Singaporean comics take centre stage this week, with a look at the country’s first-ever graphic novel and some new titles from Epigram Books.
Myth Of the Stone: 20th Anniversary Edition
Writer/Author: Gwee Li Sui
Publisher: Epigram Books
GRYPHONS imps, garuda, naga, kappa … these fantastical creatures seem an unlikely cast for what is known as Singapore’s first-ever graphic novel, Gwee Li Sui’s Myth Of The Stone
, especially when you consider the material that the newer generation of Singaporean cartoonists and comic creators is producing right now (for examples of these, check out the rest of the reviews on the page).
To celebrate the graphic novel’s 20th anniversary, Epigram Books has published a special edition which includes bonus features such as notes from the author, new short stories, as well as a much-needed touch-up and improvement of the artwork.
Set in a world called the Architrave, the story revolves around Li-Hsu, a young boy who opens a door to this strange new world and somehow gets turned into an imp. To change himself back, he has to go on a quest that will lead him on a journey fraught with danger and a war involving all manner of strange beasts, monsters and creatures.
At first, the story seems like a mishmash of The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Lord Of The Rings, and the legend of King Arthur; but there is definitely something a lot deeper to this book. To truly appreciate it, you need to put yourself in Gwee’s shoes when he first wrote it.
At the time, he was a mere 23-year-old, dreaming of being a comic artist and author, his head filled with influences from JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and other authors who dealt in the fantastical and amazing. As such, the context of the naivety and almost childlike innocence of the story becomes clear – this is not a rip-off of those more famous books, but a lovingly crafted tribute to these great authors and their works.
Yes, it is somewhat wordy (for a comic) and the story a little over-familiar, but you can tell that Gwee put his heart and soul into this book, which is why the story of how he first conceived of it to the point where it became his “oldest trauma” is every bit as interesting as Li-Hsu’s journey.
Back when the book was first published, the Singaporean comics and graphic novels scene was almost nonexistent. After months of hard work, he showed the book to the now-defunct East Asia Book Services, which offered him a contract and published Myth Of The Stone.
“I imagined publication to mean more of this: people discussing the story and its genre and raising pertinent questions …” he writes in the afterword to the new edition.
Alas, it was not to be. In that pre-Internet age, newspaper reviews were all-powerful, and Gwee’s book was refused a review time and again. Blow after blow came soon after that – the original publishers lost his manuscript and later folded, his book ended up in bookstore bargain bins, and finally, it disappeared and was forgotten by all except Gwee, who forced himself to move on.
Although he went on to become an acclaimed poet (publishing his first book Who Wants To Buy A Book Of Poems), literary critic, author, editor and academic, he never quite forgot his maiden graphic novel, and longed to one day address this blot in his history.
Enter Epigram Books, a publisher of Singaporean independent comics and graphic novels that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years. The company approached Gwee with the idea of a 20th anniversary edition and Gwee told them, “Help me get over my trauma” – which they duly did.
This new edition of Myth Of The Stone also includes two new stories that Gwee declares to be part of the same canon – The Demon Within and Rendezvous – as well as a healthy section of extras that includes the aforementioned afterword, a glossary of the terms used in the story, as well as Gwee’s explanations about the art in the older and newer versions.
It is a testament of just how far the Singapore comics scene has come in the 20 years since Myth Of The Stone first came out. Sure, there is a big difference between the rough, unpolished nature of Gwee’s book and the newer books reviewed here, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Gwee’s masterpiece isn’t perfect, but it stands proud as a defining milestone in Singapore’s comic industry.
The Girl Under The Bed
Writer: Dave Chua
Artist: Xiao Yan
IF TALES of ghosts and domestic violence aren’t exactly your cup of tea, you might need to stay clear of this one.
The Girl Under The Bed is about a lonely secondary school girl named Jingli who finds the spirit of a dead girl named Xiaomei sleeping under her bed during the Hungry Ghost Month. With the help of her schoolmate Weizhong, a medium-in-training, Jingli goes on a mission to find Xiaomei’s parents and to help her remember the truth behind her past. Along the way they meet other “beings” and it is revealed that Jingli has the power to see other ghosts – she just never realised it.
According to ancient Chinese tradition, the Hungry Ghost festival happens on the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar and during which, the gates of hell open and restless spirits are free to roam the realm of the living.
Those who understand the cultural background of this tradition might be a little more intrigued with the ghoulish implications in the book. The authors do their bit in providing a short guide to the festival, but only include it at the end, like a mere appendix instead of an introduction.
The book tells a true tale of adolescent adventure and the plot twist makes your eyes grow large in shock, but that’s about it really. The story didn’t cause any sleepless nights or fearful dreams. The detailed drawings of spirits did make the book a little more exciting but on the whole, isn’t as terrifying as its illustrations suggested. (Talk about judging a book by its cover!)
Before reading The Girl Under The Bed, it had never occurred to me how painful it is to read text written in Singlish (and Manglish, for that matter). Too many “aiyoh”s and “got ah”s tend to hamper the fluidity of the script.
The solution to being impressed by this volume is to keep your expectations low and send the “grammar nazi” in you on holiday. – Jaydee Lok
Ten Sticks And One Rice
Writer: Oh Yong Hwee
Artist: Koh Hong Teng
FROM the cover illustration, it won’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the title refers to an order for satay. But the actual significance of the order – Ten Sticks And One Rice – only becomes clear late in the story, and the moment is a poignant one.
Inspired by the lives of Singapore’s hawkers who provided affordable comfort food during the country’s transformation from kampong to big city, this is a gritty and uncompromising history-cum-character study liberally peppered with Hokkien “colourful metaphors” and tales of secret society involvement.
Quite commendable, given that the book was developed with the support of the country’s Media Development Authority, because there’s no attempt to ignore or gloss over parts of its culture and recent history.
According to Oh and Koh, their parents’ lives inspired them to tell this story, and their familial ties to the subject matter shine through. The art and script – aided by cultural familiarity on the part of this reader – come together nicely to make it a compelling read. I finished it in almost one sitting, interrupted only by grocery-shopping duty.
The story unfolds through the eyes of Neo Hock Seng – satay vendor, secret society member, illegal bookie – who, as we learn at the start of the tale, has cancer.
When an old friend and fellow triad member dies, Hock Seng is tasked with organising a grand send-off for him. In the process of doing this, his past unfolds through flashback and the reader is immediately drawn into this saga.
Hock Seng is not an easy man to like, but the characterisation builds in the reader a kind of respect for him, bordering on admirastion. He’s a guy who does what is necessary, who considers keeping his family clothed and fed as token enough of love (and hence, no need for “niceties” like talking in a civil manner to his long-suffering wife; right or wrong, it’s just how he is).
It’s a tale of loyalty, honour, broken dreams and aspirations achieved at considerable cost; and, as the last graphic novel I read in 2013, a worthy close to a year of reading. – Davin Arul
Date King: Singapore Dating
Writer: Adrian Teo
MEET Ah King, otherwise known as Date King, not because he is smooth with the ladies, but because his life is a series of dates. If you want to know what the perils of speed dating are, Date King is your man. If you want to know how get that girl you’ve loved since primary school, Date King can teach you how to do it (hint: don’t tell her you’ve loved her since primary school). If you want to learn how to pick up girls at clubs, Date King can teach you how not to crash and burn.
His tips may not work all the time (hey, he already said he’s not smooth with the girls), but at least you get a good laugh out of it (for the most part).
Given rave reviews by local coffeeshop uncles (“This book is hilarious”) and Shenton Way bankers (“unabashedly shallow”) all over Singapore (hey, that’s what the back of the book told me), Date King: Singapore Dating is a tongue-in-cheek look at the dating scene in Singapore.
It pokes fun at everything from speed dating to lousy dates, and even handily includes “nature guides” to the stereotypes of guys and girls that populate the Singaporean dating scene. Sure, the jokes are hit-or-miss at times, but hey, isn’t that the way it is when you’re in the dating scene anyway? – Michael Cheang
Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise
THIS is a collection of slice-of-life stories mixed with works of fantasy by freelance illustrator Andrew Tan, working under the pen name drewscape.
As with many such anthologies, the results are uneven. Some stories are fascinating reads, while some are a little too “out there” for my liking (for example, the seven-page Animal and the head-scratching opener, The Amazing Kelim).
The stories that really held my attention were the ones drawn from the creator’s own experiences. They don’t necessarily have resolutions, but the open-endedness of the tales is what makes them so ... well, life-like.
In Nice Guy, he recounts his early days in the advertising line when he had a rather enigmatic (and fearsome) colleague. Moving Forward is the story of how he obtained his driving licence – something I could really relate to because his experience is pretty much like what I went through while learning to drive.
Of the non-reality-based stories, the book’s centrepiece The Giggly Floating Fish is the winner by a mile. Set in a world roughly analogous to ours, though seemingly populated by oddities right out of the Twilight Zone, it is the story of how some people will go to extreme lengths to get their hands on ... a collectible.
Equal parts parody and parable, it perfectly captures the inexplicable urges that possess rabid collectors. And that’s not the end of it; the central character returns later on in the collection for an amusing anecdote entitled Thingy.
It’s a mixed bag, but the one aspect of drewscape’s work that really shines through is his ability to make the mundane seem so fascinating; Water Bottle, wherein his young self goes through great lengths to rectify a mix-up at school, is proof of that. – Davin Arul
Writer/artist: Miel Prudencio Ma Rosales
READING Scenegapore is like using a cheat sheet in an exam – that is, if you were being tested on the cultural norms of Singapore.
In the book, Miel, an award-winning internationally syndicated artist, tells it like it is with candid illustrations of everyday Singaporean life.
Scenegapore begins at the beginning – with the legend of a Sumatran prince arriving on the island to escape a terrifying storm. Once there, he spots a lion and that is apparently how Singapore came to be. The chapter on the history of Singapore, wittily called Past Forward, is the only “real” reading you will do in this book. After five minutes of reading accurately dated history events and browsing through a collection of gory images from the Japanese occupation of Malaya, you will find yourself looking at illustrations of street innovations.
Readers who are unfamiliar with life in South-East Asia might find it difficult to fully comprehend these images at first, but thankfully, there are enough captions to guide you through. From makeshift baby seats created from stacked-up plastic chairs to Housing Development Board (HDB) flats making love to make more HDB flats, Miel proves that his quirky and unique perspective of Singapore can tickle readers of all ages.
The part of the book that really makes it the gem that it is is the final chapter, Singapore Panorama – From 1324 To The Present. Miel aptly ends the book with 30 pages of Where’s Wally-esque drawings of life in Singapore – where you need to stare, squint and study the intricate images of ships, shophouses and people sleeping on trains. The only thing that could have made it even more fun was if Miel had provided a list of things we needed to look out for!
If you’ve just ordered food at a restaurant, you could actually finish browsing through Scenegapore before your food arrives. But where would the fun in that be? – Jaydee Lok
> All the Epigram Books titles reviewed here are available at the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Call 03-2164 8133 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kinokuniya.com/my.