Sunday, July 3, 2016

Asian Comics

Wrote this a year ago and the review is finally out in the latest issue of Uncle Jam (No. 106, Volume 43, Summer 2016).

Info about Uncle Jam and Phil Yeh here:

I wrote a shorter review of Asian Comics here:

But this is the full works. Go get.

Asian Comics by John A. Lent (University Press of Mississippi, 2015)

It is fitting that I got the opportunity to review John Lent’s Asian Comics for Uncle Jam. I first met John Lent, then Professor of Communications at Temple University, when he toured Southeast Asia in the early 1990s to research about its comics. He arrived in Singapore in 1992. I was then the comics editor for BigO, a rock-pop culture magazine and John soon tracked me down to interview me. In turn, I interviewed him for BigO and I got him to write for BigO as well. He recruited me for Witty World, the international cartoon magazine he started with Joe Szabo. It wasn’t long before he introduced me to Phil Yeh, the publisher of Uncle Jam. The rest is history.

Over the years, I have made use of many Lent-edited volumes for my own research into Singapore and Southeast Asian comics. He is a pioneer in this field and books like Asian Popular Culture (1995), Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad and Sexy (1999), Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-Comics Campaign (1999), Illustrating Asia: Comics, Humor Magazines and Picture Books (2001), Comic Art in Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America through 2000: An International Bibliography (2004) and Southeast Asian Cartoon Art: History, Trends and Problems (2014) are seminal reference books for anyone interested in Asian comics. That would also include the International Journal of Comic Art (IJOCA) which Lent has been putting out since 1999.

Now, Lent has finally put together all his research on Asian comics since the 1980s into one oversized hardcover volume that is 342 pages. The book has 17 chapters and is divided into three sections: East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), and South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka). What is interesting is that there is no chapter on Japan. Lent explains that since there are so many books on Japanese manga, there is no need for a chapter on manga. However, the first chapter, ‘A Lead-Up to Asian Comics: Early Asian Visual Humor and Narrative’, explores the roots of manga in ukiyo-e (woodblock print). Still, the shadow of Japanese manga permeates throughout most of the chapters – the influx of manga titles into the Asian comic market since the 1980s and the strong influence of manga style among comic artists in countries like China, Taiwan and Thailand since the 1990s. I experienced this first hand when I conducted comic research trips to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. For more on the impact of manga in global comics, one can look at Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale (Global Manga Studies, Vol 1), edited by Jaqueline Berndt, published in 2010.

Lent’s organizing method is the country approach, which he favoured for two reasons: ‘each country is distinct culturally, linguistically, and politically’, and ‘to lump countries together thematically would integrate them in ways that are neither realistic nor appropriate’. However, one can argue that Lent could have used both the country and thematic approaches in this book. There are some countries with similar histories that could have benefitted from a historical-thematic approach such as Singapore and Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and Vietnam and Cambodia, or even Malaysia and Indonesia. A comparative approach outlining similarities and differences between these countries would have been enlightening and engaging. There is also a need for a chapter on the increasing number of female comic artists in Asia, which, to his credit, Lent has highlighted in his ‘Introduction’. For that, one has to look at ‪International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Influence of Girl Culture‬ (edited by Masami Toku, 2015). There was also a special issue of IJOCA (13:2) from 2011, which had a series of articles on Southeast Asian female artists, exploring the themes and concerns.‬‬

Lent’s strengths is allowing the artists to speak for themselves – largely a phenomenological approach that emphasized on the lived experience of people who are in the comic industry – ‘it is essential to discover directly from those who lived through events what they know, believe and experienced’. Lent conducted about 400 interviews with Asian comic editors, artists, writers, publishers, festival directors, shop owners, critics, academics, officials, comic pirates and animators. Having read much of Lent’s writings, they are filled with details and what Clifford Geertz has termed as thick description. These interviews were conducted during the 60 trips to Asia that Lent made from 1986 to 2012 – all handwritten down in those A4 yellow writing pad that Lent uses. I remember them fondly when we first met in 1992 and again when he interviewed me in Singapore in 2000. We last met in Singapore in 2011 and he was still using the yellow writing pads. He must have a lifetime supply of them.

The mass communications approach employed by Lent focuses on the artists and industry (sales and distribution), which is very educational for any newcomers as it provides both historical and contemporary overviews of Asian comics such as the two waves of pirated comics in China’s comic industry in the 1990s and 2000s. If there is something lacking about this approach, it is that it could have discussed more about the aesthetics of the different Asian comics, what makes them ‘work’ or to even explore whether there is such a thing as an Asian aesthetics in comics. But as Lent made clear in his ‘Introduction’, he saw himself as a ‘gap plugger’, to fill this hole in comics scholarship about Asian comics. It is meant to open the door for other comic scholars to go deeper into the topic and explore other areas. In this aspect, his work is groundbreaking and backbreaking – an almost 30 years effort that sees a professional in his late 70s (accompanied by his wife-fellow researcher, Xu Ying) flying all over Asia to get the untold stories of Asian comics.

Such an approach allows Lent to work fast, literally flying into a country, interviewing people (‘snowball approach’ of meeting one cartoonist would lead to another), visiting studios, offices and shops, and flying to the next research site. Having focused on the comic art of Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in recent years, my own experience in research shows that repeated visits is necessary, especially to the different cities of a country like Indonesia. The comic scene of Jakarta is very different from the one in Bandung, Jogjakarta and Surabaya. The same goes for the different islands of the Philippines. A single research trip would not reveal the full nuances of a country’s varied comic scenes – there is no one comic scene, but many.

Often, Lent was at the right place and right time to interview many of the pioneers of Asian comics such as Tony Velasquez (the Philippines), Hua Junwu, Liao Bingxiong, and Ding Cong (China), many who have passed on. He had managed to save many original art from being thrown away as well, a sad fact about the disposable and ephemeral nature of comics in Asia. It is unfortunate that Asian Comics is printed in black and white. The sample artwork could not show the full diversity and colors of Asian comics.

Asian Comics is indispensible as a primer, a route map into the worlds of Asian comics. Long may John Lent run.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Elvis and Singapore

Managed to revive this from 2007 - I wrote this for a blog called Citizen Historian. Updated it; I still like this piece. There was a time between 2004 and 2006 that I was deeply into Elvis and Bruce Lee.

He is still the King. As Neil Young once sang, 'The King is gone but he is not forgotten.'

The king is dead. Long live the king. 16 August 2016 will mark the 49th death anniversary of Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Not much has been made of this date of his passing in Singapore. But as John Lennon of the Beatles, another late rock great, put it, “Before Elvis, there was nothing”.

There are still lessons to learn from the king of rock ‘n’ roll, even for a young country who just celebrated its 50th national day. If there is one thing that makes Elvis relevant today, other than his magnificent voice and a great interpreter of songs, it is the freedom and possibilities he still inspires. That a poor boy from the American South could make good and revolutionize youth culture as we know it. Elvis was a global phenomenon even before the concept of the global village took root in the popular imagination.

In his time, Elvis was probably was the most famous pop star worldwide. It did not matter that he was an American singer hundreds of miles away from Singapore. His influence cut across language and racial lines – he was loved by all who encountered his music in the late 1950s and 1960s. Even among the Chinese-educated, the more politicized class in society then, he was known with affection as the Cat King. No mean feat when issues of employment, industrialization, decolonization and nationalism were supposedly the concerns of the day.

Just ask the various “Elvis” in Singapore during the 1960s – Johnny Aroozoo of Johnny and the Esquires and Wilson David, who is still performing Elvis standards today on stage. And there was Foo Soo Yin, who performed ‘It’s Now Or Never’ in Mandarin on Pop Inn, a British-styled TV pop show featuring performances by bands and singers, on July 27 1964.

Foo’s performance was just one week after the racial riots that rocked Singapore in a very different and tragic sense. However, one cannot help but speculate how that song would have sounded to an audience still shell-shocked by the violence and staying at home watching TV because of the curfew imposed in the immediate aftermath of the riots. I would imagine the traumatized and divided population recognizing that Elvis song and unwittingly sharing a moment together

The possibilities that music offers us in escaping from our confined and rather schizophrenic definition of who we are as Singaporeans find a parallel in some of the local bands in our midst today – they are a mix of different race and gender and even orientation. It reminds me of what Bob Dylan said about the first time he heard Elvis, “When I first heard Elvis’s voice I just knew I wasn’t going to work for anybody and nobody was gonna be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.”

What Dylan was expressing was not that Elvis inspired anarchism, but the potential in pop music, and pop culture in general, in helping us to make sense of what and who we are, unrestricted by state definitions and constraints.

After all, Elvis, despite his excesses, had found and redeemed himself through the music. An example from the Aloha From Hawaii TV Special which most Singaporeans have seen in the 1970s - in a characteristic move to constantly reveal himself in his live performances, Elvis added a line to Suspicious Minds, a song about a failing relationship due to mistrust. All previous versions of the song had the protagonist pleading to his woman, “I’ve never lied to you.” But in a TV performance that was broadcasted live to countries all over the world, Elvis added on: “Not much.” This was around the time when Elvis’ divorce with Priscilla was finalized.

I’ve always wondered how fans in Singapore reacted to that performance when they first watch it. But, to me, it speaks volumes of the potential for us as individuals to express ourselves in pop culture, leaving behind baggage of the past and forging an identity that contributes to the different Singaporeans of today – a cyber gamer, a manga artist or the next Elvis of Singapore.

There are different pathways now in our ability driven education system for the next generation whereby all sorts of talents and excellence would be recognized and appreciated. Indeed, in the arts field, there are now more jobs for curator wannabes than ever with the burgeoning of museums and commercial art galleries. But as much as this is part of the country's efforts to be an arts and cultural hub, it has to start with a dream and the passion to pursue it.

To quote the king himself, “When I was a child, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times. I learned very early in life that without a song, the day would never end; without a song, a man ain’t got a friend; without a song, the road would never bend; without a song. So I keep singing a song.”

Elvis has left the building.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Teng's comics..

We have not heard from Hong Teng recently but the man is busy with new and upcoming projects. You would have noticed that his coloring book for Epigram is out.

(and since we are on the topic of coloring books, here's the one by Marco)

And some of us are waiting for the book he did with some friends on the vanished monuments of Singapore.

Supposed to be a SG50 book, but it is SG51 now.

There is also the rambutan garden book that he first conceptualized in 2013. But the one that will hit the 'shelves' sooner is the Tales of the Black Root, a comic story he is doing for David Lloyd's Aces Weekly.

If you aren't a subscriber to Aces Weekly yet, please do so.

You read these here first.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Interview with Ma Daishu

Up and coming comic artist Ma Daishu graced our shores at last year’s Singapore Writers Fest. Her wordless graphic novel Leaf was sold at the festival, both the English and the rare Chinese editions. What is amazing is that this debut book of hers was picked up by the famed alternative comic publisher Fantagraphics Books.

I reviewed Leaf here:

and conducted an email interview with her recently.

Can you tell us more about yourself? Where are you from and how did you get started in illustration and comics?

I’m an illustrator from Chengdu, China. I’ve been drawing since I was very little but had to stop in order to focus on “proper studies” in high school. I didn’t return to my passion until I finished university and was working my first job in a multinational company in the UK, I realised that illustration was what I really wanted to do in life and decided to pursue it, and I haven’t looked back ever since.

What were your early influences? Did you read lianhuanhua?

Yes I read lianhuanhua! Both of my parents worked so I have a lot of memories of being alone at home and devouring lianhuanhua during summer holidays. I still think that it’s an amazing medium and it’s incredible that they can tell such complex narratives with such a limited format (most of them were palm-sized)!

Did you study art when you were young?

I studied classical Chinese painting when I was young, I remember trying to draw the same abstract horse over and over again, with only three brush strokes! When I was a little older, I went to sketching and life-drawing classes. But mostly I just really enjoyed doodling on the white margins of my school text books.

You went to the UK to study business. How did you end up studying at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London?

I went to Loughborough University for my degree in financial management. After graduating and having worked briefly in a field where creativity is not necessarily considered positive, I decided that I wanted to go back to my childhood passion and pursue illustration. I applied for a multidisciplinary master’s degree at CSM and got accepted.

You taught at the Shanghai School of Visual Arts and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. How was the experience like teaching art?

It was daunting to begin with, I had to learn a lot about how to engage my students and put ideas across using effective and fun exercises. I was a little timid in the beginning but as time went by, I got a lot freer and better. My students and I did quite a few interesting projects together that I’m really proud of.

How did you end up in Barcelona?

My partner is from Catalonia, Spain. After living in London and Shanghai, we decided to give Barcelona a go.

Can you tell us more about Alien&monkey?

Alien&monkey is a small design practice my partner Marc and I set up while living in Shanghai. Marc is a product designer and we wanted to combine our interests to create products that tell interesting stories. One of our projects is called “Sand-made”, we developed a new natural material using sand, and made ephemeral objects that can evolve and change through time and user-interaction.

I saw some of your work in the Alien&monkey website. Can you describe some of the techniques that you use – woodcuts, etc?

Although I really love my pencils, I also like exploring different techniques, and the process of print making has always interested me. I really enjoy the carving process of making a woodcut, it’s almost meditative. I also used an old technique called “tinta magica”, which is basically drawing with lemon juice and then heating it up to make the image appear on paper. I heard that people used to write secret messages like this during the war in Europe, so when I was asked to illustrate a cover of a book set during the Spanish civil war, I used this technique, and it turned out beautifully!

How did Leaf come about? What inspired it and how long did it take you to draw it?

Leaf was inspired by my experience living in China, especially by my visits to factories in remote towns, as well as a trip I made to Nepal. I started sketching some of the scenes and characters while traveling in Nepal, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It has breathtaking natural beauty and amazing culture, but it’s also on the brink of experiencing the same brutal industrialisation that altered many Chinese towns and cities. I was very interested in what these changes mean to the people, especially young migrant workers who leave their small villages to work in big factories of the industrial towns.

Were you conscious of the fact that you were creating a graphic novel? Or did you have something else in mind when you were drawing Leaf?

I knew from the start that I wanted to make a graphic novel, and I was sure that it would be a silent book as well.

How was the book received in China? Was it seen as a graphic novel or as an art/illustrated book?

I think when it was first published in China, it was received with surprise and curiosity, because it had no words and wasn’t a conventional book that most readers were familiar with. A lot of people still associate it with children’s books, although graphic novels are becoming more and more popular in China now. I received some very good and interesting feedback from readers.

How did you end up being published Fantagraphics? Were you surprized by that?

When I finished Leaf, my editor sent some information to Fantagraphics because I’m a huge admirer of their books. They wrote back and said they would publish it, even before Leaf was to be published in China. When my editor told me, I couldn’t believe it, it’s like a dream come true!

What are your current influences?

Ever since moving to Spain I noticed that my drawing are more colourful and surreal. Lately I’m very interested in Russian stop-motion films and works of the great Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti.

Do you read any European comics?

Yes I read a lot of European comics. I really love Cyril Pedrosa (French), Thomas Ott(Swiss), Manuele Fior (Italian), and of course the wonderful Mattotti...Europe has a wonderful tradition of comics and there are so many gems!

Name three paintings that have inspired you.

Ohhhh this is so hard…Since I used to work as an assistant at Tate Britain I’ll name some paintings in their collection that I couldn’t get tired of no matter how many times I looked at them…
The Ancient of Days by William Blake
The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke by Richard Dadd
Pastel Drawing of a Girl by Lucian Freud
The Hospital Drawings by Barbara Hepworth

What’s the next book?

I’m working on a new story that is about loss, memories, conflicts and childhood. It’s told through the voice of a little ghost so there’ll be a stronger element of fantasy to it. I’m also hoping to explore more fun and interesting techniques with this new book.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Interview with Romeo Tanghal

For DC readers of the 1980s, Romeo Tanghal would not be an unfamiliar name, especially if a fan of The New Teen Titans. Tanghal was born in the Philippines in 1943 and started working in the komik industry after he graduated from high school. He moved to the United States in 1976 to pursue a career in drawing his favourite superheroes. The rest is history. We caught up with him recently and he was kind enough to answer these questions.

Were comics something you wanted to do since young?

Yes, I loved to draw and I copied those professionals in komiks hoping to land a job like them.

What sort of pop culture were you into when you were growing up in the Philippines?

I grew up reading local komiks and imported American comics, listening to the Beatles, watching TV and English movies.

You are a self-taught artist. How did you get started in the Philippines komik scene? What were some of the komiks you drew?

I became an apprentice to one of the komik professionals and learned from him. He is not a popular one here in the US. I first started drawing cartoons until the editors gave me a trial on short love stories and then to serial novels.

Like Tony DeZuniga, Alfredo Alcala, and Nestor Redondo who moved to USA in the early 1970s, you followed suit in 1976. Can you share with us about those early days in the US?
Joe Orlando was the Editor in Chief at DC Comics and he’s familiar with these Filipino talents. When I presented my portfolio, he accepted and gave me my first break which is The Christmas Batman issue. From there on, I became a regular artist doing short stories like the House of Mystery and war stories. Then when Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced The New Teen Titans, I was available and Joe gave me a trial and I passed. That's how I became the regular inker for almost 8/9 years until they shifted me to ink The Green Lantern.

During those days, DC had a lot of comics and always looking for artist. I was a fast inker so aside from my regular series, I also accepted other titles to do. When my contract with DC expired, I applied to Marvel and that's where I became a regular inker of Fantastic 4 over Rich Buckler. Many editors were having troubles meeting their deadlines and they always asked me if I could help them and I always obliged. I really worked very hard not like other artist who only accept one job at a time.

You are most famous for inking The New Teen Titans in the 1980s. How was the 1980s and 1990s like for you?

Having one serial book is already enough income and I have two with DC and one with Marvel. When animation was booming in California, some artists moved there to work. I joined them and still maintained my regular series in New York. I did storyboarding on the side. I almost worked 16/18 hrs a day and full time freelance during weekend. I have no life but was providing a good life to my family.

Which do you prefer: drawing or inking; team books or solo titles?

I preferred inking because I don't have to do research. There's no Google during that time and the library was the only research ‘home’ for the penciller. Also in inking, I have to give respect to the style of the penciller and just follow their lines. Pencillers get angry when they are over shadowed. So even when I see mistakes, I just go on inking it. And they liked it! Now I have a lot of so-so pages that I'm selling on Ebay, but collectors don't mind because it's history they are looking for. (Check out Comic Art Original Romeo Tanghal on Ebay; I'm a regular seller)

For solo titles, I like mystery short stories. I like it because I could practice on my inking and pencilling too… but they needed me more for just inking. I didn’t get that much chance to draw.

You have retired. How would you describe your career in the comics?

I would say I was the fastest inker and one of the most sought after for hired artist. That just accounted for a successful career. Now that I'm free from deadlines, I have all my time doing sketching and painting and that makes me a happy artist.

Can you tell us more about Sariling Atin Komiks and Maligno. Anything new on the horizon?

Sariling Atin Komiks is a long time ambition to publish. I have a very good novel that's finished and ready to be illustrated, but I ran out of time. I am too old to get back to gruelling deadlines again. No way, Jose. I'd like to enjoy my remaining years a free man and healthy person.
All my kids turned out to be artists too, good ones. But they are doing good as art directors of ad companies and in house artists of Louis Vuitton. They don't dare to tread where I went before. Hehe… they remembered when they were kids and instead of watching TV, I'll bribe them to help me with my deadlines. I put ‘X’ on the pages parts that are supposed to be inked black and they were the one doing it – with no mistakes at all! Fantastic kids.

Which is your favourite title you have worked on? I grew up on your Super Friends so that was very memorable for me.

The New Teen Titans. George Perez and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez are phenomenal! I can't wait to lay my hands on their pages whenever I got them! And they "LOVED" my inking!!! Sorry, i pencilled Super Friends but I never liked my inkers. I could do better.

What do you think of the new batch of Philippines artists like Leinil Yu and Gerry Alanguilan?

These Pilipino artists like Leinil and Gerry are the best of their time. Just like Alcala, Redondo, Coching of the past. New generation of geniuses.

Do you consider yourself as an Asian American comic artist?

I'm a naturalized American citizen now but my blood is still Pilipino. I have worked my whole career as an American comic artist…and was accepted by my peers. I must say: YES!

For more info:

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Francisco V. Coching

Francisco V. Coching (1919 – 1998) is known as the Dean of Philippine Komiks. He started his cartooning career before WWII and during the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines, he was a guerrillero (guerilla) for the Kamagong Unit of the Hunters-ROTC resistance organization. His postwar komiks were stories of high adventure that inspired the next generation of komik artists. Unlike many of them, Coching never had the desire to work overseas. He was contented to write and draw his komiks, many of which were adapted into blockbusters.

I had the chance to conduct a short interview with Coching’s wife of 54 years, Filomena Nsvsles Coching who is 90 years old this year, and his grandson, Macoy Coching, 33 years old and a visual artist.

Coching is one of the pioneers of Philippine komiks. But for those in Asia who are not familiar with him and his work, how would you describe him and his impact on comics and culture in the Philippines?

Coching’s exceptional talent had inspired and guided artists, and being the only komik artist to be chosen as a National Artist in the Visual Arts in 2014, filled the gap between fine art and popular art. He is remembered as the “Dean of Philippine Comic Illustrators”, an exceptional artist and a master storyteller.

Did Coching ever wanted to work for Western comics in America, like many of the comic artists he influenced?

Coching never wanted to leave the Philippines to work for any Western komiks.

What was the private Coching like?

Coching was a great husband, a loving father and playful grandfather. His life was his work and his family.

How is the family keeping the Coching legacy alive?

We have held exhibitions of his works since 2009 in different parts of the country, even as far as New York and Hawaii. We have published 2 books, Komiks, Katha at Guhit ni Francisco V. Coching and later, The Life and Art of Francisco Coching by Patrcik Flores, which I recommend.

Lately, we have published 5 of his graphic novels but in Pilipino.

Filomena Coching wrote about her life with Coching in the International Journal of Comic Art Vol 13 No 2 (Fall 2011).

You can read more about Coching here:

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Fear of Comics

Asia always has a problem with comics from time to time. How else do you explain Singapore war heroine Elizabeth Choy’s tirade against horror comic books in the Legislative Council in November 1954. She said, “Something must be done. It is our duty to protect children from the inevitable effects of such detrimental reading material.” Mrs Choy, a teacher, was in illustrious company. 1954 was the same year that the US Senate went after comic books in America.

John Lent has devoted a chapter on Asia in his book, Pulp Demons: International Dimensions of the Postwar Anti-comics Campaign (1999). Here are my examples of once-feared Asian comics that should still be read today.

1. Little Rascals by Tony Wong (HK)

I grew up being told that the policeman will catch me if I were read the violent HK kung fu comics like Tony Wong’s Little Rascals. I remember buying my first issue of this classic comic about street fighting and the gangs of HK at a provision shop near my place, and it was sold to me all rolled up with a white piece of A4 paper. Which meant I bought the comic sight unseen. I have no idea which issue I was buying or what the cover looked like. It was like a secret transaction. I told the shopkeeper the title and he just brought out a copy from under the counter. He did not know which issue he sold me either and frankly, it did not matter.

My eyeballs nearly popped out from reading the comic. There was fighting, gratuitous violence, a rape and murder sequence, secret kung fu training. The fact that it was black and white made it all the illicit and dirty. Needless to say, I never found the next issue and till this day, I do not know if the bad guys had their comeuppance. But this was a moralistic comic. The villains always bite the dust and die a horrible death.

So it is a mystery to me why such values-laden (good vs evil and good wins) HK comics were banned in Singapore in the early 1970s. It was reported that 19,000 HK comics were confiscated and destroyed in 1971. Imagine if these 19,000 copies had reached into the hands of our young and transform their minds, our new nation would have turned out differently.

2. Komplot Penjarakan Anwar by Zunar

Zunar is currently Malaysia’s most-feared political cartoonist. Well, if you walk the straight and narrow, there is nothing to fear from him. But if you are in public office and have broken your promises to the raykat you are supposed to serve, then you are fair game.

On 24 September 2010, Zunar was arrested in his office on the very day his book, Cartoon-O-Phobia was to be launched. All the books were confiscated. The next day he was brought to the court to be charged for sedition. He chose to defend himself.

Zunar: Why was my book being confiscated?
Police: They are seditious.
Zunar: Have you read the book?
Police: No. We just confiscated them yesterday.
Zunar: Then how do you know it is seditious?
Police: Er...

Police: But if they are being sold, they will cause social unrest.
Zunar: You have confiscated all copies. How can it cause social unrest?
Police: Er…

(* not verbatim)

The judge released Zunar there and then.

Zunar is following the footsteps of pioneering political cartoonists like Thomas Nast to take down giants. None of his books are on sale in Malaysian bookshops. You have to buy them online from him. But the printers who print his books are being harassed by the police. And now the authorities are demanding the credit card information of people who brought his books online.

But Zunar is taking it in his stride. The last time I saw him, he was in Singapore for the Singapore Alternative Art and Book Festival in November 2014. He told me while on his way here, he received a call to report to the police for questioning about his latest book, Komplot Penjarakan Anwar (Plot to Jail Anwar). He told them he will report when he get back to KL. Zunar has yet to run away from a fight.

3. Sanmao by Zhang Leping

When the Japanese invaded China in 1937 and ignited the second Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese cartoonists took up their pens to defend their country. While I do not know if any of them were on the Japanese army hit list, the work by the likes of Feng Zikai and Liao Bingxiong were devastating in terms of hitting out at the foreign invaders and boosting the morale of the Chinese readers. But they were not jingoistic as they clearly depicted the pity of war. More than ten years ago, I wrote about these two pioneers in Rosetta Vol 2 (Alternative Comics, 2004).

Another cartoonist who drew about the war was Zhang Leping, who chose to show the impact of the conflict from on ordinary street urchins. He was already famous for his wordless comic strip, San Mao, when the war broke out in 1937. His ubiquitous orphan was sent to war and the cruelty of the enemy was exposed for all to witness. When the war ended, San Mao returned to Shanghai to find a cruel and corrupt capitalistic society. It was a critique of Kuomintang rule and the latter did not take it too kindly.

At the 2014 Angouleme Comic Festival, Fei Editions released the first ever French edition of San Mao comics. I had the good opportunity to chat with publisher Xu Ge Fei and Zhang’s son, Zhang Weijun about the book. (see photo) They shared with me the long process of bringing San Mao to Europe. They were confident that the book would do well in France. Their optimism reminded me of San Mao himself, that little rascal whose indomitable spirit represented hope for China in the 1940s and does so today.

4. Okay, the final one. About a comic that deserves greater attention. A comic that people do not know about. Ever wonder what happen when the censored censors someone else? This is a true story.

Back in 1992, I was the guy putting together the comic pages for BigO. In the September issue (#81), we launched three regular strips. Michael Ng was one of the artists. But the gem was MITA by Johnny Lau, one of the creators of Mr Kiasu.

Some context: Mr Kiasu premiered at the Singapore Book Fair in 1990 to great success. By 1992, it was a bona fide hit. Johnny and his partners, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng started Comix Factory and were about to launch another title, The Neow Brothers. So Johnny was hot property. I interviewed him for BigO and subsequently invited him to contribute comics to the magazine again. He accepted.

By this time, Mr Kiasu had come under attack by some members of the public for its portrayal of the kiasu trait and its use of Singlish in comics. Johnny had his fair share of run-ins with the moral majority, the censorship board and MITA – the Ministry of Information and The Arts. He did not take it lying down. And BigO, a rebel rouser in its own right who challenged MITA almost on a monthly basis on what was allowed or disallowed in a rock magazine in Singapore, was the perfect place for Johnny to say his piece. Or so it seems.

Johnny drew MITA, a satirical strip set in Singapore in 2034 where society is run by the Language Police, who arrest people who speak broken English. The top cop is MITA, a cyborg that is a cross between Robocop and the Terminator. MITA shows no mercy. He shoots you if you put a ‘what’ at the end of a sentence, has no qualms about punching a foul mouth woman in the face and rips your hand out if you give him the middle finger. MITA is scarier than Judge Dredd.

Johnny must have been influenced by the Robocop movies and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, released just the year before. The almost gratuitous violence and the noir look also took from the comics Frank Miller released in 1992 – Robocop vs Terminator and Sin City. This is especially so for the latter. Johnny was using heavy blacks, thick lines and the strip had a painted feel. It was nothing like Johnny had done before. MITA was an expression of Johnny’s anger at the censorship rules in Singapore.

All was well for the first two instalments. Then came the third episode, which introduced MITA’s nemesis, Mouth, whose Hokkien bad words have an explosive power. Literally. Two punks’ heads exploded when Mouth swore at them. It was no holds barred for Johnny in how he showed Mouth’s power.

And that was the problem. Look at this page and tell me what you see or ‘hear’.

Anatomy of the third page of the third episode of MITA: in the first panel the two punks realised Mouth was approaching and they were trembling in fear. One of them said, “Oh shoot!” We only see a portion of a silhouette of Mouth’s face. He is in the shadows. (Background sound effect: KA)

The second panel: the two punks are really scared now. “No No”. Mouth is still in the shadows but there is no background sound effect for this panel.

The third panel constitutes the reminding 2/3 of the page. The two punks had blood spurting out of their heads, eyeballs shooting out of their sockets. A gruesome scene. This panel has no borders, as if to imply the explosive power of Mouth is so tekong that no borders can contain it. Background sound effect was a big NA!

An impressive page by any standard. It creates the mystery of how Mouth looks like; we see his power first before seeing him. This page delays his full appearance, which is only revealed on page 4, the last page of the instalment. This was economical but effective comics drawing.

But Johnny was angry as hell when he saw the published comic. You see, the sound effects were not nonsensical. They were the essence of Mouth’s power: KA NI NA! And the power of the page was diminished when you realize that the NI was liquid papered out by the editors of BigO. Johnny was censored by people who were censored by the authorities before.

I do not really know why that was done. Perhaps the magazine had too many warnings from MITA in the previous months. And KA NI NA! might just be a breaking point if they were not careful. But this act of self-censorship broke Johnny’s trust in the magazine. He was so pissed that he tore up the pages of Part 4 that he was working.

That is the real pity of MITA. It was never continued, completed or compiled. But now you know the story. A lost classic in the annals of Singapore comics history.

MITA appeared in:
BigO #81 (Sept 1992) MITA (P) 55/9/91
BigO #82 (Oct 1992) MITA (P) 29/9/92
BigO#83 (Nov 1992) MITA (P) 29/9/92