Featured image from The Carpet Merchant by Reimena Yee
Earlier this year, history was made when the first Malaysian-made graphic novel was nominated for an Eisner Award, equivalent to the Oscars of the comic industry. That Malaysian was Reimena Yee, a Melbourne-based illustrator, writer, and editor who initially started “The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya” – surprisingly – as a spin-off comic.
Based off a character from her on-going webcomic, “The World in Deeper Inspection”, the comic sprung to life out of necessity when she realised one of her character’s back stories needed to be brought to light. Hence, “The Carpet Merchant” was born. Its story follows the life of Zeynel, a carpet merchant whose life was forever changed when he was turned into a vampire. The comic explores issues about faith, legacy, and above all, love.
We were honoured to conduct a brief email interview with Reimena to learn more about her as an artist, her thoughts on the nomination, and her role in ‘unnamed’, a collective of Southeast Asian comics.
Disclaimer: The following interview has been edited for reading clarity.
Let’s begin with an introduction of yourself.
I’m Reimena Yee, a freelance artist, writer and editor. I do a lot of things, from games to wedding invite illustrations, so it’s hard to put me in a box! I love taking on opportunities that challenge and exercise my visual problem solving abilities. However, I spend the majority of my time creating and editing comics/graphic novels. I’m originally from Kuala Lumpur. Currently I’m based in Melbourne, while travelling around.
How would you describe your art style?
Based on what other people have told me, it’s whimsical, elegant and unique. I love the spooky, the macabre and art history, so they feature prominently in my work.
Who are your most major creative inspirations?
Shaun Tan is my art senpai. Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell and Tess Stone were early influences in my work. My friends inspire me everyday! I’m embarrassed to admit that Josh Groban is the soundtrack to everything I do. I get excited looking at nice things and experiencing the various ways of storytelling, whether through film, books or games.
My greatest inspiration is still the world and everything around us. I love learning subjects like biology, astrophysics, history, art and religion. I’m inspired by how humans express themselves across time, faith and cultures. I’m awed by how much cool stuff is jam-packed in this planet.
So, what is “The Carpet Merchant” about?
It’s a magic-realist, historical epic in two volumes, about Zeynel, a carpet merchant who by an unfortunate accident becomes a vampire. It’s set in two eras, 17th century Ottoman era Istanbul, and 18th century England. The two volumes are his life story.
In the first volume, we read about his relationship with his wife, Ayse, and how they work through his vampirism together. In the second volume, set 70 years later, Zeynel migrates to England, not realising that he will again meet the vampire who ‘killed’ him. It’s a gentle story about the power of compassion, love, kindness and legacy, while featuring characters and cultural settings not common in stories of this type.
How did you find the inspiration to create this comic?
Zeynel is a character that is part of my older (still on-going) webcomic, “The World in Deeper Inspection”. I created this comic, including Zeynel, when I was in Form 3. After I finished SPM, I officially launched the webcomic, with a plan of chapters and mini-stories. Three years ago was when Zeynel’s backstory had to be told.
“The Carpet Merchant” started not from inspiration but out of necessity. The inspiration came later, once I did tons of research and developed what “The Carpet Merchant” was about. I was inspired by the history of vampire literature, and also fueled by a certain kind of spite at how white, Western media continues to present the East through their Occidental lens.
What was it like when you found out you were nominated for an Eisner award?
People love to ask me this question, and I’m sorry to disappoint them with the most mundane answer ever: when I woke up to the email saying I was nominated, I felt nothing. I think I was entirely in shock, that my brain didn’t know what to feel. The excitement, the joy, and the realisation that this was a pretty big deal came gradually later.
If you ask me how I feel now, I’m really happy “The Carpet Merchant” was recognised, and I’m more motivated than ever to make sure this is not my only nomination.
What was it like travelling to the States for this award?
Super fun! I had no idea what the US was like outside of television and Twitter, so it was great to finally experience it in person. I didn’t see any aliens (yet). I finally got to visit my dream city, New York. I ate a lot of food and saw a lot of my online friends. I’m really glad I got the opportunity to go.
Speaking of which, how did you find your way into the artists community in the beginning?
Doing art was something I naturally did as a kid. I loved reading, and I was always a lonely child, so drawing and making my own stories was my outlet, to escape into a world where I was able to experience ‘friendship’ reliably than I did in real life.
The first time I got into an artist community was through Neopets. That made me realise that there were other people like me, who enjoyed similar things, and loved making stories. That made me feel less alone. Gradually, I assimilated into DeviantArt, Tumblr, Twitter, and eventually, the real life industry, both in Malaysia and elsewhere.
What are your thoughts on the existing comickers in SEA?
All of us are a really talented bunch! I see so many comics creators, in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, who can match up with the talent in Europe, Japan and America. If you’re a comics creator, you can totally make it!!
As a Southeast Asian artist yourself, what would you say is the biggest challenge of trying to self-sustain?
The biggest challenge is getting clients (or organisations, companies, etc.) to recognise that your skill is something that should be paid for, and decently at that. There’s a general perception in SEA that art isn’t a valuable skill, that it isn’t ‘work’ in the same way other work is, so it shouldn’t be paid.
I have never liked this mentality, so I focused on growing an audience outside of Malaysia. Now most of my freelance work comes from the US. I’m lucky, plus I started building this audience very early, since Form 1. Not every artist in SEA has the time, resources or know-how to build an online presence that is self-sustaining, or to advance their career outside of common paths.
For those who don’t know – what is the group ‘unnamed’ and how did it come to be?
It started as an ad-hoc Facebook group to gather Malaysian comics artists and share resources together in 2012. It went on hiatus until 2018, which is when the ‘unnamed’ team started pushing for a real-world presence. We opened up membership to the rest of SEA. Now we have 500 members!
We debuted our ambassador booths, panels and workshops this year. We are also planning for a comics residency, plus some more exciting projects to bring up everyone in the SEA comics scene. Our ultimate goal is for Southeast Asian comics to be recognised as a unique industry of comics, in the same way that manga, manhwa and American comics are. We also want to make it sustainable too.
You can find out more about us at our website: http://unnamed.asia
“The Carpet Merchant Vol I” is also being crowdfunded to become a printed hardback! Find out more info on how to pledge your support by visiting her Unbound campaign here: https://unbound.com/books/the-carpet-merchant-voli
For more information about ‘unnamed’, read our exclusive interview with them HERE!