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"I've never really followed any comics til I was introduced to Dharma Punks. This excellent, eight-parter comic zine about a group of anarchist punks planning to blow up a multinational - fastfood restaurant on their opening day blew my mind away (no pun intended). When I was in Auckland, I got to hang out with Ant Sang, the creator of the zine, who turned out to be a really warm, friendly and down-to-earth guy. Here's an interview that I conducted with him recently.
story Peishan

How did you get started in comics?
I've been drawing ever since I could pick up a pencil. When I was a kid I'd do crazy drawings of talking animals and that, which when I look at now are completely incomprehensible. I really got serious about comics though when a friend introduced me to American and Canadian alternative comics in the early nineties. Artists like Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucett really opened my eyes to the possibilities of what comics could express. This was a time when autobiographical comics were everywhere and the idea of doing personal stories, as opposed to superheroes and sci-fi and that stuff, was a real awakening for me. It was like, "Finally, a venue for my pent up emotions and frustrations!!!"

When did you first start conceptualising ideas to do Dharma Punks? What were some of the issues you have planned to weave into Dharma Punks and how successful do you think you have been?
I'd been doing a minicomic called Filth since 1994. I had put out seven issues and thought that it had run its course. I had moved on from the characters and the angst that had started that minicomic off, so I wanted to do a big story which would be the end of these characters and that period of my life. This was around 1997. Only problem was I didn't know anything about story structure at that time, so for years it really went nowhere. It wasn't until I started researching story structure and writing for plays and movies that The Dharma Punks started to take shape.

A lot of the problem  I had in the early stages of writing Dharma Punks was that I didn't know what the whole thing was supposed to be about. There were too many themes and issues which I wanted to include and it was turning into a really jumbled story. Some of the themes were coping (or not) with death, friends growing apart, multinational corporations, and spiritual awakening. As for how successful I've been juggling them all, I'm not sure. I'm often my own worst critic and the comic falls short of what I originally intended... but hopefully there is enough honesty in the story to make it worthwhile anyway.

The Dharma Punks comic series is of epic proportions, an eight-parter spanning a couple of years. What has your work process been like?
Really sloooow. Over the last couple of years I've become way too familiar with my drawing board. I juggle doing Dharma Punks with freelance illustration work, so often the only time I get to work on my comics is late at night or in between paying jobs.

Now that you’re finally working on the eighth issue and approaching the end of this massive project, what are your thoughts on it? What have you learnt from undertaking Dharma Punks?
I'm fairly happy with it, but like I said before, there are some things I'm not so happy about. I'd like to go back and redo parts of it, because the story evolved and changed over the two years. Apart from that I'm really pleased the end is in sight. Here in New Zealand, Dharma Punks was really well received (for an 'underground' publication I mean). When I released the first issue I was absolutely terrified that people would think it sucked, that nobody would buy it, and that I'd be stuck with boxes and boxes of unsold comics.

What have I learnt?... People do read comics! Sort the story out properly before starting to draw it...

Apart from Dharma Punks, you do a lot of freelance illustration. What have been some of your most interesting or challenging projects?
Some of the most fun projects have been the children's books I've illustrated. Doing illustrations of various bands and musicians for a local music magazine was cool too. The most enjoyable jobs are usually when I'm getting paid a good amount and have quite a bit of freedom to do the illustrations as I see fit. The worst jobs, on the other hand, are when clients don't want to pay much, want the artwork yesterday and expect great results.

Can you tell us more about the comic scene in New Zealand?
The local comic scene is full of really talented, passionate artists who produce some amazing comics. The only problem with the scene is that it really struggles to find a decent readership. New Zealand's so small - just under four million people live here. The percentage of people who read comics, let alone local comics, is usually absolutely tiny. Most comic artists here do their comics 'on the side' - some, like me do freelance artwork, others have jobs as animators, web designers, or whatever else. Being so far removed from any real comics industry, the comics people do here are often really beautiful, personal works which are produced without the restrictions of what is or isn't commercially viable - so I guess being so small and remote has its advantages and disadvantages...

You are a fifth-generation Chinese living in New Zealand. How connected or disconnected do you feel from your roots? Also, how has this affected/influenced your work?
It's not something I really worry about, but when I do think about it, I guess I am pretty darn disconnected from my roots. In terms of language and culture I don't know half of what I probably should.

Like I just mentioned, I don't usually think about this issue too much, but perhaps it does seep into my work. The main protagonist (Chopstick) in Dharma Punks is juggling his punk lifestyle with an exploration of Buddhist ideas. The next project I'm planning on working on will be something involving kung fu and based in ancient China, so I'll be doing a lot of research about that particular time and place. Hell, maybe I think about it more than I realised!

What will life be like after Dharma Punks?
I've got a lot of projects planned. They've been bubbling away over the last few years as I've been working on Dharma Punks, so I'm really looking forward to working on something new. To be honest, I can't wait to get started on them. Dharma Punks has taken much longer than anticipated to finish (sorry readers!) and hopefully within the next couple of weeks it'll all be wrapped up and it'll be onwards and upwards."

this article originally featured in Red Letter Day issue 3

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