Monday, 16 June 2014

Singapore: a new nerd is born

So I thought I'd share some of the comic/book related things I got up to in Singapore- I'll try and not bore you too much! 

I visited quite a few bookstores (because that's the kind of boring person person I am)- Japanese mega-store Kinokuniya (more of further down), independent comic book shop Absolute Comics, POPULAR, Wood in the Books, but honestly, I found that the best place for variety and burrowing around to find some gems was probably the Bras Basah Complex -billed as the centre of books and arts, which is located right next to the National Library. It houses a branch of POPULAR, which is essentially a Singaporean version of Waterstones in terms of focus and the books it carries, but also a number of used and art/design themed book shops. It's also home to Cat Socrates (I was lucky to have my friend Aditi, who's Singaporean, show me around and introduce me to all the cool places), which was hands down my favourite shop that I came across. It's a independent business that opened in 2008, I believe, and curates books, stationary, prints, hand-made brooches, totes, jewellery, and more, from local and Japanese artists and creators. They also have a resident cat, Socrates, who the shop is named after (although he was out and about both times I stopped by).

Central Singapore, at least, is very mall-y, with most of the retail outlets encased together in huge buildings with 10 floors each- it bought home my preference for the high street and simply being able to wander around in the open air and meander and choose which shop you might want to go into. I dislike shopping centers- however convenient they may be, they're more pressurised and artificial somehow, with too many people in too small a space all being encouraged to just buy buy buy from one shop to the next. I haven't travelled much, but I would guessing that's increasingly the case for most developed cities? The feeling was probably amplified because I felt like a fish out of water- I mean, we have the Headrow, St John's and the Merrion here in Leeds, but none of them have that bright light, plastic, fast-paced feel to them, but luckily we now have the Trinity to fill that gaping hole in our hearts. 

Anyway, I was especially pleased to learn that Singaporean cartoonist, the Eisner-nominated Drewscape (aka Andrew Tan), had a new book out- this is a sketchbook after the acclaimed comics collection, Monsters, Miracles and Mayonnaise, and it's beautiful. If you follow his blog- and you should be- he regularly posts sketches, watercolours, comics, pen reviews, just great stuff- I especially like the loose paintings he does, they have a really sort of bold, clear quality to them- like these:

Here's a few pictures of the sketchbook, which is lovely, with french flaps and everything- you can buy a copy online here. Tan talks in the introduction about drawing for a living, but also drawing to unwind and relax, and how he may forget everything else when he goes out- his keys, his wallet, but he's never without a sketchbook and pen- it's his way of keeping a diary, recollecting and recording, and also experimenting, trying out different things. I love sketchbooks that aren't simply drawings, and this is annotated with short anecdotes, historical insights, humour and observations, all related in Tan's superb hand-written calligraphy. If you're an artist there's a 'how to draw what you see' tutorial and a gorgeously illustrated section at the end of the book with Tan's drawings of various pens with an accompanying review of each, along with a guide on how to use tones. Trust me, you really can't go wrong with this: Tan should be on your radar and so should this book.

Both Aditi and I picked up a copy of Double Talk from the Woods in the Book (a great independent which specilaises in picture books) bookshop stall outside the National Library which we went to visit and happened to be holding a children's literature festival in the large canopied area adjacent to the entrance. They had a really inventive cardboard-box castle display bordering the stall, but there were signs stating photographs were not allowed This is a 2005 collection of  distinguished Indian writer, director, playwright, journalist and cartoonist Manjula Padmanabhan's Suki strips, which first appeared in Bombay's Sunday Observer in 1982, and running until 1986; Padmanabhan later revived Suki for a second lease of life in 1992, in the form of a daily strip for New Delhi's Pioneer, for a period of 6 years. This book represents roughly two thirds of the original Observer run. One of the things I noticed while browsing at the stalls at the festival was the diversity in the books, the range of representation (I bought a lovely kids book for my nephew about a little boy called Adil playing house with his table)- perhaps it's more natural in a country to reflect what the majority of the populace is made up of, but then y'know, Padmanabhan is Indian. Shrug. As much as you can actively search for terms like 'female Asian cartoonist' I don't think there's a substitute for a direct, tangible presence in book-shops. If it's there, people can, and will pick it up- as evidenced here. If it's not, nothing's going to happen.

In the introduction, amongst other things, Padmanabhan discusses what she considers to be the problem around the dearth of cartoonists, and female cartoonists, in India: 'I'm often asked why I don't revive Suki, why there are so few indigenous comic strips in India, why there aren't more women cartoonists. My constant response is that the problem isn't one of supply or gender discrimination, but DEMAND. Unless local strips are actively critiqued and appraised by their readers, local cartoonists will remain minor curiosities, never becoming the pop-sociologists that the best international strip cartoonists are. More than anything else, cartoonists need engaged and intelligent readers.'

I've dipped in and out of this collection and it's something I'd love to see more of: smart, witty, contemporary cartooning that blows away so many stereotypes and  prejudices by simply existing and being very good. It's interesting that Padmanabhan, as an Indian writing in India, hasn't set out with an aim of dispelling cultural myths because, in perhaps the manner that a British Indian writer in the UK might, and yet Suki works almost better for it, with that level of awareness stripped away- it's simply being. If  Padmanabhan's portraying anything overtly, it's a feminist narrative, but even that is organic to the character. Here's a few pictures of the book- landscape format- you can get it on Amazon for about £2 if you're interested-

Once inside the national library, they were currently holding a special exhibition focusing on Arabian literature, which again, was so heartening to see. The comics section was very well stocked- about 2 whole bays full of comics, although it was mainly superhero and manga material. It was the school holidays in Singapore, and a Sunday when we went to the library, but there were so many people visiting it (and I'm not talking tourists like me)- I've worked in large public libraries and never seen one that full, even with an event on- almost every seat was taken with people reading and um, sleeping! The best bit, however, was the recently re-vamped children's section, upgrade level: AWESOME:

Miel  comic poster in the library

The most popular comics by far in Singapore were Archie comics- there were stacks and stacks of them in all the little used bookshops. There were these fun-looking, digest-sized Singaporean comics here, but they weren't in English, and being conscious of things I still had to buy and luggage weight, I left them. I did ask around, but there didn't seem to be anyone who was aware of where I could (if I could) find any local comics work, so that was pretty much that.

A wild Michael DeForge 

Kinokuniya, officially Books Kinokuniya, is a global Japanese bookstore founded way back in 1927, with branches in Tokyo, Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, and so forth. And it's massive. I think that's their usp: massiveness. Each section is rigorously thorough- it's the first bookstore I got lost in and there's desks located all around the store for different things- I was honestly a bit overwhelmed. The comics section was superb- I spent a long time perusing it and they had everything I could think of, apart from mini-comics. But smaller independent press was represented from Zak Sally to Kevin Huizenga, all of Fantagraphics in print catalogue, as well as Humanoids- even the over-sized deluxe editions. The approach to curation here was simply to have everything, all the series, all the books in all the series- paperbacks, hardbacks, deluxe editions, absolute editions. British publishers such as SelfMade Hero, Rebellion, Jonathan Cape were also represented, all the Top Shelf, D&Q, First Second, Image titles. ALL of them. It was impressive. And kind of scary.

I surreptitiously took the pictures below- before someone came along to tell me I couldn't, although I didn't see any signs saying otherwise, and it's always harder to take photographs whilst obviously Muslim, so I didn't push my luck too much. These are just a few snapshots of the UK/European/Canadian/American comics section, there was a separate English language manga section, where I picked up a couple of volumes of Yotsuba, Moyoco Anno's Insufficent Direction and Kyoko Okazaki's Helter Skelter (all books you can buy here- I just needed more things to read), and a much, much larger Japanese language comics area. I was trying in vain to work out how the English language books were shelved: publisher? alphabet by titles, by author? and it seemed to be a bit of both. The only downside which if you look at the photos, you can predict my saying, is that all the books- about 99% are shrink-wrapped. I don't like that- I don't think you should do that with prose, and I don't think you can do that with comics, where people have to be able to open a book and look at it and read it- visual medium. It's inherently unconducive, unless you know exactly what you're after, or are purchasing on the strength of covers and blurbs alone.

Japanese edition of Bastien Vives' Polina

Books aside, Singapore has the singular, dubious honour of being the place that ignited a new hobby: toy collecting. Many moons ago, when I was first venturing into comics, I used to look around at other people and scoff and judge (I still do this, just with more self-loathing, as is the comics way). I used to think things along the lines of 'Single issues?! Why would you pay a small fortune for bits of a floppy 'book' when you can get it for cheaper and in proper format in a few months?' Don't worry; the joke is very much on me. Another one of the very specific things I felt superior about was toy-collecting, or people who would call their  toy/figure collection a comic collection when it was 1600 Green Lantern figures and 20 comics shoved in a corner. I try not to label anymore- I mean, I'm in no poisiton to, am I? I miss my position. One of the places we visited was the Mint Toy Museum- it was excellent- a whole host of toys and collectibles- from ThunderBirds to Dan dare to Astroboy to Batman to Popeye to Tintin (I made the Facebook album public if you fancy a look- too many pictures to include here)- a real mish-mash, but hugely enjoyable and engrossing.

It must have sparked something somewhere, because later in the week, I was at the Singapura Mall, the very top floor of which is inhabited by a cinema and toy stores exclusively. If you're a fan of toys, it is heaven, I assure you. There's a shop completely devoted to weapon replicas from books and movies, another that is exhaustive in those more high-end, larger comic character figures and busts, and lots more which sell a wide mixture of old and new toys. It may not look like I bought a lot, but previously I wouldn't have bought anything at all. Here they are, bewildered, in their new home:

The wind-up ice cream boy, and the aeroplane carousel are both from the toy museum shop- made in China, haha, but look at them- too cute to pass up, damn them. I love the colours and stripes on the ice-cream boy.

This is an old, I think plastic, Batgirl figure. She's an official DC and TM toy, and she's just bigger than Lego mini-figures in size. I bought her just because of aesthetics, shallow fiend that I am- I like how boxy and square she is and that she has no nose, the way her hair and cape is done, the little details on her boots and sleeves. They had a Robin in the same vein, but that little dude was too creepy -and I love Robin. The little knitted pot plant is from Cat Socrates.

A space jockey figure from Alien. I believe these were produced as sets by Japanese company Konami in 2003, as part of the director's cut release of the movie, I'm guessing. This is small, about 4 inches in diameter. Alien's one of my favourite movies and I like the mystery of the space jockey, as much as Prometheus explained or didn't explain it. I really shouldn't have researched these things, because I saw Ripley;s yellow power-loader as one of the other sets, and that's looking pretty attractive to me, too... Rapid descent right here.

And some of the Lego Simpson mini-figures. I'm not a fan of the Simpsons- I've hardly sen any of it, but I appreciate the details and work on these and they look so good- Marge's hair and skirt are fabulous. My thing with comics is they have to be good for me to be able to keep them on my shelf, but my thing with toys is I don't have to be fan of the character or anything, it's a toy so it's primary function is to be played with, and the secondary- which I;m about- is the aesthetics of it. I buy toys for the aesthetics, although that's as subjective as all else. The toy shop I got these from was selling them out of packet, so you knew which ones you were getting, so I got the ones I wanted. Might yet get Millhouse (got one for Andy and he was super-cute with his glasses). I'm going to wrap this up- gone on long enough and plummeted new depths.