Erica Eng Is The Youngest M'sian To Be Awarded At The World's Biggest Comic Book Awards

She won 'Best Webcomic' for her first scripted work, 'Fried Rice'.

Cover image via Emily Yap/TheEdge & Comic Con International/Forbes

On Saturday, 27 July, Johor-born animator Erica Eng received an Eisner Award for her webcomic Fried Rice

The 21-year-old is the fourth and youngest Malaysian to ever be nominated for the awards.

She faced Dreamworks Animation visual developer Jason Brubaker, Spanish cartoonist Javi de Castro, as well as US-based artists Matt Huynh, Erik Lundy, and Meredith Moriarty, but ultimately came out on top.

Eng follows Seremban-born, Singapore-based artist Sonny Liew, as the second Malaysian to win in their nominated category.

Said to be the comic industry's equivalent of the Oscars, the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards are prizes given for creative achievement in comic books. 

Typically held at the annual San Diego Comic Convention, the Eisner Awards were held virtually for the first time in 32 years due to the pandemic. 

Set against the bustling backdrop of Kuala Lumpur in 2015, Fried Rice tells the humble story of Min, an aspiring young artist, with hopes of studying in New York, US

While travelling from her hometown of Batu Pahat, Johor Bahru to her cousin's home in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Min contemplates leaving Malaysia for good.

Through the protagonist, readers are given insight into the many thoughts and feelings that emerge when one is conflicted over staying or going. Fried Rice has found a home among Malaysians for this very reason.

It is also an adage to Eng's own experiences as she strongly remembers the frustration she felt being an artist in Batu Pahat upon finishing secondary school.

In an interview with TheEdge the animator said, "I remember how bitter and frustrated I was as a teenager wanting to pursue art in a small town."

Eng began writing Fried Rice in May 2019, as she was in the middle of applying to university

Unlike the bitterness she felt upon graduating secondary school, Eng was able to see her situation with fresh eyes as she was applying for university and channelled that into her work. 

Currently pursuing a degree in 3D animation via remote learning with Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California, the Eisner Award winner told BFM Radio, "I thought I could not be an artist and be in Batu Pahat, but I realised how untrue that was."

"So, [Fried Rice] was just me gathering all those things I was struggling with in high school… and reclaiming it through writing and art," she continued. 

Not all comics feature superheroes, nor are they always action-packed.

In fact, it is Eng's honest portrayal of ordinary people that has earned her quite a following.

Fried Rice, which is named after Eng's favourite comfort food, has become wildly popular for the way it so realistically portrays life in Malaysia using the animator's dreamy watercolour-like art style. 

Whether the characters are eating a packet of nasi lemak or using local colloquialisms, Eng draws on the experiences of the everyday Malaysian to tell Min's story as authentically as possible. 

Speaking to Juliet Jacobs and Tee Shiao Eek from BFM Radio, the 21-year-old cited cartoonist Lat and director of The Farewell Lulu Wang as her inspirations for creating a slice-of-life comic that intimately reflects her surroundings. ο»Ώ

Despite studying animation, Eng has taken a more traditional approach to creating Fried Rice

To achieve a more organic and nostalgic feel, Eng revealed on her Instagram that she first sketches her ideas on paper and adds an initial ink wash on top of her drawings. She later adjusts any issues with colours or lettering on Photoshop. 

In an interview with Academy of Art University, the animation student pointed to several cartoonists and graphic novelists, including Jillian Tamaki, Cyril Pedrosa, and Taiyo Matsumoto, who gave her the courage to continue working on paper. 

Entering Fried Rice to the Eisner Awards on a whim, the Johor-based animator did not expect to be nominated, let alone be recognised as the winner of her category

As for advice, the ambitious artist told BFM Radio, "Take the time to invest in your identity as an artist. Surround yourself with art, music, and stories that speak to you, inform you, and challenge you."

All the same, she was extremely grateful for those who have supported her art journey.

In an Instagram post, Eng wrote, "And thank you to my Malaysian brothers and sisters who've inspired me with your lives to set this story in our own beautiful country."

So far, Eng has published over 40 pages of the week webcomic and plans for the final product to be 200 pages long

Fried Rice is updated weekly on Sundays. You can read them on Eng's Tumblr and follow her on Instagram.

Eng was one of four Malaysians who were nominated for the prestigious award. You can read more about them and their work here:

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