By Ernest Tan
Few Singaporeans would consider leaving their day jobs for the unorthodox, unpredictable life of a comic book artist. Fewer still can claim to have done so with much success. Otto Fong, artist and author of the best-selling “Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science” series is one such individual. PETS catches up with the man behind the comic book to find out more about the inspiration behind his work and his thoughts on being a responsible pet owner.
PETS: Can you tell us about your decision to become a comic book artist?
Otto: I’ve wanted to be a comic artist ever since I was in primary school. Back then, I was already drawing my own comics and composing my own stories. But despite that, it took me a long time to make the decision to go full time. What were you doing before that? Because I was good in my studies, I was placed into the science stream. At the time, Singapore needed engineers for nation building, so I became one. But engineering just didn’t suit me, so after dabbling in video editing for a bit, I became a science teacher.
From an engineer to a science teacher? That’s quite a jump.
Actually, teaching was the first job I sought after I graduated. Unfortunately, I was overqualified. Ultimately though, I did become a teacher in Raffles Institution for eight years. So what prompted you to switch to drawing comics? For eight years, I stood in class, telling my students to go after their dreams while I neglected my own. And everyone around me could tell that I was passionate about drawing. So, after spending all that time telling my students to walk the walk while I merely talked the talk, I decided that I was going to follow my own advice and really set an example. Also, after 20 years of working as an employee, I decided that the only way I could find fulfilment was by going after my passion.
Compared to being a teacher, how different is being a comic artist?
Oh, very different. As a teacher, there’s always some head of department or principal who would plot out your next course. But, as a comic artist and storyteller, no one else can tell me where to go and what to do next. Pursuing your own course means you have to learn to listen to your heart and trust your own judgement. You have to reassure yourself that at least there will be some rewarding surprises, even if you are unsure where you’re heading with this career change.
What’s the best thing about being a comic artist?
It is knowing that you’re making a unique contribution; that kids are reading something that can only come from you. It’s also great knowing that I can address issues that school teachers seldom get a chance to. Things like, “Why must we be nice to animals?” So, being a comic artist is an expansion of what I can say and contribute.
What book has inspired or otherwise left a lasting impression on you?
The Japanese comic book Doraemon would be one. It’s about this kid, Nobita, who is constantly running to his futuristic robotic pet cat, Doraemon, for quick solutions to his problems. Doraemon’s solutions are usually so high-tech that they seem incredible. Yet today, the Japanese are designing robots for all kinds of practical application. Maybe those engineers and designers were inspired by Doraemon. Therefore, I feel very inspired by the power of comics. It plants a seed by entertaining you when young but as you grow older, it becomes a part of your imagination and vision to inventing things.
How would you describe the “Sir Fong’s Adventures in Science” series?
Professor Leo Tan, the director of Special Projects at the National University of Singapore, described it very clearly and simply. He called it a science fiction comic book but there is a good amount of scientific material inside. There’s also this imagination that has been applied to the science curriculum. The book is actually intended for students from primary three to secondary two – the age group when they are most passionate and who can be nurtured with laughter and joy. That’s also the period which they can go back to draw inspiration from when they grow up.
You mentioned that your latest book made you think about pet ownership. Why?
I see a lot of people treating their dogs like furniture. You buy them when they are cute and young and when you’re busy you put them aside as if they’re an old chair. There are so many cases of dogs being abandoned and being abused. That made me think of how I could use my book to spread the message that there are certain responsibilities you have to be aware of and pet ownership is a lifelong commitment.
Tell us about your dog. What do you enjoy most about having him around?
He’s a three-year-old Jack Russell terrier called Mantou. He was previously owned by a Chinese national, which is why he’s named after a type of Chinese bun. The walks we have together really are the happiest times of my day. He’s the main reason I’m still relatively fit and healthy despite my sedentary work. And because we live so close to Mount Faber, we spend a lot of time walking up and down the “mountain”. So, in that sense, he’s also my connection to nature; one of the few channels I have in this concrete jungle to love and appreciate other living things.