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Keeping the Comics Coming
Despite tales of the modern market shuttering local comic book businesses, publishers Kadokawa Gempak Starz are healthily expanding as they hit the 20-year mark.
In 1998, an advertising agency decided to try its hand at publishing a comic magazine. They almost had to call it quits within the first two years, but their business smarts kicked in just in time and saw them shaking up the very industry that almost ended them.
Now two decades on, Kadokawa Gempak Starz as it’s known today, is one of the few comic book publishers not only still standing, but thriving both locally and globally.
Kadokawa Gempak Starz has been known to kickstart careers of comic book writers and artists throughout its 20 years of existence, many of whom have gone on to become independent artists both locally and internationally.
CEO Chris Yew, who has been with the company since the start and is currently in charge of over 200 staff members, attributes the resilience of the company to its undivided commitment to advancing the comics industry, and paying attention to the real demand of readers.
“Many other comic businesses do comics only on the side,” he says. “Some maybe dabble in it simply because they have an existing printing plant and comics is just another product for them. But for us, comics is everything.”
A passion in comics led founder and CEO Chris Yew not to draw, but be the man behind the scenes to get Malaysian comic book artists and writers published.
It all started with their comic magazine Gempak in 1998, back when the company was known as Art Square Group. Gempak had trouble penetrating the market with it being dominated by the rebirth of pedigree title Ujang, the launch of its sister title Apo? in the same year, and the original juggernaut Gila-Gila.
But after some time struggling, Gempak eventually carved its own demographic by emphasising on ACG (animation, comics and games) news on top of just comics. The format became a hit, and saw other publishers trying to replicate the success with their own titles.
Yew says the company has stuck to the same strategy of observing the market and making the necessary changes to remain relevant to readers.
“If you are not changing, the world will change you,” he says.
The headquarters houses a whole floor dedicated to being a gallery for Kadokawa Gempak Starz’s top works through the years, that feature giant comic pages, life size comic inspired bedrooms and even a virtual reality space.
With this adaptive attitude, they established the Gempak Starz graphic novel publishing arm in 2001, which became a huge platform that launched the careers of many of today’s prominent local comic book artists.
A big move taken by the company at that time to increase the comics’ accessibility was to make it available beyond bookstores, so they began setting up their own designated racks in convenience stores and hawker stalls – a practice still being done to this day.
However, in today’s world the major issue isn’t about gaining visibility – it’s how a publishing company can survive in the digital age.
MOY Publications Sdn Bhd, which handled the titles Ujang and Apo?, ended the business in 2015, while 2016 saw the closing of Comics House, the publisher that famously translated Japanese mangas Dragon Ball, Dr. Slump and Dragon Quest among others into Bahasa Malaysia. Last year, Tora Aman, the Malaysian publisher that had been translating Doraemon since 1993 also called it quits.
Many fingers pointed to the internet as the reason, but Yew disagrees and says it all depends on the kind of business the company wants to be in.
“Our positioning is that we are selling content. Whether it is a book or not doesn’t matter, because going digital is just a medium change for where we provide our content,” he says.
In 2014, Gempak Starz became Kadokawa Gempak Starz after joining forces with Japan’s Kadokawa Corporation. Today, the company publishes over 400 local and international comic book titles, and even exports some in-house titles to China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and the United States.
Kadokawa Gempak Starz has penetrated markets in China, Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan and Japan, with their most popular title being the X-Venture series.
By taking the time to understand demand, Yew says sales in these markets have been encouraging even in Japan, whose oversaturated comic book market mostly caters to teenagers.
Hence, educational children’s comics became the key to their market penetration.
Currently, the company’s educational X-Venture series is available in Japan, with another title slated for release soon. Locally, Kadokawa Gempak Starz looks to increase the titles it prints from 402 to 420 this year.
A display case of the awards the company has picked up over the years.
Having debunked the myth that a career in comics is an unsustainable path, Yew implores younger artists to stick to their craft, because the internet is not the end of comics but a growing platform for them.
“Just draw. Keep working hard. As you are creating, at any level, you will get something out of it. It could be interactions with editors, it could just be expanding your exposure. Make something, then move on and keep creating.
“This line is not so easy – not everyone will become famous. But you need to begin with doing. This is my advice.”
Browse Kadokawa Gempak Starz’s comic book titles at shop.gempakstarz.com.
By Aizyl Azlee
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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