Mr Kiasu's back in new adventures amid boost in comics scene here

New titles, such as those from the best-selling Mr Kiasu series, are being released to feed the growing interest in local comics

The recent wins by Singaporean artist Sonny Liew at the prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards - the Oscars of the comics industry - has shone a spotlight on local comics and graphic novels.

Several Singapore artists are putting out new works in the coming months to meet what they hope will be a rising demand for home-grown comics, as local titles gain more attention both here and abroad.

Leading the pack is Johnny Lau, who is behind the best-selling Mr Kiasu comics, which encapsulated for the 1990s generation the Singaporean spirit of being afraid to lose.

Other than a one-off outing in 2013 for a National Library Board reading campaign, Mr Kiasu has been on hiatus for 18 years. Lau will revive his iconic character next month in a new series with Japanese publisher Shogakukan Asia, as well as in a film adaptation with mm2 Entertainment.

Eisner-nominated illustrator Andrew Tan, better known as Drewscape, launched his first self- published graphic novel earlier this month, while the National Heritage Board (NHB) is funding Comics of Singapore Histories (CoSH) Studios, a new collective of artists and writers who will produce seven graphic novels inspired by local heritage.

The Eisner effect has boosted sales of local comics at some bookstores after Liew won three out of six nominations at the awards last month in San Diego for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. It has sold about 16,000 copies in Singapore since it was published in 2015.

  • New releases

  • MR KIASU: EVERYTHING ALSO LIKE REAL

    By Johnny Lau

    Shogakukan Asia/Paperback/ 128 pages/$13.80/ Major bookstores

    The iconic Singaporean cartoon character returns, now approaching middle age and confronted with job loss in a sluggish labour market - but still as "kiasu" (afraid to lose) as ever.

    THE OLLIE COMICS

    By Drewscape

    Self-published/Paperback/ 120 pages/$25.68/ Books Kinokuniya, Woods In The Books, Basheer Graphic Books and www.drewscape.net

    Drewscape chronicles the early years of first-time fatherhood with his daughter Ollie, from dealing with diaper bombs to the trials of chasing after a toddler.

    EVA, KOPI AND MATCHA 2.0

    By Evangeline Neo

    MPH Group Publishing/ 128 pages/$21.40/ Books Kinokuniya, MPH and www.eva.sg

    In the third edition of her gallery of cultural differences, Neo compares daily life in Singapore with countries such as Japan and the United States, accompanied by her imaginary pets, Kopi the dog and Matcha the cat.

    SUPACROSS #4

    By Jerry Hinds, Iylia Dhamiri Zakaria, Ariawan and Boey Meihan

    Nice One Entertainment/ Paperback/28 pages/$5.50/ Books Kinokuniya and Times

    In the fourth and latest instalment of this mini-series, Singaporean superheroes Singapore Sling and D'Temasek, as well as globe-trotting street magician Mist, must go up against an American crime cartel that wants a piece of the local action.

Books Kinokuniya store and merchandising director Kenny Chan estimates that sales of local comics have seen a double-digit percentage increase since the win.

  • BOOK IT /COMICS IN TRANSLATION

  • WHAT: This forum, which is part of the Select Centre's TranslateSingapore festival, brings together comic artists, translators and publishers from around the world to discuss cross-cultural translation in comics.

    WHERE: Play Den, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Sept 22 to 24, various times

    ADMISSION: $10 a panel, $8 (students and senior citizens), $38 Forum Pass (access to all panel discussions plus discount to comic- translation workshops and film screening)

    INFO: bit.ly/2x58oUI

While these are largely fuelled by The Art Of Charlie Chan, he notes: "Titles such as Lieutenant Adnan And The Last Regiment, Bicycle, Ten Sticks And One Rice, Gone Case and the Army Daze comic are also selling better."

Dim Sum Warriors, a comic about gongfu-fighting dumplings by husband-and-wife team Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, has been adapted into a family musical in Shanghai produced by acclaimed Taiwanese theatre director Stan Lai. The musical, which sold out its opening weekend on Aug 11, will tour China next year.

The recent attention to comics has also prompted literary non-profit The Select Centre to hold its first forum with a focus on comics in translation from Sept 22 to 24.

Comic historian Lim Cheng Tju, 45, the forum's adviser, says: "There is a growing interest in graphic novels, not just in Singapore, but also the region. We need our books to travel in terms of language... There are big markets in South-east Asia such as Malaysia and Indonesia."

Lau's Mr Kiasu is being primed for a new generation of readers not just in Singapore, but also in Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. His new book, Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Like Real, will be released on Sept 9 at the Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention.

But Lau, 53, was reluctant at first to restart the series. "I thought, nobody cares about him anymore and he should be left alone," he says of his character, whom he created in 1990 with James Suresh, Lim Yu Cheng and Eric Chong, friends he made in the army. Lim and Chong are rejoining him for the new book.

It was Shogakukan Asia's managing director Bunsho Kajiya who picked up a couple of his old books and decided Singapore needed Mr Kiasu again. He had to go back to Lau multiple times before Lau acceded, swayed in part by memories of how, more than 20 years ago, he himself had knocked on the doors of publishers in Japan to get them interested in Mr Kiasu to no avail. He and his friends ended up self-publishing.

Mr Kiasu, he says, will be updated for a new generation. Where he used to summon his dog with a pager, he now sends a drone in search of it.

Behind the comedy, however, is sobering social commentary.

Mr Kiasu has been through a lot. For example, in a previous book, he was kidnapped by aliens. In this new book, he gets retrenched in an economic slowdown.

Now middle-aged, he tries to start his own company - Lau himself did this several times in the past - but finds himself to be a fish out of water sharing a workspace with younger professionals. "The series has to mature," says Lau, who plans to publish more than one book with Shogakukan.

Mr Kajiya, 58, admires the Singapore quality of kiasu-ism, for all that the comic satirises it - and that it could be a refreshing lesson for the Japanese, who tend to avoid confrontation. "It is an engine to go forward," he says. "It will be very interesting, I think, for Mr Kiasu to go to Japan."

Active local comics scene

Lau is also working with production company mm2 Entertainment to adapt Mr Kiasu for the big screen next year. Though few details are available at this point, he wants actor Chew Chor Meng, who played Mr Kiasu in a 2001 Mediacorp sitcom, to have a cameo.

He says Liew's win has helped to prove a point that local comics merit critical acclaim, although he himself aspires not to accolades, but to mass- market appeal. "Singapore needs different types of comics."

Local comics today have yet to reach the benchmark set by the original Mr Kiasu books, which Lau estimates have sold 650,000 copies over 20 years. But artists say the scene is growing, albeit slowly.

Illustrator Koh Hong Teng, 48, estimates that a decade ago, there used to be fewer than 10 titles coming out a year, whereas there are now far more than 10.

"Sonny's win will be a boost for the scene," says Koh, who is juggling two projects - a CoSH story about a kway chap competition and a South-east Asian fantasy graphic novel with writer Dave Chua. "But I hope it doesn't die out so fast."

Andrew Tan, 43, recalls how, when he was growing up, local comics never seemed to match up to Japanese, American or European titles. "With Sonny's win, a local comic has finally reached that awe-inspiring standard," says Tan, who was nominated for an Eisner in 2013 for his graphic novel Monsters, Miracles & Mayonnaise. "Singaporeans might be starting to pay a bit more attention to local comics, hoping to find more of the same."

Two weeks ago, he launched The Ollie Comics, which are based on the comic diaries he has kept since the birth of his daughter Olivia, now aged three. They chronicle moments such as her bathtime shenanigans, the struggle to feed her medicine and her obsession with clapping.

He decided to self-publish because he wanted full control of the creation process. He used a $5,000 National Arts Council (NAC) grant to offset costs.

The local scene is more active than one might think, says Evangeline Neo, 36, creator of the autobiographical Evacomics. "We have a lot of comic artists, amateurs and professionals alike."

She recalls the struggle of the early days of Evacomics.

Local and foreign publishers rejected her and she had to self-publish. It was only after the success of Eva, Kopi And Matcha in 2014, which sold more than 5,000 copies, that she was able to sign with publisher MPH.

"Bookstores and publishers are very careful when it comes to stocking our work," says Neo, who is releasing her third book, Eva, Kopi And Matcha 2.0, next month. Her books have also been translated into Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese.

"Now that our work has been proven good enough for the global market, hopefully, they will feature us more."

But Troy Chin, who is behind The Resident Tourist series, feels Liew's win will have little effect on the local industry because news of the win has been dominated by controversy over a 2015 NAC grant withdrawal for the book's "sensitive content".

"The people I've talked to are more interested in the grant being taken away than the book itself," says the 39-year-old. He is working on the ninth instalment of The Resident Tourist, which is about his life, but plans to bring it to a close after this to move on to other projects.

"I don't think we really have the numbers to have a comics scene," he says. "For that, you need to have 15 to 20 books out every year, one book a month at the minimum. We are still at the baby steps of trying to figure out if this comics thing is something Singaporeans can get behind."

Association of Comic Artists Singapore (Acas) president Jerry Hinds says that to expand the scene, local comic artists should consider working with writers abroad and likewise for local writers with foreign artists.

Acas, a non-profit group where members collaborate to get published and also teach comic art, began in 2005 with about six or seven members and now has 100.

Hinds, 53, a Briton who has lived in Singapore for 20 years, also heads the team behind the SupaCross mini- series, which features young Singaporean superheroes Singapore Sling and D'Temasek, as well as evil masterminds who concoct chemicals in Jurong or wronged Bangladeshi workers turned vigilantes.

Hinds says American publisher Caliber Comics has offered to release SupaCross in a digital edition once the six-part series is finished.

"I hope SupaCross can inspire someone else to want to achieve a comic," he adds. "I just want these comics to affect someone the way they affected me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'Comic boosters'. Print Edition | Subscribe