Singaporean cartoonist Uranium featured in this New Nation piece by Irene Hoe from August 9, 1979.
A lot of his travails will sound familiar to cartoonists today – dreams of a comics magazine running into authorities who see comics as non-educational, facing problems with distribution, the lack of fulfilment in a job in advertising agencies, finding compromises to keep parts of the dream alive. With a love story thrown in as well :)
Here’s the link to the archived articles: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/newnation19790809-1.2.35.aspx
Uranium did go on to join the Straits Times as a cartoonist:
And below is a transcript of the piece :)
ps: Anyone who know the folks in the story: Uranium, Susan Koh, L J Holloway, Hou Soon Ming, Frank Ambrose, Chua Lark Koon… would love to be able to get in touch with them, so do let me know :)
Yippee! A Success
Cartoonist Uranium talks about the family he created in the children’s mahgazibe nearly called Fantasyland
by Irene Hoe
Uranium likes children so he quit his job and started a family. In the short span of four months, he produced the Yippee! family with a little help from a friend. There was Yen Sen, Pigsy, Jerry Mongo, Mr Billion, Dynaman, Uncle Leng and many more. Then Uranium got married.
If that sounds rather unusual and unorthodox, it’s because Uranium’s tale isn’t your ordinary run of the mill story. It’s the story of how Yippee!, the children’s magazine, came into being.
Once upon a time, Uranium was a layout artist in an advertising agency. In due course, he was promoted to visualiser and then assistant to the art director. He should have been happy but he felt he had come to a creative dead end. He recalls: “You can give your very best in advertising and the client just ignores you.”
So he and his colleague Susan Koh gave up their jobs and sank their life savings into Yippee! She wrote the stories and he drew the pictures.
“We wanted to call it Fantasyland but weren’t sure whether Walt Disney had a copyright on that name. So our brain-child became Yippee!”
The creative part was the least of their problems. The menagerie of characters who peopled the pages came naturally to them.
“Thinking up characters isn’t very hard when you’ve been trained in advertising,” says Urnanium.
Wherever possible they gave their characters an Asian flavour to balance the more westernised creations. So there was Uncle Leng, Yen Sen and Jerry Mongo to balance Mr Billions and Dynaman who was billed as Asia’s Six Million Dollar Man.
Not all have survived. The more durable include Yen Sen who started as the principal character in a 13-part serial called Star Pagoda, and easternised Pilgrims’ Progress. He stayed on to become Yippee!‘s mascot. Jerry Mongo, an amiable buck-tooted and barechested native, had humbler beginnings. He used to present the crossword puzzles. Now he has his own column.
“Sometimes children ring up the office and ask to speak to Yen Sen or Jerry Mongo. Some want to ask Uncle Leng for advice,” says Uranium.
Uranium and Susan also invented their contributors – names like Pasar Pan, the Grand Wizard, Comicons, Mr Ghostpimples, Kelvin Kiew and Henry Chia. “We wanted to give the impression we had a lot of staff,” he explained rather sheepishly.
But creativity wasn’t enough to sustain the magazine. The first issue sold between two and three thousand copies at a newstand price of 80 cents. That was in September 1976.
By Christmas they had to lower the price to 60 cents. Inbetween writing stories and editing the magazine, Susan canvassed for advertisements.
She wasn’t too successful. A full colour as on the back ran to $1800 and “people felt they got better value in the Straits Times.”
Agencies were only interested in circulation figures and Yippee! was having distribution problems in spite of having hired the services of a distributor for a 40 per cent cut of the cover price.
“It looked bad if a magazine didn’t have a few ads so we put in a few for free hoping that the companies would buy space in future issues,” said Uranium.
“But we still couldn’t break even,” recalls Susan. Printing costs were high and sales stagnated. So they ran deeper and deeper into the red.
“We were desparate,” said Susan. She called the managing director of the Time Organization, Mr L J Holloway, and offered to sell Yippee! to Times. They struck a deal in two days.
“We lost about $20,000, I think. It was a big price to pay,” she said.
Times paid off their debts and turned them into salaried employees. It was June 1977. They had carried their baby for nine months.
In retrospect they feel their biggest stumbling blkck was poor distribution. They had an impact beyond sales.
“Before we started Yippee, we did a study of children’s magazines. We found that local magazines were not very good – especially in art work,” said Uranium.
“Most publications think children are gullible and that they’ll buy anything no matter how it’s written or drawn. Our original idea was to make Yippee entertaining with lots of drawinfs – good quality pictures.”
But teachers and principles felt the magazine was too much like a comic book. “When we tried to sell it in schools, they’d take one look and tell us they didn’t want comics sold in the school.”
Like parents, they wanted more writing, fewer illustrations. They wanted stories with morals, not the horror stories written by Mr Ghostpimples which were popular with the children.
So comics like Ali HaHa and the Four Teeth Thief gave way to “moral” comic sequences like Bully to the Rescue and The Amazing World of Mr Billion has sobered into Let’s Find Out.
Sports or at any rate football has left its imprint in the form of Uncle Choo’s Soccer Corner which take pride of place inside the front cover.
The funnies are still to be found but Uranium concedes Yippee! is going heavy on educational rather than purely entertainment features in order to win over teachers and parents. It’s a policy tied unabashedly to the pursestrings. And it works. Increased parent-teacher approval means bigger sales and circulation has been climbgin steadily.
There are other factors. Now, instead of having a lone canvasser approach schools to sell Yippee!, representatives from Federal Publications have been roped in to promote the magazine as well as sell books. Since they visit schools more often, they find principlas and teachers more receptive when they present the magazine.
Yippee! is no longer a two-man show. Uranium still directs artistic operations but he has 17-year old self taught artist Hou Soon Ming as his assistant.Another addition is Frank Ambrose, 21, the magazine’s sales representative. The newest member of the team is Chua Lark Koon, 24, an editor in the books division of Federal Publications who doubles as editor of Yippee.
What of Susan? She left a few months ago to be an editor in a publishing firm. But she’s still part of the family. You might say she married into it. She’s now Mrs Uranium.
But why Uranium?
“I wanted to be different, and uranium, well, it’s different. It’s rare.”
He said he would rather I didn’t use his real name. “I just wantto be known as Uranium, the cartoonist.” It seemed to be a matter of professional pride.
How did he come to be a cartoonist? “I saw an advertisement in Movie News for a correspondence course offered by the Cartoonist Exchange of America. I wrote in and applied.”
At that time he was working in Targus Design, an advertising agency, and taking a part-time course at the Nayang Acedemy of Fine Arts in St Thomas Walk. He graduated in 1969.
“The cartoonist’s course was good for me because I could do it at my own pace. they would send me assignments to draw. If there were any corrections to be made, they would do an overlay on my drawing and send it back.”
As he progressed, advertising art became even less attractive as a career. “All the while, I wanted to be a cartoonist.”
it shows in Yippee! which leans heavily on art. Art contests, colouring contests and feature like “Learn How to Draw are staples in the magazine.
“You know, some of our ideas have even been copied by children’s magazines in Malaysia and Hong Kong.”
But undoubtedly, the plum artistic satisfaction has come from having one of Yippee! ‘s cover designs accpeted for publication in the 1979 edition of Modern Publicity, a prestigious international art magazine produced in Britain.
Uranium said ruefully: “I’m sorry I can’t show you a copy of Modern Publicity. It’s so expensive that we couldn’t afford to buy it.”
Yippee! aside, Uranium, 29, has won about 20 awards for his art. “I even managed to win two first prizes, a second prize and one consolation prize in one contest,” he said.
Rather shamefacedly he confessed: “I entered them under different names. We were only supposed to submit one entry per person.”
On the level, he also illustrates children’s books occasionally.
“I once applied to be a cartoonist with Straits Times. You know what they told me? They said I was overqualified.”
Diffidence is not an obsession with him. “I’ve written a few songs,” he said. “One day I expect tp sell them to a big American company for a small fortune.”
And that would be enough to make anyone shout Yippee!