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.
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.