Malaysians can be counted on for two things: our intense relationship with food and sincere appreciation for humour, however bleak the circumstances. When the novel coronavirus reared its ugly head in the country earlier this year, Ernest Ng fleshed out its form and turned it into fodder for comedy.
If Covid-19 was an Anime is a series that documents some of the key moments of the global pandemic, as well as its heroes and anti-heroes. Key figures in the local fight such as Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and director general of health Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah are made instantly recognisable by distinctive features such as their moustache and tired eyes respectively.
Even global personalities are depicted: US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr Anthony Fauci is identified by his lanky silhouette; President Donald Trump by his tuft of blonde hair and brazen quotes, immortalised for posterity in ink and colour. Whether at home or abroad, they face a common enemy: a radioactive green Covid-19 virus, whose earliest portrayals were drawn as a parodic amalgamation of Dragonball villains Picollo and Frieza. The character has since been refined with more elaborate details.
Ng picked up his late grandmother’s Old Master Q comic books as a young boy and expanded his reading material to popular manga titles such as Doraemon and Dragon Ball. The communications graduate fantasised of being a comic artist but never thought that particular career aspiration would ever come true. But come true it did – some 250,000 people follow his Bro, Don’t Like That La, Bro page on Facebook, where he has been sharing his comics since September 2010.
“In university, I lived with a group of my childhood friends and one of them used to say ‘Bro, don’t like that la, bro’ every time we teased him. We had so many adventures together that I made a comic series about them with that phrase as a title,” Ng shares. “It just took off from there.”
The comic biography resonated with readers, landing book deals with six-figured sales volumes. Back to School, published in 2014 and featuring the aforementioned exploits with his friends, remained on bestseller lists for almost a year.
However, it is current events that have propelled him into the consciousness of the masses, with his illustrations of the virus going, well, viral. Superhero-style comics show the weary Dr Hisham rousing an army of medical frontliners to battle, a bare-chested Muhyiddin take on the green Covid-19 villain in combat, even a reference to a popular CNN interview in which a flabbergasted Anderson Cooper questions Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman’s decision to reopen casinos as casualties mounted. Ng reads the news religiously to stay updated and tries to connect singular events into a cohesive storyline.
“Anything can be translated into a comic form – it could be character or context-driven,” he says. “The important thing is the delivery, that the message gets across easily. It takes about a week for a comic to go from concept to final outcome, as it sometimes takes five to 10 revisions to refine the punchline delivery. No comic ever feels truly finished. You just have to tell yourself to stop working on it or you will be stuck on a single piece forever. I’ve learnt to let go and move on.”
A common misconception about the medium is that comics are easy and quick to do, but Ng affirms that even after all these years, he still finds the craft challenging. That said, it is one he tackles with enthusiasm and joy.
“It’s hard to pinpoint a favourite character from the If Covid-19 was an Anime series but I find Dr Hisham really cool and badass. The Covid-19 characters are fun to draw as well as I get to play with their design and backstories,” he says. “I think Malaysians enjoyed these too. It’s an issue that affects everyone on a global scene and the situation feels quite grim. Maybe the comics were a nice distraction from crisis.”