Gwee Li Sui

On Graphic Novels with Dr Gwee Li Sui

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Dr Gwee Li Sui

Dr Gwee Li Sui is a comic artist, poet, literary critic, and former academic. His Myth of the Stone, published in 1993, is touted to be Singapore’s first long-form graphic novel in English. He is the author of Spiaking Singlish, a guide to Singlish, and more recently The Leeter Tunku, a Singlish translation of The Little Prince. He has written six acclaimed poetry books and edited several literary anthologies. He is also the creator of the Bad Poetry comic series for Aroo, which introduces us to a strange creature in each issue.

The Aroo team decided to have a chat with Dr Gwee about graphic novels, fantasy world-building, and his love for strange creatures. Given his academic background, the questions also touch on topics like education, 18th-century English literature, and the science fiction novel that he would make compulsory reading for science teachers!

The original book cover of Myth of the Stone [left] and the cover of its 20th anniversary edition published in 2013 [right]

How did you first conceive Myth of the Stone? Why did you choose the form of a graphic novel to tell this story?

The story chose the form. I thought of it as a long story that I would spend every day of my university break working on. I was a first-year student going on to second year then. I had two months, so I often spent the morning playing squash and the afternoon working on a page in the sports hall canteen.

That accounted for maybe two-thirds of the book? To finish the story, I didn’t pay attention in class in the first month of my sophomore year.

Did you know? The graphic novel was drawn entirely without rulers! This was done for simple practical reasons: rulers tend to cause ink to streak and create uneven pressure on the page. Gwee’s tools were just a mechanical pencil, an eraser, drawing pens, and correction fluid.

Myth of the Stone has highly detailed world-building. Which artist or work was an inspiration for you to do this?

Myth of the Stone was done when I was a very young man who loved world mythologies and religions. So those were the biggest influence. Then there was C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The art style came from all over the place, from John Tenniel and Max Ernst to Haw Par Villa sculptures.

You mentioned in an interview that people did not know how to react to your book when it came out in 1993. Did the lack of interest among the public and the media deter you from trying to make another graphic novel?

Yes, it did! Myth of the Stone was my first published book, and, despite its pioneering work, the press just didn’t care for the medium of graphic novels. I was a young nobody then, so the book got no media attention whatsoever. It disappeared quickly from the bookshops. I had been drawing comics since I was small, but, after that, I did less and less and turned rather to poetry to express myself.

Did you know? Myth of the Stone received only one book review for many years… and it wasn’t in The Straits Times. It was in the NUS students’ newspaper The Ridge, when, in 1994, it was learnt that a by-then Honours student had written this book.

A page from Dr Gwee’s Myth of the Stone

I officially returned to doing graphic stories last year! Old Heroes Solve Mystery is a short full-colour comic book about an adventure with three old men. It was a project fully funded by Lien Foundation, and so I was happily able to give away free copies.

[You can read Old Heroes Solve Mystery for free here.]

Which is your all-time favourite graphic novel?

Right now, Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat leaps into my head. It revolves around a rabbi and his talking cat – but it’s really about so much more. The story explores differences between cultures, individualism, doubt versus faith, and life as mystery. Sfar weaves many threads to tell a great story whose world seems endlessly new and provocative.

In the world of literature, if you were to visualise graphic novel as a beast, what shape would it take?

Maybe a giraffe? A giraffe sees a lot more than we like to give it credit for. Does that make any sense?

What would be your word of advice to someone embarking on making a graphic novel today?

Be prepared to lock yourself away for weeks, or even months, on end. The work requires a lot of discipline.

Dr Gwee at Haw Par Villa | Photo by Deanna Ng

What is the most common mistake that people make when creating an imaginary world (be it visually or in text)?

I think names – place names, creature names, character names – are underrated. Having the right name can give what needs it the right aura. Creators sometimes forget that little special moment we want a reader to have when suddenly a name makes perfect sense. If it hasn’t happened before, at this moment, the thing does feel sunk into its name. Naming isn’t an easy aspect to get right, and I struggle with it a lot myself.

Did you know? Gwee likes to draw in black and white for most parts because he is partially colourblind. The new cover of the 20th anniversary edition of Myth remains one of the few existing artworks by Gwee in colour!

A page from Dr Gwee’s Myth of the Stone

You have worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at NUS. If you were given a chance to teach primary school children, one hour each week, what would you teach them?

I would just leave the kids in the school library to pick any book that might interest them. They would have all the time to read and re-choose – so long as each of them could settle finally on a special book. Then they would have to share with the class about why this book needed to exist.

You have specialised in 18th-century English literature. What do you think is the most important lesson the literature of today should learn from the literature back then?

18th-century London was a place of great print possibilities: there were journals, newspapers, almanacs, romance novels, throwaway poetry, and so on. Writers fearlessly explored all manners of using text – even to the extent of risking lawsuits for libel. I think, in the digital age, we are finding again the great possibilities in text, ways to challenge the limits of information and representation. The lesson must be to stay broad-minded and not react instinctively like a killjoy.

During the launch of Myth of the Stone‘s 20th Anniversary Edition | Photo by Chee Soo Lian

Your Honours thesis was on the magical realist novel The Tin Drum. What lured you to it?

At that time, I was fascinated with the way 20th-century German writers grappled with the puzzle of Nazism in a modern state. How could a civilised society have come so quickly under the control of a violent, inhuman ideology? The question took me in two directions: into the psychology of mass hysteria and the debate over political responsibility. Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum is a brilliant, innovative novel tracing life through the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In it, all my queries converged.

That thesis studies various spaces in The Tin Drum and the way social and moral responsibility are inscribed within them. The larger idea is to reflect on what makes us human when we exist within any space. Every worthwhile thesis should leave you not just with more questions but with better questions. I learnt a lot from writing it.

Dr Gwee’s TEDx talk on Singlish

Why would you recommend a foreigner living outside Singapore to read Spiaking Singlish, a guide to Singlish, and The Leeter Tunku, your Singlish translation of The Little Prince? What would they take away?

Singlish is really never just about itself. It is about the people of Singapore, how we think and negotiate across languages, how we say the unsayable in practical and political terms. So, if you’re keen to observe how a young language enters the world and evolves, there is that dimension in reading, or reading about, Singlish. But there is also the dimension where Singlish offers a unique entry-point into the minds of Singaporeans, into what makes us tick.

You seem to have a fascination for strange creatures (be it Myth of the Stone or the Bad Poetry series you’re doing for us). Do you think strange creatures tend to have culturally specific traits of the region they originate in? In that sense, is there a strange creature that you consider to be uniquely Singaporean?

My fascination has a simple basis: I just can’t draw real creatures well! Cultures can determine their pool of strange creatures – or the creatures can affect the very culture they inhabit. I don’t think the relationship is one-way or, for that matter, terminable. The merlion is Singapore’s own, of course; I feel this isn’t open to debate anymore. Whether it stands for multiculturalism, evolution, practicality, impossibility, nauseousness, shallowness, artifice, or kitsch, that is all us.

A merlion sketch by Dr Gwee for his poem Propitiations

Did you know? Myth of the Stone features the first appearance of not just a merlion but merlions as fictional characters. In his presentation, Gwee answered the age-old rhetorical question of how merlions could have survived on land and sea even if they existed. He gave them legs.

What’s your take on the surge of speculative fiction in Singapore of late?

Is it a surge or are we just giving new speculative works more attention these days? Who remembers Joan Hon’s Star Sapphire, Terence Chua’s The Nightmare Factory, Stella Kon’s Eston, or Raju Chellam’s 2084? The field has been too long ignored – and current interest may just be showing our changing appreciation of literature.

If you were to recommend one speculative fiction work from Singapore to an outsider, which one would it be and why?

Right now, I would say Dave Chua and Koh Hong Teng’s The Prodigy, a six-volume comic series of which only Volume One is out so far. But I’m helping to edit the text, and I can share how much more thrilling the plot will get. Koh’s art is always captivating and Chua brings his signature cinematic sense of storytelling to this. It’s a great team-up!

What’s the one science fiction book you wish science teachers in Singapore should read? Why?

I wanted to name something by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut, but no – it has to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This novel powerfully confronts the question of ethics in science and the relationship between life and knowledge.

Did you know? Dr Gwee actually drew the first graphic novel he owned. Back in 1993, he only owned a handful of comic issues because graphic novels were beyond his student budget. The first graphic novels he bought were bought with the money he made from Myth of the Stone.

Would you recommend any changes to the Singapore education system to produce more (and better?) graphic artists?

Why would the Singapore education system even want that? It’s an odd assumption. Conversely, I doubt many creatives ever come into being because of tweaks to an education system. Graphic artists were usually once students who didn’t pay attention in class and doodled away in their textbooks!

You mentioned in an interview that Borges is one dead author you identify with the most. If you had the chance to interact with one dead visual artist, who would you choose and why?

Either William Blake or Gustave Doré – because their composition and techniques are intriguing! I don’t think I need to converse with them. I would just like to hover over their shoulders and watch them work.

If you could time travel, which year would you go to and what would you do? (It could be the past or the future!)

I would time travel to the end of this very long interview.

Do you think it’s important to see the absurdity in the real? Why or why not?

Oh look, the end! But did I get here by time travel? Can you know?

An autobiographical Facebook post by Dr Gwee

This interview has also been translated to Tamil, which you can read here.

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