When a theatre company announces its upcoming season, one gets excited about the shows on offer and the issues that will be tackled. Checkpoint Theatre’s 2021 season, Take It Personally, remains true to its vision of championing original stories, but there is a twist.
In a first for the company, Checkpoint Theatre will be publishing a comic book, Putu Piring. I contacted the Myle Yan Tay (author) and Shuxian Lee (illustrator) to find out more about the project.
What is Putu Piring about?
Yan: Putu Piring is about a man returning to his childhood haunt with the titular snack in hand. He reflects on his journey of growing up: from being a kid cycling on the parkway home from school, to a working adult, now cycling to escape the monotony of his daily life.
Putu piring itself is an oddly evocative snack. It’s a food that is both sentimental but also current, with new renditions appearing all the time. It’s that sense of being rooted in the past and present that I wanted to capture in this story; that sometimes, in our present moment, we become so cynical that we wish we could be nostalgic. It’s almost a nostalgia for nostalgia.
A theatre company publishing a comic book? How did the project come about?
Yan: During Circuit Breaker, when it was unclear when theatres would open again, Huzir Sulaiman, Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, asked me to write a comic. It had been a long-running conversation between the two of us and this was the perfect opportunity to make it happen. Faith Ng, Checkpoint’s Associate Artistic Director, put me in touch with Shuxian, and we then worked to write, develop, and publish it.
Could you explain the creative process in creating this comic book? Did the text come first before the illustration or was it done simultaneously?
Yan: I wrote the first script, passed it to Shuxian to illustrate, and then we’d go back and forth on subsequent drafts together. I had a very clear vision of the ending of the comic; I knew what the reader would be seeing, and what sort of emotions I wanted them to feel. The comic book’s story was weirdly reverse-engineered in that way, with me figuring out what readers would need to read and see in order to get to that ending.
As we worked, Shuxian crafted some new pages that didn’t quite fit into the first draft of the script, but they were too perfect to cut. So together we rewrote and redrafted to figure out how to make those gorgeous pages work. It was a very collaborative process and it was really fantastic to see these pages I had written come to life with such colour and vibrancy.
Shuxian: When I read Yan’s script, I could already see most of the visuals in my head. Either he wrote incredibly vividly, or I was fortunate enough to share his vision, so there weren’t huge differences between what he wanted the comic to look like and what I actually drew. Since I’m based in Belgium, Yan had to provide me with most of the reference pictures for the locations featured in the comic; with those and his script as a starting point, I could build on the scenes and perspectives. I had some guidelines to follow, but was mostly free to do anything I liked with it. I would sketch out thumbnails or uncoloured panels and Yan would send his feedback before we finalised a page.
Illustration by Shuxian Lee
How did you approach illustrating this comic? How would you describe your aesthetic?
Shuxian: I decided I wanted to draw something minimal and almost sterile—Adrian Tomine-inspired illustrations, to reflect the overall sense of ennui. I used disparate colour palettes to differentiate the time frames and contrasting moods of the past and present.
My aesthetic influences vary, but I try to keep a hand-drawn, organic feel throughout my drawings, even when they are drawn digitally.
What were some of the challenges in creating this comic? Were there any interesting discoveries in the process?
Yan: A clear challenge was Shuxian’s remoteness from Singapore. The comic book takes place in Singapore and follows a cycling route near East Coast Park. We worked around it by having me send photos over for reference. Shuxian then recreated them on the page with her own flair. These ended up lifting the comic into a unique visual space: something very real and unreal at the same time.
Shuxian: The time difference as well, perhaps—it would have been more difficult if there was a tight deadline! I also found it challenging to balance a very physically and mentally exhausting day job with illustrating on the side; I’m hoping that illustration and art-making will take up the bulk of my time in the near future. Thankfully, for this comic, I had the weekends to work on it.
I’ve rediscovered my love for the graphic novel medium! And that I actually do love illustrating someone else’s story. This is the first time I’m collaborating on one and it’s been amazingly rewarding seeing what we come up with after bouncing ideas off of each other. I really appreciate being lucky enough to find a collaborator who shares my love for this storytelling medium. Getting to immerse myself in someone else’s inner world has been very enriching.
Yan: In the past, I’ve mainly written and then directed my own work; so it was surprisingly fulfilling to be able to hand off the reins to someone else and watch as they worked. I especially enjoyed seeing Shuxian come up with pages that I could never have thought of myself, because she has such a great imagination.
We had such a good time with this project that we’re actually already working on a new comic, Through the Longkang, which will be launched together with Putu Piring at our comic book launch event Picture This on 23 March!
Putu Piring will be launched, along with several other titles, at Picture This on 23 March 2020 at Goodman Arts Centre, Black Box.