Graphic novel Sabrina by American author Nick Drnaso was longlisted for Britain’s most prestigious literary award the Man Booker Prize two weeks ago.
The Man Booker Prize is awarded to a novel originally written in English. The winning author is given £50,000 (S$88,800).
While Singapore can boast of an Eisner-winning title with Sonny Liew’s The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, such works are still seen as comics and not “serious” literature.
Other local comic artists include veteran Wee Tian Beng, known for his long-running The Celestial Zone series; Johnny Lau of Mr Kiasu fame; and the late Morgan Chua with his political cartoons.
Is Singapore ready to consider comics as a serious art form?
Mr Liew, 43, told The New Paper that comics are an art form as legitimate as any other, and it is a medium, not a genre.
“Whether comics can be art, that is a bit of a silly question. Anyone who takes a look at the work of (American cartoonists) Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes or (acclaimed manga author) Inio Asano will be hard-pressed to find a way to define ‘art’ that excludes their work.
“It has probably more to do with mindsets, awareness and exposure – on the part of everyone in the industry – readers, creators, book sellers, publishers.”
Epigram founder and publisher Edmund Wee, 66, said Singapore was ahead of the Man Booker Prize in terms of recognising graphic novels.
“We gave the leading award for literature to a graphic novel (The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016). So Sabrina is just catching up with us. I am proud to say that.”
Charlie Chan Hock Chye traces Singapore’s history through the life of a fictional artist of satirical comics. It bagged three Eisner awards, known as the Oscars of the comics world, including Best Writer/Artist in July last year.
It created a controversy in 2015, when the National Arts Council withdrew a $8,000 publishing grant for the work, but has gone on to sell more than 20,000 copies.
Mr Wee said: “For a long time now, the graphic novel has been seen by even critics as a legitimate, serious form of (art), because of titles such as Persepolis (by Marjane Satrapi) and Maus (by Art Spiegelman).”
Persepolis is based on Ms Satrapi’s life in Iran, during and after the Islamic Revolution.
Maus, the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, deals with the experiences of Mr Speigelman’s father, a Holocaust survivor.
But the perception still exists that comics cannot be taken seriously.
Mr Wee said: “If you try to promote comics to a parent, I think you will find some would rather their children read something (else).
“They either think their children will not improve their English reading comics, or the subject matter is not appropriate. They still associate comics with superheros and Archie.”
Among the 50 or so titles published by Epigram every year, only one or two are comics.
They sell about the same as other titles written in prose – about 1,000 to 2,000 copies, said Mr Wee.
Mr Liew said: “The particular historical roots and development of comics (with newspaper strips and superhero comics being dominant forms in the US market) has meant that we still often instinctively associate it with juvenile reading material.
“On the one hand, it means the fight for legitimacy never really ends; on the other, it means that graphic narratives can still come in under the radar, remain somewhat subversive.”
There is little doubt about the potential of the medium in telling a story.
Mr Christopher Shaw, head of the Puttnam School of Film and Animation at the Lasalle College of the Arts, said the strength of comics is versatility.
He said: “They can address practically any issue and appeal to a wide range of readers – even our favourite comic superheroes tackle themes that range from ethics and personal identity to friendship and love.
“Ironically, the reason comics might be perceived as less ‘serious literature’, is as a result of their popularity.”
Freelance illustrator James Tan, 45, said: “Imagine the potential of comics that utilise the best of these two forms – written and visual combined, each complementing the other. That is not something a traditional novel can supplant.”
But the time and skill required to produce a full-length graphic novel is a key reason why they are rare, said artists.
Freelance artist Dan Wong, 35, who occasionally posts satirical comics on Facebook under A Good Citizen, said one of the biggest problems is time.
“A good and fast comic artist with a reasonably detailed style might take a day to produce a fully inked and coloured page.”
For a 60-page comic book, it might take two months of non-stop work, including weekends. This does not include the time to write the narrative, sketch out the story or even put in the lettering, he said.
“Unless someone is paying him at least three to four months’ salary to do this full-time, spending that amount of time on a project is ludicrous,” added Mr Wong.
Association of Comic Artists Singapore president Jerry Hinds, 54, said there is no lack of talent in Singapore.
“But it is difficult… as some of them seemingly lose the necessary drive and mettle that is required for challenging sequential art, where you need more passion than common sense.”
In schools, comics have also been used in recent years to encourage learning.
In response to queries, Mr Sin Kim Ho, divisional director at the Curriculum Planning and Development Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE), said: “Leveraging on the fun and appealing nature of comics, MOE has been encouraging their use as one of the teaching approaches in our school curriculum over the years.
“This includes making subject lessons in English, Chinese and science more engaging and thought-provoking for students.”
He gave the example of the Creative Comic Essay Writing Programme launched in February, an optional course where comics are used with critical thinking questions to guide students in Chinese essay writing.
Part-time science fiction writer J.F. Koh, 47, who also runs a monthly gathering for aspiring and current comic artists, said the local market for comics is small.
“With the notable exception of Sonny Liew, there are not that many recognised mainstream artists in Singapore.”
The web developer runs the Facebook group Panelgraph Editorial. He writes as a hobby but does not discuss it with his family.
“Among the older generation, there is still the perception that drawing comics is not a viable career option. Only lawyers, doctors and engineers have respectable careers.”
Said Mr Hinds: “It works both ways. If there are no publishers willing to back local fiction authors, then it can never take off with no chance of local or international audiences being exposed to them.”
He heads the team behind the SupaCross comic series, which features young Singaporean superheroes Singapore Sling and D-Temasek.
Mr Lim Cheng Tju, 46, who is the country editor (Singapore) of the International Journal of Comic Art, said: “It is great that Sabrina has been shortlisted because it brings more media attention to the medium.”
The comic writer and historian said other good titles include Becoming Unbecoming by Una and Irmina by Barbara Yelin.