KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 14 – We’ve all seen them in the summer blockbusters. The Dark Knight rises in one; the mutants time travel in another; and some, well, they do a pretty good job of avenging. We’re talking about superheroes, of course, and many of us grew up reading the comics these films are based on, wondering how cool it would be to draw them for a living.
One Malaysian artist went beyond simply dreaming. Tan Eng Huat has drawn some of the most iconic superheroes around; from caped crusaders (Batman: Journey Into Knight) to demonic motorcyclists (Ghost Rider); from cosmic adventurers (Silver Surfer: In Thy Name) to a band of merry mutants (X-Men: Legacy). Malaysia Boleh! meets Marvel Comics, anyone?
Currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Tan spent his early years in Teluk Intan, Perak. He says, “Since I didn’t have many friends as a child, I spent most of my time drawing instead. I would copy cartoon characters from TV shows and movies. I still remember the first time my mother took me to watch the Superman movie. I was blown away by the character. He’s been my favourite superhero ever since.”
A Malaysian childhood meant Tan’s first exposure to comics spanned a wide spectrum of comics from American superhero titles to Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées strips such as Hergé’s Of course, Asian fare such as Japanese manga and Hong Kong action comics were part of the mix too.
“Thanks to our ethnic diversity, I was able read any comics available. I would say I read more Asian comics because they were much cheaper! They had a huge impact on my drawing style as I tend to change style from time to time to adapt to what the client wishes to see,” he says.
While other artists may have agonised over their decision whether to pursue comic illustration as a career, Tan admits he didn’t put much thought in the matter. He says, “I simply love to draw and the challenges that come with it. Also, my parents are very supportive; as long as I can make a living out of what I do, that’s good enough for them.”
Before he worked on Marvel and DC superheroes, Tan contributed covers and art to the early issues of Gempak, a Malaysian monthly comic magazine. Using the unassuming yet droll pseudonym of Kutu (which means “lice” in Malay), the mostly self-taught artist got an early taste of professional comic work.
Tan then got his first break in the American comics industry when he met Andrew Helfer (then a DC Comics editor) at the Asian Manga Summit in Hong Kong 14 years ago. Helfer was looking for an artist for Doom Patrol, a book about a team of super-powered misfits. “I showed my stuff to him and he liked it. He likes manga and Asian art very much so maybe that’s why he picked me to do the book since my style is a mix with both East and West.”
As his first American comic job, Doom Patrol provided Tan with many learning opportunities from reading scripts from the authors to keeping within the editorial line. He says, “In the beginning it took some time to get used to. Everything was new to me. I made a lot of mistakes. Luckily, the editor was patient with me and taught me a lot. The most challenging thing was meeting the deadlines. Even today I’m always in a constant struggle between quality and speed.”
Tan’s inimitable style has gradually evolved after almost a decade and half of professional illustration work. His lines tend to be finer and more fluid when compared to the average American penciller, winning him accolades including the Russ Manning Award and the 5th Nation Comic Award for Best New Talent.
“In the beginning I would say my style was 50/50 East and West but over the years I think it has become closer to 20/80 East and West. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy comics by the late Mœbius. I like the sense of presence in the panels. Everything needs to be somewhere.”
Another comic that has impacted Tan’s drawing style is Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira, a legendary Japanese cyberpunk manga series set in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo. He says, “What I learned from this book is to stage dynamic action sequences, and to look out for a beautiful camera angle and design of the environment, be it the buildings or the mechanical constructs.”
One of Tan’s latest works is Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a Marvel Comics miniseries centred on the martial arts hero Shang Chi. Somewhat of a departure from his usual superhero books, the title attracted Tan for this very reason.
“What is refreshing about Deadly Hands of Kung Fu is that there are a lot of Asian elements involved. While the process of working on this title is the same as my earlier books, this is the most challenging title I have done so far. Drawing a continuous flow of action scenes is very hard but having to add dialogue – who speaks first and who speaks next – is even harder.”
Having worked on various titles for Marvel and DC, the two major American superhero comic juggernauts, Tan’s top character to draw is Batman. He quips, “Why Batman? The reason is simple: he’s BATMAN! However, if I have the chance to draw Superman, I would pick Superman as he’s my childhood favourite.”
The humble and hardworking penciller doesn’t look like he’ll be resting on his laurels anytime soon. He says, “I have just finished an issue of X-Force. I don’t know what I will work on after that yet.”
Whatever the next book is, be it another caped crusader or a kung fu master, with his talent and attitude, you can be sure Tan is more than up for the challenge.