Singapore fantasy comic finds US publisher

First-time Singaporean comic book writer Shaun Kang's graphic novel Flesh & Steel took four years to hit the shelves here. But the 160-page fantasy comic, which was released here in April, has already been picked up by a foreign publisher.

American publisher Caliber Comics will release it for the Western market next year.

It is a dream come true for Kang, who was gunning to have his first book travel beyond Singapore.

"It's not a localised story with Singaporean elements driving it. I wanted to create something that could be appreciated without the context of our local culture. I wanted to create fantasy. And maybe see it made into a Hollywood movie," says the 31-year-old.

At the heart of the black-and-white comic is Golem, a humanoid weapon forged from steel. Living and battling in a time of war, among knights and cavaliers armed with guns and swords, he struggles to find acceptance while trying to live with the fact that he was brought to life to kill.

It is Kang's spin on the tale of Golem of Prague, a creature fashioned from clay and brought to life to defend a Jewish community from their enemies.

The concept for it had been stewing in his head for years - one of the earlier story ideas he had been nursing since he started making up his own tales at age 15.

"But it took 15 years more before I finally had the time, determination and money to turn my book into reality. Aside from interest, you need those three things at the very least to get your work published," says the investment adviser at a private bank.

Kang finished his script in 2012, but was initially unsure whom he could send it to for consideration.

He decided to float it by comic artist Jerry Hinds, the president of the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore). Their first encounter was in 2009, when Kang submitted an entry for a comics anthology Hinds was putting together.

"My work didn't get selected, but we still kept in touch which, in hindsight, has been a great blessing," says Kang.

"I ended up getting in touch with Jerry because he seemed like the only guy in Singapore who would even bother to give my submission a read. And I know that he's published his own comics before, so if anyone could help, it would be him."

Hinds, a Briton who moved to Singapore in 1997, loved it. It was, he says, an easy read and a solid story - and he enjoyed that it was high fantasy, a different concept from what most comic offerings from Singapore were.

Flesh & Steel was produced with the support of the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore) and the National Arts Council, and published by Nice One Entertainment.

Hinds, 52, started Nice One Entertainment in 2002 as a vehicle to publish his own concept, Get Carter! The Last Dragon Scout. It is slowly growing its stable and has since put out 11 comics.

"I set it up not to make money, but rather to further a cause," says Hinds. "Local publishers of comics, graphic novels and manga tend to produce books that are either reprints from foreign territories, stories closely based on Singapore society, or educational."

But Nice One Entertainment, he says, looks for works that may not fit neatly in those boxes - stories that are "distinctly escapist" or that deal with the "extraordinary".

Another graphic novel it published here this year, Return, has also caught the eye of Caliber Comics, which has put out works by creators such as critically acclaimed comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis.

Caliber founder Gary Reed said that when he looked through Flesh & Steel, he was impressed by the quality and professionalism of the package.

He said: "Everything resonated - from the story to the artwork - into an exciting story that was well-told, well-drawn and well-executed."

He died of a heart attack last Sunday.

For Kang, a lifelong comic fan, creating a comic was an eye-opening experience he describes as "on-the-job training".

Conceptualising and writing the script was the easy part because he had full control of the story, but then came the real slog: cobbling it together with the artists.

"As a writer, it's not always easy to effectively communicate what you envision to the artist and that creates the need for a lot of back-and-forth and redrafts to get it in shape," he says.

"After a while, you learn the importance of specificity when describing a panel to the artist, from the angle to how 'clean' you want the panel to be. It's a lot like being a film director, I suppose."

While the script took him about three months to write, the actual production work took years.

Partway through the project, the book lost its original artist, Filipino Ernani Faraon - an Association of Comic Artists (Singapore) member - when he migrated to Australia.

The book was then continued by a group of artists from Indonesia's Madougar Studios and a team from HMT Studios - which is co- founded by comic artist Harvey M. Tolibao, who works for comic giants such as Marvel and DC - in the Philippines.

Another obstacle was production costs. More than $10,000 - cobbled together by the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore), Nice One Entertainment, Kang and the National Arts Council - was sunk into producing 1,000 copies for the first print run.

Hinds says they are still waiting for updates on sales figures, which will be released next month.

Kang has more yarns up his sleeve. He completed a magical realism short story collection earlier this year and has submitted the manuscript to local publishers.

And he already has an idea for his next graphic novel, which he says will be in the vein of manga rather than a Western comic like Flesh & Steel.

"I still have a lot of stories to tell. I easily have 30 or so story concepts that I'd like to turn into graphic novels, but I'd probably die before fulfilling them all," he says with a laugh.

•Flesh & Steel is available from major bookstores and selected comic stores at $18.95.

This article was first published on Oct 09, 2016.
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