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Boey: Changes

Cup artist and comic strip author reflects on growing up in Malaysia

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ETERNAL CHAMPIONS This is possibly the best official author photo we've ever seen.
  • ETERNAL CHAMPIONS This is possibly the best official author photo we've ever seen.

Canvas deteriorates. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are often spent restoring single pieces to a fraction of their former glory. But what about a medium that will last thousands of years on its own? With permanent ink? That's what the artist Boey had in mind when he started touting his doodles—sharpie drawings on styrofoam cups—as fine art worth hundreds of dollars per piece.

Thirty-five-year-old Cheeming Boey (who goes simply by his last name) began drawing on cups in 2006 when, in search of a discarded white canvas, he fished one out of the trash. After someone told the stubborn Malaysian-born artist that nobody would pay real money for a 4 cent polystyrene cup, his determination was only solidified further.

Though some cups have sold for thousands of dollars, Boey admits it hasn't quite taken off as a new medium. "I don't sell cups as much," he offers, "because people can't accept the fact that it's disposable."

Yet Boey's determination is evident in his bestselling graphic novel, When I Was a Kid (Last Gasp; $17.95), released to wide critical acclaim in Malaysia in 2012 and recently released in the United States. It's drawn in the style of his web comic (iamboey.com), and meant to be a prequel to the daily journal of his adult life. Boey appears Dec. 13 at the Schulz Museum as part of its "Second Saturday" cartoonist series.

One story in When I Was a Kid tells of a 16-year-old Boey refusing to clean out his father's birdcages. He preferred playing video games to cleaning bird crap. Go figure. When his father asks if that's all he is going to do with his life, Boey responds as a narrator, "Yes. I became an animator and made games for 13 years, and played video games every day." Some comics in the book are funny, some are interesting anecdotes of childhood in 1980s Malaysia, but each panel's charm lies in its honesty and familiarity.

Boey's family plays a large part in the book. His mother is not always happy with the stories he chooses to tell, which, he says, solidifies their quality. "If she doesn't like it, I really have to write it, because it's really good," he says. Constantly seeking his father's approval as a boy, he says it's weird to finally have it. "Growing up, I was always very nervous about what I'd do," says Boey by phone from Oakland. "Now, [my father] tells me he's proud. I think mentally I'm not ready to accept that yet."

Malaysian newspapers had comics like Family Circus, Hägar the Horrible and, yes, Peanuts, but the jokes from America didn't always translate to Boey's culture. Baseball wasn't popular in Boey's Malaysia, for example, so much of Peanuts went over his head. But Boey feels his comics are similar to Schulz's in that they're about life, and life isn't always laugh-out-loud funny.

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