"You can't create comics for a living in Singapore... yet. But hell, who says you have to?"
An early scene in A Drifting Life describes the strange excitement felt by a young artist upon seeing his first published work. In one small panel of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's epic memoir, his teenage alter-ego, Hiroshi, stands motionless and anxious, looking at the magazine containing his story.
"Hiroshi felt dizzy and shaky, as if blood was being drawn. He stared at the page for a long time."
Several young artists and writers from Singapore could soon experience that same sensation, with the publication of the two-volume Arena by the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore) and published by Nice One Entertainment.
Subtitled, "Five tales, five teams, one parade," each volume of Arena features five stories, one volume for fantasy stories, the other for sci-fi.
"These books are two halves of a whole," writes publisher Jerry Hinds in his introduction. "Not that the stories are linked in any way, but more the vibe from which they were conceived."
The result of a contest for comic artists and writers, Arena aims to put an international spotlight on local comic creators. Part of the First Time Writers and Illustrators Publishing Initiative, Arena is presented by the Inaugural Graphic Novel Initiative, or Ignite.
"Singapore, despite being a hub for almost everything else, is most certainly not a hub for graphic novels and comic books. I, along with the rest of the Association of Comic Artists of Singapore, see no reason why it shouldn't be," writes Boey Meihan, Vice-President of the Association, in her forward.
Neither do I, going by the striking range of art and storytelling styles in the stories sent in advance for review:
- The demented and dark satire of "Bonnie" follows a typical day in the life of Bonnie Fay of the Fairy Tale Management Centre, whose job it is to ensure the smooth running of all fairy tales. Her day begins with the three bears returning home to find Goldilocks dead, and it pretty much unravels from there.
- "Memorium" tells the surreal tale of a mutated rose that looks and behaves like a person. Set in a futuristic society where "individuality can often lead to loneliness," the dreamlike story brings to mind a manga-fied combination of Little Nemo in Slumberland and The Little Prince.
- Worlds of science and fairy tales mix in "Last of the Serifs," which seems like the first chapter of an epic fantasy adventure. Set in London in the 1800s, this engrossing story weaves in elements of Alice and Wonderland and also seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's work.
- That same mixture of science and fairy tales reappears in "Bridge," although here they're set against a fear-future, Orwellian backdrop. This moving story seems to examine mental illness and addiction, and their treatments, as metaphors for a struggle for individuality in a conformist society.
- The future-noir of "Two Days Later" seems to blend Philip K. Dick with elements of Blade Runner and William Gibson, while another sci-fi crime comic, "Ockham's Razor," gives a psychic twist to a Raymond Chandler-eque story.
Along with the excitement of discovering new artists and writers, Arena conveys a sense of passion not only for the medium but also for the comics community in the region.
"You can't create comics for a living in Singapore... yet. But hell, who says you have to?" writes Meihan. "You can create comics for yourself. Because you want to. Because you have to. Because storytelling, or creating art, or both (if you're lucky!) are as much a part of you as living and breathing and eating and drinking. And if you're willing to grow a damn thick skin (and everyone in Singapore who has published anything has skin as thick as rhinoceros hide), you might even be able to make some money out of it."
Combined with the amazing Liquid City, Arena presents a strong case for Singapore as one of the most fascinating regions to watch for comics.
Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.