Learning to Adapt: Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng’s Gone Case

Gwee Li Sui

There is a case to be made for a literary impression that adaptation is the most difficult sub-genre in the field of comics. Any attempt to give Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng’s Gone Case: A Graphic Novel its proper critical evaluation does well to keep this point in mind. The first part of this two-volume work is now commercially available, and its second part, as well as a Chinese edition, will come out later in a matter of months. The title is a graphic interpretation of Chua’s well-received coming-of-age novel, first published in 1997, which revolves around the struggles of a twelve-year-old “heartlander” with school, relationships, and changes in his family life. The art comes to us here entirely through the remarkable drawing talent of Koh.

Koh’s use of social realism – itself a highly interpretative choice – is bold and impressive. His last work on a graphic novel dates fifteen years back to 01321 (1996), a full-colour futuristic fiction done in a style reminiscent of Dave McKean’s. The canvas has now shrunk by a third to something between standard manga size and regular comics size, closer perhaps to Vertigo’s newer series of experimental graphic novels. More importantly, all of Koh’s earlier painterly influence is gone, and it seems quite impossible to tell that the two titles originated from the same artist. This is very good news because what we are seeing in Gone Case is far more penetrative, confident, and glorious, a visual treat like none other experienced in Singaporean comics.

In lucid stripped-down black and white, Koh plunges straight into the daunting task of establishing a strong sense of the local, for which Dave’s novel is well-loved. The stunning outcome has led fellow graphic artist Sonny Liew, on the book flap, to equate Koh’s endeavour with those of comics legends Katsuhiro Otomo and Geoff Darrow. This comparison is not too extravagant but focuses more on the realist mode, human drama, and dynamics of the visuals, what Liew calls “the underlanguage of comics”. A graphic interpreter himself, Liew has drawn Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense and Sensibility for the revived Marvel Illustrated series, which adapts familiar classics into graphic novels, last year.

However, that kind of industry work has the benefit of a pre-written script – in Liew’s case, one by romance novelist Nancy Butler – and is distinct from how Chua and Koh have chosen to proceed. If there is some agreement between the creators of Gone Case on who has consistent control over the original story’s adaptation, this fact is just not clear from any amount of reading. The question can even be expanded to include how much influence and freedom its named editor Joyce Sim actually possesses. What I mean by adaptation here does not involve illustration but rather changes to plot, characters, and dialogues for the ends of “staging” in the comics medium. Text-to-comics adapting, like text-to-film, is frankly unlike text-to-text adapting because its visual dimension compels very different story-telling techniques.

The operative element must surely be rhythm: every good visual narrative has to establish its own pace before going on to vary this to generate other desired effects. Yet, in order to stabilise time, the comics creator needs to hold continuously in his or her mind a balance between word and picture, from frame to frame, across various scenes and sections. The work is no small feat, and, in view of Gone Case’s uneven rhythm, Chua and Koh may be more successful with statically capturing characters and surrounding details from the source text. When it comes to narration though, both writer and artist seem to have taken turns to defer to, and indulge, each other at the expense of a fluid reading experience.

This weakness shows in how the beautiful stills become awkward the moment we treat them as moving things. It also shows in how the episodes are not always “cut to size”: content, as another influence on rhythm, is sometimes neither trimmed nor expanded according to the demands of facing pages. We must remember that, while text works by making its readers forget the material page, the nature of comics precisely makes them focus on it. A diffused side-of-the-eye awareness of what is being presented ensures that the comics reader never truly forgets to relate what he or she is reading to, for example, the top of the left page or the bottom of the right. A creator must therefore know what it is he or she wants to do against such constraints and should avoid speeding and slowing randomly, as the creators of Gone Case have done, which produces a rather dizzying effect.

This inadequacy is nonetheless the only major fault in a book that ultimately deserves more than a fighting chance in the highly competitive comics market. In fact, compared to other recent graphic projects from Singapore, Gone Case has managed to achieve something quite commonsensically different. We recall Sia Joo Hiang’s abstract and very, very expensive I am Brinsley Bivouac, a 2009 “visual document” inspired by Kelvin Tan’s cult novel All Broken Up and Dancing (1992). Lower on this scale of artistic indulgence is Ken Foo’s arresting Freedom Love Forever (2009), a compendium of short stories that also reads stronger as art than as narrative. Highest on the scale must be the utterly pointless The Illustrated Men in White (2009), which misunderstands the makeup, interests, and sophistication of local comics readers by simplistically adapting a bestselling tome on the history of the country’s dominant People’s Action Party.

In this sense, Chua and Koh’s work is easily the rare accessible Singaporean graphic novel in English that both knows its own audience and can empower the genre contextually. Probably the only other title that possesses such a mix of considerateness and competence is Troy Chin’s ongoing autobiographical The Resident Tourist, first published in 2008 and with a fourth volume to date. That project may still be far from perfect in the area of visuals, but, more than anyone else drawing in Singapore, Chin truly understands rhythm. Gone Case has the different advantages of its art and immediately strong content, aspects that ought not to have gone on to affect its narrative flow. Chua and Koh should be assured that art is exactly where the laws of physics need not apply: bulky things can always move like water if only the graphic space is managed properly.

What I have highlighted as a fault is also ultimately a teething problem since the creators’ underlying anxiety is to be expected. Chua and Koh are, after all, relatively new to the field of adaptation, Chua to the graphic novel itself, and they are teaming up in this extensive way for the first time. Before Gone Case, both have worked together only on an original short story “Paper City” for Liquid City 2, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics edited by Liew and Lim Cheng Tju. Collaboration demands what it alone can create: familiarity between partners with each other’s vision, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. Issues tied to this element solve themselves with time; what is worthier of worry is perhaps a less flexible factor, namely, the nature of adaptation. The bare truth must be told that few adaptations actually succeed in distinguishing themselves as they always get read in the shadows of their respective original books.

With adaptation, readers who already know the source texts tend to come expecting to be entertained the same way, an all-but-impossible task in the business of art. Those who have not read the sources conversely assume that adaptations can be shortcuts into them and so imagine a tighter experience of something extraordinary and invigorating. To be able to satisfy both kinds of readers is very difficult, and Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry’s 2006 graphic version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996) remains one of the few recent notable successes. More often than not, the process of rewriting leads adaptors to admit that riding on an author’s or a story’s popularity can only go so far.

What becomes obvious next is the conundrum’s solution, a way out of inescapable mediocrity, and this involves just working to own the interpretation completely. It is no thoughtless or dismissive move that Asian masters such as Korea’s Ko Woo Young and Taiwan’s Chai Zhi Zhong have made their marks by choosing to inject humour into their versions of literary classics. There is also Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s 1994 interpretation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass (1985), a deviant masterpiece of fluidity and the imagination, steeped in surreal representations. All these adaptations can become memorable works in their own right – the last case even surpassing the original – because they have mustered enough chutzpah not to be affected creatively by textual faithfulness.

Chua and Koh may wish to learn from these manoeuvres and aim higher, treating the idea of adaptation as just a selling point. The goal of adapting a work must not simply be to create a substitute for the original; rather, it should aim to lead or return readers to the source text in order that the uniqueness of both can be appreciated. Such a focus seems at least to be understood by the end of Gone Case’s first volume although it remains to be seen whether the clarity continues into Volume Two. Thankfully, with the comics medium, Chua and Koh need not have to worry about a lack of opportunities to get it right later on. Further tweaking is still possible with a combined edition, and I hope that this eventual version will come with Koh’s amazing colours – something not yet unleashed on readers only half-aware of the extent of his graphic flair.

Gwee Li Sui is a poet, a graphic artist, and a literary critic. He wrote Singapore’s first full-length graphic novel, Myth of the Stone, in 1993 and published a collection of verse, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, in 1998. A familiar name in Singapore’s literary scene, he has recently edited Sharing Borders: Studies in Contemporary Singaporean-Malaysian Literature II (2009), Telltale: Eleven Stories (2010), and Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit from Singapore (2011).

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