Kangblabla ~ Kebab Toys

character designer, toy maker
Penang, Malaysia

I REMEMBER BEING late to my meeting with Julius Raja Manickam, who graciously waited for me to arrive at Hin Bus Depot in Penang. Julius is a character designer and toy maker based in Penang, creating under the moniker, Kangblabla. As we sat down to chat, Julius generously recounted his art journey, and gave me a glimpse into his vast ‘multiverse’.

Do you have memories of creating art in your childhood?

Yes, it goes as far back as when I was five. I recall drawing my own version of Power Rangers and asking my father to draw the robots. I always knew I loved drawing and wanted to pursue it since I was young.

Was there any artists whose work you admired or looked up to?

I came across the comic books of Malaysian artist, Michael Chuah, when I was 12 years old. His series ‘Gengkey’ is the first comic in Malaysia to create a vinyl figure. Seeing him have a style of his own was a catalyst for me wanting to find my own. I continued drawing, with the aim of going to school to become a comic artist too.

How did you end up in Georgetown, Penang?

After finishing art school and working for a few years as a graphic designer, I faced a period of major burnout which led me to quit my job. Six weeks after I quit, I came to Georgetown to help work on a mural and to clear my head. The experience was positive and I found myself relocating to Penang in 2015 to be part of Rumah studio collective.
Was this how Kebab Toys came about?

Not exactly. After moving to Penang, I found myself having a serious case of creative block. It was a year into my move, and I just could not draw, I could not paint. Nothing seemed to work.

One day I came across excess wood that we had kept at the studio and thought: “If I can’t draw in 2D, maybe I should explore 3D art forms.” This gave birth to the idea of Kebab Toys in 2017.

How would you describe Kebab Toys? What is your vision?

I came across the idea of the ‘Multiverse’ in the early 2000s while watching Spider-Man, and so Kebab Toys is essentially a way for me to introduce characters in my own ‘multiverse’. They are characters that are inspired by something I’ve seen or heard, or people I meet in my everyday life. Anything that catches my attention. I also exist in this ‘multiverse’ so in some sense it feels like a way of understanding myself and my existence.

How is your process like?

I don't do any preliminary sketches for my characters. I realised on hindsight that my creative block came from a place of desiring to be in control, probably influenced by my design background. So I go against that impulse by letting my characters manifest themselves organically and not dictating how they look.

It’s pretty straightforward: an idea comes into my head, I build the character and by the time I paint them, they're mostly finished and fit into my ‘multiverse’.

“There are no repeats. Like in the real world, everyone is unique and no two are totally the same.”

How many characters will there be in your ‘multiverse’? Is there an ultimate goal?

There are 854 characters so far, and I still have ideas that I have yet to act on. To be honest, my immediate goal would be to reach 1000 characters, but who knows? I just want my stories to be told.

Soon our conversation drew to a close, and Julius started laying out the Kebab Toy characters that he brought with him. Placed together, the small crowd of characters, were of various shapes and sizes, each handmade and unique. As he handled each Kebab Toy with such care, I considered how he knew intimately what each piece represented and was inspired by. I was witnessing Julius physically handle a fraction of his own ‘multiverse’!  

Kangblabla ~ Kebab Toys

Visited May 2023, published January 2024.