an ideal scenario, isn’t it? To be paid fairly, have your rights protected…usually there’s a little gap. Sometimes you can’t have it all. But you try your best.

C: To conclude, what’s one thing you wish more people knew about making comics?

M: I just wish people knew how much labour goes into comics, especially for smaller operations where the artists are literally doing all the work themselves—for instance, comics like “What Makes Our Makan”, where I handled the research, the script, the drawing, the lettering, the colouring and the layouts. 

Although if you’re working in teams where all of the collaborators are on the same page, it can be very fun. And so far, I’ve been blessed with people who get what I’m trying to do and are respectful when it comes to creative disagreements—which are fine, you know, as long as both parties understand that they’re trying to make the best product possible.

M: What do you wish more people knew about New Naratif comics?

C: We spend a lot of time thinking about the titles. Probably more time than you’d expect.

M: How many options did we consider for “Duit Right”? 10? 15? 20?

C: It was worth it for that multi-layered pun!

M: Well, we did have to rice to the occasion.

Have a question or idea for a future Behind the Naratif post? Let us know via our social media channels or at [email protected].

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