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


james leong said...

I was inspired by "The Little Rascal" when I was young, did I turn out to be violent? Sadly and gladly, no. It brought light to what type of society we lived in. Gangsters, mafias, hooligans were everywhere in the secret corners. The comic fueled me to drawings and more drawings. I saw a different education in the comic unlike the conservative adults and society. It may be violent but it teaches the value of upholding justice and truth.

ct said...

well said, james.