Artist Interview: Rob Cham on The Light and Drawing Comics in the Philippines

If you’re a comics fan living in Manila, you’re probably already familiar with Rob Cham. He’s a notable fixture in the Philippine comics scene, and he’s one of a few artists who has come together to anthologize the works of other Filipino comics creators. NeonMob reached out to Rob to create The Light, his second collection, which is even bigger and more complex than his first collection, Confictura.

We talked to Rob about his work, the new collection, and to tell us more about what it’s like being a comics creator in the Philippines. If you’re passionate about comics, no matter where you live, you’ll find a like-minded friend in Rob Cham.

I watched an interview with you on Louder Louder and learned that you went to school for management/marketing. At what point did you decide that a marketing career wasn't the direction you wanted to go in? What was the tipping point that led you to be a full-time artist?

It was this accidental thing. I always had art as this passion through high school, and thought I had to give it up for a career that had stability, which in hindsight, wasn't true. You have your whole life to sort of pursue these kinds of things, you know? I say that because if I didn't pursue this art as a career path, I'd probably still do my art. It’s something I really dig.

So in college, I took up business management and marketing because it was a decent degree to possibly land jobs. I bought my first tablet because I wanted to learn digital art. While messing around with Photoshop, learning about how to use the thing from the internet, and downloading all the resources I can (brushes, filters, grids), I started a Tumblr to post the stuff I was experimenting with. The idea was to draw something everyday and post it on there – my friends gave me the idea when they started their own Project 365's taking pictures of whatever they could; I thought I'd do the same. Back then, Tumblr had this system called Tumblarity (Tumblr + popularity), based on the number of reblogs and likes your posts had, you'd be ranked, so in the Philippine Tumblrsphere, making the dumb art things I did (comics, one-offs on whatever was happening at the time, actual decent artwork of what I was developing as my style) I was somewhere in the top. That sort of brought me some attention where people liked what I was doing for a 20-year-old. I started getting jobs here and there, and got featured in local publications because of this blog I started. That was when I started freelancing and I was doing school work and all that and it just took off from there.

I mostly made comics, so that brought me to the attention of Elbert Or who was one of the comic guys around here, he also did graphic design and other projects so he helped me out a lot, and he happened to be a teacher at the college I was going to. I met him through his wife Lorra. He held workshops and I learned a lot from that. He pushed me to start publishing my own stuff at cons and whatnot.

How and when did you first get into comics? Some of your comics remind me of Adrian Tomine, other stuff reminds me of Japanese manga artists. What were the comics that you read that led you to start drawing your own comics?

I grew up in Baguio, out in the provinces, nowhere near Manila, so I never really got a hold of actual graphic novels or superhero comics, since there weren't really any stores there selling that kind of thing. I read what I could. As a kid, my parents would give me these comics they'd find at the tiangge (Filipino term, closest translation I could think of is maybe flea market but below that) of Lao Fu Zi. it's this mostly silent Chinese comic that somehow found its way here. It was probably my favorite comic at the time. I'd read the comics in newspapers and Archie digests, Garfield, Peanuts, The Far Side, and I just really loved how comics allowed for this thing that brought me so much joy. I'd re-read all of my old Peanuts books and the copies my school had of The Far Side. Other than those, the only other comics we'd get were manga and everyone I grew up with loved anime, Dragonball, YuYu Hakusho, Flame of Recca, and whatever shows they aired on the local channels. So I started making comics from there, where I wanted to just do my own thing. I had a more manga-influenced style, which I have to admit, I was terrible at, but I'd make up my own stories.

I moved to Manila for college and that's when I started consuming all the comics I could. I'd save up my allowance and get stuff like 300, Batman trades, Frank Miller stuff, Watchmen. I wanted to delve deeper, and ordered Adrian Tomine, Jeffrey Brown, Craig Thompson, and other alternative comics. That's when I started trying out a more “slice of life” style and just did these goofy auto-biographical strips. It helped me develop my style and this idea of how comics allowed so many storytelling possibilities. I also started reading a lot of webcomics like KC Green, Anthony Clark, Chris Hastings, John Campbell, Kate Beaton, and those really influenced me as well.

A lot of your comics focus on human relationships that seem to be almost autobiographical. But both of your collections for NeonMob are about fantasy worlds and non-human characters. Why did you decide to go in this direction?

I wanted to test myself. Before NeonMob I toyed around with this style reminiscent of Adventure Time and Ghostshrimp when I made a comic called the Amazing Topless Head, a short 10-page experimental comic. I always had to do something I never tried before in comics. 

For Confictura, I pitched an idea based on fantasy genre fiction and role playing game tropes of all these mythical creatures running around this vast amazing world. The idea came from me thinking of making something I liked while having enough to pull from to draw anything and everything I could possibly want. I played a lot of Magic the Gathering and that showed me how a lot of worldbuilding could be done just capturing certain scenes and moments and characters. I wanted to emulate that in Confictura. I wanted to also play around with this way of coloring, so that defined a lot of the look of the collection, which I'm really still proud of. I love that work, and I'm glad that the reception was so great. I toiled over each card and just went all out because Mike [Duca] just said, “Go crazy, do what you want.” I took the opportunity and ran with it because I never got that when it came to other jobs.

NeonMob approached me for a follow-up to Confictura. I wanted each card to depict just the strangest Monty Python-esque absurdities, like fish suddenly growing arms and the ocean societies deciding to hold an arm wrestling contest, Panda pro-wrestling – The Far Side-esque snapshots of scenes.

Tell us more about this new NeonMob collection, "The Light." It’s about a tree sprite character named Tommen. Is Tommen based on someone you know? Where did his story come from?

NeonMob brought up this piece I did some time before. It was of Tommen. He didn't have a name at the time, but it was just this character I liked who wandered in the dark woods, where he found a bright glowing stone and was unknowingly surrounded by large, ominous creatures.

I had this idea that all the cards in the collection would just be these snapshots of characters, situations, lovely stuff, but all of them would tell a larger story – one you'd collect and piece together, and when you had all the cards you'd have a 100-page graphic novel of Tommen and his adventures. NeonMob loved the idea and gave me the go signal. I was thrilled but also scared as heck because I never really made a story this long and had this challenge of making sure each card would stand on its own while being part of a larger story.

I just knew its concept was this little guy would go through the darkness of this vast world collecting gems. I developed it from there, sketching out all these different characters he'd meet along the way, what the world should look like and went from there. I knew I wanted it to be a mix of Jeff Smith and Moebius comics, Adventure Time, and Forming by Jesse Moynihan. I like how it all came together, honestly. I like this more than Confictura because of just the scale and challenge of it, but also the results. Really proud of it.

How much does pop culture inspire or inform what you create?

Pop culture influences me in that I'd give small nods to stuff I like in the art I make, but never to the degree of it being further reading. I don't know, lots of folks do that – where a character is named Icarus and it informs you of what his character is supposed to be akin to, or passing references to other work that inform how the story and its themes work, but I don't really enjoy putting that stuff in because I am not good at that kind of thing. Maybe cameos or small nods to comics I like but never in that referential deeper reading way.

You've done a lot of cool, interesting, and fun projects and you're only 25 years old! Most impressively, you're the co-editor of Abangan, an anthology of Philippine comics. How did you get so immersed in the local comics scene? How big is the Philippine comics scene? Is it a pretty supportive community?

I mentioned how Elbert Or pushed me to self publish, he's the guy who sort of introduced me to the scene. I always go to conventions to sort of sift through bargain bins and pick up what local comic creators are pushing. I joined in and made a lot of good friends there. The Philippine comics scene is pretty big, all sorts of stories coming from people in Manila and the provinces and I love that. As for how supportive it is, little bouts here and there over ego stuff and management, but overall, everyone is pretty friendly. People will push your work, write about it, share it. That sort of thing.

There isn't a big comics label here in the vein of Marvel, DC, Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly, but what we have is a few publishing houses that put out comics alongside other books in different genres, or imprints from bigger publishing houses. Not everyone gets published though, so if you're looking to find local comics, you have to go to conventions. The scene here consists mostly of self publishing, that's where a lot of the gems are. Down the line, they may get picked up, but a lot gets lost in the annals of time because of the nature of self publishing.

You can't make a living off comics here, unless you happen to work for overseas studios and publishers, so a lot of creators here do comics at night after long work hours and can only ever get their books out after months at a time. I work a day job and freelance in between making my own comics, for example. Gotta pay them bills.

Abagan came about because of this weird publishing scene where not everyone gets their chance at getting their work read. The other editors – Carljoe Javier, Adam David and Elbert Or – and I thought it was a big shame that a lot of work gets lost to history. We wanted to showcase all these artists, people's work that we think is worth reading.

But the scene is alive. It's vibrant with a lot of good stories being told and this internet generation just getting into it, (I'm sort of part of that more than the old guard who've been making and pushing their comics who are the big attractions at conventions), it is just going to get better. I hope so. Publishing your stuff on the web, I think, is really the way to sort of build a fanbase since physical distribution is sort of terrible here, so lots of people are trying that out. Studio Salimbal puts out their comics online while also selling at conventions, and they have a book out in stores. Mervin Malonzo who creates this amazing comic called Tabi Po (available in English somewhere on the site!) started it as a free webcomic online and it's been picked up. Two books have been released so far in print. So that's sort of the new scene where I hope it goes that people create content and use the internet and its many possibilities. Web creators everywhere else found a way to make it work, so maybe that's where it’s headed.

I went on a weird rant. Sorry. But I'm passionate about the thing! It's what we got!

What are you looking forward to most in 2015?

The Light getting a physical release over here in the Philippines. A friend of mine at Adarna House, Carljoe, is starting a comics imprint for them called Anino, and was shopping around for comics pitches from local artists. I pitched this sort of slice of life comic that he was going to edit when I showed him and the fine folks at Adarna House The Light as a proof of concept that I can finish a book. They saw it and said, “WE WANT THAT.” It's my first comic getting published and getting out at this level, so it's a big deal for me. That and also seeing people responding to the book.

I’m also looking forward to Abagan 2015. We're putting it together now and hopefully that does well.

I'm also working on this new set for NeonMob that I plan to finish this year.

Other things I am excited for: Avengers 2, Mad Max: Fury Road, Secret Wars from Marvel, and a new season of Venture Brothers, hopefully. I never know about when Venture Brothers will return. I miss it so much.

Interview by Sarah Han