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Malaysia’s very own ‘Stan Lee’

ANN/THE STAR – The name ‘Stan Lee’ conjures thoughts of the late, iconic American comics creator, renowned for birthing some of the globe’s most beloved comic book characters and nearly synonymous with the term ‘comics’.

In the 1970s, Malaysian artist Lee Cheow Hee embarked on his own illustrious journey in the realm of art and comics, opting to adopt the moniker ‘Stan’ as a tribute to the legendary figure.

A quintessential artist. Backroom boy. Passionately creative. These are the best descriptions for Malaysia’s very own ‘Stan Lee’, who started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil, at the age of three. What’s even more remarkable is that even today, at the age of 68, Lee continues to draw and create art.

This writer recently managed to catch up with Lee, ahead of his upcoming art exhibition entitled ‘A Retrospective Exhibition – Looking Back to Leap Forward’ at the Awegallery in Selangor, Malaysia recently.

The exhibition, officiated by acclaimed artist Zunar, followed by a session on the legendary Apazine Malaysian comic anthology, presented by one of its artists – Azlan Razif.

While Lee may not have been a full-time comic book artist, he was instrumental in creating Apazine, which was one of Malaysia’s earliest fanzines back in 1985.

Having spent five decades (and counting) working in the creative industry, he was keen to share his journey, experiences, and views.

ABOVE & BELOW: Photos show Malaysian artist Lee Cheow Hee and his artworks. PHOTO: THE STAR

“This exhibition will be a very informal one, with none of the stiffness of a regular art gallery setting. I want people to come and enjoy the art, ask as many questions as you want. We will also be having a couple of (art) discussions, so you can look out for the topics that will appeal to you, or just come and sit in, learn something new. If you’re an expert in any of the fields mentioned (especially AI and art), maybe we might learn something from you, too,” said Lee.


Lee’s (aka KULit) art journey began back in 1955, when a Superman comic inspired him to start drawing superheroes. This was later fuelled by exposure to The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man titles.

Growing up in difficult living conditions with no electricity nor running water, the Muar, Johor-born artist found solace in comics. Lee moved up to the Klang Valley when he was in primary four, and he was educated at the Dharma Institute in Puchong, Selangor, which was run by the late Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam of Pure Life Society.

“I harboured dreams of drawing for Marvel Comics, and when I was 16, I sent an application letter complete with 20 pages of pencils to the ‘real’ Stan Lee!” he recalled.

“He graciously declined my application by telling me that Marvel only works with New York-based artists. There was no Internet then and the correspondence took three months!”

That “rejection” did not deter Lee though, as he continued to pursue his dreams of becoming an artist. He started with a job as a freelance book illustrator for schoolbooks with a company called Universal Publications, before furthering his career in the advertising industry with a few agencies.


While Lee never actually got to draw for Marvel, he did however contribute to a significant landmark in Malaysian comic book history.

In 1985, a group of local comic fans and artists came together to launch Apazine (Amateur Press Association Magazine), which was the first collective showcase of English-language amateur comics art and stories that was 100 per cent created by Malaysians.

The fanzine provided a platform for comic book fans to share their artistic and creative talents, with 15 short stories published in its first issue.

The artist who drew the cover of that landmark issue was none other than Lee, who did both the front and back covers.

At the time, Apazine was launched to encourage local talents to showcase their comic art skills, and this eventually paved the way for some of these artists to launch their comic art careers internationally.

Although, he looks back at the project fondly, Lee doubts that Apazine would have done better today.

“When Apazine was launched, there was no Internet nor access to apps. Publishing a book like that then would have been beyond the means of individual artists, who lacked the funds,” he said.

“Today you can quite easily put together a book like that using a software or app, and publish it via social media.”

He also reckons an Apazine sequel may be redundant today, as there are so many kickstarter projects today that can help launch careers.

While he might not be a household name like his more illustrious Marvel namesake, Malaysians would have seen some of his art before. Lee’s advertising output – from the 1970s to 2008 – was prominently used in the property, food and beverage, and automobile markets, in which he provided artist impressions for their marketing materials.


What made his career even more remarkable is the transition process he underwent to achieve this success.

According to him, learning how to use the airbrush in 1982 was instrumental in furthering his freelance art career in the advertising industry. “It was new, it was exciting, and with very little competition, I had a free run of the market! It also helped that I was versatile, willing, and able to accommodate many different styles and mediums requested,” he recalled.

“Often, art directors would show me a piece of art style that they wanted me to emulate, and I did my own version of ‘machine learning’ to arrive at a reasonable style.”

“In 1994 we embraced the computer in our workflow, and started a 3D rendering farm that opened up a whole new world of digital art and animation in our home studio, a full 30 years ago,” he said, adding that he has been working out of his home studio for 50 years.

“I was the original work from home guy!” he added with a grin. – Kaleon Rahan