Friday, November 12, 2021

Drawing the Line


The first piece of comics scholarship I wrote back in the 1990s was on political cartooning in Singapore. Since then, I have written about comic books, graphic novels, manga but not so much on comic strips, except for The House of Cheah exhibition I curated in 2020 on Cheah Sin Ann, the comic strip artist of The House of Lim. I focused largely on Singapore and Southeast Asian comics. But things have a funny way of circling back. 

My assessment of political cartooning in Singapore back then, and unfortunately still holding true today, was that the form was stunted after the country gained independence in 1965. A new nation did not need frivolous political cartoonists to criticize its policies and to make fun of its political leaders. The new government required consensus, not cartoons, for national building. In their minds, politics was a serious business, a matter of life and death, of political survival. They had enough trouble from their political foes, economic woes and social problems. If you want to comment on political issues, you either get into the ring and run for the polls or you shut up. 

This had two long lasting effects. It determined the kind of political space and discourse that we had from the 1960s to the 1980s. Politics was only meant for the serious-minded, the elites and not for the semi-serious, the armchair critics who snip from the side. This led to a disengagement of political affairs among the young which was detrimental when the state sought renewal of its political leadership and raise civil consciousness. 

The other long lasting effect it had was on the medium of political cartooning itself. We had a strong tradition of political cartooning in the 1950s and our best caricaturist was Tan Huay Peng. His caricatures were spot on and anyone could identify the politician he was satirizing. But caricaturing a political leader was seen as disrespectful and subverting the institutions of power and authority from the 1960s onwards. The message was sent out that politics was no laughing matter and political cartoons and caricatures were a no no. 

Some editorial cartoons were allowed in the 1970s and 1980s but they were largely about foreign events and politicians. If you want to comment on local current affairs, you could reflect the policies but you could not caricature the politicians. Cartoonists should be supportive of government policies and only gentle humor was allowed. Nothing in your face, do not wield the savage pencil or hold up the mirror. It is not for you to comment on the emperor’s new clothes. To me, these are not political cartoons, they are just illustrations. 

There was no official ban on political cartoons but when editors stop stopped accepting local political cartoons for publication, the artists got the hint. 

There was some improvement in the 1990s with a change of political leadership (gracious society and the need for Singapore to be a cool city in the global economy) and we did have some political cartoon books by George Nonis, Joe Yeoh and a just returned from HK Morgan Chua. But these were older artists. The damage was done, the young cartoonists did not draw caricatures or did not have the skills to do so. A cartoon book about young Lee Kuan Yew (the first prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990) was quickly rushed out after the run away success of Lee’s memoirs in the late 1990s. Lee did not like to be caricatured in the 1960s and 1970s and his dislike of political cartoons became the unofficial policy. So when caricatures of Lee were ‘allowed’ to return in a cartoon book aimed at younger readers, they were some of worse cartoons drawn of Lee that I have seen. It was just badly drawn. 

The lack of caricaturing ability is debilitating. This could be seen in the case of Leslie Chew. After the 2011 general elections in Singapore, Chew started to draw political cartoons using the moniker Demoncratic on social media. Chew would be the first to admit he was not an artist but just fooling around with cartooning software to depict certain injustice he witnessed. Two years later, he got into trouble with the law for his cartoons and he was initially charged with sedition and later that was amended to contempt of court. Part of problem was that there was no subtlety in Chew’s cartoons as he did not use the tools of political cartooning in his computer generated drawings. I am not sure if he was aware of our rich history of political cartooning in the 1950s, but if he was able to draw proper caricatures and avail to himself other tools like the use of symbolism, metaphors and puns, he might not have given up drawing cartoons after his brush with the law. 


                                                                 (Anngee Neo)

Which brings us to today’s political cartoons found on online. The local newspapers still do not run many political cartoons about Singapore, much less caricatures of local politicians. One would expect more of the latter on social media since many of the cartoonists are drawing for themselves and using IG to express their opinions. But looking at the works of Anngee Neo and Highnunchicken, they do not draw caricatures much either although their political cartoons are no less hard-hitting. Both are some of the more interesting current affairs cartoonists to emerge in Singapore in recent years. Anngee, the more polemic of the two, specializes in PSA - public service announcements, especially during the period of general elections in Singapore. Highnunchicken, a collective of artists, draw in The New Yorker style of one panel cartoons, making digs at Singapore life. 

                                                                 (Highnunchicken)

I moderated them in a political cartoon panel called Where to Draw The Line for the Singapore Writers Festival 2021 and I wanted them to exchange views with an international veteran, KAL, the famed political cartoonist of The Economist. To reclaim our heritage, we need to look back and look beyond Singapore and at places where political caricatures speak truth to power. 

But these days, it is difficult to know where to draw the lines. As much as the state still makes the call of what is permissible such as the recent banning of Red Lines, ironically a book about political cartoons and the struggle against censorship, cancel culture is also a threat to what political cartoonists can or cannot draw. Anngee is being realistic when she said there are some topics she would not touch because she knows there will be a shit storm if she goes there. She was not referring to government sanctions. The people can easily turn on you.

There are more political satire and humor in Singapore now as seen in theatre and social media. Maybe we need not be so hung up about the lack of political cartoons and caricatures. But the space afforded to political cartoons by the politicians and the people says very much of the kind of society we live in. Can we laugh at ourselves? Do we know how to after so long? 

Check out Anngee Neo, Highnunchicken and KAL on Where to Draw The Line, happening on 13 Nov, 2.30 - 3.30 pm. 

https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/programme-details/conversations/where-to-draw-the-line

Thursday, November 4, 2021

SWF 2021 - Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna


The thing I like about the Singapore Writers Festival is that it exposes me to new writers and new books. I tried to keep up but there are so many books out there that sometimes you just need that push to read that book that is under your radar.

I have heard good things about Tian Veasna’s Year of the Rabbit (Drawn & Quarterly, 2020) but never got the chance to explore it. Until I got to moderate a panel related to Southeast Asian comics for SWF 2021. I proposed the panel and Tian’s name came up, so why not? Any gentle nudge to read a new book is good. 

And I am glad I did as Year of the Rabbit is one of the best books I have read this year. Tian was born three days after the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 and this book detailed his family eventual escape to the Thai border in 1979. It is a harrowing story told with much of the actual violence taken place off panel (intentional of Tian). He is not the ‘hero’ of the story as he was only a baby between 1975 and 1979, but this family story of running, hiding and the years of living dangerously had a big impact on him and his psyche. I have always wondered how people live their lives during wartime and in long periods of chaos and instability. It is to be in a constant state of stress but the human mind is an amazing thing - you adapt and you adjust. I realized that after visiting cartoonist friends in Jakarta in 2000, just two years after the riots and the physical city was still recovering from the violence. 

What struck me about the Year of the Rabbit is why this book had taken off. I am revealing my vintage, but stories of Indochinese refugees have been in my cinematic consciousness since the 1980s. From Hong Kong, we have Ann Hui’s The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People (1982). The actual events of Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero were explored in The Killing Fields (1984), the Oscar winning film. In recent years, the experiences of Vietnamese refugees have been documented in GB Tran’s Vietamerica (2010) and Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (2017). Online, there is also Matt Huynh’s interactive comic, The Boat (2015). 

For what happened in Cambodia, Tian is not the first comic artist to mine his family history. French-Cambodian comic artist, Sera is probably the first to do so. He is older than Tian and could remember entering the French embassy with his French national mother in 1975 but his Cambodian father could not enter the compound. His father did not survive and for years he was angry with the French for letting his father die. We invited Sera for SWF in 2017 and we had beer and makan at Newton Circus. Benjamin Dix, who wrote the graphic novel, Vanni, about the Sri Lanka civil war and refugee crisis, was also a guest of SWF in 2017.

So, in my mind, what happened in Cambodia was not that remote or unfamiliar. I was teaching Southeast Asian history in the late 1990s and saw together with my students history unfolding in front of us - the final defeat of the Khmer Rouge by Hun Sen, the death of Pol Pot and the arrest and trial of the Khmer Rouge leaders. 

During our discussion, I asked Tian have the people really forgotten about the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields. He shared that that was one of the reasons he did this book. Other than to find out more about his own family history and to make sense of who and where he came from, from his visits to Cambodia, he had realized that many of the young people in Cambodia did not know about this tragic past. He felt that such stories need to be told and retold and every generation should be reminded of what happened in 1975. It was not a story with lessons confined to Southeast Asia but it has parallels to similar events in Serbia, Croatia and Rwanda. I am reminded of my own trip to Cambodia many years ago. I saw many young people and old folks but the in-betweens I was told by a local guide were killed. The person i spoke to is the only survivor in his family. I looked at the young people in the streets of Phnom Penh and they were just hanging around, doing the things young people all over the world do, and I wondered if they knew. 

Tian’s answer is that many of them don’t. And thus the Year of the Rabbit. To me, the book testifies to the power of comics in telling stories, in communicating, in putting us in communion with the past and learning about ourselves and our failings. There are still many stories to tell - the Rohingya crisis and what is happening in Myanmar now. I wondered how the political cartoonists I met in Yangon are doing. 

Tian will be featured in this SWF panel on 10 Nov, 7-8 pm.

https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/programme-details/conversations/from-disposable-to-desirable-talking-trash-about-comics

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Let's Not Talk Anymore - Chatting with Weng Pixin again in 2021

 


I can’t remember when I first heard about, met or read Weng Pixin’s comics, but I suspect it got to do with Andrew Tan/drewscape. He drew this comic about us visiting Pixin at her Bali Lane shop. 





That's a long time ago and I think drew had a crush on Pixin, but what do I know?


In any case, I bought many of her early mini comics, read them and this was my assessment of her works back in 2012:


Weng Pixin is a 28-year old artist who graduated from the Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore in 2004. She sells her own handmade toys from recycled materials in a shop she opened in 2008. Currently she also teaches part time at Lasalle on how to draw comics.

 

Pixin, as she is known, is not a professional comic artist. But she has created a few mini comics over the last few years, which she sells at her shop and book shops like Books Actually. At last count, she has made 8 mini comics and 3 poster comics.

 

Pixin did not want to be interviewed for this paper so I do not know her print run, sales or target audience. But according to Books Actually, there is no fixed demographic for those who bought Pixin’s comics. About 20 to 30 copies were sold over a one-year period, which was decent for a zine or mini comic in Singapore. But there is no way Pixin is depending on her comics to make a living even though they are priced at SGD$10 and above, double the price of most other mini comics in Singapore.

 

Pixin’s influence are Harvey Pekar and Jeffrey Brown. She seeks to emulate the emotional and intellectual intensity of the former but is closer to the latter’s lovelorn remembrances.

 

Pixin does some fictional works, but her major comics so far are the 2-parter, Please To Meet You and I’ve Lost An Ocean, which detailed the fallout of her breakup with her boyfriend in 2006.

 

Pixin described these 2 works as diary-entries, and doing these comics is meant to be therapeutic for her. In the afterword, she said she was advised by family and friends to not be overly edited. Thus, Pixin’s comics falls within the category of what Hillary Chute described as reimagining trauma, whereby artists return literally to events to re-view them. 

 

In that sense, Pixin is in good company. Some of the best comics by female artists are autobiographical ones about relationships. More specifically, father-daughter relationships: Fun Home (2006) by Alison Bechdel and You Will Never Know (2009) by Carol Tyler.

 

Pixin does not have issues with her father. (the father made a rare appearance in I’ve Lost An Ocean to ask how she is) But she is left wondering why her boyfriend broke up with her. At the end of the 2 books, she and us are still in the dark about that. No real reasons were given. We catch a few glimpses of the boyfriend in the comics, but he remained a mystery man.

 

The first book, Please To Meet You is a blow by blow account of the fallout. But obviously one book is not enough. The catharsis is incomplete. The second book, I’ve Lost An Ocean is more reflective. It takes place immediately after the events of Please To Meet You – it shows how Pixin picked herself up, recovered from the experience and reconciled with the breakup. She still described her boyfriend as kind and gentle even though she was dumped for no good reason. And truthfully, she presented us with no reasons. There are no answers, just ellipsis.


---


While I presented the above (very raw) analysis at a comics conference in Hanoi,  they were never published. Reading them now, I think ellipsis, whether intentional or not, has become a narrative trope of Pixin’s. You don’t have to explain everything. Some things happened for no reason. You just got to let go and accept.

 

Since 2012, I continue to follow Pixin’s works, buying them when I can find them. I finally got a chance to interview her in 2016.


http://singaporecomix.blogspot.com/2016/11/illustration-arts-fest-singapore.html


(mm…I have reused what I wrote above in the interview)


I moderated Pixin in comics panels at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2019 and 2020. The latter was about her book, Sweet Time, which I reviewed for my friend’s Paul Gravett’s website. Here’s the review:


Wendy Pixin is the first Singapore comic artist to be published by Drawn & Quarterly, so that is a big deal. Pixin has been making her heartbreak comics for more than a decade and she has grown over the years. She still pours her heart out, but it is more controlled with a stronger sense of narrative and the use of colours to widen the palette of emotions of this cruel thing called love (before her zines were in black-and-white). The stories in Sweet Time can also be classified under travelogues, as they are vignettes of leaving things behind and sorting out your emotions in a foreign land. I asked Pixin if travelling is a way of leaving your problems behind. She replied, you can’t, you carry them with you wherever you go.


http://paulgravett.com/articles/article/best_comics_of_2020_an_international_perspective_part_1


That’s pretty much brings us up to date to 2021 with the publication of Pixin’s second book with Drawn & Quarterly, Let’s Not Talk Anymore, which is about her matrilineal line - her mother, grandmother, great grandmother and her yet to be born daughter. 


While Sweet Time is a collection of Pixin’ stories she created when she was 25 to her early 30s, Let’s Not Talk Anymore is an ambitious long form narrative that cris-cross time, space and emotions. Nothing quite like anything we have seen in Singapore comics. So I wanted to interview her again.


---


Q: I first heard about this project at our panel at the Singapore Writers Fest in 2019. How did this book come about and what made you want to do such a book? 


I wanted to think about the figures along my matrilineal line because I knew very little about my mother’s side of the family. It became quite clear that they - the women along my matrilineal line- came from a time, culture and environment that discouraged them from developing the ability to communicate and express their internal world. I see the negative consequences of that manifest in their discomforts in communicating their needs and desires in the present times. This has also led little to no meaningful stories being passed down from one generation to the next. So art came in to help me acknowledge and address this gap.



The matrimonial line:


Kuan (great-grandmother) - who left China for Singapore in 1908 at age 15

Mei (grandmother) - abandoned by Kuan and adopted by a seamstress in 1947

Bing (mother) - a student in 1972 who has to take care of her two younger brothers. Her mother, Mei is a bitter woman.

Bi (aka Pixin) - a moody student in 1998. She doesn’t get along with her mom, Bing.

Rita (imaginary daughter) - Bi’s daughter in 2032 who hangs out with her cousin, Solar. Rita also visits her aunty  (Solar’s mom).



Q: In 2032, Rita recalls coming across a big leaf with her mom (that's you, Pixin). And that leads to a discussion on water, blood and family ties. "Everything must start somewhere." I am curious. Why is it important (for you) to know who was at the start and to start somewhere…?


I am generally curious about a person’s story - how they have come to be in different stages and in different moments of their life, in the choices they make…in the choices they don’t make. In particular to “Let’s Not Talk Anymore”, in the choices they cannot make. I like to think about the layers of reasons behind that, and wanted to find a visual metaphor to represent those cycles or paths, in reference to Rita’s big leaf moment. 



There’s almost no negative outcome I can think of, in the pursuit to understand one’s past. Even if something felt to be unpleasant or soul-crushing be discovered, I reckon it can only serve as lessons to be made sense of, and to give us opportunities to learn something in order for us to be better people to ourselves and to others in the present moment. In the comic, Rita was created to express these sentiments.  


Q: In 2032, Rita wanted to draw from memory. Pixin, did you draw from memory and did you draw from memory?


Rita’s interest to “draw from memory” was perhaps my way of saying: our memory shifts, our memories are not an exact replica or copy of what had happened a second ago…or a generation ago. Every time we recall a memory, we have reshaped our narratives with time, with bias and with our internal emotional landscapes. Rita and Solar’s conversation on memory earlier on in the book was also a way (for me) to say: This is not an autobiographical story, but rather an imagination and glimpse into these characters’ lives at the typically tumultuous age of 15.


Q: On this topic of drawing, in 1972, when Bing first appeared with her younger brothers and walking with them to school, she is drawn way much bigger than them. Almost like a giant. I take it that this perspective is intentional?


Why the flatness as an artistic style / choice? I kept looking at the image of Bi drawing at the table in 1998. (when she spilled her water and her mom was kind to her) The squares on the floor just accentuate the flatness of the drawing. 


I’ve always been drawn to art that are composed of flat shapes and colours (such as the motifs found in ancient Peruvian textiles), or art that leans towards unrealistic perspectives or are visually ‘off’ in certain ways. As an art student, I loved art made by outsider artists (and I still do!). I remembered subscribing to RAW magazine, a magazine that provided tons of information on outsider art. I was always immensely happy when a new copy has arrived in the mail. I found myself drawn to Henry Darger’s works, where his drawings are composed of a mix of tracings that he had made from found printed materials, alongside drawings of his own. Darger would arrange them one over the other or side-by-side, creating a world that was chaotic, incredibly beautiful and intricate. 


I imagine working with children as an art teacher has also influenced me to find inspiration in carefree approaches towards picture-making. I’m always in awe of how children’s style of mark-making and line-drawings take on very unexpected routes. It is impossible to copy children’s drawings! It is quite similar to the drawings made by adults who have very little art experience. I usually find those drawings kinda special to look at, as they have been made using a different set of decision-making sequences. 


A funny story to this, is how I once took a picture of a drawing that my colleague had made while she was on the phone. My colleague did not come from an arts-based background. So she drew this smiley face while concentrating on her phone call. I took a photo because there was just something about the way she had drawn that smiley face…that looked and felt extra right and extra goofy. She wasn’t convinced when I told her I really liked her drawing, as she knew of my art and the work I do. I replicated her drawing in front of her, and tried to tell her why my replica did not capture the goofy essence that I see in hers. She was still not convinced (haha) but was definitely flattered that her smiley face won a fan. 


Q: As much as the book is about mothers, it is also about absent fathers. In 2032, Rita recalls her grandfather, who is Pixin's father. But he is no longer around by then. In 1972, Bing misses her father. Her mom said to her, "People come and go. That's life. No point crying." You thanked your own dad at the back of the book for instilling in you a sense of curiosity in your storytelling. Why the focus on mothers in this book? Or will there be a book about fathers in the future?


The inspiration at the root of “Let’s Not Talk Anymore” is my frustration with the lack of stories through the generations along my matrilineal line. I’ve always been drawn to depicting the dysfunctions in life and in particular - relationships between people who are complex and contradictory. While my father’s chirpy and curious personality has always been a source of comfort and support for me, it hasn’t quite resonated into an inspiration for a story yet. 



Q: 1998 - growing up is hard. Being a teenager is tough. The adults don't understand you. You just listen to Smashing Pumpkins all the time. You don't even understand yourself, like why you are crying. How long did it take you to grow out of melancholia? Or not.




One of the things I was interested to explore in “Let’s Not Talk Anymore” is a person’s capacity to attend to others’ emotional needs. This can be learnt from how our own emotional needs or feelings had been attended to during our developing years. Referring to this particular segment you’ve picked up on, my character Bi is frustrated with her mother Bing’s conflicting behaviour: Bing has been shown to be rather cold, and generally unable to attune to Bi’s needs, yet demands Bi to speak up. In Bing’s own story, we noticed that her mother Mei, is dismissive of her troubles and hurt. Same goes for some clues left in Mei’s story, I wanted to capture a pattern of emotional unavailability that’s been passed down from mother to child. I chose mothers rather than fathers because of my personal experiences and observations of my mother, because of my interest in women’s lives of that particular period (1890s - 1970s) and because in that particular time frame, primary caregivers within a household tended to be mothers or female caregivers.


Q: In 2032, Rita and Solar were chatting. Solar talked about how her mom felt stifled while growing up. Is it bad to pretend we are fine when we are not?


I generally avoid thinking whether something is good or bad, where it is much more helpful to tease those out a little. I think it can be a survival and coping mechanism to “pretend we are fine”. In certain situations, it can be vital. For example, if you are in a life-threatening situation such as an abusive relationship, it may be necessary to “pretend we are fine”, just so you can be intact in order to strategise an exit. In a less intense example, it might be helpful to“pretend we are fine” after a disagreement with a friend. This can be a necessary momentary pause from the tension. 


In reference to Solar’s statement about her mother feeling stifled and “pretended everything’s fine”… there is little to no good that comes from prolonged periods of being discouraged to communicate, especially when you’re being censored by the very person whom you’re suppose to trust. In this scenario, pretending does more harm than good, because in pretending- you learn to believe your words and your life don’t matter enough, and that ultimately the love you receive is conditional. 


Pretending one is fine is a very complicated thing and in certain ways, exploring that complexity is part of the reason I worked on “Let’s Not Talk Anymore”. Whatever form of “pretending we are fine” takes, it is always due to a lack of communication.


Q: In 2032, Rita and Solar talked about what life would be like to live in a world where you have no control over your life. But is it possible at all to have control over one's life? Or is it an illusion? 


For “Let’s Not Talk Anymore", I wanted to talk about a certain kind of lack-of-control, one that emerges in the lives of women who felt small, hidden and forgettable. 


This was said in reference to Rita and Solar talking about female figures along their matrilineal line living in the times of 1800s  - 1970s, women who had very little opportunities to live a life where they can thrive as individuals due to many reasons such as poverty, gender and cultural beliefs, to name a few examples. This is still a very grave problem in some countries around the world in the present moment. A woman facing these particular set of circumstances will have no control over her own life. This one life she has would be defined, affected and dictated by a person of power, of resources and whose voice maintains the status quo. 


Q: I read through the whole book and realized that Bi is missing in 2032. She is referred to and appeared in a flashback when Rita was younger (finding the big leaf). Why are you missing in 2032? (just like Solar's observation that Kuan's life is missing in the family photo album) 


"All we're left with are the missing pieces and stories."


I wanted a world where not everything’s wrapped up or have a definite conclusion. So I made the decision to leave some characters absent in some segments. I liked the ambiguity and the guesses one makes when encountering the missing pieces, as I myself wondered along those similar paths when working on “Let’s Not Talk Anymore”. 


Speaking of missing pieces, one lingering thought that came up when I was working on the book was: If my great-grandmother had come from an affluent background, then she might have stood a better chance of having had a photograph taken of herself and her family. And us living in the future would have a physical object or memento of hers to hold onto and cherish. Without her stories or clues, I was left to do my own style of research. 


The research process for Kuan and Mei’s stories were actually fun. One of the processes involved googling for images into an olden time period and location. For Kuan, it was farming in China in the 1890s, and for Mei, it was Singapore in the 1950s.


Curious about what farming life might have been like in China in the 1890s, I remembered searching “do farmers have hobbies or pets?”, and came across an article that talked about how children of farmers in the 1800s might keep crickets or grasshoppers (or some other legged insect found in the fields) as pets by tying a string around the insect’s legs. Although I wonder how an insect (or insect’s leg) would survive a string tied to it, I found the detail fascinating and so included that in Kuan’s story: of her having a bug companion to help lighten everything else in her story. 


---


Pixin did not answer all my questions. But these are some of my concluding thoughts about Let's Not Talk Anymore.


In 1972, Bing was ill and her dad paid attention to her. Her parents quarreled. Her mom said, "It's like, I think I am looking at what's in front of me, but then it changes the second I look away from it" Then Bing was jotted back to the 'present' in her art class. Her classmate said to her, "Maybe I wasn't looking at it closely enough in the beginning."


To me, that's a function of art - to capture the subtle changes when one is looking away. The artist tries to capture a glimpse of the real. But it is just a glimpse as none of us can see the whole elephant, just like the children feeling the different parts of the elephant. Some are even blindfolded!


In Let's Not Talk Anymore, Pixin plays with time and our sense  and perception of time and narrative. 


---


The ties that bind and the threads of time - almost all the characters in the book at one point or another were weaving, sewing, drawing. It ties the whole book together, this image of creativity, domesticity and femininity. Community is obviously important to Pixin. And she has said she finally found her tribe with Chicks on Comics, an international feminist group currently composed of five cartoonists from Argentina, Portugal and Singapore. 


As Rita says goodbye to her aunt, she said, "It was lovely making the space to wonder about the women who made us."


Thanks, Pixin, for the interview.













Sunday, April 18, 2021

Wild Pig Mandibles and a Drawing: An Adventure in the Bay of Bengal

Once a while something good comes your way and you wonder why you have not heard of the artist before. Except that Wild Pig Mandibles and a Drawing: An Adventure in the Bay of Bengal is Amitabh Deshpande’s first book and a very laudable attempt. The title could be catchier (one cannot really tell what the story is about from it), but this a minor complaint. 

Amitabh is a software engineer from Pune, India who worked for many years in America. But he has always been writing and drawing. He recently returned to Pune and drew this story in a month and self-published it on Amazon using their Self-Publish Kindle platform. 

For a first attempt at a long form story (the book is 53 pages), Amitabh has done a good job. Based on a trip he took with friends to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India in February 2019, the story fits in well with the travelogue genre in comics. Ambitah draws in a sketchbook style using watercolors, which makes reading the story a dreamy experience. And it makes sense because Ambitabh’s travels to the island of Little Andaman is almost like a dream, one which pushed him to question his own thoughts and memories and maybe even to re-evaluate his life. I won’t spoil the ending, but things do turn slightly macabre when Amitabh encounters the pig skulls referred to in the title. It was an uneasy revealing. 

There is a poetic quality to the writing. It is easy to read, a light flow in the narrative and some interesting observations and quick turn of phrases.

The absurdity of asking the driver to reset the fare-meter didn't strike me till later. Here is the middle of the Bay of Bengal, on an island that was just a pinprick on the map, my mind brought all the suspicion and caution of urban India with me.

My favourite is right at the end:

Life throws things at you. Can’t figure it all out. Some things you keep. Some things you let go.

That is very true. People romanticized the freedom and liberation of letting go. But some things, you do want to keep and hold on to. 

I enjoy the story, but this might appeal to readers who are more familiar with the travelogue genre. Those fed on a diet of superhero comics will find it too slow. Things don’t really happen till page 13 when narrator decided to visit Little Andaman. But the first few pages set the context for self-discovery despite some typical reflections found in most travelogue comics. 

A suggestion: to have a glossary at the end of the book to help readers wrap their head around the different things, locales and islands. I had to scroll up and down the pages a few times to recall certain details. I had to google what is a dugong too. 

Ambitah has shown he is good at creating moods and evoking feelings of not wanting a leave a place, the respite one finds when traveling. I look forward to his next story.

You can order his book here.

https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Pig-Mandibles-Drawing-Adventure-ebook/dp/B08TCHG8NN/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=wild+pig+mandibles&qid=1611886339&sr=8-1

And you can watch a video of the book here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKso2fdSKyI



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.


CT:
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: https://www.dundee.ac.uk/subjects/comics

Or the full information for each module:
https://www.dundee.ac.uk/postgraduate/comics-graphic-novels-mlitt/teaching-and-assessment

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: https://downthetubes.net/?p=117765 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: https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/kevin/list?title_no=400275
Read Libera Nos A Malo on webtoon (censored as Mature):
https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/libera-nos-a-malo-deliver-us-from-evil-b/list?title_no=439339

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CyborgsandDinosaurs/
Insta: https://www.instagram.com/clio.ding/
URL: https://cliod.carbonmade.com/