Remember Me | Register | Lost your Password?

YRC 23 PROFESSIONS: DR GWEE LI SUI, Graphic Novelist

By Natalya Thangamany

‘A curious young boy opens a door and is thrust into the Architrave, a fantastical, fractured world upheld by four Columns. Arriving as the Great Gateway War draws to a start, Li-Hsu must fight bravely alongside a host of strange creatures in order to find his way back home.’

So reads the summary to the fantasy graphic novel, Myth of the Stone. Inside, the collaboration of hand-drawn black-and-white pictures and textboxes of both narration and dialogues tells about the magical journey of a boy not so different from us. It is proof that an engaging story does not have to be written in just words, but also through images.
A little plus point here is that Myth of the Stone was made right here on our sunny island, so who says that we Singaporeans do not have creative talent?

YRC speaks to the creator of Myth of the Stone, Dr Gwee Li Sui, on how the first Singaporean graphic novel came to be, the inspiration behind it and what makes a visual storyteller.

It’s All In the Pictures
First of all, what is a graphic novel? Is it a comic book? There are many definitions that look at what makes a graphic novel and what makes it different or similar to a comic book. One definition is that of a story presented in comic strips and packaged as a book. Another points out that unlike comic books, graphic novels are not periodical and can complete its own story in just one book. Graphic novels come in varying lengths, with even just one graphic novel being several pages longer than a comic book.

While graphic novels may have been a rarity years ago, despite existing for as long as the 1800s, they are making a boom in the industry in modern times; through using the medium of visual storytelling, graphic novels, comic books, manga (comics made in Japan) and even animation have engaged the hearts and minds of people everywhere. The appeal of visual storytelling may have sprouted from people enjoying images and finding them attractive and engaging, especially when coupled with a compelling story.

Dr Gwee’s Myth of the Stone was the first full-length graphic novel in English that was made in Singapore, and it would definitely not be the last. In this age, many local artists and writers have sprouted up and taken the plunge to showcase their work, be it on online websites or interest conventions. Also, many local publishers have opened the gateway for visual storytellers to make their mark in the local bookstores. Thus in the future, we can expect to see more comics and graphic novels from our fellow Singaporeans,

Birth and Rebirth
So, what made Dr Gwee take that first step in writing, drawing and releasing a first of its kind right here? While he may not remember the exact inspiration for Myth of the Stone (it was first published in 1993), he does recall the bits and pieces that he used in the story. “I was reading a lot into religion and myths at the time,” he explains via an email interview. “You can work out from the book that the question of how God gave us free will and yet knew everything fascinated me. So this story was written as a way to look at the issue differently. I also wanted a world with strange creatures from world mythology, such as garudas and kappas, and from world history, such as dodos and moas.”

From the moment he got his story idea to the graphic novel’s first release, Dr Gwee had learnt plenty from the whole process. He worked on Myth of the Stone during a year break back in his days as a university student. The work involved, as he shared, was tiring and demanded much focus, commitment and self-criticism. He even had to re-do or start over from a page, a picture or even a sentence that came out wrong, and developed the discipline of drawing and drafting a single page every day. However, he also felt the enjoyment and satisfaction when he saw his story slowly come together. “The enjoyment gradually came when parts of the story began to take shape,” he shares. “And you knew that it was all going to turn out fine.” It was after three months of hard work and dedication that Myth of the Stone was completed in 1992.

Overall, his experience of working on his graphic novel taught him about dedication to his craft and loving his work enough to release it to the public. “I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt to give generously to my art and then be prepared to let it go, let it do its own thing. Stories, once finished, have their own lives. They belong to every one of their readers like puppies to their new owners. Even the name on the cover becomes a stranger and not me anymore.”

Myth of the Stone was first released in 1993, but was lost due to publication problems and lack of interest in the medium. “The manuscript (had) sat in my drawer for many more months (after it was done). It was not until I was asked by an uncle of mine to draw for a fledgling publishing company that I took the pages out again,” Dr Gwee recounts his story’s first publication. “I showed them to the folks at the now-defunct East Asia Books Services, and they were excited enough to want to publish the book. But the public reception was not good.” However, twenty years later, Dr Gwee worked with a local publisher and was able to revive his story into a special edition for fans old and new.

From Doodle to (Graphic) Novel
How Dr Gwee got into visual storytelling dates back to his childhood. “I have been drawing comics since I was a small kid,” he shares. “It was not something I was taught or told to do; I simply did it. I started by making little comic books which I gave to my sister or mailed to my cousins as presents. I would serialise my stories, and some would conclude at length although many did not.”

From his early ventures in comic-making, Dr Gwee learnt more about the art of storytelling, such as story structure and characterization. He also learnt, especially with visual storytelling, how to plan and pace both story and pictures out on paper bit by bit. “All these elements – writing, plot, characterisation, angling, drawing, panelling, and so on – must come together,” he says. “They have to work in sync, in a specific rhythm and order. Given that there are all these different aspects, you do end up with many types of drafts. Making a graphic novel is incredibly messy and time-consuming!”

In his leisure time, both past and present, Dr Gwee does some writing and illustrating on his own. He owes all his ‘unrecorded amount of writing and drawing done all the time’ to helping to create Myth of the Stone, pointing out that one must constantly explore and experiment in order to improve their work. “These were the ways I had to explore possibilities and test what I could do,” he shares. “There are still bags and bags of such papers stored in my parents’ home. Some of these are published stuff, but most are drafts and abandoned works. A writer should always keep more secrets than what he or she permits to show.”

Dr Gwee believes that visual storytellers, from graphic novelists to comic-book artists, can contribute to society by being good and dedicated to what they do. “Comics creators should seek to understand their craft, what they can do with it, and how they can improve themselves,” he advises. “The work does not have to concern particular themes or to celebrate particular values. If pursued well, art by nature will manifest its own truths and create its own means to be enjoyed.”

Storytelling Through Pictures
Some may argue that it is best to have stories just in words to allow readers to imagine for themselves what the story looks like. This is due to the idea that having images tell the story may ruin that imaginative power for readers, especially in cases where books are adapted into movies (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, etc).

However, the growing fanbase of graphic storytelling proves that comics and graphic novels are planted well in the hearts of people. Perhaps you know of people who enjoy reading manga, Western comics from Marvel and DC, web comics or even watching animation. Maybe you yourself have dreamt of venturing into visual storytelling, whether you want to do a graphic novel or release a series of comic books.

For anyone aspiring to become a visual storyteller, through graphic novels, manga or comic books, Dr Gwee gives this advice: “My main advice is to persevere. If you have a love for creating comics, then practise all you can and learn all you can; take breaks, but don’t give up. Don’t listen to people who dismiss what you may find interesting or send you down specific trodden paths. Aim to be a pathfinder rather than a follower, and remember that doing something new or different will always take time. Aim to improve your skills in drawing and story-telling. Celebrate change; challenge yourself all the time.”

You can buy the 20th Anniversary Edition of Myth of the Stone at http://www.epigrambooks.sg/myth-of-the-stone/

Friday,24 January 2014 by | Blog |