It’s a little claustrophobic in the ground floor shopfront that’s home, temporarily, to the White Merak office in midtown Yangon. Ten young men sit cheek-by-jowl and bent over their monitors, working frenetically to sketch, ink, color and animate one of the comic studio’s four in-house titles.
Three more series, all part of a wider White Merak comic universe, will be added to the imprint in the next few months. But that will have to wait until after the company’s third office move this year: there’s not enough space here to fit the extra hires needed to draw them.
Founded less than two years ago, White Merak is currently a hot topic for Yangon’s tight-knit tech community. In July, five local investors ponied up a six-figure sum to take a quarter equity stake, leaving the young start-up with a US$600,000 book value. For founder and chief executive Aung Ye Kyaw, it’s a dream come true.
White Merak could be a lifeline for senior members of the comic community who have struggled to find outlets for their work.
“We’re really proud of what we’re doing. It’s like we’re resurrecting the comic industry,” he tells me during an afternoon visit to the studio. “There are really talented comic artists in Myanmar and they have been anonymous. We want to change that.”
Cartoonists and comic artists have a long and esteemed pedigree in Myanmar, but the country’s belated shift to the digital world has left many older artists without an audience. In that respect, White Merak could be a lifeline for senior members of the comic community who have struggled to find outlets for their work.
A self-described “hustler and idealist”, Aung Ye Kyaw was fascinated by comics as a kid and drew his own in what little spare time he had, but the thought of making it a career seemed absurd.
He followed his father into medicine, working for charity relief organizations for a year, before packing it in to rekindle his childhood passion. The decision to abandon a prestigious career path provoked a few long arguments with his family—though the 29-year-old sheepishly admits his parents have eased off since July’s valuation made him, at least on paper, quite wealthy.
It was hard to chart a course at first. Political reforms in Myanmar brought an end to five decades of pre-publication press censorship in 2012, but the boards that oversee film and literature remain the preserve of staid traditionalists who baulk at the unorthodox.
In that climate, going digital was a no-brainer. Dancing around a regulatory environment unable to keep pace with explosive mobile subscription growth, Aung Ye Kyaw conscripted his university friend Nay Oo Linn to act as the company’s CTO and charged him with building a digital platform to host the studio’s output.
“The founders of White Merak—in addition to being devoted comic book fans—also have a sharp eye for targeting their content, and making it super appealing to a vast segment of customers that are hungry for Myanmar content on their smartphones,” said Jes Kaliebe Petersen, CEO of the Yangon-based community tech hub Phandeeyar.
White Merak was among the first to take part in Phandeeyar’s incubator program last year, something its founding duo say was instrumental in giving them the business and tech acumen to make their venture a success.
Since it launched earlier this year, the White Merak app has gained 7,000 active weekly users with more than 20,000 registrations—and the company is forecasting more than a million registered users by the end of 2018. The revenue model is simple and so far effective: the first issue of each title is available for free, with each subsequent download billed at 500 kyats (around US$0.35).
In addition to its own works, the app is also hosting 10 independent titles under a revenue-sharing agreement. One prominent veteran artist, Yar Wana, has resurrected a title he drew decades ago, mailing in paper sheets to be digitized and colored for a new online readership.
For White Merak’s founders, though, their proudest achievement is to give a new generation of artists a platform to follow their own dreams. Aung Ye Kyaw and Nay Oo Linn are now gearing up to host its fourth monthly comic showdown, where aspiring comic book creators square against each other for a chance to have their own works published by the studio.
“There are a lot of talented teenagers competing,” says Nay Oo Linn. And we can give them recognition, they can bring their work to customers. They are very excited to have that chance.”