Buoyed by hard work and a critical eye, Malaysian-born and US-based author and cartoonist Cheeming Boey razes the myth of the starving artist. He first shot to fame through his incessant doodling on Styrofoam cups, and has just put out the fourth volume of his ‘When I Was A Kid’ series. We talk to him about his work and his childhood.
How did you get into writing?
I only got into writing because of one teacher. Before that I looked at writing as work, but this teacher told us to go have fun. Before that it was ‘Do your homework’, but with this teacher it was ‘Write whatever you want!’ I had never been given that freedom before. Her name was Kam Cho Cho.
Everyone engages with your books, especially across generations. How do you come up with content that is relevant like that?
For me to write stories that appeal to other people, I need to first understand what it is that people feel. You can’t just write about something and be relatable if you’re ignorant about what people feel. That’s how I think good material comes about. If you don’t know what the best assam laksa tastes like, how would you know how to make it?
When I went through this book, most of my references were from 9GAG. In order to appeal to the generations moving forward, I have to constantly update myself on the language they are speaking now, which is why I hang out around kids a lot. If you keep up with their language, you can relate to them. That’s why kids have favourite uncles. You don’t ever want to have dad humour.
What’s your take on personal style?
Until you’re completely comfortable in your skin and have accepted your shortcomings, you don’t have a style, because style is a point where your mind is unshakable. When you have reached that peak, everything about you is set and that is your style. Until then, you’re just following trends.
There have been others before you, producing comics and graphic novels locally. How do you think you compare?
Lat’s ‘Town Boy’ is one of the best comic books out there. If it were released today, it would crush the competition.
Your parents feature a lot in your comics doing regular everyday things. Did you help your mum do the dishes when you were a kid?
I always felt like if I cleaned my plate, my mum would have one less dish to clean.
If you could, what advice would you give your five-year-old self?
I would want to be around just to say, ‘It’s fine! Don’t listen to her’, whenever my mum freaked out. But my five-year-old self would think that I’m a terrible influence.
What about your 15-year-old self?
Wear proper shoes when you’re running. Don’t wear hiking shoes, because that’s how I got acute tendonitis. When I first went to the States, money was tight, so I only had one or two pairs of shoes maximum as a student. I don’t know about girls, but I had a single pair of shoes.
Fun facts about Boey
The artist typically goes through one pen in two days.
Princess Carla of Uruguay, whom Boey never fails to thank in the acknowledgements pages, isn’t a fictional character.
While he doesn’t have any phobias, he worries about bears and poison ivy while camping.