Difference Engine Travels the World: A Look Back at London Book Fair, Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and ALA 2024

Difference Engine signed our international distribution deal with Diamond Book Distributors in 2023 with the dream of seeing our comics on bookstore shelves across the world. As we visited book fairs and conferences overseas to learn more about the international comics community, we’re thrilled to have met so many people along the way who share the same vision as us. 2024 has really been a year of experimenting, trying, and learning, and we wanted to share some thoughts from our travels to London, Bologna, and San Diego.

London Book Fair

London Book Fair (LBF) was our first international book fair as clients of Diamond, and seeing our comics showcased on the Diamond Book Distributors stand made everything feel real! Our Publisher Felicia Low-Jimenez and Business Development Manager Charlene Shepherdson were able to learn more about the UK market and opportunities for us as a publisher of Southeast Asian comics. We also connected with other publishers around the world who were looking to do the same – diversify the global book market by publishing lesser-heard stories from their corner of the world. With our upcoming webcomic Tiger Girls in mind, we were excited to speak to webcomic publishers and ebook distributors to learn more about book trends and data that can help us grow our audience.

Our trip to London also included a bookstore tour which is of course the highlight of any book nerd’s itinerary! In Singapore where independent bookstores, especially those that specialise in comics, are incredibly rare and precious spaces, a bookstore tour is such a treat. Some of our stops included Waterstones, Gosh! Comics, and Forbidden Planet. At each stop, our eyes grew wide at the sheer scale of the manga and comic shelves and the diversity of titles available.

We noticed so many little details about these bookstores that gave their space a sense of community – handwritten book reviews, curated book stacks, and themed displays. All of it inspired us to imagine where DE comics could fit in someday on those shelves amongst titles from other well-loved publishers. Needless to say, we couldn’t help but bring home many of those books for ourselves! (It’s all for research, of course.)

We also had a chance to visit the Write Cut Rewrite exhibition at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries which was an interesting look into the invisible labour of editing in literature. Showcasing various drafts of famous manuscripts and abandoned works, it made us think about how we could render the typically unseen process of comic-making more visible and accessible to readers through experiences, activations, and workshops.

Bologna Children’s Book Fair

As a comics publisher, we felt right at home at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF). Our booth was located in the Comics Corner. This dedicated comics section of the fair was almost doubled in size compared to last year which was a great sign of the growing interest in comics globally! We had an exciting schedule full of meetings with publishers, marketing professionals, and illustrators from all around the world. Some highlights included chatting with Janna Morishima from Kids Comics Unite who shared so many insights with us, and meeting the team at Andrews McMeel who will be releasing US Editions of The Makers Club in August 2024, originally published by DE as our first comic series! It was truly a full-circle moment for us.

Our Design Lead Claire Low joined Felicia this time and she had much to share about the fair from an illustrator’s point of view. What set BCBF apart was how art could be encountered everywhere from the communal graffiti wall to the Illustrators Wall where artists could display their artwork. We brought prints illustrated by our in-house designers at DE and claimed a little corner of the wall just for Singapore! It was refreshing to see illustrators boldly approach publishers for a portfolio review which made BCBF a great space to connect with illustrators and potential comic creators. With so many comics available to browse, one easily got lost in the worlds of different illustrators amidst the hustle and bustle of the fair.

Felicia also shared some of her thoughts at New Comics From Southeast Asia: An Emerging Market, an all-women Southeast Asian comics panel with representatives from publishers in the Philippines as well as industry colleagues from Singapore. We were so happy to be able to put Southeast Asia on the map as a region with many different but shared cultures that are reflected in the range of comics coming out of our scene.

The ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition

The sprawling ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition (ALA) was a book lover’s fever dream where we were constantly surrounded by and talking to people who love reading – it’s definitely our kind of convention! As much as publishing is a business, it’s also a deeply human one where conversations and connections become part of the story. ALA proved that librarians are not only some of the loveliest people to talk to, but also people who shared our sense of humour with how quickly our comic badge ribbons were snatched up!

It was really encouraging for a young publisher like us to hear that some librarians were specifically looking at expanding their Southeast Asian collections. A common thread across these conferences and fairs has been an increasing emphasis on diversity, and we’re so heartened to meet many librarians who share that ethos and want to inspire young readers to read widely. We were also pleasantly surprised to see a ton of interest in our short comic Ada’s Adventure which we conceptualised as a resource for breaking down the elements of a comic for young readers. Physical copies made their rounds across ALA and we’re hoping they might even find their way into school libraries in America! You can read the Ada’s Adventure version here

We also had the chance to meet incredible creators such as Daniel Nayeri of the award-winning middle-grade novel The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams and Sabir Pirzada, writer for TV shows such as Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel! Their positive reactions to our work lit a fire inside us, and there’s definitely no better feeling than being able to share what you’ve created with the people whose work you love.

And finally, we got to have dinner with a few librarians and reunite with our friends at Diamond Book Distributors since officially inking our partnership deal at Frankfurt last year! After speaking with them over good food, company, and drinks, there’s no doubt in our mind that they truly are the nerds we need.

Thank you to everyone who spent time speaking and sharing with us! We’ve learnt so much and are excited to plan for the road ahead. Look out for us at Frankfurt Book Fair from 16–20 October 2024!

All The Things She Said: A Look Back on International Women’s Day 2024

Just as much as it’s a clarion call for equality, International Women’s Day is also a reminder that many conversations are hard-won only by those who have tried to make space for them. For #IWD2024 on 8 March, we spent our Friday evening with Andeasyand and Griselda Gabriele, two of our creators who have spearheaded the kinds of conversations that Difference Engine wants to spotlight with the DE Shorts imprint.

A full house gathered at Book Bar in celebration of womanhood and all it’s messy and glorious parts. In discussing Andeasyand’s A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge: A Period Tragicomedy and Griselda Gabriele’s Bearing Witness (written by Vinita Ramani whose presence was missed) both depicting the lived experiences of woman, our speakers did not shy away from bold reflections, searing honesty, and candid humour.

Without any gentle tiptoeing, the conversation didn’t miss a beat as it opened with Andeasyand’s unhurried detailing of the awkward but relatable moments that arise while menstruating. Pains, stains, and pad wedgies were discussed in the same breath as her frustrations (of which many of us share) with upmarket pads and the period tax—the experience of unjustified shame being the most relatable point of all as nods and warm laughter rippled through the audience.

Just as Andeasyand isn’t afraid to turn period narratives on its head, Griselda spoke boldly about bringing authenticity to a difficult subject on Bearing Witness. Sharing about the process of translating Vinita’s grief for Mithra, her unborn child, into illustrations, Griselda reflected on the importance of drawing boundaries and respecting the “little things” that make up her story. Through open conversations with Vinita which eventually grew into a friendship, Griselda was able to observe and share in Vinita’s particular experience which lent itself to illustrations that captured the emotional layers without falling into the trap of painting overarching narratives of grief in broad strokes.

Griselda recalled noticing small, meaningful moments: how even amidst the sadness of losing Mithra, Vinita still thought of him with a lot of reverence; that even though it was a painful experience for Vinita, it was a spiritual one for her as well. Similarly, Griselda was able to sense how Vinita’s young daughter, Sahana, was a constant beacon of joy and love in the midst this tragedy. These nuances took visual form with the motif of the marigold flower as a callback to Hindu traditions and imagery and evocative moments between Sahana and Vinita that remain true to her emotional journey.

The subject of normalising experiences was also at the centre of the conversation that night. Working on A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge as both the writer and illustrator, Andeasyand initially took to drawing to articulate thoughts that she could not express in words. She envisioned it initially as a short zine, but realised that it needed to be told as separate stories. What eventually emerged was not only a story from one woman’s perspective, but a collage that saw the experience of menstruation as something as diverse as the kinds of bodies that bleed. 

For Griselda, it was also important to recognise pregnancy loss as a profoundly emotional experience that isn’t necessarily captured by medical diagnosis or physical symptoms. Her challenge was to paint a picture of the profound and ineffable loss, and she shared about the research she did to bring this much-needed perspective. She hopes Bearing Witness is not just a recollection but also a resource for women who might be going through the same thing. 

“I thought about Southeast Asian perspectives and how they were absent from existing comics and books about miscarriage… a lot of them were from western sources which were medical, but I wanted to bring the emotional perspective.” — Griselda Gabriele

Inevitably, the discussion about representation and incredibly personal experiences also brings to mind the question of what isn’t shared or what has been left off the page. Andeasyand spoke more about self-censorship and having to run up against the question of who A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge is written for.

“As a hijabi, can I write about this? Can I portray a cooch on the page?” — Andeasyand

In spite of her doubts, she shares that speaking to other women helps her to introspect and better understand the inclination to avoid certain topics. It is also a reminder that even though she’s found her stride as an adult, there are things that might loom scary and large in the mind of someone younger than her. She finally realises: “the book is written for the little girl who can’t get answers anywhere”.

The conversation ended with levity as Andeasyand spoke about the phrase that framed her comic: tragicomedy. The audience nodded in recognition of moments of shared awkwardness, mutual frustration, and collective indignation that gives way to a sense of found community that understands what it is to want to laugh and cry at the same time when someone readily offers a pad to you in a public toilet or when strangers offer help to someone crying on the street. The word “sisterhood” also resonated with Griselda who fostered an incredibly special bond with Vinita through the creation of Bearing Witness. “There’s a camaderie that happens and people that know will understand,” Griselda shared. “I don’t think Bearing Witness would be the way it is without our friendship because (Vinita) shared a lot of herself and the experience with me.”

“The thing about friendship is that they make you realise how deep that thing is because only with friendships is there trust… our experiences can be so lonely. It is a burden shared, a burden halved.” — Andeasyand

Stepping Into Other Worlds – A Look at Difference Engine’s 2024 Catalogue!

After many months of brainstorming, tinkering, and hopeful dreaming, we’re excited to finally have our 2024 catalogue out in the world! In the works are five new projects and titles which stretch from Southeast Asian fantasy to narratives couched in the chaos of everyday reality.

In the spirit of building new things and reaching new communities, we’ve also set our sights on our very first web and audio comics which we hope will expand our definition of comics and make our stories more accessible to fans out there.

Download our catalogue here or read on to find out more!

Tiger Girls

By Felicia Low-Jimenez and Claire Low
Category: Young Adult Fiction
Theme: Fantasy, Mythology
Release: Jul 2024 (webcomic) / 2025 (print)

Marked by their zodiac sign, the Tiger Girls live in constant fear and anxiety, mounting their resistance against impending attacks while living in the shadows.

Behind the scenes, young Suling resentfully toils as a record-keeper, while yearning to be on the frontlines, fighting alongside her sign sisters. However, an unexpected visitor arriving at their hidden location will upend her world entirely…

Chinese superstition would have us believe that girls born in the year of the tiger are bringers of bad luck. Tiger Girls turns that myth onto its head in an epic tale that features amphibious water warriors, mysterious islands, and an incredible cast of strong female characters. If you love stories that take place in a fantastical Southeast Asian setting brought to life by a manga-inspired art style, this is one you won’t want to miss.

Tiger Girls will be released episodically as a free eight-part webcomic beginning in July 2024. The print edition which includes never-before-seen bonus content will be released in 2025.

To the Last Gram

By: Shreya Davies and Vanessa Wong
Category: Young Adult Fiction
Theme: Eating Disorders, Mental Health
Release: Oct 2024 (print) / 2025 (audio comic)

Through her school days, where she must negotiate a precarious balancing act between her culture and fitting in, to her teenage years where appetites must be managed to keep up appearances, to her early adulthood where responsibilities feel overwhelming, Divya journeys from feelings of emptiness to once again finding fulfilment within.

Combining evocative comics and expressive prose, To the Last Gram is an honest and hopeful story of feeling at odds with and finding a home in one’s community, family, and body, and of the yet-unfurling journey to embrace the fullness of life.

To the Last Gram is the fourth title in our DE Shorts imprint which spotlights stories of lived and shared experiences around a range of social issues. Shreya Davies offers a sensitive and nuanced take on the heavy subject of eating disorders in her depiction of Divya’s relationship with food, body image, and identity across various stages of her life. Accompanied by Vanessa Wong’s endearingly off-kilter illustrations, mundane moments are transformed into evocative scenes of modern anxiety as Divya navigates the struggles of cultural acceptance, growing up, and fitting in.

The October 2024 print release of the comic will be followed by an audio comic adaptation in 2025 – a growing audio format which not only translates the dialogue in comics, but uses sound effects, narration, and dialogue to capture all of its visual elements into an immersive narrative experience.

Unbecoming Maya

By Andeasyand
Category: Young Adult Fiction 13+
Theme: Menstruation, Coming-of-Age
Release: 2026

For as long as Maya can remember, she has meandered through life at the same rhythm: Waking up at 6.30AM. Putting the kettle on. Making oatmeal for breakfast and leaving it to cool to the perfect temperature. Straightening her bed. Getting into her school uniform. Gobbling said breakfast down to rush out of the house to meet her best friend Jacob.

But one day, everything changes.

First she sees it in the little things. Then it comes all at once.

As Maya seeks to hold onto her sense of self in a changing body, she must also navigate the unspoken expectations and traditions of her community as they start to reveal themselves.

Unbecoming Maya is a coming-of-age story that explores the intricacies of adolescence, friendship, and bodily changes — and that sometimes, help can be found in the most unlikely places.

After the overwhelming response for A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge: A Period Tragicomedy, Andeasyand returns with her first full-length comic, Unbecoming Maya. Colourful musings on adolescence, friendship, and bodily changes are captured in this coming-of-age story illustrated in her signature whimsical style as she continues the conversation about menstruation and periods in an even bigger way.

Magical Sweet Gula 2 & 3

By Johanes Park & Jessica Leman
Category: Children’s Fiction
Theme: Fantasy, Friendship
Release: 2025 & 2026

The adventures of Gula and her friends continue! Stay tuned for the next two instalments in the Magical Sweet Gula trilogy, which will see more spellbinding showdowns, adventures spanning both the Terran and magical worlds, unexpected encounters with new characters, and a whole lot more delicious treats!

If you haven’t had enough of Gula Gulali, the sweet-toothed magi returns for more inter-dimensional hijinks across the decadently illustrated worlds of magic and non-magic in Magical Sweet Gula 2 & 3! See Gula continue to turn more things into dessert with her magi powers in the final two instalments of their Magical Sweet Gula trilogy.

DELAY: A Comics Anthology

Co-editors: Charis Loke and Paolo Chikiamco
Category: Adult Fiction
Theme: Anthology
Release: 2025

Looming milestones, and missed connections. Resisting mainstream expectations, and doing life at your own pace. What does DELAY mean to you? Writers and illustrators from all around Southeast Asia take on this theme in an anthology curated by guest editors Charis Loke and Paolo Chikiamco, telling stories close to their hearts while exploring the potential of the comics medium to depict the passage of time.

We had such a blast with SOUND: A Comic Anthology that we’re launching a second collection of short comic fiction, DELAY: A Comics Anthology! We’re inviting Southeast Asian creators to submit story pitches that interpret the theme of “delay” in unexpected ways. Creators whose pitches are chosen will get a chance to work with the powerhouse editorial team made up of Malaysian illustrator and educator Charis Loke as well as Filipino prose and comics writer Paolo Chikiamco who was previously a contributor to SOUND. Click here for more details on how to submit your pitch!

Creator Bios

Felicia Low-Jimenez believes that stories have the power to change the world. She’s also one half of the writing team behind the best-selling Sherlock Sam series of children’s books. Find her at www.sherlocksam.wordpress.com.

Claire Low is a highly visual individual with an interest in telling stories. Her works range from illustrations and graphic design to filmmaking and scriptwriting. In her spare time, she draws fantasy-inspired works on her art account on Instagram: @comatomato.

Shreya Davies has edited comics, literary fiction, and non-fiction publications. Her short stories have appeared in The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (Vol 4) and Mahogany Journal. She never leaves home without a book in tow.

Vanessa Wong is an illustrator and graphic designer who finds beauty in mundanity. Drawing inspiration from people and interactions in her daily life, she hopes to use her art to find humour in and celebrate such moments. When she isn’t drawing, you can find her somewhere, staring at nothing. Instagram: @tradervans.

Andeasyand is a Nurulhuda Izyan who wrote and illustrated A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge: A Period Tragicomedy. She peddles puns and observations surrounding mental health, the period cycle, and everything in between through illustrations and long captions. When she isn’t, she is making a crafty mess.

Johanes Park and Jessica Leman are an artist-writer couple based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Inspired by Johanes’ childhood experiences growing up with both Korean and Indonesian identities, the duo first created Magical Sweet Gula together in 2015, to share a story of acceptance and friendship with young people who feel “different”.

Charis Loke is a Malaysian illustrator and educator telling stories with images. Her work takes root in both fictional and real-world cultures, whether she’s making fantasy maps or board games about Malaysian markets and kaki lima. She has an MA in Visual Sociology from Goldsmiths and has an interest in drawing and mapping as arts research. She also edits and curates non-fiction comics and visuals for Southeast Asian nonprofits and publishers, including co-editing SOUND: A Comics Anthology, published by Difference Engine. Visit her website here: www.charisloke.com.

Paolo Chikiamco, from the Philippines, is a lawyer and writer of prose, comics, and interactive fiction. His prose has been published in anthologies such as The Sea is Ours and The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction, and his interactive wrestling novel Slammed! was released by Choice of Games. As an editor, he put together Alternative Alamat, an anthology of stories that reimagine Philippine myth and folklore. As a comics writer, he has collaborated with some of the country’s most talented artists.

*Titles and illustrations are not final.

For updates on these titles and more, sign up for our e-newsletter.

If you have a story you’d like to tell, click here to find out more details on submitting your pitch or manuscript to us. We’d love to hear from you!

[PRESS RELEASE] Difference Engine Unveils 2024 Catalogue

Illustration for Tiger Girls

1 March 2024, Singapore — Difference Engine is proud to announce its 2024 catalogue which includes five new projects and titles across the adult, young adult, and children’s categories. In line with the independent publisher’s mission of putting Southeast Asian voices on the map, this upcoming slate of projects includes works by creators from Singapore and Indonesia as well as a comics anthology featuring writers and illustrators across the region. 

2024–2025 marks a series of firsts for Difference Engine with its debut webcomic and audio comic accompanying the print release of upcoming titles Tiger Girls and To the Last Gram respectively. Tiger Girls, a young adult fantasy comic written by Felicia Low-Jimenez and illustrated by Claire Low, is the graphic adaptation of Low-Jimenez’s short story first published in Singaporean speculative fiction anthology Fish Eats Lion Redux. Against the backdrop of a tropical Southeast Asian island made fantastical by Low’s manga-inspired art style, a restless young record-keeper, Suling, reckons with the Chinese superstition that casts girls born in her zodiac year, the tiger, as bringers of bad luck. From July 2024 onwards, readers can follow Suling’s ensuing quest to find her place amongst the island’s Water Tiger warriors as Tiger Girls gets released episodically as a free eight-part webcomic. Future fans of the series can also expect the subsequent print edition in 2025 to include never-before-seen bonus content.

Expanding on Difference Engine’s DE Shorts imprint, To the Last Gram is the fourth in this series of short comics that spotlight stories of lived and shared experiences around a range of social issues. Shreya Davies’ lyrical prose provides a gentle touch to the heavy subject of eating disorders in her depiction of Divya’s tumultuous relationship with food and body image. it is underscored by Vanessa Wong’s endearingly off-kilter illustrations which transform typically mundane moments into evocative scenes of modern anxiety. Young adult readers will find familiarity with Divya’s struggles of cultural acceptance, growing up, and fitting in as the narrative traverses between various stages of her life. The October 2024 print release of the comic will be followed by an audio comic adaptation in 2025 – a growing format for graphic narratives that translates the immensely visual medium of comics and its illustrative features into immersive experiences through sound effects, narration, and dialogue.

Illustration for To the Last Gram

Low-Jimenez, also the Co-Founder and Publisher of Difference Engine, shared, “Venturing into the world of web and audio comics is a chance to reach out to a wider audience than ever before. Any opportunity to make comics more accessible is worth the challenge, and we are also interested to see how we can foster new communities and fandoms around our works.”

Illustration for Unbecoming Maya

Young adult readers can also look forward to Andeasyand’s Unbecoming Maya, slated for release in 2026. Following the success of her 2021 DE Short A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge: A Period Tragicomedy, Andeasyand continues her colourful musings on adolescence, friendship, and bodily changes in this coming-of-age story illustrated in her signature whimsical style. Exploring the topic in a full-length comic this time, Unbecoming Maya might be a departure from the short vignette-style format of A Drip. A Drop. A Deluge, but still centres the conversation about menstruation and periods in an even bigger way.

Gula Gulali of The Magical Sweet Gula

Adding to Difference Engine’s children’s titles is Indonesian artist-writer couple Johanes Park and Jessica Leman with The Magical Sweet Gula 2 & 3, the final two instalments of their Magical Sweet Gula trilogy coming out in 2025 and 2026. Gula Gulali returns for more inter-dimensional hijinks across the decadently illustrated worlds of magic and non-magic as she continues to turn more things into dessert with her magi powers.

Rounding off Difference Engine’s forthcoming titles is DELAY: A Comics Anthology, the publisher’s second collection of short comic fiction following SOUND: A Comic Anthology. As part of the anthology, Southeast Asian creators are invited to submit story pitches that interpret the theme of “delay” in unexpected ways. Creators whose pitches are chosen will get a chance to work with a veteran editorial team comprising Malaysian illustrator and educator Charis Loke in a reprisal of her role as co-editor of SOUND, as well as Filipino prose and comics writer Paolo Chikiamco who was previously a contributor to SOUND.

Illustration for DELAY: A Comics Anthology

“It’s the beginning of a milestone year for Difference Engine as we make room for more ambitious projects that push the boundaries of how stories can be told,” added Low-Jimenez. “Especially with our first foray into the US and international markets together with Diamond Book Distributors, it’s an exciting year of growing and learning for us while still staying true to our core of creating space for lesser-known stories.”

Check out Difference Engine’s 2024 Catalogue here.

Follow Difference Engine on:

For enquiries, contact:

Olivia Djawoto
Marketing and Communications Manager
Difference Engine

DELAY: A Comics Anthology

Update (24 May): Round 1 results are out and shortlisted creators have been notified.



Difference Engine invites writers and illustrators to submit story pitches to our comics anthology, which will be published in 2025! DELAY: A Comics Anthology is an initiative to develop and showcase the talents of local and regional creators. Coming on board as guest editors are Charis Loke and Paolo Chikiamco, both veterans in the Southeast Asian comics industry.

We’re looking for comics that:

  • Are original fiction of any genre in the theme of “delay”.
  • Are inspired by Southeast Asia.
  • Can potentially be developed into a finished comic of 10–20 pages.
  • Are in black & white.
  • Are written in the English language. Where integral to the story, the use of non-English languages in dialogue or as sound effects is welcome.

Creators must be:

  • Living in Southeast Asia.
  • Of Asian descent.
  • Aged 18 and above upon submission.

There will be two rounds of selection: Round 1 (Call for Submissions) and Round 2 (Final Selection for Publication).

Stories selected for publication will receive a page rate of US$30.

Submission Guidelines: Round 1 (Call for Submissions)

Submissions must include:

  • A written story pitch (500-800 words) outlining the plot, including the ending, typed in Arial, font size 11, single-spaced.
  • One page of thumbnails or one page of concept sketches of characters/settings.
  • A portfolio sample of three illustrations. 
  • A short biography of each creator (50-100 words).
  • A completed and signed entry form.
  • All of the above needs to be compiled into a single PDF file no more than 10MB.
  • Label the PDF file with the title of the story.
  • Email the file to submissions@differenceengine.sg with the subject header “DELAY Submission: [title of the story]”.
  • All submissions must be in soft copy. Difference Engine will not accept any hard copy submissions.

The deadline for Round 1 (Call for Submissions) is 26 April 2024, 11.59pm GMT +8.

For more details, read our rules and regulations at the bottom of this webpage, or download the PDF (they’re the same!).


Entry Form (PDF) / Entry Form (Word Doc)

Rules and Regulations (updated 29 Feb 2024)


Photo: Goh Choon Ean

Charis Loke

Charis Loke has been found drawing book covers, fantasy maps, board games, street protests, in the jungle, on a boat, and by a glacier. As an editor and curator, she’s worked with close to a hundred Southeast Asian comic creators and artists, including co-editing SOUND: A Comics Anthology, published by Difference Engine. She’s illustrated for Netflix, Orbit, Macmillan, Subterranean Press, and Mekong Review, among others, and has an MA in Visual Sociology with an interest in mapping as arts research.

“I’m excited for stories that use relationships between text and visuals to craft specific sensations of time on the page. Make us feel! Make us wonder! Make us see the world differently, without being didactic about it.”

Paolo Chikiamco

Paolo Chikiamco, from the Philippines, is a writer of prose, comics, and interactive fiction. His prose has been published in anthologies such as The Sea is Ours and The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction, and his interactive wrestling novel Slammed! was released by Choice of Games. As an editor, he put together Alternative Alamat, an anthology of stories that reimagine Philippine myth and folklore. As a comics writer, he has co-created titles such as Mythspace, Muros, and A Sparrow’s Roar, and has been a Category Judge for the Graphic Literature category of the Philippine National Book Awards.

“I’d like to see stories that are comics stories first and foremost, submissions that are created with an eye to the strengths and capabilities of comics as a medium, with modes of expression that simply wouldn’t work anywhere else.

On a similar note, I’d like to see Southeast Asian stories that revel in that identity, where creators don’t feel a need to over-contextualise or simplify for a hypothetical “global” audience. DE is proudly Southeast Asian, this anthology is proudly Southeast Asian, and we want your stories to be as well.”


Interested in submitting but need more details first? Join the editors for a virtual info session! Facilitated by the DE team, the sessions will cover the following, and more:

  • Introductions to Difference Engine, the DE team, and the anthology’s editors.
  • What the theme DELAY means to us, and inspiration for potential stories.
  • Insight into the editorial process contributors can look forward to.
  • Tips on preparing a compelling and comprehensive submission.
  • Q&A.

Who knows, you might even find a potential collaborator amongst your fellow attendees!

Both sessions will cover similar content. However, the Q&A segment will vary based on the questions raised by attendees.

Session 1: Wed, 20 March 2024, 8pm to 9pm GMT + 8, via Zoom (Register here)
Session 2: Sat, 6 April 2024, 3pm to 4pm GMT + 8, via Zoom (Register here)

Please sign up for a session using the respective links above. The Zoom link will be sent to you closer to the session’s date.


1. Theme

The theme of this comics anthology is “delay”. The stories must be inspired by and/or take place within Southeast Asia. The theme could be interpreted 

  • As an element of the plot and/or
  • As a comics technique.

2. Content Eligibility

Content must be:

  • Original fiction of any genre, and not currently under review or previously published by a publisher. We accept stories that have been self-published on personal blogs, personal social media accounts, personal websites, platforms like Webtoons and Tapas, e-newsletters like Substack, Patreon, or elsewhere. We will also accept excerpts from longer work if they can be understood as a standalone without the need for additional context.
  • 10–20 pages long.
  • Black & white.
  • Written in the English language. Where integral to the story, the use of non-English languages in dialogue or as sound effects is welcome.
  • Suitable for readers aged 13 and above, containing no explicit content, including but not limited to graphic language, depictions of violence, drugs, and sex.
  • Content that appears in the submission must not be output from any generative AI tools that draw from copyrighted material.

Creators/creative teams whose stories are selected will be working with the anthology editors to prepare it for publication. Selected creators/creative teams should expect – and look forward to! – a professional and highly collaborative editorial process intended to support the development of the story to its full potential.

3. Creator Eligibility

Creators must be:

  • Living in Southeast Asia, of Asian descent.
  • Aged 18 and above upon submission.
  • Creators can submit as an individual or as a team.
  • Multiple submissions are accepted, up to a maximum of 3 submissions per creator.
  • Creators/creative teams must own all copyrights to their submitted work.
  • Difference Engine reserves the right to request for verification of eligibility.

4. Submission Guidelines: Round 1 (Call for Submissions)

Submissions must include:

  • A written story pitch (500-800 words) outlining the plot, including the ending, typed in Arial, font size 11, single-spaced.
  • One page of thumbnails or one page of concept sketches of characters/settings.
  • A portfolio sample of three illustrations. 
  • A short biography of each creator (50-100 words).
  • A completed and signed entry form.
  • All of the above needs to be compiled into a single PDF file no more than 10MB.
  • Label the PDF file with the title of the story.
  • Email the file to submissions@differenceengine.sg with the subject header “DELAY Submission: [title of the story]”.
  • All submissions must be in soft copy. Difference Engine will not accept any hard copy submissions.

Timeline for this round:

Round 1 Call for Submissions closes on 26 April 2024, 11.59pm GMT +8.

Shortlisted creators will be informed by 24 May 2024 if their submission has been selected for Round 2 (Final Selection for Publication).

5. Submission Guidelines: Round 2 (Final Selection for Publication)

Creators/creative teams will be requested to submit:

  • A full script with page and dialogue instructions.
  • Five pages of thumbnails.
  • One page of finished comics.

Timeline for this round:

Round 2 submissions close on 16 August 2024, 11.59pm GMT +8.

Final creators/creative teams whose stories are selected for publication will be informed by 27 September 2024.

6. Publication Details

Creators/creative teams selected after Round 2 will be offered a contract in September 2024.

DELAY: A Comics Anthology will be published in print and digital formats.

Estimated Publication Date: September 2025

7. Payment

Stories selected for publication will receive a page rate of US$30 (or the creators’ local currency equivalent). Creative teams may determine the payment division between them.

Each creator will receive two complimentary copies (up to a maximum of six copies per submission).

8. Rights Requested

Exclusive first world anthology rights for one year from the date of publication in both print and digital formats.

Continuing non-exclusive rights to print and reprint as this anthology for 10 years from the date of publication in both print and digital formats.

Copyright to the published work will remain with the creator(s).


Difference Engine will take all reasonable efforts to ensure that your personal data is securely handled according to the guidelines set out by the Personal Data Protection Act of Singapore.


Q: Which countries are considered part of Southeast Asia?

A: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.

Q: I am of Asian descent but not living in Southeast Asia. Am I eligible to submit to the anthology?

A: Unfortunately not. DELAY: A Comics Anthology was initiated to offer opportunities to creators who reside in Southeast Asia. Therefore, all members of the creative team must also reside in Southeast Asia.

Q: How do I show proof of residence in Southeast Asia?

We accept documents that have both your legal name and residential address printed on it, such as your recent utilities or telecommunications bill (not more than six months old). You will need to scan your documents and email them to us when requested.

Q: If I am not eligible to submit to this anthology, will there be other opportunities to pitch my work to DE?

Yes! If you have a story that you would like to see published, please head over to our general submissions page here.

Q: Do the portfolio samples need to be linked to the story I am pitching for DELAY?

A: They do not need to be linked.

Q: Do the portfolio samples need to be in black & white?

A: They do not need to be in black & white.

Q: Can I submit AI-generated content for the pitch?

A: No, you may not submit AI-generated content in your submission. Difference Engine reserves the right to request to view working files in cases where a submission is suspected to include AI-generated content.

Q: How many stories will be included in the anthology?

A: Similar to SOUND: A Comics Anthology, there will be 13 to 15 stories in DELAY.


Entry Form (PDF) / Entry Form (Word Doc)

Rules and Regulations (updated 29 Feb 2024)

Updated 29 February 2024

Difference Engine reserves the right to amend these rules and regulations at any time without prior notice. We will take reasonable efforts to communicate key changes.

[PRESS RELEASE] What’s The “Delay”?: Difference Engine Launches Open Call for Second Southeast Asian Comics Anthology

1 March 2024, Singapore — Difference Engine is excited to launch its open call for Southeast Asian illustrators and writers to submit story pitches for DELAY: A Comics Anthology, the Singapore-based comics publisher’s second collection of short comic fiction. The anthology is slated for publication in 2025. 

From 1 March – 26 April 2024, creators can submit their ideas for Southeast Asian inspired narratives that interpret the theme of “delay” in unexpected ways. With the one-word prompt as a broad canvas from which a multitude of angles can be explored, creators are encouraged to put their own spin on the subject whether it is about looming milestones, resisting mainstream expectations, or doing life at one’s own pace.

Following the success of Difference Engine’s first anthology SOUND: A Comics Anthology (2020), Malaysian illustrator and educator Charis Loke reprises her role as co-editor of the anthology alongside Filipino prose and comics writer Paolo Chikiamco who was previously one of the contributing creators for SOUND. Both veterans in the Southeast Asian comics industry, Loke and Chikiamco’s combined experience in editorial direction, comics creation, and visual storytelling speak to their capability as an editorial team guided by creative collaboration and a strong sense of identity. 

Speaking in anticipation of the forthcoming submissions, Loke commented, “I’m excited for stories that use relationships between text and visuals to craft specific sensations of time on the page. Make us feel! Make us wonder! Make us see the world differently without being didactic about it.”

Chikiamco added: “I’d like to see stories that are comics stories first and foremost, submissions that are created with an eye to the strengths and capabilities of comics as a medium, with modes of expression that simply wouldn’t work anywhere else”.

The open call anthology format has been crucial in Difference Engine’s initiative to discover, develop and showcase the talents of local and regional creators. Difference Engine Co-Founder and Publisher Felicia Low-Jimenez remarked: “As a young independent press, SOUND was pivotal in establishing Difference Engine within the regional comics scene. The anthology helped to connect us to so many talented creators across Southeast Asia, many of whom we’re excited to potentially work with in the future. Particularly with our new foothold in the US and international markets through our partnership with Diamond Book Distributors, we hope DELAY will present new opportunities for us to grow and amplify Southeast Asian voices”.

Echoing Low-Jimenez’s sentiments, Chikiamco also concluded: “Difference Engine is proudly Southeast Asian, this anthology is proudly Southeast Asian, and we want (the) stories to be as well”.

Follow Difference Engine on:

For enquiries, contact:

Olivia Djawoto
Marketing and Communications Manager
Difference Engine


Singapore-based animation studio Robot Playground Media (RPM) has picked up rights to Work-Life Balance: Malevolent Managers and Folkloric Freelancers (WLB) by Wayne Rée and Benjamin Chee, published by Difference Engine (DE). The book, a genre-blending graphic novel that draws on Asian mythology while taking a wry look at corporate life, won Best Literary Work and the coveted Book of the Year at the 2023 Singapore Book Awards. It will now be developed into an animated comedy series for audiences across various platforms and territories.

RPM’s co-founder and showrunner Ervin Han will lead the development out of Singapore, together with the studio’s creative teams in Indonesia and Malaysia. He previously created the award-winning local adult animation Downstairs that ran for three seasons on Netflix and meWATCH, and is producing A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, an adult horror animation that won Mediacorp’s Content Development Pitch in 2022. He is also currently in production directing The Violinist, a feature-length animation co-produced between Singapore and Spain with both countries providing funding support.

Rée and Chee’s book uses an intriguing juxtaposition of comics and prose to spin a fresh yet familiar tale about a multinational corporate run by demons called The Company whose mission is to end the world. With its new APAC office, folklore creatures like pontianaks, manananggals, raksasis, and ba jiao guis are assimilated into corporate life where they find new meaning in dead-end work and truly hellish bosses.

The team is aiming to put the series into production this year and will be looking to partner up with co-producers and platforms on what they see as a unique but universally appealing international project aimed at youths and working professionals that weaves a rich, colourful Asian cultural and mythological tapestry with a much-needed reflection on soul-draining work culture and bosses from hell.

“Wayne and Ben’s book is a little miracle. It combines our love of Asian mythologies and its folkloric ghouls with a satirical study of the soul-crushing pit that is corporate life,” said Han. “So many of our ideas gelled quickly when I sat down with both creators to discuss what we all envision for the show – a contemporary, genre-infused adult comedy about bosses from hell that also contemplates the things we give up in the name of making a living.”

“As fans of Downstairs and RPM’s animation, we’re thrilled to be working with them,” said Chee and Rée. “We already had faith that they would do the book justice – but after speaking with Ervin, we’re absolutely certain that they’ll elevate the world we’ve created. Work-Life Balance is a love letter to the stories we grew up with and the craft of storytelling. RPM gets that completely and are expanding on it in a way that plays to the strengths of animation.”

“We are very excited to work with Robot Playground Media to adapt Work-Life Balance into an animated TV series,” said Felicia Low-Jimenez, Publisher at Difference Engine. “We’ve long admired the work they’ve done, and we can’t wait to see Wayne and Ben’s dream of a world full of overlong meetings and pesky press releases being liberated by magic and mayhem on the small screen!”

For enquiries, contact:
Tracy Tam (General Manager, Robot Playground Media) at tracy@robotplaygroundmedia.com
Charlene Shepherdson (Business Development Manager, Difference Engine) at readcomics@differenceengine.sg

Robot Playground Media is an award-winning animation studio based in Singapore.  We produce original IP and provide a range of production services including 2D/3D animation, visual effects, and motion graphics. ‍ We have produced original and adapted IP-to-series for Disney, Warner Bros Discovery, Paramount, and Mediacorp, among others. Robot Playground Media was founded in 2013 and is a subsidiary of Singapore and London-based 108 Media.

Difference Engine is an independent comics publisher based in Singapore. We are inspired by stories from Asia, and we are committed to publishing diverse, well-written, and beautifully illustrated comics of all genres and ages. We collaborate closely with Southeast Asian creators, both new and experienced, with genuine and thought-provoking ideas to share. Difference Engine was founded in 2018 and is part of the Potato Productions group of companies.

Meet the Creators: Magical Sweet Gula

Hailing from Jakarta, Indonesia, Jessica Leman and Johanes Park are the creator duo behind Magical Sweet Gula. Difference Engine chats with the husband-and-wife team about their experience working together, how their identities have informed the story and its themes, and what readers can look forward to as the series progresses!

DE: Congratulations, Jessica and Johanes, on the release of your comic!

J&J: Thank you!

DE: What is it like working in a husband-wife team? Which parts of the process would you consider “sweet” (good), and which parts would you consider “spicy” (challenging)?

J&J: The “spicy” parts were when we sometimes needed to sacrifice our after-work hours on weekdays to work on Gula. We consider this challenging because we each have our own problems and exhaustion from our workplaces. We didn’t have the luxury of time to relax and talk about our day at the office.

The “sweet” part is that we never run out of discussion topics and can research ideas, concepts, and references everyday. We play games, go to bookstores, watch movies together, and discuss them together.

DE: Besides being comic creators, both of you juggle full-time work – Jessica as a digital marketer, and Johanes as a university lecturer. How do you balance your time between your day jobs and your creative pursuits?

J&J: We’ve set a rule that we will develop our comic project for at least one hour per day. We’ve made it a habit. So we still have time to do pending things from work, or other tasks needed, and prevent things from piling up too much near the deadline.

DE: Magical Sweet Gula was originally conceptualised and self-published online in a webcomic format. What were some challenges both of you faced when trying to adapt the comic to a print format?

How does the change in publication format affect the storytelling aspect of Magical Sweet Gula, if at all?

J&J: We are glad Gula has finally been adapted into a print format. With webcomics, people usually encounter many distractions as they read them from a computer or smartphone. We tried not to bring up more serious topics in the webcomic format as it was intended for “short attention span content” — something funny and light. So to be honest, making Gula in a webcomic format was more challenging for us.

The other reason is because we are more familiar with printed formats. We have been used to reading manga since we were young.

DE: What would you say is the biggest difference between the Gula webcomic and the print comic book Magical Sweet Gula?

J&J: In the previous webcomic format, we were advised to feature cakes that are more “general”, for the readers’ benefit. We are glad to be able to realise our idea of using Indonesian sweets and snacks in this printed version of Gula.

The development of Gula and Yoga’s friendship is explained in more detail in the print comic book, which makes Gula’s character more “natural”. Gula is not a perfect girl who always has good behaviour and attitude. She can sometimes be angry at and disappointed in people.

DE: Magical Sweet Gula touches on some heavier themes like bullying and trying to fit in. Why was it important to you to ground Gula’s experiences in real-world issues and make it the heart of the comic?

Johanes: Magical Sweet Gula is actually my way of pouring out my feelings of alienation in my birth country and my parent’s country. Self-discovery is difficult for mixed-race and/or transnational children. It’s important because these kinds of people need to “create” (not to find) their own meaning, existence. We are disconnected from our ancestors, what we consider good or bad can be reversed in both countries, and it can be confusing even for adults. 

The role of adults is also important (that’s why Miss Sacha is an influential character in this story) to understand and be able to guide these mixed race and/or transnational children on their journey to create their own meaning. That “journey” is the big theme of Magical Sweet Gula and it will be continue in the next volume.

DE: Who is your favourite character in Magical Sweet Gula, and why?

Johanes: Sally, who also suffers because of her identity. The way she vents to other people is really relatable to me. I also like Yoga because I aspire to be more like him — not afraid of new things.

Jessica: Gula! I really feel for her when she needs to be considerate with other people. Also, I want full, fluffy, pink hair like her, haha.

DE: The original Gula webcomic was published in Bahasa Indonesia, with many of the quips and snack recipes strongly influenced by Indonesian sweets and street food. The print version of the comic has been adapted to English to suit a more general audience.

Were there any concerns about how well the writing and snacks would translate to readers who may not be familiar with Indonesia?

J&J: We are currently growing up in a more global society and have sufficient technology literacy. Nowadays, when kids find something like an unfamiliar word their curiosity will immediately lead them to do a search in a search engine like Google — or so we hope. So we honestly do not really have any such concerns.

Secondly, we are proud of these Indonesian snacks and want to adopt the mentality of “This is good, you should know about this!”. If people are familiar with kimbap and onigiri because of K-dramas and manga, then people could become familiar with lemper and they can start learning about it from our comics. If people from other countries can be that confident about their food, why can’t Indonesians?

DE: Which of you is the bigger snack fiend, and what is their favourite snack?

Jessica: Jo is. He can’t live without his (minimum) two cups of coffee a day, with sweet accompaniments such as roti gambang, his favourite. He also likes banana chips.

DE: What is one snack/street food each of you really wanted to include in Magical Sweet Gula? Did it manage to make an appearance? (If not, will it be included in Volume 2?)

J&J: There are so many! Yes, we will try to include them in the next volume — clorot, lemper, rengginang, martabak, and so on.

DE: If you were to describe your individual creative process as a street food snack, what would it be, and why?

Johanes: Lemper, which is a very common snack that appears at every occasion. Lemper can be considered a snack that could replace rice. You can eat it everyday. My creative process is just becoming a habit for me: I divide my projects into bite-sized parts and tackle them daily.

Jessica: Kue lapis. There are so many types of kue lapis: lapis legit, lapis surabaya, lapis bogor, and many more. You can’t eat them every day but when you eat them you probably will eat more than one slice. I am not as diligent as Jo; I slack off more often but when I start I tend to jump from one creative project to another in one go and sometimes back and forth.

DE: What other forms of media do you enjoy? If you could adapt Magical Sweet Gula to one other creative medium, what would it be and how would you want it to look?

J&J: We enjoy animation. We were big fans of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network series, like Hey Arnold! or The Wild Thornberrys. Or for more recent references, it would be nice if an animated adaptation of Gula looks like Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, the new animated series on Netflix.

DE: If you could give Magical Sweet Gula to anyone in the world, who would it be, and why?

Johanes: Bryan Lee O’Malley, Gene Luen Yang, Henry Jenkins, Fukuchi Tsubasa (The Law of Ueki), all of whom inspired me to make the Magical Sweet Gula graphic novel.

I also wish I could give it to my late teacher Prof. Sapardi Djoko Damono who taught me and expanded my knowledge during my graduate study, my late father Park Byung Sup, and my biggest inspiration Osamu Tezuka.

And all the children of mixed parentage all over the world, of course!

DE: Finally, would you rather be born a Terran or Magi in the world of Magical Sweet Gula? Why? (If you answered Magi, what magical abilities would you want to have?)

Johanes: It doesn’t really matter, but I love the way we are now. I prefer to be like Gula — half Terran, and half Magi.

DE: Are there any tidbits or sneak peeks you can share with your readers for the next volume of Magical Sweet Gula?

J&J: After the development of Gula and Yoga’s relationship, there will be a development between Gula and Sally. While in the first book they seem to be on different sides, they actually have the most in common — more than Gula does with any other character in the story, even Yoga.

Also, you can look forward to Gula showing off her growth and new magical powers!

Get your copy of Magical Sweet Gula via our webstore or via our retail partners listed here!

Magical Sweet Gula: Gula Gulali discovers that variety is not the spice of life at school where her magic makes for sour grapes

Wouldn’t it be magical if we could just wave a wand and fit in? Unfortunately, in Magical Sweet Gula, that reality seems to be pie in the sky for Gula Gulali. Born part-Magi, Gula sticks out whether she wants to or not, with her cotton candy pink-hair and pointed ears in her Terran-majority school. Which, in turn, makes her the low-hanging fruit target of her school’s insatiable bullies.

To add salt to her wound, even amongst the general school population, Gula finds herself in an uphill battle against the rampant sensationalised stereotypes that inundate the media her peers consume. Even when she walks on eggshells, all it takes is one untimely discharge of her magic, and she is dropped quicker than a hot potato by her schoolmates.

Gula’s constant calibration to find the perfect measurement of “normal” amidst her mixed Magi and Terran heritage is a quandary that is especially close to the heart of the title’s co-creator Johanes Park. “Even though this comic book is a work of fiction, the story is inspired by my own experience living in a multicultural Indonesian society as a mixed child,” he shares. Born to a Korean father, and a Chinese-Sundanese mother, Johanes recalls feeling lonely and outcasted. It was from this vantage point of trying to find harmony in cultures and perspectives that Magical Sweet Gula was first conceptualised.

Jessica Leman, the other pea in this husband-wife creator pod, elaborates, “Books or graphic novels with narratives about searches for identity usually portray people who live outside the country of the ethnicity they are descended from, and how they struggle to integrate after.” Noting a lack of multiracial characters in transmigrant stories, she continues, “In Magical Sweet Gula, we tried to share a story of the next level of identity searching – where the character is of mixed ancestry. Being multiracial, the character has a unique struggle where neither ethnic group will wholly accept her as a part of them.”

Both creators are well aware that the desire to fit in, to get along like peas and carrots with your peers in school despite being different, is a concept that many children are familiar with. Magical Sweet Gula offers its young audience food for thought on the ways in which multiracial children may experience prejudice. To make the subject more accessible to younger readers, the creators made Gula immediately visually distinct from her peers. “Since Manakarta is based on Jakarta, where people have naturally dark hair, we found the most eye- catching way to show contrast was through one’s appearance, especially using colour,” Jessica explains.

Besides using bright colours and a very generous sprinkle of magic as visual markers for Magi in Magical Sweet Gula, Johanes also highlights how spicing up the pages with Peranakan desserts extends the metaphor of fitting in. “I believe in “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” which means “even if we have many differences, in the end we can still have the same feeling”. I think this philosophy is also reflected in Peranakan culture, especially their foods.” The creators go on to explain how food recipes in Indonesia often draw their history from multiple heritages—the antithesis of “too many cooks spoil the broth”. When researching on jajanan pasar (market snacks), Jessica and Johanes found further inspiration for Gula’s growth and journey in how these snacks were often served together in a single tampah (flat woven bamboo basket), even when they come in multiple flavours.

Commenting on Difference Engine’s decision to publish Magical Sweet Gula, Publisher Felicia Low said, “A core tenet of Difference Engine is to support the amplification of stories and voices that may not have the same reach and platform as that of the majority. Magical Sweet Gula is earnest in its exploration of a multiracial character coming to terms with their identity, and holds both sweet and bitter halves of Gula’s experiences. While concepts like bullying and self-perception might seem intimidating to younger readers, Jessica and Johanes’ vibrant colour palette and humorous panels do wonders to ease readers into these topics.”

Magical Sweet Gula is now available in bookstores in Singapore and Malaysia. It is also available for purchase online with local and international shipping options. The book retails at SGD15.90 (w/o GST).

Purchase the print or ebook at bit.ly/magicalsweetgula.

For enquiries about the book, contact: readcomics@differenceengine.sg.

Magical Sweet Gula is the first of a two-volume series, with Book 2 scheduled for release in 2024.

Pangolin: A Critically Endangered Mammal Like No Other

What marvellous mammal has armour that will make a knight envious, and can curl up into a near-perfect sphere?

It’s the pangolin!

If this is your first time hearing about a pangolin this World Pangolin Day or World Wildlife Day, it might seem like a render from a video game. A mammal – nope, not a reptile – covered in scales? It looks almost like a waddling pinecone or a less flamboyant dragonfruit!

Pangolins are unlike any other mammals. That’s not a hyperbole. They are currently the only mammal discovered that is fully covered in scales! That brings us to our first phenomenal pangolin fact:

1. Pangolins are covered in pinecone-like tough scales made of keratin.

While we may not see any similarities between our bodies and the impressive scale mail pangolins don, believe it or not, the sturdy coat of overlapping scales is actually made of keratin – the same thing our nails and hair are made out of.

Keratin renders the scales hard and durable. Each scale is made of tightly compressed hair finished in a sharp tip for that extra offensive edge. (Although your mileage may vary with a tub of hair gel and a tail comb.) These scales are arranged in a partially overlapping lattice to provide optimal protection without compromising on flexibility.

Equipped with a coat that will give Colossus a run for his money, how does the pangolin utilise it against its natural enemies?

2. Pangolins curl into balls when frightened.

Let’s just say they get all dressed up with nowhere to go. Deliberately.

You see, pangolins have one weakness: Their soft underside.

To protect their tender tummies, they cover their head, tuck themselves into a tight ball, and let their scales do the rest of the work. It’s nature’s way of giving the pangolin an instant “nope” button whenever they feel stressed or frightened. So recognisable is this ability that the World Wildlife Fund explains the name “pangolin” is derived from penggulung, the word for roller in Malay.

Pangolins can also weaponise the sharp scales on their tail if they perceive a Big Bad Evil Guy, but their poor vision does not do them many favours.

Against its natural predators like big cats or hyenas, this defensive bunker tactic works. Really well.

Ever seen photographs of lions pawing or chewing frustratedly at a balled-up pangolin? The scales make pangolins nearly impervious to bites and uncomfortably prickly to those who try to unroll it. It may look hilarious, but more importantly, it is a testament to how effective this evolutionary trait is.

Against a human hand however, that’s a different story. (We’ll get back to this later.)

If it’s not already obvious from their preferred type of engagement with predators, pangolins are quite shy. Part of it is due to this third phenomenal pangolin fact:

3. Pangolins have no teeth.

You read that right. Like boy bands of the early 2000s, pangolins devoted all of their spikes to their head and ‘fits, while hiding their true docile nature from hungry pap-, predators.

Another name that pangolins are commonly known by is the scaly anteater. (No prizes for guessing their favourite bites.)

A typical day of a pangolin sees it in its burrow or on trees with its nose set on the nearest ant colony or termite mound. Once settled into their selected buffet of the day, pangolins utilise their very long, very sticky, very thin, saliva-coated tongue to slurp up their meal – with adults vacuuming up to a suggested 70 million insects each year according to Singapore’s National Parks Board! (Try getting your exterminator to go up against this ant-agonist’s scoreboard.)

As a very nice bonus, the action of vacating insects from their tunnels lends to aerating the ground, thus improving soil health in the area. Given their current repertoire, they probably have greener thumbs than most of us city dwellers!

Wait, if pangolins can’t chew, how do they digest their food, hard exoskeletons and all?

The answer is rock ‘n’ roll. Literally.

Pangolins eat rocks. To make up for their lack of teeth and their penchant for ants over bean sprouts, pangolins intentionally ingest small rocks, called gastroliths, for storage in their gizzard. As the gizzard contracts, the rocks roll and churn, which in turn grinds down the food.

A simple and effective solution by nature. But sadly, this lack of teeth is a handicap against humans. (Starting to see a pattern?)

Artwork from Marvellous Mammals: A Wild A to Z of Southeast Asia

4. Pangolins are currently the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Unfortunately, this last fact about pangolins isn’t very fun at all.

There are eight pangolin species in the world. Three of the four Asian species, including the Sunda pangolin that calls Singapore its home, is Critically Endangered.

For most of their existence, pangolins have been a solid contender for predator-prey relationship manager of the year. (Considering how even their most enterprising enemies struggle to take a literal bite out of them, they were doing pretty well.)

Then everything changed when greedy humans attacked.

The spherical fortress that pangolins have evolved is excellent against most threats… Except traffickers, with their dexterous, grasping hands and voracity for greed, aren’t most threats. Spook the pangolin, wait for it to roll into a ball, and simply carry them away – like Gen Z in a macabre medicine ball fitness class.

That is precisely what many poachers boil these unique mammals down to: Very expensive and very high-value literal medicine balls.

In Asia, some traditional medicine practitioners fight tooth and nail to continue touting the supposed curative properties of pangolin scales and blood. Pangolins: Science, Society and Conservation announced that approximately 195,000 pangolins were trafficked for their scales alone.

Nevermind that it has been scientifically debunked that pangolin scales have no medical properties, and chewing fingernails has never proven effective in any quest to cure inflammation/lactation issues/cancer/what-have-you.

And those who don’t use pangolin scales for pseudo-medicine, use it to scale up their leather fashion products in the United States and Mexico.

That’s not all: Another big driver for pangolin trafficking is meat. (Notice how it is reported as meat, and not food.) Hunting pangolins for bushmeat is not new – pangolins have been a food source in Africa and China historically. But with the proliferation of food supply chains worldwide, pangolins are no longer necessary as a staple food source. So, why the demand for pangolin meat?

In this age of abundance and accessibility, having suckling pig or duck confit daily no longer signals wealth and exceptionalism. You need something more exclusive, something rare, to really get tongues wagging.

Introducing the delicacy du jour of parts of China and Vietnam: The pangolin.

If the thought of sampling a pangolin does not make you baulk, the price tag surely will. In a paper by Wang et.al. (2021), the price of a whole pangolin can fetch anywhere from 2,000 to 3,400 yuan (~290USD to 495USD) per kilogram.

Even though the population of wild pangolins in Asia has declined by over 50% in recent years according to the Center for Biological Diversity, the demand for their flesh and scales remains insatiable. Can’t find pangolins in Asia? Just take them from Africa and ship them over. This hunger for pangolins is so strong that from 2015 to 2021, almost half of all pangolin derivatives confiscated in Asia are found to have been brought over from Africa.

Since 2019, there has been a global consensus in banning pangolins from commercial trade internationally. While that has led to more seizures and discoveries of illegally trafficked pangolins, poachers still find ways to circumvent law enforcement. Money, it turns out, is a great motivator for… creativity.

This World Pangolin Day and World Wildlife Day, especially if your days are spent roaming in metropolises, the predicament of pangolins may feel removed from your lives. But wait: How can we get pangolins from the depths of our forests, to the nouveau riche trying to be the next photocopied version of the Kardashians in cities?

The answer is that it is inevitable for pangolin traffickers – and a lot of the illegal wildlife trade – to funnel a considerable amount of their operations through urban areas. In 2019, World Wildlife Fund Singapore reported that a staggering 35 tonnes of pangolin scales (around 40,000 pangolins) were seized by port authorities.

What can I do to help?

As individuals, all this may seem overwhelming. It is. And if you – understandably – do not intend to go up against international criminal organisations, can you really do anything of meaningful impact then?

The short answer is: Yes.

Although the pangolin is no Billie Eilish of the endangered animal world, they are charismatic enough for children and adults alike to pause and go, “hey, that’s one cool mammal!” That is a good, even great, first step.

For context, in ‘Generally ignored’ species face twice the extinction threat, warns study by The Guardian, it was shown that the extinction rate in insects is eight-fold more than birds, mammals, and reptiles, and receive nearly 500 times less funding for each species than vertebrates. In other words, the more you like something, the more funding it receives. (Usually.)

The next step is simple: Talk, share – shout, even! – about all you know about pangolins! Tell them to your friends and family, use your knowledge as a potential ice-breaker for conversations, or even showcase your knowledge at your next quiz night; chat about them to those who are willing to listen.

When your conversation ends, and everyone goes their separate ways, that’s when the ball really gets rolling. All these phenomenal pangolin facts no longer exist in isolation – they instead live in voices, echoed in the people we have met, and finding new homes in the places we have travelled through.

Two decades ago, you may not have heard of the pangolin. Now, it is a marvellous mammal that is starting to be recognised even outside of Asia and Africa.

The next time you, or someone you have spoken to, encounters a pangolin, this knowledge will guide their encounter. Spotted a lost pangolin in the city? Found medicine shops illegally selling pangolin scales? Spied someone in a bad Solid Snake cosplay setting traps in forested areas? Things that could have unintentionally slipped by one’s radar can now find anchor in one’s knowledge of pangolins.

(For those wondering what to do in the aforementioned scenarios in Singapore, the answer is to call the National Parks at 1800-471-7300.)

We will leave you with two adages at the end of our World Pangolin Day and World Wildlife Day piece: “Knowledge is power” and “sharing is caring”. While global lawmakers and conservationists are working to tighten regulations and protection for these marvellous mammals, we can help them on the ground by keeping a literal eye out for pangolins, especially those in plight.

The scales are not tipped in favour of the pangolins, but it is not too late for us to prevent the final nail in their potential coffin.