Saturday, August 22, 2020

Mr Tino: Interview with Russell Molina and Ian Sta. Maria

Mr Tino (original title in the Philippines: Sixty Six) by Russell Molina and Ian Sta. Maria was a breakout indie comic title in 2013. I described it as Superman coming to Earth as an old man instead of a baby and you have Mr Tino, the newest and oldest superhero on the block. Two collected books have been released by Anino in the Philippines so far and now Epigram Books has translated the first volume from Tagalog to English for the Singapore market. This is the second graphic novel from the Philippines Epigram has released since they re-launched their graphic novel line earlier this year. The first was Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer. 

From the Epigram bio: 

Russell Molina is a Filipino children’s book author and graphic novelist. Some of his notable works include Titoy’s Magical Chair, A Dozen Brothers and 12:01. Many of his books have been recognised in award shows such as the National Children’s Book Awards and the IBBY Honour List. 

Ian Sta. Maria is the author and artist of Salamangka, co-creator and artist ofthe Skyworld series, Kadasig and Seven Gifts of the Skygods. He lives in Denmark where he works as a senior concept artist for Lego. 

By the way, sixty six refers to Mr Tino’s age but don’t mess with him. 

Russell and Ian spill the beans in this email interview. 

CT: Both of you are in advertising. How does that affect the way you tell your stories? 

Russell: In advertising, we were trained to tell stories in 30 seconds or less. So we need to pick the right words and push it at the right time for maximum impact. As a writer, advertising taught me brevity, solid storytelling, a cinematic perspective and a sense of writing structure and discipline. 

Having had the chance to work with Ian also on numerous ad projects in the past, we already have a process in place and we know each other’s pace. So we knew how to move as one unit already. 

Ian: Advertising gave me many mentors - in writing, directing, art directing, photography. I learned a lot in different ways of telling stories from them. 

CT: Who are your influences? 

Russell: I’m inspired by films actually when I do comics. I love Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou and our local greats Lino Brocka, Peque Gallaga, just to name a few. I think cinema plays a big part in the way I write comics because I really think film when I do framing and even the pace of my story. Mr. Tino for me can very well be a storyboard for a movie (Hello, Netflix!). Also, movies, especially the Filipino classics, provide good reference materials for those flashbacks. 

CT: Yes, I could see the social realism influence from Lino Brocka and even Mike de Leon. Many Philippines movies in the past were adapted from popular komiks. How about you, Ian? 

Ian: Comic books are in my core and I'm a pop culture geek. I love being inspired by film, video games, manga, anime, board games. I get inspiration wherever I can get it. 

CT: How did the idea for Mr Tino come about? (Russell was doing children's books before this and Ian was drawing Skyworld) 

Russell: We belong to a circle of friends who are mostly comic creators – Budjette Tan (Trese), Mervin Ignacio (Skyworld), JB Tapia and Bow Guerrero (Mikey Recio) and we usually, over beer or during breaks, toss around ideas for comics. It’s a good way to test if your idea works or not. I was looking for a unique superhero who would represent the Pinoys. During that time, there was a national discussion on senior citizen rights and maybe that influenced me in molding the character of Mr. Tino. When I did a scan, there were no big senior citizen super heroes then, so I thought it was worth pursuing -- with the egging of these friends too.

Is Mr Tino a comment on ageism? 

Russell: When we released the first ashcan in 2012, the comic had an accompanying Filipino line that said, “Huli man at magaling, naihahabol din.” Which roughly translates to: Better late than never. The idea was really to celebrate possibilities – you can have something amazing in your life albeit later in your years. It’s a story of hope and the struggle of dealing with unexpected gifts. 

But I do welcome the commentary on ageism, if that’s the take away for some. I truly believe that powers, of any kind, can come from anyone, at any age. If the book can start a conversation against discrimination, then I’m all for it.

Ian: Never underestimate senior citizens. 

CT: How did the Epigram deal come about? 

Ian: I just got a very happy email from Ani Almario, our publisher, that Epigram was interested in adapting Mr Tino. 

CT: Philippines comics has seen a revival. From Zsazsa Zaturnnah (2002) to Trese (2005) to Elmer (2006), Mr Tino/Sixty Six (2013) builds on this body of diverse work which mix action with social commentary. What is the future of Philippines comics? 

Russell: AND we’re just scratching the surface. More and more, we see very innovative comics coming out like Dead Balagtas’ Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa and Rob Chan’s silent comics Lost and Light. These are exciting times for Komiks. And we still have unexplored myths and folklores which I think are good source materials also. With the entry of new comics titles and young comics creators, I think new voices and new styles will emerge. 

CT: How are the both of you dealing with the covid situation in the Philippines and Denmark respectively? 

Russell: Yes, we are back in lockdown here in the Philippines and the cases are rising. Different people have different ways of coping and I guess I find comfort in doing comics. Together with friend and colleague Argem Vinuya, we created Covid Comics PH – short 5-panel comics that just talks about our feelings during this pandemic. It’s therapeutic and it’s great to share it with a community which also needs both entertainment and affirmation that they are never alone in this. 

Ian: Working from home in Denmark really works for me. But I do miss Manila very much. I would love to be able to go home soon and see friends and family. 

CT: What can we expect from Book 2? 

Russell: Book 2 is already out here in the Philippines (released earlier this year), with illustrations by Mikey Marchan. I hope Epigram Books pick that one up too. 

CT: Thanks, guys!

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Comics Studies by Clio Ding

Clio Ding is a comic artist friend who went overseas recently to do a master’s in comics studies. Although I have been researching and writing about comics for some years and have contributed to edited volumes like Comics Studies: Here and Now (Routledge, 2018), I am not schooled in comics studies. So I asked Clio to write something about her experience at the University of Dundee, why she wanted a MA in this field and what she has learned.

This is Clio’s bio in her own words:

A comic dabbler who loves to enjoy binging on snacks and alcohol while watching cartoons. To satisfy its immense appetite it became a full-time art educator. Clio started drawing weekend comics for the Singapore Press Holdings and messed around with doujinshi for a decade, before debuting with a gothic short story Libera Nos A Malo in the ARENA Fantasy anthology. It has contributed to the SG50 commemorative comic Our Months Together with Crisis.D featuring a pretty useless durian superhero. Currently, Clio has been making a 4 panel comic strip titled Kev!n, a humorous slice of life adventures of a food-motivated dinosaur and its bizarre friends like magical ice-creams, a ninja, aliens and broccoli. Libera Nos A Malo has also evolved into an ongoing series about a cyborg exorcist who runs a demon-busting agency with his academically overqualified assistant.

Here’s her reflections.

I have been an art educator since 2012. As a thirty-something comic enthusiast and dabbler, I felt the need to further improve myself academically as well as to give more attention to the passion that I’ve been neglecting. In September 2019, I embarked on my sabbatical to pursue a one-year Master’s degree in Comics and Graphic Novels at the University of Dundee (UoD). In this post I will be sharing my learning experience with the course, for those of you who might be keen to pursue a higher education related to this field.

Prior to my teaching career, I studied animation at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University because I felt that animation techniques could help me improve my comic skills and broaden my aesthetic exposure. In my younger days I used to read mostly Chinese-translation shonen and seinen manga, because they were widely available, easier to read, and cheaper as compared to English comics. I tried reading American comics, but my English was not strong enough to appreciate all the puns. I was an otaku who didn’t really know about comics from the rest of the world till after university, but I also read very selectively and avoided the mainstream like the plague. Some of my favorite titles are EATMAN by Akihito Yoshitomi, Black Lagoon by Rei Hiroe, Biomega by Tsutomu Nihei, Hellboy by Mike Mignola, Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener. In a sense, my taste in comics was shaped by economic constraints and linguistic inability, but my fellow comic enthusiasts abhorred my ignorance on the seminal works that all self-respecting nerds should know about, and so begin the process of learning.

I have kept on drawing while working as a fulltime teacher and have self-published my own comics as well being published by TCZ Studio. I have also gotten to know more about the comics community in Singapore through events like the 24 Hour Comics Day.

Drawing comics got me interested in Art, and I was able to have a teaching job because of an art school education, so when I was deciding what to do for my sabbatical, I eventually gravitated back to learning more about comics. Like everyone else, I consulted the ancient spirit of Google to guide my path. There were very few institutions in the world where one can study comics at the master’s level. Most of them focus on making comics, but I came across University of Dundee, that offers something different — comic studies.

What is Comic Studies?

Comic studies is a relatively new academic domain. It involves theorizing and analyzing comics in terms of their history, form, content, context and impact. These are done by comic scholars, who are experts in comic history, culture and theories, making them the most qualified human to talk about comics. Scot McCloud is one example that some of you probably know. Comic studies was normally carried out by various university departments such as American studies, English Literature, Sociology, History, Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology (but not art school…). Each of these disciplines takes a slightly different approach to analyzing comics. For example, American studies would be looking at comics (mostly superheroes) as a uniquely American cultural phenomenon; sociology might be gathering data on how comics influence certain social behavior; linguistics deconstructs the unique structure of comics and compares them to languages. Therefore, comic studies straddle multiple academic disciplines.

Having been a science student since secondary school, writing was never my strength. But my career in teaching art history and theory exposed me to the importance of art writing. Art, film and literature became important because of the attention was given to them in academia. But comic has always been much marginalized, narrowly associated with juvenile literature and popular culture, and never taken seriously in the universities until recent years. The growth in comic studies would therefore give comics the attention it deserves, as an important cultural artefact, and a unique form of art. Choosing a masters that deals with theories and writing instead of practice would be challenging myself to learn new skills and knowledge, and it could facilitate my future teaching practice.

UoD’s Masters in Comics and Graphic Novel was launched in 2011 by the English department, and is led by Dr Chris Murray, one of the UK's leading authorities on comics, and editor of the Studies in Comics journal. Currently it has two tracks, MLitt and MDes. MLitt (Master of Letters, somewhat similar to MA) is the original comic studies track with written dissertation as the final outcome, whereas the relatively newer MDes (Master of Design) mainly focus on creative practice, catering to those who prefer drawing rather than writing, as the final output is a comic project of at least 22 pages. MDes is anchored by the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, whereas MLitt is from the School of Humanities.

What can one learn?

The two tracks differ in their core modules and modes of final assessment, but all the core and optional modules from one track can be taken by students of the other track, subjected to the amount of credits per semester. I was in MLitt, but I shamelessly crashed almost all of the modules except for The Pictured Page, which was unfortunately cancelled due to low sign-ups for my year.

Here is an overview of all the modules available and what they are essentially about:

Or the full information for each module:

What are the classes like?

Learning comics at master’s level involves a lot of self-studies and readings. The modules are taught via 2-hour long seminars on a bi-weekly schedule. My timetable is thus shockingly empty, with lessons on only two or three days a week, sometimes none. We were given a lot of materials that has to be read before the seminar, both the comics being discussed as well as secondary readings on theories. Most of the materials are digitized and made available through the university learning portal, but regular trips to the college library are expected for physical materials.

On top of reading, there are bi-weekly journals to be written for the MLitt Core modules Critical Approaches and International Comics Cultures. Each journal entries are 400 words close analysis of any chosen comics relevant to the topics of the upcoming week. The journals need to involve citations of some secondary sources such as theories, so reading up is extremely crucial. In some sense it is Flipped Classroom where the bulk of work is done before the seminar.

Seminars usually begin with the lecturer invoking response from students regarding the reading materials and what they have written in their journals, with some commentaries and inputs. This is followed by an hour-long lecture where more theories are introduced, before finishing with group discussion on particular works or selected pages. The quality of discussion depends on the responses of the entire class or group, therefore being responsive and involved in discussions is essential. This might not be very comfortable for those who are used to being spoon-fed with information, those who are passive and less vocal, or those who are plain lazy and did not read anything beforehand.

This year we had a very small cohort of nine, only two of us were in MLitt and the rest were MDes. Students came from all over the world: we had two Scots, a British, a Canadian, a Greek, an Ecuadorian, a Peruvian, an Indonesian, and me the Singaporean. Some graduates have remained in Dundee for PhD in Comics, while others found jobs in the industry.

What else besides classes?

Apart from lectures, there are comics related events which we could attend. We made regular visits to Dundee Comics Creative Space, a comics event hub just across the campus where external talks, book launches, and workshops are made available to the public. We got to know some graduate students doing their PhD in the space, and they were very enthusiastic to form a little community that supports us outside of curriculum time. We saw Pat Mills and Ian Kennedy at the launch of Great War Dundee comic. It takes one’s own passion and initiative to seek out and attend these sessions and meet ups outside of curriculum times to make the learning experience worthwhile.

Dundee is also where DC Thompson is located. In Comics Production module we did a life project with The Beano. The editors came down for our critique sessions. You can read about it here: During the days without lectures, it is also recommended to take excursions outside to see more exhibitions and visit places. I attended Thought Bubble—the largest original comic con in the UK with my classmates. The train fare and lodging were expensive, but the loot was worth it!

The academic calendar of universities features long stretches of holidays. In academic year 2019-2020, Semester one was from September to November, and Semester two was from January to March, and Semester three is currently running from May to August. Seminars are only in semester one and two, and semester three is purely for dissertations or final project. That means a lot of unregulated free times which requires self-discipline. Due to disruptions caused by COVID-19, physical seminars have been replaced with online seminars since the last two weeks of semester two. I have chosen to return to Singapore and continue with my dissertation at home, and I am also meeting my tutor bi-weekly online. I felt that the seminars and especially workshops were too far and few in between. As the tuition fee for international student was over 17 thousand pounds for a year, I wish the modules could be more intense. Maybe years of stressful Singapore education has shaped me to expect the unsurmountable as the norm!

Overall, the course has broadened my knowledge horizon. This experience has allowed me the space to read and write more than any other occasions in my years of study. The most important module was Critical Approaches, because it introduces the various theoretical aspects of comic analysis. International Comics Culture is also one of my favorite because it introduces comics from around the world and how these global comics cultures have influenced one another. Throughout the many modules I have written and presented on interesting and strange topics: The Place of Comics in Art Education (for Critical Approaches); The Death of the Artist in the Age of Machine Intelligence; Love & Sex with Robots: The role and significance of androids in romance Manga (for Sci-fi); Hysterical Form: Chinese Lianhuanhua in the Cultural Revolution Era; Defining the Superhero in Contemporary Asian Comics; Asian Aesthetics in Digital Comics (for International Comics Culture); Adult Content: Sexual Politics in Adaptations of Comics to Film; and one about Hentai Kamen called The Male Nude – a Vulgar Spectacle (for Comics and Film). I am currently doing my dissertation on the negotiation of national and cultural identity in Singapore Comics.

Currently, comic studies are gaining tractions globally, with the most number of conferences and publications from North America, the UK, Franco-Belgian regions and Japan. Outside of the academia, comics are still presented to the public as commercial entertainments. Comics related exhibitions are sporadic, and most are exhibited within conventions, curated by publishers or fans. Apart from small scale showcasing of individual talents, very few are curated by educational institutions, museums, and historians. Fortunately, there has been an increasing number of comics related events in Singapore such as Singapore Writers Festival and Singapore Original Comics Festival (organized by TCZ Studio), and also some recent niche exhibitions featuring political cartoonists and alternative comics. I wish more of such exhibitions can be held for the public to appreciate not just the aesthetics of comics but also to gain insights about the relevance of their themes in the wider social context.

Thanks Clio for sharing.

To read Clio's comics:

Read Kev!n on webtoon:
Read Libera Nos A Malo on webtoon (censored as Mature):


Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Art of Ian Kennedy

In his new book, Masters of British Comic Art (Rebellion, 2020), David Roach described Ian Kennedy as “perhaps the most important artist at Air Ace (for Fleetway) where he drew strips and painted covers for nine years, meanwhile at Thomson he crafted light-hearted girl strips for Judy and Bunty, mixed with boys strips for Hotspur” in the 1960s.

Roach went on to say the 1970s and 1980s consolidated Kennedy’s position as “one of the country’s top adventure artists with crisp, dynamic strips for Wizard, Warlord, Bullet and Crunch along with IPC’s Valiant, Battle, Starlord and Eagle where he memorably drew Dan Dare for several years.”

The assessment is:

Kennedy’s work is characterized by energetic drawing, beautifully crafted ink work, a mastery of paint and a gift for bringing anything mechanical to life, all of which has been thrillingly evident in his long association with Commando which began in 1970 and continues to this day, resulting in over 1,200 exquisite covers. (p. 55)

Now that makes Kennedy the link between the pioneering postwar generation of British comic artists (he started his career in 1949 at the age of 17) of the 1950s and 1960s and the new wave of the 1970s and 1980s. Kennedy was one of the few who successfully transited to the adventure and science fiction strips of the 1970s and 1980s, and still working today. He even drew Judge Dredd in the mid 1980s, although he didn’t quite approve of some of Joe’s more violent punishments.

But it will be his Commando covers that will stand the test of time. In War Stories: A Graphic History (Collins Design, 2009), Mike Conroy praised Kennedy’s ability to draw a seemingly simple action scene but in actual fact, the cover is a master class in balance and design (p. 109).

Now, wait. Some of you are asking Ian who? Ian Gibson? Cam Kennedy? If you are unfamiliar with British comics history, now is the time to brush up on its rich heritage other than the writers and artists that most of us only know when Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Dave McKean and others invaded American comics in the 1980s and 1990s. A good place to start is the above-mentioned David Roach’s Masters of British Comic Art, a hefty hardcover tome of 386 pages.

Back to Ian Kennedy. From his website:

Ian Kennedy (born 22 September 1932, Dundee, Scotland) is a UK artist.

Growing up in Dundee in the Forties, Ian was enchanted by aircraft. An ear infection ended his dream of becoming a pilot, but a trip to Dundee Royal Infirmary led to meeting his wife to be, Gladys, who was a nurse and he pursued a career that involved drawing aircraft rather than flying them.

Ian started at D. C. Thomson & Co. in 1949 as a trainee illustrator, and in 1954, with a wife and son to support, took the decision to leave D.C. Thomson and go freelance. He has had a career in illustration and comic books ever since.

During the 1950s Ian turned his hand to illustrating anything and everything. His work appeared in Hotspur, Rover, Adventure, Sun, Buck Jones and many other comics.

In the 1960s the Picture Library became a popular format and Ian worked on Air Ace, Bunty, Battle and War Picture Libraries. That's not to neglect the work he did for many of the weeklies such as Adventure, Hotspur and Bunty.

From the 1970s onward, Ian began to specialise in science fiction comics, regularly producing work for IPC's 2000AD and Star Lord. He also worked for Battle Picture Weekly, Buddy, Blake's 7, Eagle (Dan Dare), M.A.S.K., Victor Summer Special, Wildcat and D. C. Thomson's pocket books (including Commando).

For those of us of a certain vintage, we grew up reading his Commando stories and Dan Dare in Eagle in the 1980s in Singapore.

I did an email interview with Ian recently. He still lives in Dundee.

What is your typical day like these days?

My typical day is much less structured than in previous times when, the only way to cope with a heavy workload was a strict daily routine of roughly eight hours with a break for lunch and, to a degree, relaxing in the evening. Now, as I do not have to meet so many deadlines, I am more relaxed as to when I go to the studio, which, I feel, has led to, in some aspects, an improvement in my work.

I am not much of a sports fan, although I do enjoy tennis, bowling and snooker on TV.

How is your health these days?

I have enjoyed a fair measure of good health over the years. However, since contracting prostate cancer 10 years ago, my health has deteriorated to quite a degree, mainly due to the chemotherapy which, although successful in treating the cancer, has had drastic side effects.

You had wanted to be a pilot when you were young. When was the last time you took a plane and where did you travel to?

Yes, that was the burning ambition, sadly not to be! Last flight was a short one - Edinburgh to Belfast return!!

What is heroism in this time and age?

Heroism? I believe it manifests itself in all walks of life. Disregarding one's safety for that of others, might well be considered heroism.

Are characters like Dan Dare and Judge Dredd still relevant today? (this year is the 70th anniversary of Dan Dare)

Dan and the Judge relevant today? I really do hope so as I make a living out of portraying them!

It is 2020. War – what is it good for?

A bit of a dilemma here. Although earning a living portraying war, I find the very thought of mankind going to war totally abhorrent, especially when it is, frequently, to further the aims of politics or religion.

You drew many science fiction and futurist comics. What are your hopes for the present and future?

I consider Scifi and Fantasy publications to be the natural successors to the traditional Fairy Tale and, therefore, hope they will continue, with one proviso. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of the grotesque to the exclusion of all else. I feel we can do without this unnecessary trend!

(M.A.C.H. 1 from 2000AD Annual 1982 - you can always expect planes in a Kennedy comic)

Do you still read any comics today? What about books, music, movies or plays?

I do glance/examine current publications including those for children, especially for the ones in their middle age! That apart, I do not do much reading of books as I tend to doze off, having then, to reread that last paragraph - very boring! I enjoy TV documentaries and music, especially DVDs.

You are still making appearances at comics conventions and events like the Lakes International Comic Art Festival (2018), the 40 Years of Thrill-power Festival (2017), a celebration of 2000AD and the launch of your own art book, The Art of Ian Kennedy, published by DC Thomson last year. Are you seeing a revival and reassessment of your career and now more famous than ever than?

I took some persuading, mainly by my friend Phil Vaughan of Duncan of Jordanstone Collage of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, to attend some of the local conferences. My reluctance was based on the belief that all I had done was earned a living, like so many others, using a talent I was lucky to possess. I soon realised that I was part of an industry providing entertainment for many members of the public of all ages. I, very quickly realised, that having had such an interesting and rewarding life in comics etc, there was an opportunity to put something back by making myself available to discuss, for instance, my "apprenticeship" among the unsung professionals in the Art Department of D.C.Thomson & Co. Dundee. The knowledge I gained then has proved invaluable, and has played a great part in any subsequent success that has come my way. As for the "fame" - I must admit, I find it, at times, somewhat difficult to cope with as, although I enjoy company, I am essentially a bit of a loner which is rather fortunate in that I have never had any trouble in spending many solitary hours in the studio.

How do you explain your longevity?

I can only put my longevity down to sheer luck in having my wife Gladys look after me all these years, ensuring a healthy diet and, most of the time, ironing out the creases in life. In addition, it must be noted that apart from my talent, I have been extremely fortunate in that my professional life coincided with what I term "The Golden Days of British Comics" when there was no need to search for work.

What do you think about the fact that comics are taken more seriously now and are given more respect and research? (there is a Scottish Centre for Comics Studies at the University of Dundee, which offers a Masters in Comics and Graphic Novels, the only course of its kind in the UK)

The recognition is long overdue! I mentioned earlier, the artists in the department at Thomson. Each one was a talented professional who, today, would get the recognition they richly deserved. Along with many others around the land, they laid the foundations of comic illustration as we know it today. You mention Dundee University's interest and initiative in the world of comics. I am rather proud to be connected, albeit only in a very minor way, in that from time to time, Phillip Vaughan, the Senior Tutor invites me to meet and talk with the students on that particular course.

Are you working on any new projects?

I am fortunate in that I am still contributing covers for Commando combined with commissions mainly from private individuals. This is more than enough as I now find it difficult spending more than three to four hours at the drawing board. At present, there are five commissions and a cover awaiting attention.

Can you show us some work in progress pages or art you are working on?

I prefer, out of respect for my clients, not to publicise current work. However I shall attach some of my recent efforts.

Thanks, Ian!

One could say that other than being bloody talented with the pen, Ian is also lucky to be at the right place, at the right time. From being the tea boy and doing up the crossword in the DC Thomson office in the late 1940s to drawing adventure and romance strips in the 1960s, and cementing his contemporary reputation as one of the pioneers of 2000AD and his long time association with Commando, Kennedy is one of the few postwar giants of British comics still with us today. Younger readers should read more about his work and learn from him. That’s why I wanted to do an interview with him.

There are still new areas to research for his comics. His war stories would have been studied but given the interest in early romance comics in the UK, Kennedy’s girl strips for Judy and Bunty are up for a reevaluation.

I did an interview with Calum Laird, the editor of Commando comics, back in 2015.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Reality Bitchslap: Interview with Arif Rafhan

Epigram Books is restarting their line of graphic novels, this time getting the rights of comics from the region and translating them into English for the local market. Earlier this year, they published the late Gerry Alanguilan’s award-winning Elmer (the Philippines), a timely read in these troubled times about race and discrimination; and Tita Larasati’s Coming Home (Indonesia), a graphic diary of Tita’s own return to Bandung after 10 years away from home.

This month, a new title is released, Arif Rafhan’s Reality Bitchslap (Malaysia), a travelogue of twentysomethings on the verge of adulthood and on the road to explore Southeast Asia and their own future. Sounds very Gen-X, which it is as the story is set in the early 2000s when Arif and friends took some time off to see the world.

It is a breezy read, reminding one of hanging out at the Central Market in KL and plucking the courage to cross the road in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Originally published by Maple Comics in 2015, Reality Bitchslap (Malay title: Pelempang Realiti) reminds me of the other travelogues by Mimi Mashud published by Maple. Mimi documents her family holidays while Arif’s encounters in Reality Bitchslap should not be experienced with family members. So kudos to him for laying bare his misadventures with the seedier side of Southeast Asian backpacking.

All these have to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. You wonder if Arif and his friends are really that naïve and innocent about the ways of the world – after all, KL is a big city too with sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Arif shared that he was inspired by the Dead Kennedy’s song, Holiday in Cambodia, to visit Phnom Penh. I wish there were more personal insights like these which would be more interesting than the boys avoiding sexual advances in the different cities. While sex tourism is prevalent in certain parts of Southeast Asia, to highlight it frequently in the story can also be a stereotypical depiction of the poorer places in the region (circa early 2000s).

I found the ending rather abrupt. It reads like Arif could still go on as we do not know his solo travels in Jakarta and Bandung when his travel companions returned home first. Perhaps he was constrained by the page limit but a sequel of his recent travels with this same group of friends (all married with kids) could show how they and the world have changed. After all, Maple publishers shared that their entire run of Pelempang Realiti is sold out.

I did an email interview with Arif recently.

How did this book come about? Is this your first book and what else have you done?

The pitching process started with a small zine I made for my booth at KL ZineFest back in 2014. It's an 8-page zine made out of A4 paper. The story was about a flower girl who was a bit too friendly and ended up hanging out with an old white man at the back of the restaurant (that story is featured in this book as well). I sold them for RM2 each and 100 copies were gone in a few hours. I have attached the picture here (the mini zine is on the top right of the picture. Photo credit: AkuNapie):

Since people liked the story, I came up with a 10-page sample of the book in English.

Together with the treatment of the story, I started to pitch to a few publishers at that time. After a few rejections, I approached Amir Muhammad (Buku Fixi, Kuman Pictures) with my idea and he suggested for me to approach this new comic publisher, Komik Maple. I met Amir Hafizi and Roy Ablah at a mamak stall and they suggested for Reality Bitchslap to be made in KL slang instead and to be renamed to Pelempang Realiti. This helped me build a strong foundation locally at this initial stage (I was a newbie with two illustrated books and only one graphic novel under my belt). I obliged and that's how this graphic novel was officially kicked off.

Why did you call the book Pelempang Realiti? (pelempang = slap) Were you thinking of the phrase Tiada rotan, pelempang berguna juga?
Haha! That's a very good proverb. However, I'm not that deep! I remember Ben Stiller's film, 'Reality Bites' (1994), a movie about these struggling Gen X graduates facing the reality of adulting, which is different from what they expected back in college. I am also a big fan of the Dead Kennedys, a hardcore punk band from San Francisco back in the 80s, especially their hit song, Holiday in Cambodia. The song 'bitchslaps' most of these so-called middle class educated graduates who think they've seen everything; compared to what the Cambodian people were facing under the Khmer Rouge. So, I combined Winona Ryder and Jello Biafra (of the Dead Kennedys) together and came up with Reality Bitchslap (Pelempang Realiti).

A big fierce slap to me as I faced the reality of the Third World countries through our backpacking journey and how it realigned my perspectives and attitude towards our fellow Southeast Asians with some comedic flavor.

How did the deal with Epigram come about? What do you hope to achieve with the English translation? (new audience in Singapore and English-reading readers?)

Epigram contacted Komik Maple and Amir informed me about the intention. I said okay and I was included in the discussion from then on. As I mentioned earlier, the original idea of this book was in English and translating it to English was not a big problem for me. It's just that some of the details needed explanation for relevance purposes.

Do you think non-KL, non-Malay readers will relate to this book?

The theme of this book is very general; it's a road story. Some of the jokes were funnier in KL slang but I personally changed them so it would sound funny in English as well. To begin with, this story was set in the early 2000s, so I already set my mind writing the story to be relevant with today's readers. But again, 99% of the book is a true story, my own experiences, so I had to make sure the narrative and context are general enough so it will be relatable to most people around the globe, but with some local hints here and there.

How close is the English title Reality Bitchslap to what you have in mind?

Reality Bitchslap was the original title. So coming up with Pelempang Realiti was the challenge actually! Pelempang is quite harsh compared to 'tampar' and 'sepak', so I think the chosen word pretty much captures the essence of the story.

How do you find the English translation? Were you involved and what is gained and lost in the process of translation?

I was heavily involved in it. Actually, I was the translator, haha! I worked with my old friend, Yanty Ishak as my personal editor on the translation. I also worked very closely with Sylvia from Epigram and she helped me with the context and relevance from English readers' perspective. I can safely say that there is no lost in translation in the process. What makes me happy is that now the book has its own international face whilst promoting local flavors as well.

Who / what are your influences? (punk rock and dead kennedys..) I am thinking of someone like Fatah who used the Terengganu dialect in his comics.

Fatah, Lat, Jaafar Taib (to name a few) are my heroes. These Godfathers of local comics created success stories for us younger generations to study, adjust, adapt and practice in today's age. I was lucky to get the chance to work with Jaafar Taib for a year as a Gila-Gila contributor in 2018 and now I'm working closely with Lat for his latest graphic novel as his inker.

Dead Kennedys obviously was the main reason I wanted to go to Cambodia in the first place. My other influences are Robert Crumbs and I read Joe Sacco a lot before I wrote this book. I was intrigued by Sacco and Crumb’s honesty in their stories even though it makes them look weak in their own stories. I tried to include the 'nakedness' of the protagonist in this book as well, especially his thoughts and impressions.

What is your 'day job'?

I'm a full time visual artist and an animator. Currently I'm partnering with a few interior design companies and municipal bodies, providing mural artworks for new offices and public spaces such as libraries and street art. I'm also involved in the animation industry, both pre-production (concept art, environment design, storyboards) and the principle animation as well.

On graphic novels, I'm currently working with my long-time collaborator, Melanie Lee on a new book (Amazing Ash and Superhero Ah Ma), hopefully coming out by the end of this year by Difference Engine in Singapore. My next personal project is to compile my webcomics, #SeketulSina (comics on parenthood and a kid named Sina) into a physical format. I am also currently writing a new graphic novel about a kid who is experiencing his coming-of-age in a small town in Taiping, Perak in the late 80s.

Heard you are working with Lat now on Mat Som 2. How is the progress on that?

We've been working together on this project for two years now and at the moment we are on the last leg of the inking phase. This is considered as my best 'achievement unlocked' moment as a comic artist, having an opportunity to work closely with a master and to learn not just the technicalities and history of KL & Perak, but also the mindset and attitude from Lat in creating a comic that 'talks, sings and dances' to the readers in a unique and beautiful way. Hopefully the book will be published this year, it's all up to the Big Man himself.

An old interview with Maple from 2015:

Monday, April 20, 2020

Tatsumi and Liquid City Vol 2

Times flies. 5 years ago, Tatsumi sensei passed away on 7 March and 10 years ago, Liquid City Vol 2 was released.

In September 2011, gekiga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi returned to Singapore for the premiere of Tatsumi (dir: Eric Khoo), the animated film of A Drifting Life, the autobiography of his early life. We met up at the poolside café of Goodwood Park Hotel where he and his wife were staying. I gave him a copy of Liquid City Vol 2, the Southeast Asian comics anthology I co-edited with Sonny Liew and published by Image Comics just the year before. He flipped through the book and asked through a translator whether the artists were paid. I replied no. He paused and said I must be very powerful to get the artists to work without money.

I thought about what he said. It was not power that got this volume done, but it was a collaborative effort and a constructivist approach was taken. The objective of the Liquid City volumes is to highlight the diversity of talent and stories from the region. Comics anthologies do not sell well, a fact confirmed by Eric Stephenson, the publisher of Image, when I met him at the Thought Bubble comic con in 2013. For this anthology, the artists and editors were not paid. The stories were fuelled by passion. As such, my editorial approach was to have a light touch as I wanted to retain the artist’s vision as much as possible. If you are not paying someone, it is not reasonable to ask them to make extensive changes when it could affect their schedule for other paying jobs. Editorial changes were suggested to improve the overall story.

For example, in the original WIP (work-in-progress) pages for The Box by Chin Yew, he made it explicit that he had a problem with pornography ala Joe Matt and Chester Brown. Porn made him feel guilty and doing this story could be therapeutic for him. But it was too much like Matt and Brown. I suggested for him to make the story more universal and replaced the word pornography with addiction. I explained this could make the story more identifiable with readers with other forms of addiction. Most of us are addicted to something in one way or the other. Given our love for autobiographical creators, Chin Yew and I did a tribute to Harvey Pekar when he passed away.
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Another challenge for the editor is following up with the artists. Some stories come in late and it is the job of the editor to chase them. And sometimes, you have to cross the border to do it. I contacted the Malaysian artist Lat for a story and the deadline was looming. Lat has always welcomed us to visit him at his hometown in Ipoh, Malaysia. I decided to take up his offer and it would be a chance to chat about the story for Vol 2. Lat showed us his kampong (the Malay village where he grew up), drove us around town in his old sedan car, played Roseanne Cash’s The List CD on the stereo and we were just cruising. We talked about old John Wayne movies and he casually mentioned he would offer a story about a soccer match for the book. That was how it was done, over curry cooked by his wife. For this road trip, I travelled with editorial cartoonist, Dengcoy Miel who also promised a story for Vol 2. I think he was sufficiently inspired by the journey to come up with the excellent wordless crime story he did for us.

Working with artists is about building a relationship with them. I got to know some of these artists quite well and have worked with them on comic stories. It is not about having power over them but to have the power to help them realise their vision and bring their stories to a wider audience.

As for Tatsumi sensei, he offered us some of his older stories to be published in Singapore as gratitude for all we have done for him. I was fortunate to be involved in Midnight Fishermen: Gekiga of the 1970s (Landmark Books, 2013), writing an introduction for the volume.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Interview with Chris Riddell (SWF 2019)

Chris Riddell is in town this weekend for SWF. The UK Children’s Laureate is promoted as a major illustrator of children’s books by the festival, and rightly so as Riddell’s books like The Edge’s Chronicles, Gulliver’s Travels, Ottoline and Goth Girl are well loved. For comics fans, Riddell is also the illustrator for several of Neil Gaiman’s books such as The Graveyard Book, Fortunately, the Milk… and The Sleeper and the Spindle. Their latest collaboration is Art Matters, which came out last year. But I am more interested in the fact that Riddell is the political cartoonist for The Observer newspapers. I still think political cartoon is a powerful medium today.

Riddell took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions of mine.

Many outside the UK are familiar with your work as a children books' writer and illustrator, especially with your drawings for The Graveyard Book and other stories written by Neil Gaiman. How do they react when they find out you are a political cartoonist too for The Observer?

Many people are surprised when I tell them that I’m the political cartoonist for The Observer but they recognise my style which isn’t significantly different from my illustration work. Lately I’ve been drawing Brexit unicorns, Chinese dragons and Tory trolls.

You have said that you did not find that much a difference in the tools you utilized when drawing a children book or skewing Theresa May or Trump. How do you feel about Brexit, Boris and the state of British politics now?

The only thing I can say about the state of politics right now is that it is a great time to be a political cartoonist!

You are optimistic about the state of political cartooning in the world today, given the affordances of technology and the antics of sometimes-too-exciting world leaders like Trump. But what's good material for political cartooning can be bad for humanity. Can political cartoons change the world?

I don't believe political cartoons change the world but they can help to articulate people’s thoughts and change the political mood sometimes. People change the world.

Political and social satire was not confined to the editorial pages in the past. One of my favorite books is The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman by Raymond Briggs. We have less of that these days. Would you want to do combine the two one day? (political satire and children books)

I would love to combine political satire and children’s books and my subject would be climate change – my medium, the graphic novel.

As you can probably tell, I'm a big fan of Raymond Briggs too. Are you excited about his new book?

Raymond Briggs has been a huge influence on me. He was my personal tutor at art school and we have kept in touch ever since. ‘Ethel and Earnest’ is Raymond’s masterpiece but I’m looking forward to his new book.

Drawing political cartoons can be dangerous - Charlie Hebdo and closer to Singapore, the various lawsuits against Malaysian cartoonist, Zunar and Singapore cartoonist, Leslie Chew. Did you have any close encounters yourself?

My encounters are on social media and I can choose what to look at and take onboard. Trolls are easy to spot.

Some have confused satire with fake news. Is it a thin line?

Satire doesn’t hide under bridges, fake news trolls do.

Is gif the future for political cartooning and satire?

Gif is one tool. There are many. I post a ‘visual diary’ drawing on social media every day and film myself drawing live. I’m also interested in podcasting.

I am a school teacher. You have talked about the need for creativity in the British education system and the importance of the school libraries. If you are the Education Minister for a day, which policy would you change or introduce?

If I were the Education Minister for a day, I would make it a statutory requirement that all schools have a library and a qualified librarian to run it.

Neil Gaiman visited Singapore twice (once for SWF) and is hugely popular. Readers would want me to ask: how was it like working with Neil?

Working with Neil is like a fairy tale – often literally. He sends me magical words and then allows me to imagine them visually with complete freedom.

I think of Neil as ‘the wise wizard’ and myself as his rotund hobbit companion.

Gaiman and Riddell’s love for libraries.

You can find out about Riddell’s SWF appearances here:

Thanks to Catherine Alport for her help!

Monday, October 14, 2019

Forgive but not forget: Interview with Rani Pramesti (SWF 2019)

The politics of remembrance and commemoration is complex. One can forgive but one should not forget. In places like South Africa, East Timor and Aceh, truth and reconciliation commissions have been set up to investigate and reveal the atrocities committed by the colonizers, the complicit and the compliant. It is not just a tabling of reports and mere presentation of facts and figures, but it is important how narratives are shaped and shared. It is through storytelling that ideas are spread and kept alive.

This is where comics is a powerful medium for such a purpose – giving voice to the silenced and speaking truth to power. In 2012, a young woman was raped on a bus in Delhi, India. She died from her injuries a few days later. A comic book based by the tragic incident was produced in 2014. Priya’s Shakti makes use of augmented reality tech and is available for online reading.

Closer to home, the events of the May 1998 riots in Indonesia have inspired comic artists like Mice to reflect on the aftermath of the riots on the ordinary citizens in Jakarta. Now, adding to the list is Rani P Collaborations’ Chinese Whispers, a digital comic that has its first incarnation as a performance installation in 2014. It traces lead artist, Rani Pramesti's journey from Indonesia to Australia, from citizen to diaspora.

Growing up in a privileged Chinese family in Indonesia, Rani was sent off to live in Australia when the riots happened. Her story is not uncommon. I have colleagues from Indonesia who came to study and live in Singapore after 1998 for the same reason. Some came to Singapore. Others like Rani went to Australia and she grew up safely in the comfort offered by her adopted country. But she wondered about her past, which formed the basis of her art practice. Having graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2013 with a Bachelor of Dramatic Art, Rani formed Rani P Collaborations to work on productions which explore history, memories and trauma. She mined her own family history for the world to see and reflect. In Sedih//Sunno, she shared her mom’s story as a sexually abused child. In Surat-Surat (Letters), she used her grandparents’ letters to each other to tell a love story.

For her appearance at the Singapore Writers Festival in November, she returns to her first performance installation, Chinese Whispers, whose lifespan as a performance piece has been extended to a new platform of digital comics. For Chinese Whispers, Rani collaborated with illustrator, Cindy Saja; composer, Ria Soemardjo; and web developers, Martin Harusetyanto and Gondo, to develop this new version of Chinese Whispers for the cyberspace.

I was curious about the politics of race and identity in Rani’s story and I asked her these questions.

What is the main difference (in intent, if any) between the performance installation and the digital graphic novel?

My team and I created the digital graphic novel as a way to reach more people, particularly younger generations of Indonesian people first and foremost, with this work. The intent of the work remains the same, which is to create time and space to reflect on a part of Indonesian history that is still often shrouded in ignorance. Just as the performance installation guided audiences one by one through a labyrinth, to engage in meditative reflection, so does the digital graphic novel. One of the key messages to reflect on is how "we cannot heal, what we will not face". My hope is that this question is a relevant one across many of our shared histories, although I use the May 1998 politically motivated racial and sexual violence as one 'launching pad' from which to reflect on this key message.

What is it that you hoped to achieve when you first started this project in 2014 and what has been achieved now with the digital graphic novel?

At the beginning of the research and development for Chinese Whispers, back in 2013, I wanted to find a way to tell Chinese-Indonesian stories on Australian stages. As I delved deeper into the conversations I was having with Chinese-Indonesian diaspora women in Melbourne, however, I slowly realised that what I actually wanted to talk about was May 1998. I then went back to the women I had interviewed and informed them of this shift in my intention with the work. With their consent, I focused the storytelling on my personal experiences with May 1998 and also on socio-historical sources on May 1998, including the human rights activist, Karlina Supelli and the journalist, Dewi Anggraeni.

What I hoped to achieve in 2014 continues to apply today- which is to pass on a story to the younger generations of Indonesian people (whether Chinese identifying or not), about a part of our history that needs to be remembered and a part of our history that we all need to work on learning from, in order to stop it from happening again.

What has been achieved now through the graphic novel is a contribution to a global conversation on the legacies of colonialism. It's really exciting to hear people's responses from Australia to Indonesia to the US, to France, to Italy, to Taiwan... Just to name a few responses I've received since Chinese Whispers went digital!

How has the project been received in Australia and in Indonesia? Have you encountered any cynicism?

Far from cynicism, during the premiere of the performance installation in 2014 at the Melbourne Fringe Festival (where we won Best Live Art and Innovation in Culturally Diverse Practice Awards), younger Indonesian people have come up to me to thank me, because this was a part of our story that their parents were too afraid to expand on. So for them, Chinese Whispers gave a way 'into' this disturbing part of Indonesia's history and the ways this has shaped Indonesian diaspora globally.

In 2018, we launched the Indonesian language digital graphic novel to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of May 1998. The digital graphic novel was launched by the Indonesian Director General of Culture, Dr Hilmar Farid, and moved many to tears! We were also blessed because the timing meant that our work was picked up by many media outlets. Far from cynicism, our readers continue to leave us very generous messages of forgiveness, of unity, of pledging to never forget.

Since the 2000s, there are more works that dealt with the violence against the Chinese in Indonesia, eg. The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. And also the books of Dewi Anggraeni such as My Pain, My Country. Have things improved now? Are people more aware?

My experience of viewing The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence is that it very much focused on the widespread politically motivated violence of 1965, rather than necessarily being focused on the racially motivated violence towards Chinese-Indonesian people. Is that correct?

I think in terms of works about 1998, there has definitely been more and more. In fact I think there has been twenty years' worth of works dedicated to May 1998. But that does not mean that there is more awareness of how anti-Chinese violence is just one colonial tactic that continues to divide our nation, whenever it suits people in power to use for their own ambitions. I would love it if more people asked themselves, "who does it actually benefit when I participate in this kind of hatred" whether towards Chinese, towards West Papuans, towards LGBTIQA+ communities and so on... It's been heartening to see the key demands of the current student led protests which have called for an end to the violence in West Papua, amongst other demands, because that is a show of solidarity for another group in Indonesia that has always been "othered" since being colonized by Indonesia.

Why is the denial of racism (both ways) so strong in Indonesia?

I think it's less a "denial" of racism and more a "normalization" of racism.

Firstly, I want to say that one of the flaws of Chinese Whispers, which I can now see in hindsight is the lack of focus on how the heinous violence of May 1998 was orchestrated to happen. If you read the report of the Fact Finding Team (there's a link to this report at the conclusion of the final chapter), you'll see ample evidence of provocateurs literally being offloaded into majority Chinese areas and then provoking/ inciting violence. So, May 1998 was able to happen because there is a level of normalized "othering" by both Chinese/ non-Chinese (so-called "Pribumi" or "native") but also because the violence was deliberately stoked to explode.

Secondly, in terms of the normalization of racism from "both sides", I do think it's interesting to study the different social, economic and political roles that Chinese played throughout pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial times. For example, even before the Dutch came, the Chinese already played the role of tax collector for many kingdoms in Java and Madura. This was a role that the Dutch exploited and exacerbated during three and a half centuries of colonial era, for example by appointing Chinese Kapiteins which had more political, social and economic powers than the so-called "natives".

When social, economic and political structures are created to divide people, racism is a natural by product of these structures.

Chinese Whispers is also your personal story. Was it hard adjusting to Australia at 12 years old when you move there after the May 1998 riots? Do you consider yourself as part of the diaspora?

Yes, it was very hard. The hardest thing was coming from a very politically charged context (a literal political revolution) and then moving to a very privileged all girls' private school boarding house. Materially speaking, my class privilege has always sheltered me from material hardship and for that I am thankful.

However, the challenges came more in the form of culture shock. More and more as I accumulate years of being based in Australia, the most challenging thing is how to survive and attempt to thrive in a white supremacist society like Australia. I absolutely consider myself a part of the Indonesian, Chindo and Asian diaspora. I wouldn't have lasted this long living on Kulin Country (Melbourne) without my friends who hail proudly from First Nations and diaspora communities.

What are your feelings about Indonesia ?

I love Indonesia. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people. In terms of from my perspective as an artist, I am excited by the explosion of arts and culture (both in terms of artistic practice as well as arts infrastructure) in the past twenty years of relative democracy. I am excited by the embracing of technology by the younger generations. Jokowi recently opened the "1000 startups" conference in Jakarta and to see government ministers in conversation with the younger generations- it's evidence of real future thinking at the national level. At the same time (and this is what Chinese Whispers tries to remind us of), in order to move knowingly into our future, we must embrace the lessons of our past so that we don't repeat our past mistakes. That is my feeling and my hopes for Indonesia.

You can view Rani’s SWF programmes here.

You can read Chinese Whispers here.