This promising new talent follows in the footsteps of three previous Malaysian Eisner nominees
The Eisner Awards are the Oscars of the comic world – and among its nominees this year, alongside hallowed names from The New Yorker, is a fresh new face.
“I was excited when I heard the news,” shares 21-year-old Malaysian animation undergrad Erica Eng, whose webcomic Fried Rice is nominated for the Best Webcomic category.
Fried Rice tells the story of a young aspiring artist Min from Batu Pahat, Johor who visits her cousin in Bangsar, KL. Having recently graduated from high school, Min intends to study art in New York, a less-than-popular vocation in mainstream Malaysian society.
Featuring sepia-toned sketches, each episode is a dose of earnest storytelling from Min’s life, from her college application process to snippets of her family life, all filled with unmistakably Malaysian colloquialisms and references. In one of the first scenes, we see Min’s family seated around the kitchen table for a classic breakfast of you char kueh and kopi; in another, she escapes the all-too-familiar barrage of questions from “uncles” and “aunties” on her university plans while at Sunday service.
Erica calls Fried Rice an “autobiographical fiction”, meaning it’s loosely based on her life, but not exactly. “For one, I don’t have a relationship with my cousin the way Min has with Lily. The most accurate story would be Min’s application to art college,” she shares. “So yes, it’s definitely more fiction than autobiographical, although my life experiences do weave into the story.”
Fried Rice started as a side project during her final year in college. “I learned how to storyboard and all about film grammar, and I didn’t want to let those skills go to waste,” Erica recalls. “At the same time, I didn’t want to make a film, as that took too much time. Starting on a comic seemed like the best fit.”
She started putting pen to paper in May last year, and over a few months has developed a process that suits the project. “It starts with a script, which looks like a screenplay. I then thumbnail it on a piece of paper, before sketching and drawing on the actual paper,” she explains. “Way before I start the script, though, I design the characters to get their aesthetic.”
This isn’t the first time a Malaysia-born artist has been nominated for an Eisner. In 2017, New York Times bestseller and nine-time Eisner nominee Sonny Liew won across three categories for his graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Tan Eng Huat (also known as Kutu), won a newcomer award in 2002 and was nominated in 2004 for Best Penciller and Inker for his work with DC Comics, while Reimena Yee, whose digital comic The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya (now a published graphic novel), was nominated for Best Digital Comic in 2018.
“I have a few Malaysian illustrators I love, but my favourite would definitely be Lat,” Erica says, referring to the beloved Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize-winning cartoonist. “I grew up reading his stuff. It has sophisticated storytelling, but also very accessible.”
As Erica finds her voice as an artist, she’s also engaging with art’s bigger purpose. “There’s a quote I like from Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, which describes art as a lake, and all the artists as streams,” she shares. “To me, part of an artist’s responsibility is to create a stream and contribute to that bigger lake, which informs the art scene, and therefore informs humanity.”
Thus far, Erica has published 50 pages of her webcomic series, and expects the final piece will be 200 pages. Beyond Fried Rice, she has plans to collaborate on a few personal design projects and would love to see her work in print someday. “I got started on the web as I didn’t have the resources to do otherwise. But yes, it would be a dream to get published.”
And why fried rice for a name, you might ask? “All my files, folders, even Spotify playlists are named Fried Rice. It has such a homey feeling to me, and it’s my family’s favourite comfort food,” she laughs.
You can read Erica’s Eisner-nominated webcomic here – she has a new chapter out every Sunday (Malaysian time).