The Early Comics of Eric Khoo by Lim Cheng Tju

Lim Cheng Tju

These comics by Eric Khoo done for NewMan magazine 10 years ago remind us that the award-winning director started out in the late 1980s as a comics artist. His earliest stories were printed in BigO magazine and in 1989, his Unfortunate Lives (Times Books International) was the first collection of comics stories to be published in Singapore.

This graphic novel of short stories was positioned as part of a cultural bloom in the arts in the late 1980s. The introduction of the book describes the cultural scene as one of “artists, musicians, writers and producers creating works, stories, new myths about our people and our environment and lifestyle. They have been exploring the history and sociology of this young country; the tensions and conflicts of life in a new age – in ways that have never before been so visible in the public media.”

Seen in this light, Unfortunate Lives was part of the cultural spring of the mid- to late 1980s. In 1986, BigO magazine organized the first alternative music gig, ‘No Surrender’ at Anywhere pub at Tanglin Shopping Centre. In 1988, Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking For Her Cat, Singapore’s first multilingual play, was staged. Two years later, Kuo founded the Substation.

It is now known that Khoo was inspired by the urban realism of the works of Japansese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who is the godfather of alternative comics in Japan. Khoo was facing writer’s block after he was given the contract for the book Unfortunate Lives. He had to rush it out for the annual bookfair in September, but the pages remained blank. After he read Tatsumi’s comics, Goodbye and Other Stories  (Catalan Communications, 1988), Khoo was so inspired by the gritty realism of Tatsumi’s works  that he completed his stories in a matter of weeks. Khoo, now more well- known as a film director than a comics artist, was able to repay the debt he owed his sensei when he released his first animated feature, Tatsumi, based on the artist’s autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life as well as five of his short stories.

The nine short stories in Unfortunate Lives are bleak, drawn from the headlines of the day. ‘Victims of Society’ is the Adrian Lim murders of the early 1980s retold. ‘Prisoners of the Night’ has a romanticized view of how young girls end up as prostitutes. The tension between art and commerce is played out in ‘Lost Romantics’. But the best stories are ‘The Canvas Environment’, ‘Memories of Youth’ and ‘State of Oppression’.

The ‘Canvas Environment’, a dark tale about a lonely youth, pits itself against the optimism of Singapore in the 1980s. In 1984, the country celebrated 25 years of self-government. History and other academic books published then had the word ‘success’ in their titles, such as Struggle for Success by John Drysdale and Management of Success: the Moulding of Modern Singapore, a report card on Singapore’s progress put out by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in 1989.

In ‘The Canvas Environment’, a sensitive boy grows up to be a taxi driver by day and a tortured artist by night. No one understands him or his art. He shuts himself away from society and avoids the few childhood friends he has. In the end, he ‘escapes’ into a canvas he is drawing, to be with the dream girl who exists only in his mind.

The characters whom Khoo favours in his stories are marginal figures, people who are downtrodden in life. He wrote on the back cover of ‘Unfortunate Lives’: “The human personality has never ceased to fascinate me with all its complexities and charms. I am concerned about the welfare of the individual, the little man who awakens each morning to find solace in his life. These are the characters I care for and cherish… The dreamers and those who long for what they have lost.”

In Khoo’s stories, one either has to escape from reality into art like in ‘The Canvas Environment’ or into the past like the protagonist of ‘Memories of Youth’ in order to survive. In the latter story, a middle-aged man is fired from his mundane job. He visits his old neighbourhood and meets his younger self and is reminded of the dreams he once had and the disappointment that his life has become.

Such bleakness begs the question: why the pessimism, when things were turning around for the arts and the nation was in a good shape? The answer lies in the last story of Unfortunate Lives: ‘State of Oppression’. One of the shortest stories in the book, it narrates, in the form of letters, the life of an old woman who has been detained without trial for 40 years in a South African country. Imprisoned for her political beliefs, she refuses to give in to the oppression of the state. Khoo’s drawing of the supposed South African looks like a Chinese.  This was a deliberate act on his part.

When Khoo studied at the United World College in the early 1980s, his art teacher was Teo Eng Seng, who influenced him considerably. In 1987, Teo’s sister, Teo Soh Lung, was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act as one of the ‘Marxist Conspirators’. Khoo came to know about this and did a story about her detention. However, this did not go down well with the editors at Times Books International, and Khoo had to change the setting of the story to South Africa. But the drawings remained the same – you can recognize that it is a Chinese woman depicted in the story and the nod to censorship only served to show a less than happy side to the small city state. The issue of the Internal Security Act in Singapore remains contentious today.

Khoo did not draw many comics after this. He serialized The Rebel Prince in BigO in the early 1990s. (I had a hand in writing that.) He went on to become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker in Singapore with works like Mee Pok Man and Be With Me.  Many of the stories he told in his films and the characters he created on screen had their origins in the hard luck tales of Unfortunate Lives.

It is unfortunate that the rights to Unfortunate Lives remain with Times Publishing and it is not possible for Khoo to reprint it on his own. In the meantime, do enjoy these strips, a reminder of the potential in comics to reflect and maybe perhaps shape public opinion.

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Lim Cheng Tju is an educator who writes about history and popular culture in Singapore. His articles have appeared in Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is also the country editor for the International Journal of Comic Art. (Jun 2009)