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February 6, 2013

Creating a Modern Comic Book

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Write a comic book? A local publisher, after seeing my book Borneo Tom, asked me to write a comic book based on some of the stories of the history and peoples of Borneo Island. My problem was, I had never done it before, but that wasn’t going to stop me.


My last recollection of comic books must have been about 50 years ago. I dredged up memories of Ritchie Rich, Donald Duck and Archie from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. These minds-eye images showed only brightly colored covers, and I can still see one of Scrooge McDuck with gold all around him.


I have always been a history buff and had researched and read about Kuching, the town where I now live. I decided on a story about the great fire of 1884 when half the town burned down; the other half was saved by a boy. He stood on a burning rooftop, waved a black flag, while wearing a red apron. His efforts resulted in heavy rains.


The boy apparition was seen by several of the denizens of the unburned portion of the town. Grateful, they converted a small underused temple into a large stone edifice guarded by dragons and other carved animals. In the back, an altar holds a solid gold figure on a pedestal representing the boy in the center. Next to him is a black statute of the goddess who represents birth and death. Two processions through the town each year honor his birthday and the day he ascended into heaven.


The comic book is supposed to be historically accurate and written for 13 year olds and below in hopes of interesting them in both history and English. Since I had taught English to that age group here in Borneo and had an interest in history, I was a logical choice.


The layout of the book is for 20 pages with six panels on each page for a total of a 120 panels. “Whew,” I said to myself. “That certainly was a lot” Then there was the art work, the balloons holding the dialog, and the captions.


Undaunted, I began the project and very quickly realized the few lines of history would cover only about two pages. I had to fill in with my imagination, yet still keep the basic history true. All this for the “pubes” (my word), an age group of between 11 and 13.


I began present day with a boy whose father was transferred to Kuching. I named him Dzul after my son. A big city kid very much into brand clothes, he thought he was going to a jungle outpost. He meets a friend, Hong Huat, where he goes to the mall and hangs out like all teenager worldwide. They both attend Mr. Tom’s English class, and they must write an essay about something in Kuching. They agree to write about the temple they pass on the way to the mall.


They promptly forget about it and only remember it the night before the paper is due. Both boys rush to the temple and ask an old man to help them out. He instructs them to pull on his robes and they whoosh up into the air. The year changes to 1884. While flying around, they meet the boy god, learn a bit about the history, try and help the human bucket brigade put out the fire and return to earth with their assignment done.


I managed to write all the above into about 112 panels with dialog. For the rest, I will have full page or half page panels. I haven’t decided which yet, depending on what fits.


My next problem was the art work. You see, stickmen – and not very good ones – are the extent of my artistic talents. I needed to find someone who could take what I was imagining and transform them into the panels. This is difficult enough when the person is of the same culture and language, but almost impossible when one has to cross that boundary.


I asked around and found one individual. He only spoke a Malay dialect that I was not familiar with. In the beginning, we only needed five panels. We sat down and I gave directions in English and my wife translated. The event was tortuous with translations and explanations going back and forth between the three of us for about an hour.


The artist returned two weeks later with only two panels and the kids looked like they were in their mid-20s. They were very cartoonish and barely resembled what I wanted at all. We thanked him and I resumed the search.

The last person I interviewed said he understood English. I would talk to him and he nodded his head as if he comprehended. I didn’t get any more than a few words out of him. I asked for five sample panels and he came back with two but they were very good. The publisher approved. I hired him and he has to finish all the panels by March 10.


To be continued…


…Life is good


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