After Sonny Liew’s introductory, scene-setting interview yesterday, here we take a look at the books Epigram have produced with local Singaporean talent, beginning with Miel’s Scenegapore. Here’s the man himself to tell you a little more about the book, followed by my review:
“When I was planning my book- I wanted to make it look like a panoramic view of Singapore- it’s history, culture, social and political landscape. I did manage to do it but when I was doing research I had tons of info that would have lent itself to myriad cartoon premises. One book would not be enough for the material I had unearthed and observed. So a sequel to the book is in the works.
Doing a cartoon book that is based on a place, people with history and culture have to be factual- the drawings have to precise, for example, buildings have to be drawn as they existed in the past and into the present for historical accuracy. A cartoon must not only aim to entertain- it has to inform.” -Miel
Scenegapore was the first book I read from Epigram’s comics line and if you’re thinking of buying all three of the books released so far (and I’d urge you to do so for reasons upcoming), I found there is perhaps a reading order in which they work best, beginning with this. Scenegapore charts Singapore’s history from it’s inception to current day, via historical, social and landscape/architectural commentary. Consider a ‘blank’ reader, if you will, in that someone picks up this book with no knowledge of the country, its people, background, politics, and no particular interest in it either. Yet, Miel achieves what few cartoonists who approach similar terrain do: making the studious and informative engaging, entertaining and humorous. As (amongst other things) an editorial cartoonist he is perhaps perfectly placed and equipped to do so: having to regularly come up with illustrations that succinctly convey a point, possessing a trim conciseness and immediacy of image serves him well as he covers a vast amount of ground in the book.
The book is divided roughly into three sections: history/politics, observational and situational people commentary, and a third act filled with detailed panoramas of the changing Singaporean landscape over time. These are wonderful, bustling with life and action with lots going on, like a less-concentrated Where’s Wally? scene. At various points in the book, Miel inserts himself in the book, acting as a tour guide and recorder of information (that’s him on the cover, drawing away, trying to catch it all on paper). The singular thing about Scenegapore is its positivity: even after presenting some of the problems the country has faced/faces, the sometimes annoying people and their mindsets, the over-arching, pervasive tone is one of hopefulness and cheer. As a Brit, I cannot imagine a similar book being written without a good deal of complaining, lofty digs at other nations and general sarcasm- it’s a refreshing change!
Miel uses the Brechtian technique of people holding up placards with words that complete the newspaper headline’ Singapore is out…’ This is really well executed: simple but immensely effective, instead of a flood of expository words or using up valuable page space, we’re given a diverse representation of Singaporean citizens relaying their views, hopes and opinions of their country. The people observation segment is both charming and amusing, the kind that comes from acute experience: Miel captures all the nuanced little kooks and quirks: the upturning of a stool into a makeshift bin, the double role of an umbrella as a shopping bag is hooked over it’s handle. These distinctive touches and insights of shared cultural traits, thriftiness, needling are all done with humour and affection. Earlier, I said it was positivity that imbued the book, but Miel’s affection for his country and its people is also apparent on every page.
Scenegapore is a window into a country and people still transitioning and evolving, still finding a footing: the mixture of old and new, tradition and culture, old thinking and new ideas, all jostling for a place or slot. Yet, oddly enough, despite this, it is not a country or people without an identity: that they already seem to have. It’s a lot to fit into a book and it belies Miel’s quality and talent as a cartoonist and journalist that he pulls it off with virtuoso aplomb, avoiding the pitfall of trying to include too much and resulting in a convoluted mess. It is, quite simply, another fantastic, textbook example of the non-fiction side of the comics medium when done very right. Very much looking forward to that second volume.
You can find Miel’s blog here, it’s pretty damn good.
Many thanks to Miel for taking the time to write his introduction.