Rob Cham works as a freelance illustrator and comic book creator whose book Light won the 2016 National Book Award for Best Graphic Fiction (Silent). His other works include Lost, a follow-up to his book, Light; he is a co-editor for the komiks anthology Abangan: The Best Philippine Komiks 2014; he has a story include in the anthology, Piko, and is a co-creator of the book, OORT. He enjoys playing video games and watching movies in his spare time, and he loves pixel art. You can follow Rob Cham and his work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or visit his website.
I grew up in Baguio where I didn’t really have access to comic shops. What I did have were Archie comics, Mad magazine and the comic strips in newspapers. My parents had a few Peanuts compilations and these old book compilations of Lao Fu Zi that they got at flea markets.
I started out with making art as a kid just drawing my favorite cartoons and story books. Drawing would be my favorite school activity. I imagine it was everyone’s favorite thing to do at school. I’d make fan comics of different things I read like Scooby Doo being best friends with Droopy, or Batman comics. I was a huge fan of the animated series and the movies, and I remember asking my parents for toys.
I think my parents saw how much I liked drawing and they figured they’d foster that interest. They had me attend art classes and I loved getting to learn how to draw. In high school, I was known as the artist kid and they’d send me to the different art competitions. My mom had me study painting under a mentorship with this artist who had a studio on Session Road. I kind of accepted it as like who I was, where I just liked making art and wanted to figure it out.
In Baguio, I would only ever find comics at garage sales or whatever they had as leftovers at bookstores, like odd volumes of Hellboy, Batman Nosferatu, Hellblazer, Cable. Those comics messed me up in a way seeing all the blood and gore. There was one copy of the Far Side at my school library and I would read it over and over again. Pretty much dreamed about being a comic book artist because I just wanted to have that connection with people and tell stories.
When I was in senior year, I didn’t really feel confident about my art and was filling up all these college applications. My parents thought I would have studied fine arts at UP Baguio, but I listed down accountancy and management courses in my applications. I had weeks of talking to my mom about what I wanted to do, my dad agreed that I best have a degree to fall back on. I got into La Salle, Up Diliman and Ateneo. It was a big move trying to study in Manila and I decided to take up Management at Ateneo.
I kind of thought I’d have art be something on the side while working at a bank or running someone else’s business. In college, I still made comics and bought a tablet. I figured I’d try and learn digital as a fun side thing. I was reading all sorts of comics then, since I had access to bookstores that stocked them.
I started reading different graphic novels, would try and buy one at least once a month on my allowance, my cousin Rodney bought me a few and gave me CD’s that were scans of different comic reading essentials. I had DSL for the first time in my life living in that small studio apartment on Katipunan, and started getting into all sorts of webcomics like KC Green, VG Cats, Penny Arcade, Achewood, Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Kate Beaton Nedroid.
I wanted to be a webcomic artist at that point. I made friends on some online forums and where me and my forum buddies would draw all these dumb things for a laugh. It felt nice to kind of be a part of something and people liking my work. I would join different school organizations and get into different creative committees and they helped me understand art and design.
I downloaded all these PDF’s on how to vector, how to use Photoshop, and also on the theory of storytelling in comics and illustration work. I started doing commissions of people wanting portraits and posted my comics and artwork online on Facebook, Multiply, and Tumblr.
It got kind of validating that people were following me over the kind of art I was making and I was trying all sorts of things. Started going to conventions and wanting to be a part of that. Elbert Or had a comics group in Ateneo I joined and he helped me get into the scene, he’d let me table with him and I compiled the comics I was posting online into a zine. I started going to exhibits and gigs and made friends with people in the scene. I started tabling with friends and getting involved in the art scenes. I then kind of found work at a web design studio and been making art and comics since, juggling freelance, and haven’t stopped since.
It’s been juggling everything. I’ve got responsibilities outside of work, like family, friends, organizations, relationships and anything life throws at you. I kind of sometimes am happiest just having one specific comic or illustration to work on and maximizing the time I have with it. Because, IDK, the more time you have to invest in a piece, the better it turns out. Cooking, cleaning, handling errands, making time for other people, this stuff is stuff you have to do and can get in the way of just staying inside a comfort zone where you can focus on your art.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
I try and keep a schedule, plan around what things I’d have to do and what times do I have for work and what time I can give myself to do personal work. I learned to try and make sure I budget my spending as well so that it doesn’t become a frantic mess to try and find jobs or rush work or scramble to get money from clients. I really just try to make sure I can give everything I need to do the time it needs.
Reading. Magazines, Blogs, thought pieces, books, online resources, and PDF’s of just anything to do with art whether it be new comic creators and their work, critics dissecting art, PDF’s of experts discussing the craft and theory behind art. I just try and read as much as I can and expose myself to all these different ideas. It helps fuel the mind and gets you to grow and learn with your work as well. I mean reading isn’t enough, you also have to try this stuff out and practice and experiment, but I think having that stream of information gets your brain fired up that you want to do all sorts of things.
Q: What is one thing you’d wish you’d known before you started your artistic career? Why?
How to find and talk to clients. Would have made things way easier.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
I kind of feel like I want to prove something to myself and to other people. I wanna make stuff that would kind of have people remember me by.
I wake up and schedule my day according to what stuff I need to get done for work and what stuff I have to do life-wise. I try and juggle everything. I work from home so I ‘d also prep my food for the day. As soon as I get up it’s art, and I try and do as much as I can. I watch or listen to what movies, TV series, audiobooks, or podcasts I can to sort of feel sane and entertain myself while working.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
I try and minimize distractions. With the challenges I face, I just try and work around. Some days it is harder to work because of all the fatigue, so I kind of take a break on some days. Recover. Overworking is glorified when self-care is looked down upon. I see my friends, I talk to people, I go to gigs, I lie in bed and watch shows. Anything to take the edge off.
I take a break. I try and recover. It’s rest for me that gets me to feel motivated to start working again, besides the guilt that I could have been working. I think what also helps a lot is just trying something different with the work I do. Like sometimes when I feel stuck, it could be boredom or monotony which discourages me from finishing the work. If I can manage to entertain myself, then it kind of gives me that push because I’d get excited with figuring it out or seeing how it looks when I finish something.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
I think it’s been seeing people outside the people I know, people who aren’t my friends, telling me what they think of my work. It always feels nice that something I made has been thought of by people. I think what always gets to me is seeing kids do fan art of my comics? People would be nice and tag me in pictures, or message me about how they saw my book and wanted to draw my characters.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
I think my biggest failure is how it’s been almost 2 years since my last book. I have been juggling trying to pay for bills, balance out my life, and I never got to work on Leaving, the 3rd book in the Light series. I had a lot of ideas and hopes for it and I am making time this year to finish it. It feels like failure whereas it came easier before, or maybe I had more time, but am really disappointed that I missed a lot of deadlines for this book, and I only want to get it out and show people where I am headed towards next with the stories I want to tell.
Social Media and conventions or independent press expos. I met a lot of people in the scene by participating at cons, and smaller more intimate events. These became people who helped me become a better person, my friends, my editor, my publishers, people who wanna support my work. And it’s all through just being in that place, talking to people, having fun.
Social Media has played a big part in getting my work out there, meeting other artists. I met my publisher Ulises Farinas through Twitter and I was just a fan of his work. I added him on Facebook around the time I was promoting Light and he started talking to me about doing work together. I saw a lot of opportunities to join zines, be part of comic anthologies, promote my work and the like by keeping an eye out for announcements online. And it’s a place to procrastinate and kill time.
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
I wanted to just impress people, I guess. Get that validation. I also wanted to find a connection with people hoping they would sort of get to know who I was because of the things I couldn’t put into words. I didn’t really think I’d get published, had no idea Light or Lost would be well received. Kinda just fell into different opportunities and took em. My ultimate dream would be to win an Eisner, or make a video game. I’m hoping to also stay in the creative industry, keep making art, and just make a living off it.
For ideas: Other art. I get all these ideas from books and comics, tv shows, movies, music, and all these other places. I think it’s seeing people be able to do that. I wanna have that effect on people. I want that sort of connection. I want to kind of be remembered.
For creativity: guess just trying to be like the people I admire. Got way into puns when I started hanging out with my friend Apol Sta. Maria, for example, and started becoming more loose with my art style. I get that from other people I guess.
For talent: got none. IDK talent seems like your natural gift whereas I wouldn’t really look at the stuff I had to do to get where I am as something given. Had to kind of earn it. Still earning it. Still working on improving and getting better at my art. I hope to be way better than I am.
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
I really want to be remembered, I suppose. I want people to like me. I kind of want to have a connection with people over similar interests and share ideas and have fun. I want to make my family proud of me? Well my dad told me that he was proud of where I was at a few years ago, but yeah I don’t wanna let them down. I want to keep doing well. I want to be worth the trouble.
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
I’d say Moebius and Jodorwosky’s The Incal, a lot of Moebius’ comics are just undeniably his own. I can’t think of any other artist who had such a distinct sense of style and had that kind of outlook and influence. And for him to team up with Jodorowsky and make a book that is balls to the wall insane as it is, I don’t remember anything as grand or as epic and as silly. Akira is a masterpiece in manga storytelling but The Incal kind of encapsulates the weird off beat nature of the universe and what it means to be a human. I guess what it showed me was just how insane you can get with comics, and just how beautiful a comic could be. Still my favorite Graphic Novel.
Another major story that influenced my work would be Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown. It was an autobiographical comic about how he lost his virginity. I remember picking it up from a National Bookstore, and I found it that it was way too real, meandered everywhere but was about something I could sense was real. He didn’t paint himself as a hero, he showed his ugly side in fights. Showed me how human someone could make a character in a comic feel despite how crude the artstyle was. Definitely one of the biggest surprises of my life when I picked that book up. Kinda helped me start making comics about myself and I began to sort of be more honest as a person, with my work.
Goodbye Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson. I first read Blankets. Felt emotional yeah. But Chunky Rice just wrecked me. Kinda showed me that stories weren’t just supposed to be about real people when the emotions are there.
Art Books: Tropical Toxic, Art of Jaime Hernandez
Books: Anything by Andrew Loomis
Podcasts: Harmontown, WTF with Marc Maron
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Tokyo. It’s an amazing place and I could get lost in it forever.
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
KC Green. Been my hero since I was in high school.
Q: Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
Elbert Or. Back when I was in college he would hold a weekly get together for students who wanted to get into comics. He lent me a lot of books, gave me a lot of solid advice about how to price your books, plan your books, how to go beyond my comfort zone. I owe him a lot.