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Where Do Original Comics Belong?

FOMO Art Weekend organised by OICsingapore happened on the first weekend of December at *SCAPE. As a mini event preparing for the resurrection of Illustration Arts Festival (IAF) which has been on pandemic-hiatus, this event is catered mostly for illustrators to sell their original merch and zines. Despite the relative inaccessibility of the venue, the footfall was surprisingly healthy, with participants of another event Culture Cartel and Career Canvas spilling over (Tokidoki showed up too!). A Tiktok video from user @asliceofsya perfectly captures its vibrancy:

@asliceofsya OIC’s FOMO Art weekend at Scape!! Drop by and get yourself some awesome prints, merch, accessories and more — see ya! ☺️ Date: 3 – 4 Dec 2022 (11am to 7pm) Venue: *Scape (lvl 4&5) #artweekend #fomoartweekend #artweekend2022 #oicfomo #scape #scapesg #whattodoinsg #2022 #weekendactivities #oicfomoartweekend #artistssg ♬ The Loneliest Time – Carly Rae Jepsen & Rufus Wainwright

I shared a booth with a fellow comic artist Rixou Low, author of Pandora’s Scar, and we were one of the very few stalls selling original comics and graphic novels, surrounded by beautiful prints, exquisite illustrations, cute keychains and enamel pins. We met friends who showed us their support, and also chatted with folks who were not there for comics but were curious about the outlooks of making and selling original comics. After the many boothing events I have attended or panel discussions I have been invited to partake in, I sometimes felt that local original comics does not really fit in. Occasionally I even suspect that we were there to add variety, a suspicion later confirmed as I spoke to the organisers about their decision to allow the much averted “manga” into the tightly curated, aesthetically coherent indie illustration fair.

You might think that the comic artists belong in Comic Con (which is happening this weekend) or Anime Festival Asia (which have recently concluded in November), but for most original comic creators, finding a foothold among commercial entertainment giants proves to be a daunting challenge. Some of the barriers include expensive booth rental, not-so-transparent application and balloting systems, crowds who prefer to stick with what they know, and an overwhelming amount of fan-art and affordable, mass-produced merchandise vying for visitor’s attention and money. On top of that, some of us have recently developed a fear of crowded places and noisy ambiance, not just because we are getting old but also because the pandemic has yet to disappear completely.

Image from Mothership.sg. https://mothership.sg/2022/11/afa-2022-crowded/

Comics have always had an awkward cultural and aesthetic status: it is certainly not illustration (apart from the cover art), it is also not craft (although its merch is). It is not just fanart (unless it is), and it is only worthy of literary recognition if it is “indie” enough (meaning not looking like typical superhero or manga, and probably about some personal or social issue). Most comics are too grown-up for children’s book market, but perceived as too juvenile or crass as art books, unless the creator has a legacy.  Artists may not want to be confined and stereotyped into simplistic categories of  “artistic” graphic novel versus “commercial” comics, superhero versus manga, West versus East, male readers in their 40s versus secondary school girls, “local contents” or “not really”, although these might be important to identify the right market. Most importantly, local creators who are starting out or have yet to gain massive online followings need a space to get their works out to the public without latching onto the popularity of other art forms or comic celebrities, or leaving their fate entirely to social media algorithms. 

In my limited overseas experience, I once attended the Thought Bubble Comic Art Festival in the UK back in 2019 before the pandemic. It was a massive spread of three gigantic event halls full of original contents, with one smaller hall dedicated to adult contents. It was an eye-opening experience because there was a wide gamut of styles and contents. Most memorably, works that would be banned in Singapore were given a space to exist, with warnings and restricted entries to those below 18. I bought an anthology named SEX Machine.

Image from Thought Bubble and Downthetube.net: https://downthetubes.net/thought-bubble-festival-celebrates-successful-move-to-harrogate/

Censorship aside, in terms of providing avenues for creators to get noticed and recognised, Singapore still has a long way to go, although there have been numerous initiatives to give original comics a voice. Some of the current efforts include Comic Embassy, which concluded its three-months long run from June to August this year; the annual Singapore Original Comics Festival (SGOCF), which hopefully will make a full return to its original physical creative market format. However there are many challenges too: The difficulty of securing an affordable space to keep entry free for public and booths affordable for artists, the general lack of appreciation for original comics in Singapore, and venue restrictions on commercial activities or the types of F&B vendors they allow, the demographic divide between those who reads superheros, indies and manga. Most of all, there is a limited number of new books that can be produced each year. Afterall, unlike illustrations and crafts, making a comic book is labour intensive and time consuming, at a certain stage the scene stagnates with the same few artists and titles. 

Despite challenges, creators and publishers continue to fight for spaces to be visible. Beyond commercial spaces where barriers to entry for non-fans can be quite high, our libraries have been placing local comics on the shelf. The library is where many money-conscious or young Singaporean folks first come across a local title and continue on to be supportive of the series they liked, such as Mr Kiasu, The Celestial Zone and Dream Walker. I hope that there can be a better way to organise the comic titles because the current Dewey system is not the easiest to casually browse comics according to categories. Better still if all the local comics can be in one place instead of distributed across the many libraries. To prevent irresponsible users messing up the collection or damaging the comics, perhaps the reference library would be the ideal home to house a permanent collection of original comics. In the long run I also hope there are more public exhibitions about the history and present state of local comics, as building appreciation for an art form starts from making materials accessible to all.

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