Superheroes Come to Life In Jakarta Comic Studio
After Marvel Studios released “The Avengers,” a movie that grossed $1.5 billion worldwide, Indonesian comic artist Sunny Gho has felt a boost of added coolness to his field of work. Sunny is a colorist and comic artist for many publishers, including the biggest ones on the market: Marvel and DC. Normally, people don’t really understand what exactly he is working on — except for comic geeks. However, Hollywood’s recent taste for producing superhero movies has changed the way people see his job.
“Suddenly people are saying, ‘They are making “The Avengers” comic in Pondok Indah!’ although they probably don’t understand the story,” Sunny said.
The creative work is happening at his studio, Stellar Labs, in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta, where Sunny employs more than 20 comic artists. Stellar was previously the Jakarta branch of Singapore-based Imaginary Friends Studio. The joint cooperation began in 2006, but they split earlier this year because Sunny wants to cover a wider range of productions, including games.
Sunny studied graphic design at Trisakti University, but he did not learn it all from the curriculum. It was the university’s Design Comic Society that nurtured his skills as a comic artist. Sunny himself is a huge comic fan, and cites Japanese comics as his favorite. His work, however, has demanded that Sunny travel all over the United States ever since he worked on DC’s “Power Girl” in 2009. His portfolio extends to Marvel’s “Ultimate Avengers,” “John Carter” and “Incredible Hulk.” Right now, he is working on DC’s “Superman” and the first volume of Marvel’s “The Indestructible Hulk.”
Sunny talked to the Jakarta Globe about how it feels to work for major comic publishers, the history of comics, and what can be done to revitalize the Indonesian comic scene.
How is it working for DC and Marvel? How did you get the job in the first place?
It was from my previous work with Imaginary Friends. They employ comic artists worldwide, actually. You don’t have to live in America to work on these comics, because all of the work is being sent online. It is great, but it makes me concerned about work all the time — I worry that my work is not good enough. Being a freelance comic artist for major comic publishers is a very disposable job. Unlike smaller studios, they don’t give you feedback. They are so huge and therefore less controlling, so we have to make sure we are doing our best. We have to upgrade our skills without them asking us to do so.
You said you are fond of Japanese comics but now mainly work on American comic books. What’s the biggest difference?
Both are now well established because it is rooted deep in their cultures. Historically speaking though, both countries create comics for different reasons. The Japanese used comics to lift up their citizens from mourning after the atomic bomb. They needed to get up from destruction. Their comics speak of ordinary people, common people, [stories of] a nobody who becomes somebody.
American comics tend to focus on the outer character. They tell a story about superheroes, definitely not common people. They need to create hope and a reminder that they are part of a great nation.
How does comic production work?
For American comic books, the hierarchy is always like this: first comes the comic character, then the writer and then the artist. Creatorship and production are two different things in America, meanwhile these two matters are synonymous in Japan.
Americans don’t need the same author to work on the same comic character throughout the years, unlike the Japanese. In Japan, nobody is allowed to draw Doraemon, it exclusively belongs to Fujiko Fujio. In America, Stan Lee can create Spider-Man, but fans don’t expect him to keep on writing him. They are aware of the changing writer and artist, and Spider-Man’s looks are changing.
How many scripts do you receive in a year?
I receive three to four scripts a month. If it is a coloring job, we can deliver up to four comic books a month. But if it is a comic drawing job, [we can do] just one comic book a month.
Being an Indonesian, do you try to incorporate Indonesian elements into your comics?
I did in Batgirl, but it doesn’t really add to the story because we didn’t write it.
What do you think about Hollywood’s superhero movies? Do you judge them by their faithfulness to the original comic?
Not really. It’s the same with movies adapted from novels. I don’t need the movie to be 100 percent faithful as long as they don’t change too much of it, because a comic is its own universe. It has years of history, and comic fans would expect the film to be made within the same context of the universe they have known for a long time.
Movies are good to raise awareness though. It certainly feels different doing this job now than two years ago. People now go, ‘Wow you’re doing “Avengers,” that is so cool!’ even though they probably don’t understand the story. More people recognize those stories from comic books now.
How is the Superman comic going? Can you give us hints about the new ‘Indestructible Hulk’?
It’s going good. Superman is quite difficult to do, maybe [the pressure] comes from the upcoming movie [‘Man of Steel’ in 2013]. As for the Hulk, I have only been given early scripts, but physically, he does not change much. He will be wearing enhancements [in his hands].
Is there any plan for Stellar Labs to create your own comic?
Well, that was part of the intention, why we split from IFS. We want to [create our own comic]. We have started working on it, but it is not going to be finished soon; next year, probably.
To make our own comic is difficult homework. A story in a comic book must be a fragmentation of our own culture, and our society is so rich in diversity. Also, comic readers will instantly compare us to Japanese or American comic books. We have so many talented artists, especially in Jakarta and Yogyakarta, but they are very under the radar.
Do you think Indonesian comics need to stay true to our classic characters, or should we just create new ones?
Classic characters are important to honor the seniors, but we don’t know yet if it is executable [to revitalize them]. There has to be both sides, though. New characters are important to reach the younger generation, and old characters [should be maintained] for nostalgic reasons. The success of comic books is determined by how close it is in relation to the culture.