KUALA LUMPUR – When Malaysia entered a partial lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic on March 18, Malaysians were still coming to grips with a new government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin following weeks of political imbroglio.
Comic artist Ernest Ng, like many Malaysians, needed a catharsis. He decided to capture the humour of the battle the country was facing on two fronts – the political crisis and the health crisis.
The movement control order (MCO) badly affected artists and performers like Mr Ng who rely on the gig economy, but who suddenly found themselves with no income.
The sketches of the 33-year old struck a chord with his audience with his reach and audience engagement growing exponentially during the MCO.
His newfound success is also a reflection that Malaysians sought comic relief as a balm amid the mess of political mudslinging and Covid-19 concerns.
“You can compile and publish it as a book. Malaysians are sure to buy it,” a fan posted on Mr Ng’s Facebook page following the release of his latest instalment of the series So Funny And We May Pass It To The Next Generation.
Mr Ng, 33, who has been drawing and writing comic strips for well over a decade, is known for his Bro, Don’t Like That La Bro comic books, which documents the simpler facets of Malaysian urban life, mostly inspired by his own experiences.
As the coronavirus hit, he started a webcomic series titled If Covid-19 Was An Anime, reimagining the situation in Malaysia in the form of a manga anime.
The protagonists in his comic resemble the same people who dominate national headlines week in, week out. They included the Health Ministry’s director-general Noor Hisham Abdullah, Tan Sri Muhyiddin and former premier Mahathir Mohamad.
From a base of 41,000 Instagram followers and 190,000 on Facebook in March, his audience has surged.
“My Instagram (follower) growth was 100 per cent, and the growth for Facebook was around 80 to 90 per cent,” Mr Ng told The Straits Times.
His Facebook strip, named after his Bro, Don’t Like That La Bro series, has now garnered nearly 70,000 new likes in the four months since the MCO was implemented.
He has so far written and drawn 14 episodes for the Covid-19 anime, with the latest published on Tuesday (July 14)
“This comic strip is able to present the latest issues in an entertaining manner. Even kids can understand it. With your comics, parents and kids can now talk about these issues,” another fan of the series said recently on Mr Ng’s page.
Mr Ng’s success is significant in Malaysia, a country where political satire had led to the arrest and prosecution of well-known political cartoonist Zunar, whose real name is Zulkifli Anwar Haque.
Zunar’s sharp cartoons on the 1MDB scandal revolving around former premier Najib Razak, and the alleged excesses of his wife, Rosmah Mansor, had led to the cartoonist’s arrest. He was charged with sedition in 2015, before the charges were dropped in 2018.
To be sure, Mr Ng does not want to read too much into his recent success. He produced several webcomics on Malaysian politics previously in 2018, but said he stopped as people were “getting angry over it”.
“My objective is to make people laugh. In the midst of what we are going through, we all need to find a silver lining and a bit of humour,” he said.
Mr Ng’s recent instalments of the Covid-19 webcomic cast an even wider net by touching on the pandemic response in other countries such as in the United States, and he tries to mirror what is happening globally into local issues.
“This thing (coronavirus) affects everyone. There is a learning point here and we need to break out of our echo chambers and see what is happening out there,” he said.
The success of the comics that has brought him to public consciousness has not directly translated into money, however. But Mr Ng said it has brought him more potential for future work.
Aside from drawing comics, Mr Ng is also a content creator and an actor who has starred in several advertisements and content videos.
He was a video editor at a broadcasting company before turning into a full-time artist, starting with his comic.
In a country with a relatively nascent art space, Mr Ng is happy to have turned his passion into his main source of income, mainly through the book sales of his Bro, Don’t Like That La Bro series. The book was a national bestseller for over a year after its release in 2014, and continues to record sales as the popularity of his work grows.
“I am grateful I managed to turn this (comics) as a full time profession. This has always been my thing since my childhood,” Mr Ng said.