Artist Spotlight: Sarah Joan Mokhtar

4 May

Sarah Joan Mokhtar
Mother, Cartoonist, and AIM Award Winner

For those who are wired to the Malaysian comic scene, Sarah Joan Mokhtar is definitely no stranger. This 26 year-old artist has been in the media spotlight more often than I can remember and with good reason too. Her comics often reflect local sensibilities which may be a refreshing change to some (like me) with the current barrage of Japanese and Western-influenced comics. Her recent win at the 2010 Anugerah Industri Muzik (Malaysia’s Music Industry Awards) for her cover artwork on Disagree’s latest album is just another feather to her already well-furnished cap. IndieDoodle managed to get an online interview with this busy artist (albeit one year ago!) as she juggles her family and work.

“I didn’t wait till I had a story to show. All I had was an embarrassingly unorganized collection of doodles and sketches and a burning intention to publish a comic, by me.”

So, standard textbook question: What’s your profession?

I’m a comic artist/author and Illustrator. I am not ‘tied down’ to a company, although I do take on a lot of freelance work while I do a full time MA. I have a studio/office at home, and a two-year old daughter who ties me down whenever it suits her.

How did your career as a cartoonist/comic artist begin? You first started out by submitting your comics to the magazine Ujang in secondary school right?

Yes, that is correct, I started my career in secondary school by submitting to Ujang Magazine. I believe it was in 1997. I was 14, and attending tuition classes in Taipan, USJ with my older sister. It was she who pointed to me that Ujang magazine had their studio a few blocks away from where our classes were. I began to toy seriously with the idea of getting published. It was only a fun daydream before that point. Now I *knew* there was a comic publisher in my own backyard, I had no excuse to not go for it.

I didn’t wait till I had a story to show. All I had was an embarrassingly unorganized collection of doodles and sketches and a burning intention to publish a comic, by me. No neatly presented portfolio. Since I did not have a ready story, I was open to suggestions from my assigned editor, Kobis. My diet of comics at that point in time as a teen consisted mainly of manga dealing with supernatural themes, combat and shojo. So I was somewhat apprehensive when he suggested I try to come up with something about my life as a girl in boarding school (He enquired about myself and saw the drawings I did of my tudung-ed classmates). It sounded very…bland to me at first impression. Asrama stories were common, I argued. He countered that there weren’t many asrama stories told from the perspective of secondary school girls. The closest was Leen Mafia, another female comic artist in college who wrote about campus life.

For the sake of getting started, I relented, but inwardly convinced myself that I would draw the most kick-a** comic about tudung-ed asrama students there ever was. The last thing I was going to do was a sappy Enid Blyton-ish melodrama (A very rebellious ego lay beneath the naïve façade of that 14 year old).

And thus the process of learning began.

I traveled by train on my free weekends from Shah Alam to Subang Jaya to meet my editor and meet the pros, heart thumping madly every time. I received comments, encouragement, and criticism. Aie taught me about line variation and weight and his favorite tools. Kobis would gently point out any weakness or sloppiness in my work. Gayour would share advice and tips on the industry in general. I did this by timidly peeping into their offices/cubicles, getting their attention, being quiet, asking questions and just absorbing their awesomeness in general. I braved teasing and practical jokes from other cartoonists (I was a big shy crybaby sensitive introvert) to soak in the refreshing creative atmosphere of…freedom. I admired the big bikes parked front of the studio, and saw that cartoonists could enjoy the finer things in life.

After a good few rejections and reworking, my first comic, Awek Aspuri appeared in the magazine. On the newsstands, everywhere, where anyone could read and enjoy them. You could say my career had begun.

    The cover of Disagree’s album

What was it that first got you into comics? Have you always wanted to draw comics or was it something that just popped up along the way?

Eventually ending up doing comics was a result of my combined childhood interests, which were: reading (anything), drawing (all the time) and watching cartoons (repeatedly).

It wasn’t a childhood ambition. I think I wanted to be an archeologist at some point. But I did have a passion for drawing, and somehow knew this passion was something I must never let go of. Drawing was as important as 3 meals a day for me. It always felt like I was doing something important when I was drawing. Equally important was a love of reading books. I got to admire many talented illustrators through books as well. I did not think of comics like Tintin or Asterix and Obelix as ‘comics’; to me they were just ‘books’ along with everything else I read.

I would only copy drawings to study a particular artist/style. Otherwise I would come up with my own characters and hated requests to draw Mickey Mouse or Garfield.

I remember experimenting with comics in primary school. Mostly rip-offs of some mandarin kung fu manga my Chinese classmate brought to class, drawn in pencil in copybooks. It was just another form of drawing, but I liked how the panels and pictures flowed to tell a story, like watching a cartoon.

Right before I started going to Ujang, I was obsessed with manga. I particularly loved Dragon Ball by Akira Toriyama for the beauty and strength of his line, his character designs, balance of black and white. He didn’t need fancy screen tones to make a page look good. I made a few tribute DB ‘fan manga’ for fun, which I tried to keep as close to his style as possible. That made me study his work very closely, in a way, I became his student I guess! I did the same with work by Naoko Takeuchi and Shiina Takashi.

I still don’t know what ‘got’ me into comics precisely, but I think it was a natural , gradual thing.

Sarah’s rendition of a local musician, Yuna

How did your parents react to your decision to become a comic artist?

I think they saw it as an interest and confidence-builder rather than ambition. They were always very supportive but also emphasized the benefits of a good education. I thank them for giving me that balance. As much as I love drawing comics, I equally love reading and researching and discussing ideas. My reading and education contributes to my art and vice versa. I always bought small gifts for my parents with my comic paychecks. They are very cool.

Who are your biggest influences, art and/or story-wise? Favourite artists?

All the artists I mentioned above. And many more. Jeff Smith. Frank Cho. Kazu Kibuishi. Scott C. I couldn’t possibly remember all of them, and loads of talented Malaysians.

Having taken part in the Malaysian 24-Hour Comic Challenge back in 2006, would you say that it has helped you grow as an artist?

Definitely. I was four months pregnant and wondering where I was heading in my career.


The first page of Sarah’s 24-Hour Comic Challenge entitled ‘Rojak’

How did you get selected to participate in Lingua Comica 2007? How did you find the experience?
I filled out the form and followed their instructions to the letter. I also made a point of how keen I was to work with other nationalities and my involvement in the local comic scene. It was absolutely one of the best, heart warming experiences of my career. I met and made a lot of awesome new friends.

What do you think is the most important aspect of producing a comic?

Finishing it!

What do you think is lacking in our local comic scene and how can we make it better?

There should be fresher, entertaining comics that local readers can relate and give the world a taste of how we live. How about a comic about National Service? Or rival Ramlee burger stalls? Or on being a Pengawas in an authentic SMK? Losing all your Ang Pao on CNY? With authentic backgrounds, characters, speech etc. That would be so awesome. Substance, authenticity, originality, relevance!

Lastly, do you have any shoutouts or advice to budding artists out there? Maybe tips on how to break into the industry?

You can start from anywhere. Just keep that goal of seeing your work enjoyed by others in mind. Have at least one artist you really admire, and one you really can’t stand, but has their work in print anyway. If they can do it, so can you!

Thanks for the long and comprehensive answers Sarah! She has her own Wikipedia page (it’s in Malay though) and an artblog, which she updates on a regular basis (her artblog, not her Wiki page!). Her professional portfolio can be found here. You can also add her on Facebook or just enjoy looking at her murals at Bangsar Shopping Center’s Marmalade Cafe.

One Response to “Artist Spotlight: Sarah Joan Mokhtar”


  1. Flippin’ Bubbles! « IndieDoodle - May 24, 2010

    […] May About a week ago I saw a link being promoted on my Facebook feed by Sarah. Intrigued, I clicked on it only to find a rather vague description about an event organised by a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: