“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics:
The Quest for Identity

Part 3a – Fantasies and anxieties: Superheroes against the banal

Singaporean themes need not be tied to realistic local subject matters and settings. There are plenty of locally made comics with fictional, fantastical and supernatural themes. Narratives involving heroic characters fighting villains or monsters are not mere escapism from the banal reality, but allude to an individual’s struggle against greater challenges presented by one’s social conditions. In particular, fantasies that are set in Singapore can offer alternative criticisms of our society and value system which is very much grounded in materialism and pragmatism. 

Due to the availability of a large variety of comic imports from the United States, Europe, and Asia, Singaporean artists enjoy a wide array of stylistic and thematic inspirations and references. This means that artists can choose to illustrate a narrative using conventions derived from manga, American superhero comics, European graphic novels and much more. While these choices are heavily dependent on the types of comics artists were exposed to in their formative years, there also seems to be a demographic correlation between stylistic preferences which echoes our diverse cultural backgrounds. For example, superhero comics are popular with readers and artists who identify English as their preferred language, whereas manga are popular with Mandarin speakers who are more comfortable reading Chinese translations when ChuangYi publishing and Comics Connection proliferated in the 90s and 00s. We will take a closer look at the relationship between consumption, demography and production in a separate article. For now, let us zoom into the various types of fantasy genres and explore how they relate to the Singaporean psyche.

One of the most prominent genres is the superhero. Popularised by major publishers and entertainment industries in the United States (who often lay claim to the “origin” of this genre), superhero comics are extremely influential to many local artists. Some examples of local superhero titles include early works such as The Valiant Pluto-man of Singapore (1983), The Amazing Adventures of Captain V (1986), to some recent creations such as Salvation Sam (2010), Crimson Star (2021) and the Singaheroes anthology (2022). Most often these are private, self-published projects marketed via conventions, social media, and crowd-funding campaigns. While many of these titles were initially conceptualised as multi-installment series, the eventual number of issues or volumes remain limited. Compounding their rarity in the market are their small print runs and low page counts per issue, making them difficult to display alongside other thicker comics carried by bookstores and libraries. These factors increase their collectible values amongst true aficionados and connoisseurs.

Figure 1. The Valiant Pluto-Man of Singapore is often credited as Singapore’s first superhero comic. Created by Roger Wong, Pluto-Man is a regular salary man who was granted superpowers by aliens. The plot involves fighting crimes and solving mysteries surrounding a Merlion that prowls the streets. The inner pages are black and white with hand-lettering, reminiscent of newspaper comics. The rendering might come across as raw and somewhat amateurish, but its edgy underground aesthetic appeal is strong. The book is long out of print. You can find and reserve the book through the library portal and read it in a small controlled room in the reference library.

Figure 2. The Amazing Adventures of Captain V (1986). The eponymous hero is a police officer who fights crime with gadgets rather than superpower. Captain V was originally a mascot for the Singapore Police Force to educate children about crime prevention before debuting in his own comic series in Comic Con ‘87. Clad in tight fitting spandex and a helmet, Captain V is a stealthy and rather low profile character who has never shown his face. Physical copies of the volumes 2 and 3 are available via Publications SG, but like Pluto-Man, a reservation is needed through the library portal. Images from Biblioasia.

One of the most notable series of this genre is Supacross created by Jerry Hinds and scripted by Boey Meihan, a six-issue miniseries which debuted in 2012 and claims to be ‘Singapore’s 1st world of superhero universe.’ 1 Set in Singapore, the comic’s main protagonists are Crissy Lee (Singapore Sling), a cheeky teenage girl from a convent school who wields the Mhystical Slingcrest, and art student Rosli Rahim (D-Temasek) who is possessed by the spirits of an alien and a Temenggong warrior chief. Other supporting characters are representative of the Singaporean demographics, consisting of the 4 major ethnicities, migrant workers, expatriates and foreigners. Characters adhere to ethnic archetypes: Crissy is the Ah-Lian, Rosli the abang, Madame D’vilbiss the guru, Tax Ranger as the American Midwest manager in a biker jacket and handlebar moustache, and The X-patriot as a British supervillain who wears heavy armour painted with union jack, and speaks with a ‘thick, Geordie accent’:

Figure 3. Supacross Issue 4 introduction page featuring a diverse cast of characters along popular ethnic archetypes. A Singlish-to-English guide explains local slang to international audiences.

Produced around 2011 and published in 2012, Supacross issue 1 and 2 reflect a pertinent political sentiment of its time: a general dissatisfaction against the influx of immigrants. In the first issue, the protagonist makes multiple references to “foreign talents” as a derogatory term when speculating the identities of villains who are in fact local gangsters. The second issue’s villain is a migrant worker who takes revenge upon Singaporeans who “self-centred snobs” who take things for granted:

Figure 4. The first volume saw Crissy accusing gangster siblings Razor Red and Razor Black as foreign talents because they are ‘out-spoken and action-oriented’, but are also ‘unpatriotic’.

Figure 5. Supacross Issue 2 casts a migrant worker as a villain but the tone has shifted towards criticising the attitudes of Singaporeans.

The superheroes themselves seem to be quite aware of their awkward and incongruent existence as an appropriated “Western” cultural product who never quite fit into our society. Being a Singaporean superhero also comes with uniquely Singaporean challenges such as hiding their secret identities in crowded public spaces, preparing for upcoming exams, and having to put up with scepticism and antagonism from disgruntled members of the public.

Figure 6. Supacross Issue 1 page 1–2. Superheroes have to put up with scepticism and crude remarks from the general public. 

Figure 7. Supacross Issue 1 page 7–8. Crissy complains about the challenges of being a superhero and a student, her tutor warns her to keep a low profile in public spaces.

Superheroes are often society’s underdogs operating as vigilantes to protect the powerless from the powerful, frequently demonstrating ‘the empowerment of those who have traditionally been marginalised’, deriving their powers by ‘subverting boundaries, by incorporating difference, and by becoming somehow other’. 2 In Singapore, the negative perception around imported Western ideas eroding traditional Asian values, along with the general disregard of comics as a juvenile medium, gave artists an imperative to adopt superhero themes and aesthetics intentionally to subvert and criticise these cultural norms. After all, if we find the imagery of superheroes in Singapore to be absurd, isn’t it because of our general intolerance and cynicism towards deviants and “unrealistic” fantasies of any kind? 

References:

1 ‘Supacross, Singapore’s 1st World of Superheroes’ Universe’, Supacross.com <https://www.supacross.com/index.html> [accessed 14 July 2020].

2 Clare Pitkethly, ‘Straddling a Boundary: The Superhero and the Incorporation of Difference’, in What is A Superhero, ed. by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 25–29 (p. 27).

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