Graphic art

Apocalypse Kowloon: artist creates dystopian world based on a Hong Kong he's never seen

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 11:49am

Imagine a comic book set in a dystopian future Hong Kong, a post-apocalyptic metropolis inhabited by enormous robots and cyberpunk characters where people struggle for survival. Imagine a mash-up of Japanese anime and the Kowloon Walled City and old tong lau (tenement) neighbourhoods that look as if they have been nuked and overrun by machines.

Now imagine that the artist behind the endeavour has never set foot in the city and took inspiration from 1990s Hong Kong films such as John Woo’s Bullet in the Head and photos of the city. And that he chucked in what looked a dream job with Marvel Comics to come up with the concept.

But that’s exactly what happened to Nivanh Chanthara.

His prayers seemed to have been answered when Marvel Comics came calling in 2007, offering the Frenchman a job as concept artist on the animated show Iron Man: Armored Adventures. Then living in Paris, he snapped at the chance to design settings and characters to stand alongside the company’s superheroes.

His work was so well received, a game developer took him to Quebec two years later to work on a video game based on another Marvel character: Spider-Man.

You might think Chanthara had it made. After all, Marvel is one of the hottest entertainment brands around, with Hollywood studios scrambling to cash in with a slew of effects-laden film franchises (Marvel’s upcoming film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, is expected to bring in at least US$1 billion at the box office).

Not quite. Chanthara soon began to chafe at corporate constraints. The 38-year-old needed a creative outlet of his own, and decided he would invent a world where he would have complete control.

That’s how he began developing digital art project Babiru.

Growing up in France, Chanthara always had an interest in Asian culture (his father is Laotian, his mother French).

He’s a huge fan of Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell and 1990s Hong Kong films ( Bullet in the Head and John Woo’s Hard Boiled, along with Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide, are favourites) so it was only natural that his creative vision would be inspired by those works.

Having thought out the concept and Hong Kong-inspired backdrops, he recruited fellow artist Fred Rambaud to help with character design and the pair began releasing their marvellously imagined Akira-style cityscapes on the Deviant Art forum last year.

 “We don’t have a full plot yet, all we have right now is that Babiru is set in a dystopian future and is about the survival of its people,” he says. “From this simple premise we create our concepts.”

The Babiru series combines several techniques, including traditional drawing, overpainting on a photograph and 3D modelling.

Chantara is a largely self-taught artist. He started drawing in school, quickly gravitated to graffiti and street art, and worked as a graphic designer in urban sports (skateboarding, BMX racing and the like) and fashion for about 10 years before moving into concept art. 

He named the series Babiru, which is Persian for “Babel”, because Hong Kong’s vertiginous architecture reminded him of the Tower of Babel.

“I was educated at a Catholic school, so the story of Babel has great symbolism to me.”

Surprisingly, he has never set foot in Hong Kong – “I designed the scenes using photos of Kowloon and Hong Kong movies I’ve seen”, he says – but he hopes to visit the city eventually and see its “amazing contrasts” in person.

 For now, Babiru is only a passion project – Chanthara still maintains a day job at a Canadian video game development studio – and it might stay that way for a while.

 “Maybe one day we will have a real story behind Babiru and release a comic book or something,” he says. “But right now we’re just having fun.”