What is it like being a Marvel Comics artist? For Malaysian artist Alan Quah, it is nothing short of having a wish granted.
"It is a dream come true, because I collected Marvel Comics when I was really really young. When I became a teenager I drew comics for a living, then I left the [comics] industry for 15 years to venture into advertising. Then I came back and tried my luck drawing comics for the American market again," said Alan Quah, who became a cover artist for Marvel Comics in late January this year.
The Petaling Jaya-based artist mainly does comic book covers for Marvel Comics in a work-for-hire agreement. In the United States, comics retailers may sometimes commission a cover for an issue of a comic. These covers are known as retailer exclusive variant covers. Comics retailers will liaise with Marvel Comics to determine the requirements and specifications of the cover art. Marvel Comics will then get in touch with Quah to create the artwork, along with all the relevant stakeholders.
Since joining Marvel Comics, he has worked on covers for the following titles: Alien, The Spider's Shadow, Venom, and The Marvels (not related to the 1994 series Marvels, which was told from the perspective of man-on-the-street Phil Sheldon).
"The Marvels #1 is a cover that I am very proud of," said Quah. The Marvels is a comic series that has characters from the entire Marvel Universe appearing in that title.
"I had the opportunity to draw as many characters as I could on to the cover. I was not required to do that, but I really wanted to. And I wanted to do it in a manner where the heroes appeared in a situation which we normal folks can relate to... So I chose a diner, to show the superheroes having breakfast in a diner. I tried to have as many as I could in there, but I ran out of space," he laughed. Quah confessed that it was an opportunity for him, as a fan, to geek out by drawing his favourite characters, to create a cover that he himself would buy as a fan.
"I'm a fan first, and a comic artist second," said Quah. "It's really exciting because I get to do this for a living, and when I draw a cover, I always strive to draw a cover that I myself as a fan would be interested to buy."
So who are Quah's favourite characters? They are none other than Wolverine and Venom.
However, it took a lot of hard work before Quah was noticed by Marvel Comics.
"Prior to that I spent many years improving myself and teaching myself how to draw all over again," said the artist. Every time a certain style did not work, he would reinvent his style until he garnered a larger fanbase.
Quah then signed on with Scott's Collectables, an agency which has represented him to editors and retailers for the past two years. "It has been two great years of building relationships since I joined Scott's Collectables. They flew me to comic conventions in the US. We went to Orlando Megacon and New York Comic Con. During these two trips I made a lot of friends and got to know a lot of editors."
Quah has a page on Scott's Collectables as a creator they represent.
A year before joining Marvel Comics, Quah was hired by their distinguished competition — DC Comics. The first piece of work he did with the latter was a Batman cover. He then went on to work on covers for the Nightwing comic series (a character from the Batman universe).
Quah grew up in Kuala Lumpur, where he collected many Marvel & DC comics, as well as black-and-white titles from Warren Publishing, a publisher known for its horror comics such as Vampirella. "I collected a lot of comics as a kid. I also got influenced by my father. He draws very little, but whenever he drew, he inspired me. And I'm basically mirroring what my father did as a kid," shared Quah about his childhood.
Back in the '60s, artists drew with ink and did more inkwash. "As a kid, I used to mimic how they drew. After many years of mimicking, you basically get out of their shadow and develop your own style."
Quah then went on to draw comics for a few years when he was in secondary school for local magazines and humour comics. Unfortunately, he realised that drawing comics did not pay a lot, so he didn't think it would be a lucrative career choice.
"So I went on to the next best thing, which is advertising, where I became an art director very quickly." He credits his rise to his ability to draw and create visuals and spent 15 years in advertising.
Then he decided to take a gamble on drawing for comics again. 14 years ago, he ventured into what was unknown territory. He did interiors (the inside of a comic book), and worked on titles such as Godzilla, Orphan Black, and Dark Souls.
Quah loves being an artist. "I'm a comic fan first, the most exciting for me is that i get to draw a cover, for something I myself am a fan of," he shares.
"[My work] is not like a 9-to-5 thing. It is a very flexible working environment. I mostly draw in my studio at home since COVID-19 hit. Prior to that, I had an [external] studio to go to."
He knows that the common perception of artists is that they wake up and immediately go to their drawing table, which is usually next to the bed. So he maintains a strict regimen for his work. Pre-pandemic, he would drive to work, then have breakfast before going into his studio.
As a veteran, his advice to aspiring artists is to keep practising to get better.
"Drawing is an act of repetition. It is really us doing the same thing, over and over again, every day. You draw Spider-Man one time, it doesn't look so good. But you draw it one hundred times, and chances are, it will be better than the first time you draw it," he said.
"If you are willing to sit down there and continue repeating, one day you will level up. And that's when you will get more opportunities."
Like an opportunity to draw for Marvel Comics!
Here are more comics covers by Alan Quah: