Becoming Graphic by Sonny Liew and Edith Podesta

August 20, 2017

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Ng Yi-Sheng

First off, I want to apologise for not doing a preview of this show. I’d wanted terribly to interview the Eisner Award-winning, NAC Grant Regulations-defying Sonny Liew, but I left it till too late, and he was eyeballs-deep in rehearsals and didn’t have time for a chat.

You see, I’d assumed his collaboration with theatremaker and LaSalle Head of Acting Edith Podesta would be pretty top-down: he’d write a script and do some drawings, and then she’d direct some actors to bring his characters to life.

But lo and behold, Sonny himself was an actor! Behold him on stage, sketching a superhero before our eyes! This is what we came for, no? To see a master at work!

In fact, much of Becoming Graphic centres on the problem of how to collaborate with a comic book writer on stage. It’s boring to turn his comic into a drama—this is a world where both Spider-Man [link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spider-Man:_Turn_Off_the_Dark ]and the Dim Sum Warriors [link here: http://dimsumwarriors.com/musical/ ]have become musicals. And though it would’ve been fun to see Sonny’s most famous creation, "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye", interpreted on stage, that would’ve been an adaptation, not an active engagement.

Instead, Edith gives us a live feed of his drawings as they take shape. She scrolls finished comics slowly across the expanse of 72-13’s walls, as if they’re slow-mo films.

And most intriguingly, she engages with another artistic medium: that of radio a visual form to counterpoint an auditory one. Koh Wan Ching plays a radio DJ, cuing Frank Sinatra songs (Sunny, of course [link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0eLaePiM6o ]), instructing tech on remixes of pre-recorded interviews with Sonny and his parents, recording new lines herself.

Plus, she’s got a crew of actors to perform Sonny’s comic strips. So we’ve got live projections of Sonny’s hand sketching the Green Bolt (his newly invented superhero), his villains and victims, while a team of actors reads out the speech balloons.

At first they’re acting out a radio play, with Foley effects and all. But then they actually try to become the drawings: they pose their bodies and shadows to match the outlines, they pull open backdrops behind them to simulate panels, they leap to try and match the positions of characters drawn in empty space. Crispian Chan as the Green Bolt (and his alter ego Henry Lim) has a grand time of it, swooping across the stage on a typist’s chair in imitation of flight.

It’s a whole lot of fun! And yet the actual heart of the story they’re exploring isn’t all that fun.

You see, Edith and Sonny have decided on ageing as their focus. And this isn’t active, graceful ageing: it’s the ugly sort where you lose both your physical and mental faculties, becoming a burden and a monster for years before your death.

Several of Sonny’s comics are Tales of Henry and Ma, relating how Henry Lim has to deal with his mother’s dementia. She stops recognizing him as her son; she smashes clocks with her bare hands and forgets that she saw the doctor twice that day; she must be lowered onto the toilet and wiped by others.

The now middle-aged Henry is tempted by the ideal of the invulnerable Green Bolt: a man who does not age. Yet story after story reveals that the Green Bolt cannot conquer time either: a 35 year-old woman pleads him to save her looks, an old man gathering newspapers to recycle motivates him to battle stingy institutions that will not give public moneys to the aged, he meets an eternal intergalactic being who is beyond time…

And he saves no-one. He cannot win this fight.

Instead, we’re shown how he too is an agent of entropy, murdering henchmen and villains in his rage. We even witness a drawn-out sequence of panels showing a henchman dying of cancer after being subjected to his gamma ray gaze.

It’s desperately sad, especially since we realise it’s personal: Sonny’s father has dementia. And sure, the comics writer is baby-faced, but he’s 42. He’s not getting any younger. Are any of us?

Yet while this is heartbreaking, it’s also rather confusing. It’s never clear if Henry Lim really is the Green Bolt or if that’s just his fantasy; Koh Wan Ching speaks many of his lines, and by the end we’re unsure whether she’s describing his tale or one of another child and ageing mother.

Also, most importantly: why?

Why are we using this blend of comic strip and radio play to talk about ageing? There’s no intuitive connection.

The creators may reply, why not? But the problem is that the audience is so busy beholding the spectacle of the two forms together that it’s difficult for us to consider this deeper theme.

The medium doesn’t really fit the message. If the comradioic striplay were an established genre, sure, it could be about anything. But here, it’s all new and exciting and weird. And we’re being asked to take it all in *and* contemplate our inevitable mortality. Not easy, guys.

Oh, and then there’s the aura of celebrity surrounding Sonny himself right now—the whole radio show’s ostensibly part of a series profiling remarkable Singaporeans, with mentions of the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, the first Singaporean work to win an Eisner. It’s because of him that SIFA’s had to add extra shows to its calendar… though I’m not sure if the people who’re buying tickets signed up for this.

And yet, and yet… there’s the fact that we shouldn’t give people exactly what they want and expect. There’s the fact that the experiments of this play have been done before— Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s TeZukA [link here: http://www.dancemagazine.com/sidi-larbi-cherkaoui-tezuka-2306883045.html ] has wrestled with what it means to present the comics medium on stage; Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird [link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Bird  ] has used the graphic novel medium to discuss ageing; and several works [link here: http://siti.org/content/production/war-worlds-%E2%80%93-radio-play  and http://inkpotreviews.com/oldInkpot/06reviews/0621%2Cphob%2Cny.html ] have exposed us to the nostalgic spectacle of a radio station creating a radio play.

That’s all well-trodden ground. To smoosh them all together… well, that’s new.

And sometimes it actually does work. Like when Wan Ching describes the scenario of a mother who no longer recognizes herself in the mirror, believing herself to be a young woman conversing with the old woman trapped in a frame. And Sonny sketches the two women, young and old, showing ourselves how counter-intuitive it is to see the two drawings as the same person.

Or when our final boss of a villain, a costumed Cthulhu-faced nemesis spouts bureaucratic platitudes on stage in a deep robotic voice, coldly explicating why the state cannot devote all its reserves to eldercare….

And then removes its mask to reveal it’s Sonny himself, speaking words for the first time in the show. The little magician man behind the curtain, exposed.

We’ve been our own villains all along. 

We claim we’re fighting time, struggling to hold on to health and youth.

But are we not also, in a way, fighting ourselves?

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  • 2017