“Uniquely Singaporean” Comics:
The Quest for Identity

Part 3c – Fantasies and anxieties: Manga in the rites of passage

A large proportion of local comic creators have cited Japanese manga as their greatest source of inspiration and influence in their formative years as fans. Manga was imported into Singapore in the 1970s and 80s, but it was in the 1990s to 2000s that manga began to rise to popularity, particularly amongst Chinese speakers. Apart from an increasing number of anime aired on local and cable television channels, a large part of this phenomenon can be attributed to Chuang Yi publishing translating many popular manga titles into simplified Chinese and later English language at affordable prices. The former is priced at a slightly lower price point than the latter, often from S$4.50 to S$6.50. In comparison, imported manga from Taiwanese and Hong Kong publishers, apart from being in traditional Chinese, often cost around S$8 to S$10, while imported english language manga from American publishers such as Tokyopop cost above S$10, and typical superhero trade paperbacks and European albums were much more expensive. Not only were Chuang Yi manga the most wallet-friendly, they were also easier to find in mainstream book stores such as Popular and MPH, and on neighbourhood stationery stores with a magazine rack. The marketing strategy of putting affordable manga next to essential assessment books, stationeries, newspapers and magazines proved to be extremely effective in capturing a very specific group of target audiences – school students with limited financial means, whom upon exhausting the amount of reading materials in their immediate vicinity, would venture into specialist comic shops such as Comics Connection, larger bookstores such as Kinokyuniya, and rental bookstores for more exotic imports, opening the gateway to comics fandom.

Most of the manga titles that were widely circulated locally were of Shounen and Shoujo genre that appeal strongly to the social emotional needs of adolescents, featuring school-going protagonists who struggle with personal, familial, financial, and academic difficulties while flourishing in alternative domains of sports, romance, fantasy and the arts. Titles typical of such setups included Prince of Tennis, Fruits Basket, Absolute Boyfriend, Shaman King, Flame of Recca, and Samurai Deeper Kyo, Death Note, Hikaru no Go and Nana. In the eyes of parents and teachers, consuming, creating and re-enacting these fantasies through reading, drawing and cosplaying were at best ways for teens to escape shared realities, or at worst, a distraction to proper academic pursuits. But to the teenagers involved, these were healthy ways to cope with stress and socialise with like-minded peers, while allowing them to be creative and find a sense of fulfilment. Many fans have also turned into creators themselves, with their early exposure to manga largely driving their stylistic and genre choices. 

Being a comic artist, or an artist in general, is deemed to be an unorthodox career choice in the local context. Embracing the identity of the comic artist can be deemed as a rebellion against traditional Singaporean notions of having a stable job with decent pay, as publishing opportunities were few and far between. In a time before online platforms and social media, physical comic books were published independently, or through contests or publishing initiatives. Some are compiled into anthologies or magazines, but most of these were one-off or short-lived projects, many of which are currently out of print. Examples include Comics Alliance (漫画同盟) anthology series published by Asiapac books in 1997, 1998 and 2001 (Fig.1), Singapore’s Greatest Comics by the Nice one Entertainment in 2006 (Fig. 2). Eight titles published by Chuang Yi Publishing under the First Time Writers and Illustrators Publishing initiatives funded by Media Development Authority (now IMDA) in 2008 (Fig. 3), and its next iteration funded by the same grant –  Ignite! Presents ARENA Fantasy and Sci-fi vol. 0 anthologies published by Nice One Entertainment in 2010 (Fig. 4).

Figure 1. Three volumes of Comics Alliance, which are extremely difficult to obtain now due to the limited number of print runs. Publications SG has a few copies for reservation through the library portal. There might also one or two that are available on Carousel. Images from https://www.carousell.sg/p/local-chinese-comics-including-水浒传-1-3-incomplete-manga-doomei-漫画同盟1-2-武林大玩家-241165173/ and https://biblioasia.nlb.gov.sg/vol-17/issue-3/oct-dec-2021/singapore-comics.

Figure 2. Singapore’s Greatest Comics, an anthology published by Nice One Entertainments, which is the team behind SupaCross. The book is described as manga-style trade paper back, even though its page dimension adheres to american comic book format. Image from https://www.amazon.com/Century-Comics-Presents-Singapores-Greatest/dp/0976665174

Figure 3. Eight titles published by Chuang Yi publishing under First Time Writers and Illustrators Publishing Initiative (FTWIPI) by MDA. Each creator was awarded $8000 to create a complete comic book. First Row left to right: Awaken by Ng Shi Kian, R.E.M by Tan Kwang Yang, Lament by Hu Jing Xuan, and Jack Doe: Anonymous by Shawn Yap. Bottom role: Atlas by Alan Bay, Monsters Everywhere! By Kelvin Kee, The Case of the Missing Golden Bird Mask by Rizal Wahap & Rhaime Wahap, and Super Zeroes by Wong Yee Kang & Keeve Neo. Source: https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/data/pdfdoc/20090827003/mda_launches…

Figure 4. Ignite! Presents Arena Sci-fi and Fantasy, two anthologies each featuring five stories selected under the second iteration of (FTWIPI). Images from https://www.niceoneent.com/publishing.html

Anthologies and magazines are avenues to groom new talents, but maintaining a sustainable business model proves to be daunting. MUGEN comic magazine by Chuang Yi publishing carries some of the works featured in the FTWIPI and lasted for six issues (Fig. 5). Shortly after, changes in reading habits due to an increase in online comics soon forced many publishers and comic stores to fold. Despite the challenge, Asia Pac, Nice One Entertainment and TCZ studio continued to find ways to give publishing avenues for aspiring artists. Pura Comixmag (Fig, 6) run by TCZ Studio is one of the longest running free local manga online magazines, and has continued to groom many talents who have demonstrated both skills and dedication. Yeo Hui Xuan’s Dream Walker series, first published in 2009, is one of the most successful series that originated from Pura Comicxmag’s talent development programme. Other titles include A Deal with Lucifer by Clio Hui Kiri and Pandora’s Scar by Rixou Low Jia Hui. 

Figure 5. MUGEN manga magazine from Chuang Yi Publishing, issues 1 to 5. Images from https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100077349460440&sk=photos

Figure 6. Pura Comixmag has been running for more than a decade and has gone through editorial and aesthetic revamps to keep up with the changing times. These covers feature some of the most successful local manga series such as Dream Walker by Yeo Hui Xuan, A Deal with Lucifer by Clio Hui Kiri and Pandora’s Scar by Rixou Low.

All three artists mentioned above were among the aforementioned avid manga readers who have taken the path less trodden, and persisted despite numerous challenges to attain personal growth and realisation. In a way, their journey as comic artists parallels the rites of passage depicted in many of their favourite manga, and can be found in their own works. Though not all are explicitly set in Singapore, the stories remain relatable and familiar to local teen readers. All three works feature young protagonists with realistic personal struggles such as academic stress, complicated familial relationships, bullying and low self-esteem. On the other hand, realms of fantasy are symbolic domains to allow protagonists to find their worth and regain confidence. Many stories take place in school settings, which acts both as a source of hardships but also avenues for support when the protagonists encounter challenges in the alternate realm. As adolescents navigate the liminal spaces between childhood and adulthood, consuming such narratives are both cathartic and inspiring.

The next chapter shall examine works which exhibit hybrid sensibilities between manga and bande dessinée, realism and fantasy, history and fiction, as well as the personal and the communal. These works are the most recent, having been published in the era of social media and internet connectivity where various identities and ideas collide to form continuous narratives that parallels the on-going process of identity construction in the contemporary globalised world.

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