From men to boys

Troy Chin talks about the darker side of his time in the army in the seventh book in his The Resident Tourist series

The uglier side of national service is one of the subjects of Troy Chin's latest offering in his The Resident Tourist comic series.

With his seventh volume, he continues to mine his memories of the army, both as a young "unwilling conscript" and as a weary adult going for reservist.

The 38-year-old says that he did not want to deal with the conscription experience "the Jack Neo way, which is to make the army look like this rite of passage, transforming boys into men".

"I also want to talk about the not-so-nice side, where a lot of really mean, very selfish things happen. And it's not necessarily the fault of the army - that sort of environment kind of causes the worst in people to sometimes come out, even though the best of people do too."

The experience can at times reduce men to boys instead: crying in their bunks in the first hard nights of national service, desperately jockeying for attention and approval, and waiting earnestly for instruction.

And cliquishness in that environment, Chin shows, can flare up into a tribal mentality that spills over into violence.

In the seventh book, a friend of Chin's finds himself on the receiving end of a "blanket party", beaten up by those who had a bone to pick with him.

"Needless to say, I wasn't one of them," Chin narrates in the book. "Nevertheless, there's no denying that I stood by when I could've said something to stop it from happening nor did I report it or voice my disapproval... No, I just looked away - all to maintain what little 'standing' I had built up within the platoon."

It is a confession that characterises the tone of his series: unvarnished and unashamed of baring both the best and worst parts of his life and of his country.

Over the years, The Resident Tourist has grown to become one of the best-composed portraits of the Lion City in comic form.

Chin started it as a Webcomic in 2007, following advice from his therapist to confront things he had never been comfortable with.

In it, he chronicled his attempts to ease back into life in Singapore after close to a decade living in America.

He expected the Web comic to last a year at most, but it gained a loyal following. In 2008, one of his fans, steel salesman Adrian Teo, offered to help put out a print version.

Now, The Resident Tourist has grown into a well-known series. The meandering story follows Chin's move back to Singapore after his job at music company Sony BMG.

Back home, he reconnects with family and friends, and rediscovers his past, himself and his country.

Each book is drawn in clean lines and straddles multiple timelines and various subplots. The content covers anything from the quotidian - election talk under the awnings of a well-known prata restaurant - to the personal, including the end of a romance with his long-time friend Mint.

Chin self-published the first five volumes. In 2011, he received the Young Artist Award and his latest book opens with the award ceremony and his conversation with President Tony Tan.

Math Paper Press, an imprint of independent bookstore BooksActually, took over as publisher from the sixth book, and will be reprinting earlier volumes as they sell out.

The seventh and latest volume of the series hit the stores last month.

Having a publisher has eased Chin's burdens. He had been the series' author, artist, publisher, proofer and deliveryman.

He said that when he and Teo put out the first two books in print, "both of us knew nothing".

The print quality, binding and paper were "terrible", he says. "The books were literally done by an assessment book company somewhere in Eunos. "

Still, despite the rough finish, the limited run of 500 copies for each book sold out in just over a year.

Encouraged, he started educating himself on pagination, paper stock and ink settings.

"I was a one-man show," he said. "I even had to handle distribution myself. I was carrying boxes of books to shops. That was a full-time job on its own, but I had to balance that with working on my books."

Even after drawing for years now, he still admits to finding it a "slow and tedious" process.

"My concern is to produce images that serve the story and look relatively good," says Chin, who as the single child of divorced parents, was raised by his mother. "My strength is still more as a writer than an artist."

But he does not stint on time or effort, spending hours sketching familiar buildings such as Orchard Towers in detail.

Ultimately, he says his series tries to explain what a Singaporean is - at a time when citizens here are still struggling to understand their identity.

His books delve into different aspects of Singaporean life from the education system to politics, and incorporates different languages and heartland characters.

Chin, who has also done other comics such as Loti, which follows the adventures of a group of primary school pupils, and Bricks In The Wall, a look at the music industry, says there are two more books in The Resident Tourist on the way.

"By book nine, the story has caught up with real life. So I need real life to continue before I can see if there's a story. For the Tourist to happen, real life has to occur."

• The seventh volume of Troy Chin's The Resident Tourist series is out at Books Actually for $19.90. A bundle of seven books is going at a discounted price of $132.84.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'From men to boys'. Print Edition | Subscribe