"EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD STORY, AND I LIKE TO TELL THEM"
– Michel Mulipola
Mapping Creative Hustle is a series of interviews with creative entrepreneurs connected to the Māngere Ōtāhuhu area. The interviewed were conducted by Ema Tavola with portrait photography by Vinesh Kumaran.
In your own words, what do you do for a living?
The general gist of it is: I tell stories. I use several mediums to tell these stories but I’m a story teller first and foremost. I tell stories via comic books and professional wrestling.
Why do you do what you do?
It’s weird, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘why’. Why I draw comic books is because I fell in love with the medium as a little kid, and as a little kid who loved drawing, it was natural for me to want to draw comics and tell stories through comic books.
Wrestling was again through comic books; professional wrestling was the closest thing I’d ever seen to comic books in real life as a little kid. We didn’t have Marvel Films back then, and so I fell in love with professional wrestling because it was real life comics, big super hero type characters, good versus evil, drama, all those kinds of things… completely over the top characters.
But in terms of telling stories, I think life would be boring without stories and people, humans, everyone loves a good story, and I like to tell them, and those are the mediums I use to tell stories. It’s kind of weird thinking about ‘why’, because stories in general are just part of what it is to be alive.
Have you had an epiphany that has led you to this path in life?
About five years ago, I recognised that my workload was getting busier, busy enough for me to set up the business side of things properly. I’m so glad I did, because then I got stupidly busy over the next five years, each year getting busier and busier, and setting myself up properly when I did meant things ran a lot smoother.
In terms of a light bulb moment, the one moment that really changed my career trajectory and let me know that I could actually do this, was a Facebook competition. I won a competition sponsored by V Energy Drinks called ‘Pimp My Life’; you had to explain how you would pimp your life with
$10,000, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I created a two-page comic with a character I created called ‘V Man’ and explained how I would travel to San Diego Comic-Con in America, to see where I was at as comic book artist. I didn’t have any illusions of going over there and getting a job, I just wanted to see if I was good enough and get some critiques on how to improve and stuff.
So, about three months later I found out I had won the $10,000! As a kid growing up in Māngere, money wasn’t exactly abundant, so I understood that this $10,000 could change my career. I invested in art supplies, bought my flights, upgraded my computer and made my way to San Diego Comic-Con. I put my portfolio into the DC Comics booth (creators of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and others) and waited to see whether I would get a call back. The next morning, I went along to see if my name had been chosen, and there it was: my name was on the board. I met with one of the editors at DC Comics and he saw some promise and potential in my work, and even though nothing ever came of it, that interaction was the affirmation that I needed at that point to let me know that I can do this.
I came back from San Diego with a renewed vigour. The experience totally changed my mindset and made me completely unafraid to put myself out there and make the most of every opportunity. It was at Comic-Con that I met Michael Kingston, the writer of Headlocked. I introduced myself to him as an artist and wrestler from New Zealand, and asked him to look at some of my work. He really liked my portfolio and we hit it off; I’ve been working with him since then on Headlocked and WWE comics, and we’ve become good friends.
It’s the Headlocked work that people know me for around the world, so that one competition totally changed my career trajectory. I don’t even drink energy drinks but V Energy Drinks changed my life! Who would’ve thought!
If there was one thing you could outsource to help you do more, or be more effective, what would it be?
It’s kind of hard because as a storyteller and artist, a lot of my work is being able to visually interpret other people’s ideas, and that’s not really something you can outsource. Maybe in 10 years’ time it would be great to have an art studio full of young Polynesian artists to work with.
What is something you wish you could do/find locally that would support you as a creative entrepreneur?
I have been getting my comic books printed locally as well as t-shirt and merchandise. So in terms of manufacturing, doing it locally is great because I love being able to support local businesses.
But I guess, a big thing is travel. It’s expensive and I'm not always eligible for things like arts grants. As a Polynesian comic book artist, I try to create a visible presence at conventions overseas to show people what is possible. I've almost become an unofficial ambassador for Polynesian art, because there are simply so few of us.
This year I'll be at San Diego Comic-Con again and Oz Comic-Con in Melbourne, where I’ll be involved with panel discussions for the first time. I’m interested in discussing the issue of diversity, and representing as a Sāmoan comic book artist.
There are so many brown kids that dabble in comic art, but no one doing it professionally, so everything I do, I make public and visible across social media so if someone googles ‘Polynesian comic book artist’ or ‘Sāmoan comic book artist’, there’s an example and a pathway. I love sharing my story but I don’t want to be the only one. Back home, I love doing school visits with Duffy Books, and just showing kids what’s possible, it’s one of my favourite things to do. But the travel part is a really important part of sharing my story, hopefully to inspire Polynesian artists to really give it a go.
What do you wish you could change in societal attitudes that would enable you and other creative entrepreneurs to thrive?
The systemic racism, prejudice… that thing of when you’re meeting people for the first time, and you know that stereotypes and societal judgements are the reason they seem to dismiss you. The NZ comics community has always felt quite guarded, as if my comic style is not perceived as ‘highbrow’ enough. But generally, I’ve just kept busy making comics, visiting schools, running workshops, and I let my work speak for itself.
As a Pacific Islander in this field, there have also been expectations that I would create stories about Polynesian superheroes with lavalavas and stuff. I’d like to explore a Polynesian superhero narrative at some point, but it has to be the right story and right idea. I won’t do one just for the sake of doing one; I don’t want to just do Polynesian versions of things like the Avengers, I want to create stories that are meaningful and actually fulfilling.
What do you love about living and working in the Māngere-Ōtāhuhu area?
My Mum and brother still live in Māngere, it’s where the family house is, but due to work and stuff it’s much easier for me to be in Central Auckland, but I’m still a South Auckland kid. I’m a proud South Auckland kid! Everywhere I go, I advertise the fact that I’m from Māngere, South Auckland; this community is part of my identity.
I would love to move back, if I could find a good house that isn’t going to bankrupt me, I would love to move back. I just need a workspace, and a comfortable place to live, and fibre internet! But Māngere is home, and if the conditions were right and everything works out, I would move back in a heartbeat.
What inspires you to keep going when the going gets tough?
It’s the fact that I’m living my dream. It’s hard when you’re sick and don’t feel like drawing but I just have to take a step back and remind myself, you’re drawing comic books and people are giving you money for that - that’s the dream! I don’t dwell on it too much when I’m in those spots, because I’ve got work to do and mulling around isn’t going to get the work done. So I pretty much just push through, and concentrate on the task at hand, not what’s coming up, or how many more pages I’ve got to do. Getting things done in little steps helps, and each step you take gradually gets you to your goal, and by the time you know it you’re done. It’s just about keeping your mind and your head in the game, and staying focused.
Wrestling allows me to take out those stresses too! Once I beat someone up its like ‘Sweet I’m all good’!
The fact is, I could be doing a million worse things for money than drawing comic books, so that’s what drives me. This is the dream I had as a little kid, and I try and do that kid’s dream justice every day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would be drawing anyway even if it wasn’t my job, but now my passion is my profession, that’s the best thing ever.