News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Book Review: Drawn to Satire: Sketches of Cartoonists in Singapore by CT Lim and Koh Hong Teng.

 Drawn to Satire: Sketches of Cartoonists in Singapore. CT Lim and Koh Hong Teng. Pause Narratives, 2023. 144 pages, $26.89.

 reviewed by Felix Cheong

If one uses a metaphor of satire as the art of stabbing an issue to draw humor instead of blood, so too does the biographical Drawn to Satire -- in ways that are as inventive as they are at times infuriating. Therein lies the double-edged sword of this lovingly produced book -- you wish it could have done so much more, but paradoxically, so much less.


Written by CT Lim and illustrated by Koh Hong Teng, Drawn to Satire sketches, both literally and figuratively, the lives of eight pioneering cartoonists, from well-known names like Morgan Chua, to the relatively obscure Dai Yin Lang. While the chosen cartoonists tend to be ethnically Chinese males, the book also includes one Malay, Shamsuddin H. Akib, and one woman, Kwan Shan Mei – which begs the question if they were added as token gestures. I will return to this question later.


Each chapter begins with a quick overview of the cartoonist’s backstory and before you know it, drives directly into his themes, motivations and, occasionally, hang-ups. Here, Lim, the go-to authority on comics in Singapore, has obviously used his extensive research, having published previously on the history of comics (in particular, political cartoons) in the Lion City, in addition to being an IJOCA editorial advisor for the city-state. For this book, he has also conducted interviews with the cartoonists who are still alive, such as Shamsuddin and Koeh Sia Yong, and with relatives of those who have passed away, such as Tchang Ju Chi and Lim Mu Hue.


In keeping with its subtitle that the book is nothing more than “sketches,” each chapter (14-15 pages) reads rather, well, sketchily. It is akin to the experience of speed-dating, but on the printed page; just as the reader gets into the story – whoosh! –  it is gone. 


A case in point: the opening chapter on Tchang Ju Chi, a political cartoonist who was abducted by the Japanese military and presumably executed during the Sook Ching massacre of 1942. He was only 38 years old at that time. While the narrative tries to know the man, instead he comes across as a type -- the Chinese √©migr√© with apron strings still knotted tight to the motherland, rather than a person in his own right. The in-your-face thought bubbles do not help by merely telling, rather than showing why, that despite having found his calling in Nanyang, Tchang still harkened back to China and viewed Sino-Japanese tensions with growing unease.


Indeed, if Drawn to Satire has a failing, it is how it sacrifices depth for breadth. Instead of featuring eight cartoonists, it could have gone with just five. Pioneer artist Liu Kang, for instance, could have been dropped; after all, his life is already well-documented and his comics output was limited to just Chop Suey, published in 1946Similarly, Kwan Shan Mei’s reputation rests on her children’s picture books, rather than satirical cartoons. Perhaps she was included to showcase a fair representation, but much of her chapter is devoted to conjecture and a summation of the authors’ intentions for the book. And while Din Yin Lang’s life certainly makes for an intriguing espionage tale, too little is known about him to be anything more than a sidebar.


So, while covering eight cartoonists might fulfill Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) required by funding bodies – the authors acknowledge support from four institutions, such as the National Heritage Board, the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts – the book does itself a disservice when more could have been done with less. 


Still, Drawn to Satire is a breezy read, helped, no doubt, by Koh’s unfussy art style, and at the same time, pays homage to the cartoonists by reproducing their works (and even two iconic Singapore paintings, Liu Kang’s “Artist and Model” and Chua Mia Tee’s “Epic Poem of Malaya”). 


What ultimately sells the book for me is Lim’s unconventional storytelling, which takes a leaf from the growing creative graphic biography field. Instead of writing a Wikipedia-like chronology, Lim dips into each cartoonist’s life and extracts specific incidents that define and shape him. More interestingly, he introduces an interloper (or provocateur), a fictional foil who flits in and out of the panels with time-travel ease and with whom the cartoonists interact. This unnamed character (who sometimes breaks the fourth wall) creates a Brechtian effect, a narrative device used either for Lim to set the context of what you are reading, or to slather asides and editorial comments.


In fact, Lim even cheekily inserts himself into the narrative; after all, he is as much part of the comics ecosystem in Singapore as the cartoonists he writes about, but he does it in a way that neither grates nor gloats. If anything, his self-referential character borders on self-deprecating, particularly in a funny sequence when he is depicted as a clueless emcee at the launch of Koeh Sia Yong’s art exhibition in 2023. Indeed, as befitting a book about satirical cartoons, humor is its chief calling card; sequences such as Morgan Chua fleeing to Hong Kong (to avoid the Singapore government’s crackdown on The Singapore Herald, a newspaper it had deemed subversive) have a Looney Tunes zaniness.


While it is not perfect, Drawn to Satire is what the comics scene in Singapore needs – it plugs a gap of scholarship and, in equal measure, is entertaining and enlightening.