While Taiwan’s younger generation as a whole has been struggling with the long-term stagnation of starting salaries in the working world, a subset of them has escaped the nine-to-five grind by creating hilarious comics instead.
Though their pursuit was once thought of as a hard way to make a living, comic illustrators have now become the new darlings of the corporate world. Up-and-comers like the creators of “Miss Undine” and “Duncan” are showing the world just how creative and vital Taiwan’s younger generation can be.
With the rise of the Internet, people are interacting and communicating in different ways. Nowadays, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.
In the past, being an artist often meant devoting one’s entire life to one’s art without ever enjoying any acknowledgment or recognition. In marked contrast, contemporary comic illustrators can create personalized online fan pages to showcase their work, leveraging the viral power of social networks to bring their art to the attention of a large audience.
Artists “Duncan,” creator of the bowl-cut-sporting “Duncan,” and “Old Undine,” the artist behind the eye-rolling “Miss Undine,” have become tremendously popular by responding to current events and their own personal travails with humorous drawings that reflect what most of us are thinking but never say aloud. The two initially created Facebook pages to generate interest in their work and went on to secure numerous corporate sponsorships, making their creations nearly ubiquitous across Taiwan in settings ranging from city streets and subways to private homes.
A star falls to Earth
The character Miss Undine has achieved Internet fame in spite of her notorious disregard for appearances: Old Undine always depicts her in a white undershirt, with rouged cheeks and trademark three-lashed eyes, and sets her against a plain pink background.
But the creator of the gut-bustingly funny comic is a bit of a mystery. Old Undine refuses to meet interviewers in person or talk to them on the phone, and accepts questions only via email, leaving her gender and appearance purely matters of speculation. “I could be an older man with the spirit of a young woman, or vice versa,” emails Old Undine. The only thing readers know with any certainty is that Old Undine is young at heart.
Old Undine says she has been drawing for as long as she can remember. As a student, she earned a reputation as a cartoonist by sketching every humorous experience that came her way on scraps of paper that she passed around among her classmates.
She worked in the service sector and even as a civil servant prior to becoming a full-time comic illustrator. “I get fed up with things pretty quickly,” she says, “so I tried all kinds of jobs. Meanwhile, I was constantly imagining cartoony people rolling their eyes at everything.”
She says that she created the first Miss Undine comic in a moment of anger and upset. She had overslept on a day when she needed to take care of a personal matter, awakening with her naturally curly hair an M-shaped mess. Lacking a good place to vent her frustration, she was struck by an idea: why not express her feelings about everything that annoyed her and made her roll her eyes through drawings? After all, she thought, the empathy of other people often helps ease a bad mood. She went on to create Miss Undine’s fan page in 2013, and now has more than 840,000 fans.
Old Undine’s consistently sharp work draws blood with every stroke on subject matter that ranges from pudgy bellies to sexy images. The comic’s distinctly unglamorous look and biting humor resonates with a broad fan base. Though Old Undine jokes that she will rule the world through eye rolls, her true-to-life style of humor really does help her and her readers conquer life’s everyday frustrations.
The city as a canvas
The comic character “Duncan” sports a distinctive look of his own—a bowl cut, black-framed glasses, pronounced smile lines, and a habit of always dressing in red, black, and white—one which accurately reflects the personality of his creator, Duncan. The 30-something Duncan recently earned the top spot in an online poll on Taiwan’s ten most popular comic illustrators. Never an art major, he created his eponymous character by drawing on skills he acquired through two years spent studying sketching at his aunt’s studio while still very young.
Duncan loved drawing and dreamed of becoming an artist or an animator for Pixar Studios when he grew up, but his father worried he would have trouble earning a living through drawing and barred him from attending an arts-oriented high school. In spite of this setback, Duncan considered majoring in design at university. Unfortunately, he had no portfolio to support his application and ended up studying foreign languages and literature instead.
After completing his military service, Duncan worked a series of uninteresting jobs, including as a hostel clerk and a street vendor, all the while continuing to dream of making his living by drawing. “You have to pay your dues in life. I didn’t want to give up on doing anything and end up with regrets.” So he packed up samples of his work, left his hometown of Hualien, and headed for Taipei. He says that when he went looking for work, he was willing to accept any salary and work any hours. He didn’t care so long as the job enabled him to improve his drawing skills. But for all his determination, he never heard back from any of the design companies he spoke to.
A passion for drawing
Then opportunity came knocking. His uncle, who ran a computer company, asked Duncan if he were interested in doing graphics for him. Not knowing anything about computer graphics, he hesitated a bit. But with his uncle determined to give him a chance and happy to let him learn on the job, Duncan bought a couple of books and began to learn. After burying himself in them for three months, he had developed a good handle on the field.
Interestingly, prior to creating his own Facebook fan page, Duncan rarely went online and was largely unfamiliar with Facebook. But then a friend happened to share the Miss Undine fan page with him, and he came away impressed that someone was doing something so entertaining on social media. The experience aroused his own deeply rooted desire to share funny thoughts, and got him started drawing his own comics after work. He went on to create the “Duncan Design” fan page in June 2013.
Duncan worked hard on the comic, uploading new posts to Facebook daily even though he initially had only two or three hundred followers. But with his friends sharing his work and social media working its magic, his page has since attracted more than 2.4 million fans.
This increasing popularity brought with it offers to take on new projects. He turned down those early offers, however, choosing instead to focus on improving his skills and doing good work for his uncle. In fact, he kept his computer graphics job until February 2014, when he finally accepted his first freelance project, a Mother’s Day ad for TVBS.
Inspired by the little things
Duncan excels at making life’s ever-so-mundane minutiae funny. He also likes to twist everyday expressions by changing one or two of the last few characters in them, then spoofing the results in drawings. For example, his “Johnny Walker” (Yuehan zoulu) series of comics includes “Johnny Fashion Show” (Yuehan zouxiu), “Johnny Off-Key” (Yuehan zouyin), and “Johnny Legs It” (Yuehan paolu).
Text and image are equally important to Duncan’s work, and fans often can’t help but read the text aloud. His series on the accent of his Hualien hometown is a case in point. He also excels at transforming close observations and creative interpretations of the mundanities of everyday life, things that most of us ignore, into entertaining comics that resonate with readers.
Duncan is an upbeat guy, the kind of person who takes online readers’ criticism of his art and other minor frustrations as opportunities for personal growth. Speaking about his work, he says that each piece has its own story, and that those stories are far more important to him than products. He is committed to doing his work in a way that he personally finds interesting, and refuses to do ads just for the money. When negotiating advertising jobs, he always asks the client to let him present the product in his own way. “I’ve turned down many lucrative projects because the client wouldn’t accept that condition.”
Duncan likes to work quietly at night and has tried to retain a degree of anonymity. To that end, he refuses to show his face to the media, wearing a mask for interviews, photos, and even TV appearances. He says that he likes to take walks during the day, and his relative anonymity provides him with space to observe people.
He is currently looking forward to trying out new ways to bring his work to new audiences. “As long as I’m enjoying the process, I’ll be satisfied with the results,” says Duncan, whose greatest joy is drawing.
Taiwan’s young comic illustrators take inspiration from their pleasure in sharing and their skill at observing life. By bringing their own personal styles to bear on their ideas, they have managed to leaven life’s painful moments with humor.
Cartoonists like Duncan and Old Undine are defying the stereotype of the starving artist. They are earning a living doing what they love, and their talents are being revealed for all to see.