Sunday, August 17, 2008


2008 is a year of anniversaries.

1. Superman was born 70 years ago, Action Comics #1. Cover dated June 1938, that marked the first appearance of the Man of Steel.

Some would argue that Batman is cooler, but despite wearing his red underwear on the outside for seven decades, getting killed, resurrected and hitched (a fate worse than death?), Supes is still my man. Perhaps more than truth, justice and the American way, Superman represents the possibilities that we can achieve, to reach for the stars with that Boy Scout outlook intact.

Incidentally, when I was chatting with the legendary comics retailer/historian, Robert Beerbohm at SDCC, he told me he has a copy of Superman #1 in his collection. Eh, the Southeast Asian edition licensed from DC Comics back in 1958. It was printed in Singapore and was meant for the regional market. So Supes made his ‘official’ appearance in Singapore/Southeast Asia 50 years ago, just a year before we gain self-government from the British.

So did the possibilities offer by Superman inspired the PAP Old Guard? Did LKY read comic books?

I wonder.

2. 60 years ago, the Malayan Emergency broke out and changed the political landscape of Singapore. It is interesting how art and pop culture inform our sense of the past. Just as Superman’s 70th birthday probably meant more to me than this year’s national day celebrations, the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency 60 years ago is more significant for the brief period of Malayan Spring that preceded it.

When the British returned to Malaya and Singapore after WWII, they allowed the various political and cultural groups to flourish. The Malayan Communist Party was a legitimate party and cultural publications and activities were reaching out to the masses at a scale hardly seen today.

Sure, some of the works (including comics!) done were socialist and prevalent of the mood of the times. But it was a period of creativity that saw literary works talking about the plight of the common man, plays that depicted social injustice and songs that inspired the workers.

Go check out this new book on that brief period of Malayan Spring:

Paths Not Taken: Political Pluralism in Postwar Singapore, edited by
by Michael Barr and Carl A. Trocki. (Singapore University Press)

3. 40 years ago saw the landmark student radicalism of Mai 68 (May 68) manifesting itself in the streets of Paris. It is an event that is unlikely to be celebrated here. I was in Paris in early June and Mai 68 remained important in the historical consciousness of Parisians. A moment of youthful rebellion against conservatism and the old order, Mai 68 continues to inspire artists and culture in Europe just as the event itself was informed by the counterculture of the 60s (rock music, movies, Guy Debord and the Situationists).

[I stand corrected on the limited impact of Mai 68 on Singapore. Artists like Tang Da Wu were heavily inspired by the spirit of Mai 68. I hooked up with Da Wu in London before heading on to Paris and he was the one who insisted I must attend an exhibition of Mai 68 posters and brought me and the wife there.]

As I walked around Paris attending the Mai 68 related exhibitions, the bookshops and visiting the Latin Quarter (the heart of the action), I got a sense of the pop culture happenings that continue to inspire the young. I turned a corner and there’s a comic shop. Someone was busking along the sidewalk. It’s good to be in Paris in June.

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