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Book Review: Drawn to Satire: Sketches of Cartoonists in Singapore by CT Lim and Koh Hong Teng

In early October 2023, CT told me that his “book on Singapore cartoonists is out”. Having read some of his essays and articles before, I thought it was a text-only book. Then he sent me an image of the cover, and it turned out to be a comic book about cartoonists, with art by Koh Hong Teng. At this point, limited by my unfamiliarity with Koh’s work, narrow exposure to CT’s oeuvre (not having read any of his comics), and also jumping to conclusions based on CT’s profession, I immediately assumed that the comic would be one with a straight approach: historical and firmly grounded in facts and reality, with the type of generic artwork that we, perhaps unfairly, associate with textbooks. Such assumptions, I would soon discover, were not only an insult to Koh’s skill and CT’s range, but also an insult to the possibilities of comics as a medium. The book was historical and educational, but also more than that, and certainly anything but generic.

Drawn to Satire tells the stories of eight cartoonist pioneers who were active in Singapore during the 20th century. It features names such as Tchang Ju Chi, whose work dealt with the Sino-Japanese conflicts back in the 1930s, and Shamsuddin H. Akib, whose cartoons, featuring topics from sports to politics, were published in The Straits Times as recently as the 1970s-80s.

Drawn to Satire: Sketches of Cartoonists in Singapore by CT Lim and Koh Hong Teng

The stories are a mix of biography (informed by past research as well as newly conducted interviews) and biographical fiction, constantly shifting between third-person and first-person narration. There are frequent departures into meta-commentary, speculative histories, and surreal interior dialogues, often featuring a timeline-hopping, 4th-wall breaking, literally two-dimensional self-identified “cartoon character”. This mysterious nameless character pops up in all of the stories, serving as guide and commentator: sometimes he provides background information, sometimes he talks to the cartoonists, allowing them to express their thoughts, and sometimes he is the proxy through which the author expresses his own mixed feelings about the costs and rewards of being a cartoonist in Singapore. On one occasion, this character even directly influences events (reminds me of the Watcher from Marvel), truly muddying, for better or worse, the line between fiction and non-fiction. Overall, the writing was brisk and engaging, with equal amounts of laughs and introspection.

Moving on to the artwork. For Drawn to Satire, Koh set himself a Herculean task (or maybe CT imposed it on him?): to draw each cartoonist’s story using his/her own style! And he deftly pulls it off, capturing the idiosyncrasies of each artist’s work while constantly maintaining efficient storytelling. Extremely difficult, considering the vast range of styles involved, plus the fact that styles are fluid and one person’s work can vary considerably over an entire career. Also, working purely with black and white lineart (and occasional grey tones) was not necessarily the easiest way to translate some of the more painterly or colourful work. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful job, and I greatly enjoyed the life and humour of the artwork, especially in the chapters on Lim Mu Hue and Morgan Chua.

Page from Lim Mu Hue story
Page from Morgan Chua story

I must admit: before this book, of the eight names featured, only Liu Kang and Morgan Chua rang any bells. Drawn to Satire was a great place to start my long overdue education. 

I do wish that the book had included samples of actual work from the featured cartoonists, allowing readers to view the cartoons in their complete original forms, instead of as fragments in service of another story. Also, having more points of reference would increase the impact of Koh’s stylistic acrobatics. Unless the reader was already familiar with the cartoonists featured in the book, they would have to do quite a bit of Googling in order to appreciate some of the references and nuances. Some extra context would make things easier for less-informed readers like me. For similar reasons, I also think more detailed text biographies would have been useful.

Page from Liu Kang story
Page from Liu Kang story
Page from Dai Yin Lang story

In conclusion, Drawn to Satire is a great way for those who don’t know much about the history of cartoonists in Singapore to get started learning about them. A lighthearted and entertaining read, it is easy to pick up, while the many thoughtful parallels and references to external events and issues that the creators have drawn will inspire readers to go out there and learn even more. 

Fang Kai graduated from NTU ADM in 2015, majoring in Visual Communication and minoring in Art History. He has been drawing comics for Lianhe Zaobao since 2017. Works include “Comix-Man”, “10 Years of Reservist” and “Chicken Little”. His favourite comic artists are Mike Mignola, Moebius, and James Harren.

NB: This book is self-published and self-distributed by the creators. It is on sale at Kinokuniya, Book Bar, Grassroots, Seabreeze, Dakota Books and Closetful of Books at the Singapore Writers Festival. This book will be featured at this SWF panel:

https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/programme-details-2023/conversations/stories-from-storyboards-lives-of-sea-cartoonists-comic-artists

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