Local comics nothing to laugh at

Spandex and superheroes - that's what many expect from a comic book.

Not in the expanding world of local comic books though. Home-grown comic books are more low-key, personal and centred on local people and places.

At least 30 titles have been published here over the past five years - a big jump from a decade ago.

Artist Koh Hong Teng, 44 says: "In 2005, we had only three or four titles by Singapore-based artists on the market. Now there are at least three times as many."

But most artists are still self published.

Mr Koh illustrated the coming-of-age graphic novel Gone Case (written by Dave Chua) which was self-published in 2010 to some acclaim.

Mr Otto Fong, 45, has self-published five of his works.

The former science teacher's Sir Fong series features a group of rabbits who learn scientific concepts, among other things.

He says: "Comics are a wonderful way of learning. They are funny and great for grabbing the attention of young people."

Independent publisher Epigram Books' sales and marketing manager Ilangoh Thanabalan says of the local comic book industry: "This is a niche that has a lot of potential, and can be developed even further, with time and support.

"We also have very talented people who now see the graphic novel as a good way to express themselves."

Epigram's most recent release - Date King 1: Singapore Dating - was published in July.

Written by Mr Adrian Teo, 38, and illustrated by Mr Ken Foo, 32, Date King is a humorous take on dating and relationships in Singapore.

Says Mr Teo, who owns an oil and gas supply company: "I chose the topic of dating because it hasn't been explored by other local comic books yet. It'd be hard for me to write about superheroes because Japanese and American comics already do this very well."

He's not the only artist putting a unique spin on comic books.

Ms Xiao Yan, 23-year-old illustrator of this year's The Girl Under The Bed, says comics like Neil Gaiman's Sandman opened her eyes to the potential for less "super" stories. She says comics offer a much wider range of stories that can be told.

She says: "I enjoy watching polar opposites converge. I grew up with Bookworm comics and Mad Magazine. I've never bought into the idea that comics are only about superheroes in tight spandex.

"I enjoy building my own worlds and comics provide the flexibility and freedom to do just that."

Award-winning comics artist Sonny Liew - creator of both local and internationally released titles - says: "Artists often write about what they know, so stories set in Singapore or with a local flavour are a natural step."

But what about money? Overseas, comics creators and cartoonists have been increasingly turning to online and app outlets to publish themselves.

Mr Foo is not a fan of that. "I'd prefer to publish a physical book because it's always better to own an actual book as a collector's item.

"I'm one of those people who prefer to hold and read a book in my hands, as opposed to reading it online."

In recent years, there has been a rise in the funding help available for comic book creators.

The National Arts Council (NAC) has grant schemes for comic book creators that help subsidise different stages of the comic book's creation - from research to production and marketing costs.

With these grants, NAC has supported 10 comic book projects in 2011 and 2012.

This year, it is supporting four that are still in development.

The Media Development Authority also provides grants to support a range of media industries, including publishing.

With more opportunities and greater acceptance of local themes, comics veterans can look forward to what stories can be graphically told about this island of ours.

Says Mr Foo: "There are definitely more opportunities now for local comic artists.

"In the past, it was difficult to find publishers. Practically everyone had to self-publish."

Indeed, the comics community is growing.

Last weekend 150 local artists flocked to Lasalle College of the Arts to take part in the local 24 Hour Comics Day, where participants write, draw and complete an entire comic within 24 hours.

This was more than six times the number of participants when the event was first held, in 2010.

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