Comics comeback

Artist Johnny Lau's (left) latest Mr Kiasu book promotes information literacy. The Shadow Hero by Sonny Liew (right) revolves around a super-achiever American-born Chinese hero.

SINGAPORE - When artist Johnny Lau was commissioned by the National Library Board to use his canny Singaporean toon Mr Kiasu to promote information literacy, he decided to make the new book a test in itself.

On the spine of the 80-page graphic novel published in December, the title is Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Make Sure. On the cover page, it is Mr Kiasu: Think Sure. Open the book and the inside cover flap proclaims that the real title is Mr Kiasu: Everything Also Want To Be Sure.

Letting the readers decide what the right title is, if any, ties in neatly with the board's information literacy campaign S.U.R.E. (Source, Understand, Research, Evaluate). About 6,000 copies of the book are being given out free to winners of weekly online contests, which test users' understanding of the S.U.R.E. principles: check Sources, Understand the context, Research and Evaluate all information. In the next three months, the book will also be online for readers.

Lau, 50, who is single, enjoyed working on the project, though his first reaction when asked to resurrect the character after 13 years was: "No way. He's in retirement now, let him stay there." What changed? "I don't see what I do as art. It's a form of social commentary," he says. "I feel like Mr Kiasu can play a different role now. He can help to disseminate positive messages in a non-government way."

Fans of Mr Kiasu need not worry that the avaricious, bespectacled character has changed much. All "positive messages" are buried in the subtext and helpful end-notes of this latest adventure, in which Mr Kiasu seeks to win fame on Facebook, keep an important date with his girlfriend and stay out of trouble at work.

The toon was originally created in 1990 by Lau with his National Service pal James Suresh - who left the comic in 1996 - plus illustrator Lim Yu Cheng. Mr Kiasu won Singaporeans' hearts with his must-grab-it-all attitude and 11 comic books published by the partners' Comix Factory company topped bestseller lists here.

Mr Kiasu also featured in advertisements for McDonald's as well as a TV series in 2001, starring Chew Chor Meng. However, licensing did not yield the economic rewards the partners hoped for. The merchandising company they set up was reportedly $300,000 in debt by 1998.

From 2006 to last year, Lau was creative director for Gallery Hotel and worked with the then Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts to invite young designers from around the world to Singapore to redesign hotel rooms under the Creative Youth Xchange programme.

In 2012, he took up an offer to draw comics for Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao's student weekly. His series Jump Class features a daydreaming schoolboy who alternates between the real world and another, where study is play and parents do not nag about homework. Jump Class echoes his experiences at Maris Stella High School, where he was often penalised for drawing caricatures of the teacher instead of studying.

Later, to please his music teacher parents, he did his bachelor of architecture degree at the University of Southern California and worked for six months in a local architecture firm before quitting to draw comics full-time. "My father was quite angry. It was only when the first Mr Kiasu book sold 3,000 copies in one month and then sold out reprint after reprint, that I heard my father telling his friends, 'That's Mr Kiasu, my son.'"

Lau has so much history with the character that he does not rule out the possibility of a new Mr Kiasu book in the future. But for now, his focus is on Jump Class, especially with production beginning on a TV adaptation for a local channel in the third quarter of this year. He declines to give details but says: "When I started drawing Jump Class, I remembered: 'Oh, that's what I love about comics.' The ability to make social comments, to go out there on the edge.'"

Fifty copies of the new Mr Kiasu graphic novel by Johnny Lau are given out weekly to winners of the National Library Board's online information literacy contests. Find out more at www.nlb.gov.sg/sure/contests/

Sonny Liew's new comic, co-authored with American Chinese writer Gene Luen Yang, rights a 70-year-old case of racism.

Their new monthly comics series, The Shadow Hero, features an American-born Chinese hero, whose Asian immigrant mother is thrilled that her son is literally a super-achiever. The six-part series is published by First Second Books, an imprint of publishing giant Macmillan. The first issue will be out on Tuesday on Kindle, Nook and through Apple stores at US$1.99 (S$2.50). A print collection of all six issues will be published on July 15, along with the final electronic issue.

The Shadow Hero came about when Yang, 40, discovered a 1944 comics series, The Green Turtle, published by now-defunct imprint Blazing Comics. The main character was drawn by American Chinese artist Chu Fook Hing, one of the few Asians working in the comics industry at that time. Comics lore has it that Chu wanted to make Green Turtle the first Asian-American hero. With racism in America stoked to a peak during World War II, the publisher refused.

But Chu fought back in his own way, says Liew, 39. "He always drew Green Turtle from the back or masked."

This is the second project in which Liew and collaborator Yang have tried to address the lack of Asian heroes in Western comics. Their first was a short story in the 2009 anthology Secret Identities, published by The New Press, which took another look at crimefighter Green Hornet's so-called sidekick Kato.

Though writers, illustrators and pencillers of different races work in big-name comics publishers such as DC and Marvel, the heroes are almost universally Caucasian. Liew says: "There are certain things that don't register as part of the Chinese majority, but as a minority you become conscious of exclusions."

Liew was born in Seremban, Malaysia, but his doctor father and nurse mother sent him to Singapore to study at Victoria School, then Victoria Junior College. He drew a daily comic strip for The New Paper while reading philosophy at Cambridge's Clare College.

A winner of the National Arts Council of Singapore's Young Artist Award, Liew's critically acclaimed works include two compilations of comics by South-east Asian creators, Liquid City, edited by Liew and Lim Cheng Tju. Liquid City Volume 2 (2010, Image Comics) was shortlisted for best anthology of the year at the 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the comics' equivalent of the Oscars.

Liew is finishing up two Singapore-related projects. One is a comics biography of pioneer artist Georgette Chen, commissioned by the National Art Gallery's publishing arm for later this year. The other is the story of a Singaporean comics artist from the same generation: Charlie Chan Hock Chye. His story is tentatively scheduled for publication next year by local publisher Epigram Books.

Liew is drawn to Chan's story because of the surprising lack of successful comics artists in Singapore. Not surprising, given that to work on this he is living off the five-figure advance from The Shadow Hero. Commercial jobs would take time away from the half- finished graphic novel.

Other comics creators are in the same boat. Only a handful of publishers are bringing out graphic novels here, such as Epigram Books and Asiapac. Most are brought out by the creators themselves.

"There's sort of a chicken-and-egg thing where the lack of a financially successful comic prevents investments, and lack of investments means it's hard for creators to invest time to do proper stories," he says. "I think my best bet is to try to make comics and hope they help promote the medium and industry just by being good stories{C}


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