Here’s a feel-good slacker story. For the longest time, webcomic artist Ernest Ng, 33, knew he actually liked drawing comics, but it was never on his roadmap for success. In fact, there was hardly a roadmap to begin with. Merely meandering through adolescence, college life and first-jobber existence, even that lightbulb moment came while he was goofing off on a paid work trip.
“Well, it was actually a trip to Singapore I had won through this in-house contest where I beat one other participant,” he tells us. “It included entry into this conference which I totally skipped for the first few days, cos I was just hanging out with friends. But I felt guilty on the final day and decided to check out one of the workshops.”
That was when he met up with Kickatomic Creatives, a bunch of ex-8TV staff who had quit their jobs and started their own motion graphics business. That serendipitous brief hook-up proved to be life-changing, to say the least. He quit his job soon after and drew up (pardon the pun!) a plan for a more solid future.
Now, you probably know him for his anime-inspired Covid-19 comics that probably lands on your social media timeline every other day. While late last year, we would all have laughed at and passed around his ‘Which Malaysian Fast Food Are You’ webcomic.
Then there’s the whole accidental YouTube fame. He appeared in several funny videos that went massively viral, including the now iconic ‘Security Guard’ series where he collaborated with well-known YouTuber, Dan Khoo. The duo now run their own production house, Macam Yes Studios.
And finally, Malacca-born Ernest is also the best-selling author of the ‘Bro, Don’t Like That La Bro’ series of books – the first, published in 2013 – which have reportedly sold over 100,000 copies (not including the various translations).
If you know anything about the local books scene, you’d know that our authors don’t nearly sell as many copies as, say, JK Rowling. Most struggle to even sell a few hundred copies, so yes, it’s a pretty handy achievement for a one-time slacker who was just happy to go with the flow.
Gendang sat down with Ernest – who is understatedly funny in person – at a Fish and Chips shop near his office some time ago to piece together his inspiring origin story and beyond.
What’s your logline? How do you describe yourself and what you do to people when you first meet them?
Oh my goodness, that’s tough, man. But most of the time, I would introduce myself as a webcomic artist, cos that’s where it started. The trajectory of my career went up because of that, but because I also produce videos online, so content creator lah. But I really don’t fancy the term KOL (Key Opinion Leader) or Influencer.
But we’ve seen articles that describe you as that.
Yeah, so I just close one eye. The term itself has been somewhat bastardised. There’s an unpleasant tone to it now. When you talk about influencers, you talk about entitled people. I don’t believe I am that. I believe I give value to people through my comics and my videos. But there’s a handful of influencers that I believe are not giving much value. Let’s get real here. That should be changed, otherwise, we’d have a completely shallow society. We need to crackdown on the shallowness.
But “content creator”, is it sexy enough for you?
Haha. I mean, to me it doesn’t matter. I think it’s tame and not too self-indulgent. That’s my job, I create content.
Was there a singular experience from your childhood that triggered your love for drawing comics?
I don’t know about that. But when I was young I liked to consume cartoons and I loved movies like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Terminator’ as well. It fascinated me that you could produce different worlds based on your imagination. But I remember writing pelukis komik (comic artist) as one of my 3 cita-cita (ambitions), and I got a scolding from my father.
What were the other 2?
Pengarah filem was at number 2, and next was doctor, just to make my dad happy. But he still wasn’t happy with the order, so eventually I put doctor at the top!
Do you remember the first character or comic strip you came up with?
I loved Saturday morning cartoons. So when I was 5 years old, I drew a strip of 12 frames of how Scooby Doo went to a haunted park and found a ghost who was actually an insurance scammer. The typical Scooby Doo trope. I was so proud of it and showed it to my mum. But the next day, it was gone! I got really upset and cried. But I took out another piece of paper and drew the exact strip again. The same 12 frames. That’s when I kinda knew I was pretty good at it. And thinking back, I think my mum actually threw the original strip away. She must have said, “No son of mine is going to be influenced into drawing cartoons. We’ve got to stop him!”
And in school, did you show your talent to your teachers?
Well, when our teachers asked us to draw something, the other kids would come to my table to look and my drawings asked me to do theirs. I drew burung (birds), buaya (crocodiles), all sorts of stuff for them. The teachers noticed this and I started doing murals at school. I always kena (got targeted) anything to do with art. But I consider that as my training. I learned the technical aspects as well as the thought process.
My mum must have said, “No son of mine is going to be influenced into drawing cartoons. We’ve got to stop him!”
Tell us about your time in university.
I wanted to do graphic design but I didn’t think my dad would approve. I didn’t want to do a professional course though, cos I knew I wouldn’t be good at it. Although I was a straight A student, I basically just memorised stuff like add maths and all the chemical formulas. So in form 6, when it was more about application, I didn’t do well. So I didn’t really know what to do with my future and was just drifting. Eventually, I took up Mass Communication at Lim Kok Wing University after my parents reluctantly agreed.
And how was University life?
I didn’t really enjoy my studies. It breezed by too fast, and was a boring routine for me; attend class, balik (go home), attend class again. I never really connected with my college mates. I know LKW Uni has a reputation, but I was the no-party guy, believe it or not. And up to this point too, I had never been published. I kept all my drawings though, some in my buku latihan (exercise books). I’m from Melaka, and KL was intimidating to me and I didn’t know what to do with my arts. I had no clue. Only when the comic ‘Gempak’ came along, I was like, I wanna draw comics for them one day. Still, I was too afraid to send my comics to them.
Did it get any better after you graduated?
Not really. I hit that spiral of not knowing what do in life. I became a personal assistant for a team building company, but it got tiresome after a while cos you had to constantly look energetic in the morning to inspire others, and I wasn’t feeling it. But it was then that I started drawing using software that I learned in uni. Using pen and pencil, my stuff had looked like sketches, very rough, rather than the final piece of artwork.
And when did you start sharing your stuff online?
That was In 2010. Blogging was a thing, so I started my own at dontlikethatbro.blogspot.com/. Turned out, people actually liked my stories. I was really close to some of my childhood friends I met in form 4, so we hung out and did stupid bro single guys sh*t, toilet humour stuff, just to amuse ourselves. So I thought I might as well amuse people with their stories, and people could relate to them because everyone out there has their own bros.
Was that the birth of the bros?
Yes, and It has been the same bro characters I write about till now.
How long did you stay at the “exciting” team building job?
I left after a few months. And I think the boss noticed that I was drawing comics at work, so he let me go. I didn’t want to be jobless, so I asked my friends for leads and one of them told me about a student recruitment agency job. She said that I could make RM5-6k a month, and I said, “Wah so good ah?” I got the job, and nope, I didn’t make RM5-6k a month, but I did it anyway cos it was close to my house. I lasted there for 3 months. Then I landed a job at Media Prima in the new media department as a video editor. It was the first job that was related to my masscom degree. And I really enjoyed my two years there. It felt more like home for me.
But you still didn’t have any plans to monetise your comics?
No. I didn’t have a business plan. But what I did was to offer my comic drawing skills, like drawing at events, or doing comics for products and brands. I did have some banner ads on my blog though. It wasn’t big money, but it was alright to get by.
And at Media Prima was when the whole Singapore trip happened.
Yes, after meeting those Kickatomic guys, it really dawned on me that I should take a gamble and really try to make it on my own.
Suddenly you became very bold.
It was one of the biggest gambles of my life. I didn’t tell my mum because I was scared. So I lied and for the next 6 months, my parents still thought I was working at Media Prima. But I had also received my first book deal by then, and I was drawing till 4am before waking up at 8am to get to work, so that was pretty tough. So quitting made sense.
And how did you get the book deal?
The publishers actually approached me. The company, AQ Publications, was doing self help books, but when they saw my work, they wanted to try releasing comic books. I didn’t have anything to lose. So, when they offered me a book deal, I went for it! We weren’t confident about the sales, but that first book ‘Bro, Don’t Like That La Bro – Here Comes The Bros’ turned out to be hit. People loved the stupid stories and toilet jokes. But I have to admit the jokes have aged quite a bit. It doesn’t sit well in the current climate. So, when I read back my old work, sometimes I go, “Oh my God, I’m such a disgusting person”. Haha!
How did you feel when you first saw your book at the stores?
It was it was exciting for me, of course. And it was the bestselling book for 4 months. It felt great to see my name on top of the list.
And how did you break the news to your parents?
I only broke the news when the book was finally released. I actually told my mum to go to the bookstore and help me find this particular book. So when she actually went and saw it, she took a picture and sent to me, saying: “What’s this?” She was totally surprised. So she asked how I managed to put this out, and I confessed that I’ve been jobless for 6 months, and she was like, “Whaaat?”.
How did you get to meet Dan Khoo?
That happened when I was still at Media Prima. I dIdn’t know him personally, just online. He used to draw comics too before going into YouTube video production fulltime. So from time to time, he would ask if I was free to do videos with him. So I did some side hustle on weekends only. And when I left Media Prima, he was damn happy. Oh yes, got free actor now! And I didn’t mind doing it, really.
How did you know you could act?
Er… I really have no idea. Basically I just followed the script and gave them some expressions. Somehow the audience kept saying, “Hey this guy can act”. So I’m basically just doing me. So from then I was more active in the YouTube scene and Dan and I eventually opened our own production house, Macam Yes Productions.
So, are you currently richer than the ex-ex Prime Minster?
No! I don’t think you can be richer than him!
But you are making good money, no?
I’m comfortable. Of course it’s way better than before when I just started. At least I can wake up in the morning and not worry about next month’s bills.
So you can have nice things in life.
Not all the time. Haha. I have to be careful. I mean, I don’t want to be Mike Tyson.
Because I was doing this socio political of content, other artists followed suit, and they also kena threatening comments and messages.
You now have a quarter of a million followers on Facebook. Was this part of your game plan from the beginning?
Actually I’ve never seen it that way. I was just pushing out content. Of course, when it gets viral it’s great, very encouraging. But the point where things really happened for me was when I switched my content to make it less about the bros and more about socio political issues. I thought I had to evolve. Not so much on politics at first. But just before GE14, I was more inclined to political content. I felt that I had a voice. And like other citizens, there were aspects of that previous government that you weren’t happy with. (editor’s note: this interview took place just before Perikatan Nasional took over the government). And I just had to say something.
Honestly, I was scared that I’d get arrested. My dad used to call me and lecture me about that. But I was just adamant. Of course there were also those who didn’t like what I was doing and thought I was spouting lies, and making big issues out of nothing. But I was easily inspired and the jokes kept coming. The BN government gave me so much material!
But did you ever receive any serious threats?
Well, not to say serious threats, but people would actually write to me saying that I deserved to be roughed up, and that if they actually see me outside, they’d beat me up. Initially I was quite worried, and I didn’t expose too much of my private life. But because I was doing this sort of content, other artists followed suit, and they also kena this kind of threatening comments and messages.
Actually I don’t blame them. You can believe what you want to believe. But you shouldn’t be threatening people. There was this girl who liked drawing about Muslim humour and she eventually got targeted. She became so scared at first and retreated for a while. But when she came back, I asked her what changed her mind. And she said, actually these sort of people won’t dare to do anything to you in real life. And it’s true. Most people are just keyboard warriors.
With the bro content, we’re sure you get mostly positive feedback and people just laughed along, while the social commentaries elicited different types of reaction. Were you ever discouraged?
Not really, cos I stand firm on my opinions. And if you don’t agree with me, it’s fine. We can sit down and talk about it. But most of the time you can’t really discuss with people online, cos they’d just get very personal, instead of talking about the issues. Having said that, I appreciate every comment, good or bad.
And what about the authorities?
You know what, a few months ago, I did a talk at KDU and we were talking about censorship and stuff, and they had a panellist from MCMC (Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission). So I asked him, “Were you guys keeping an eye on me?” And he said, “We are still keeping an eye on you”. I’m still on their radar, apparently.
Tell us about the ‘Which Malaysian Fast Food Are You’ comics that went viral late last year. What inspired you?
Actually, that comic took over a year to make. Well, the thought process, at least. I wanted to do draw a classroom full of different types of students. But as time passed, I saw someone else doing that, and I had to think of something else. I left it for a while, but somehow McD came out with their short form name, Mekdi, and I thought, hey that’s cute.
Then, I thought about the other fast food chains and shortening their names according to how Malaysians would say them. I also felt kesian (pity) for the likes of A&W. They used to be up there, but not no more. So I depicted A&W as the not so cool kid. Then I remembered about the classroom thing that I wanted to do, and it clicked; why not I do them as school kids in a classroom. So I thought of as many fast food chains that people here would know, and I put all of them in a classroom.
And it just blew up! We saw everyone sharing them on our timeline when it first came out. That led to McDonald’s actually commissioning you to do more for them, correct?
Yes, so I drew a series that I created for them called Akademi Mekdi. It’s a bunch of burgers who are in a school, except they’re not studying maths and stuff, but they’re learning how to be the best burgers out there. I’m actually glad that McD believed in the same things, creating fun content to humanise the brand.
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Where do you draw the line between what you want to share with the public, and what remains private?
Good question. There’s a lot of stories of my bros and I that I couldn’t share cos they’d definitely break their friendship with me. I think the line is where if it gets way too risqué or it might upset some people from our lives, then. But if we go out and meet up with friends, and my bros themselves start telling others stories, I would assume that since they’re ok to share with other friends, then it’d be ok for me to share with my readers. Haha.
Have you ever fallen out with any of your bros?
Well, there were minor disagreements in the beginning. Technically, I’m using their stories, but I’m part of them too, so it’s our stories. But over time they got used to it. And I remind them that the characters are caricatures of them, and it’s not you you. I also tell my readers that some incidents have been exaggerated for comedic purposes.
But do the bros ask you to belanja (treat) them all the time?
I try to belanja them from time to time, but we live in different parts of the country now, so we don’t meet that often. But I won’t do it if they asked me!
Tell us more about your creative process.
There are two ways, usually. The first is where things are planned out. The other one is basically reactive. McD was a hybrid of both. It was initially planned out, but it didn’t happen. But then something happened with the McD trend, so that was reactive. But this rarely happens. Because when you do something reactive, it’s hard to tie to what you’ve planned from the bank of ideas. Sometimes, something reactive happens that relates to any of these planned ideas that I could draw, but usually it’s quite difficult because the thought process for the jokes don’t really click.
For planned out jokes, I will take my time doing them, while the reactive ones are those that I have to draw in the next 24 or 48 hours while it’s still hot. But I get flak sometimes for my reactive stuff and they say, “Oh when these sort of political things happen, you draw very fast lah.” But it’s easy! The idea is not to poke fun… ok, maybe a little bit. But it’s really my way of bringing up potentially upsetting issues in a lighter way.
What’s the worst comment you’ve ever received?
It happened quite a while ago when someone commented, “Lawak you hambar betul, tak terfikir nak bunuh diri ke?” (“Your jokes are lame, do you ever think about killing yourself?”) I saw that and replied, “Setiap hari, bro.” (“Every day, bro.”) And he completely stopped. I was hoping he’d keep going, but he didn’t. The problem is sometimes people use my comics as a weapon against others. That’s not cool.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever been recognised?
The toilet. It’s always weird to be recognised in the loo. And sometimes people don’t have boundaries and it can get very uncomfortable. I had this kid following me into the toilet when I wanted to take a dump. He actually waited for me outside to take a picture. It’s equally awkward when it’s a case of mistaken identity. They look at me and just spout a random name. And I say, “You know that’s not me, right?” Haha!
Ernest Ng’s latest title ‘The Brofessionals’ is currently available at all Popular bookstores.