Southeast Asian Comic Art Makes a Splash

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Thoughtful editing and better storylines and dialogue make the new Liquid City collection an improvement upon its predecessor

The names of comic-book creators from Southeast Asia rarely trip off the tongues of even the most ardent manga obsessives, so the publication of the second volume of the Liquid City anthology is both enlightening and welcome. In a region dominated by the comic-book powerhouses of Japan and China, this useful collection showcases the work of artists toiling in relative obscurity in Indonesia, Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The project's curator and prime mover is Sonny Liew, a Malaysian who in 2007 was nominated for an Eisner Award — the comic-book equivalent of an Oscar.

The first Liquid City, published in 2008, was visually striking but riddled with absurd storylines and miserable dialogue. Liquid City Volume Two is rather more thought-out. Liew shared editing duties with Singaporean Lim Cheng Tju — an educator and comic-book commentator — and used criticism generated through an online artists' forum to refine the work.

It is a cramped anthology — there are 22 graphic novellas, as well as illustrated essays, shoehorned into just over 300 pages — so entries that stick tenaciously to a single idea, conveying it with speed and economy, hold the attention best. "Worn" by Singaporeans Wayne Santos and Charlene Chua, "Delays" by Singaporean Troy Chin and Thai artist Vic-Mon's "Red Balloon" delve into heavy themes like the corrosiveness of corporate life, shaping them into bite-size allegories that are surprisingly poignant. Less depressing but equally tight is "The Adventures of a Robbit," a candy-colored satire on Singlish by Christiyani Kabul. She manages to build a winsome, futuristic story around Singapore's occasionally maligned creole, and provides the anthology with its only humorous entry.

But it is Malaysian Ivan Song's contribution "Salvage" that is the true standout. Song won an award at the International Manga and Anime Festival in the U.K. in 2006, and there is no doubting his world-class abilities. Elegantly and sparsely drawn in black and white, "Salvage" is the tale of a group of children living in a generic Southeast Asian slum on the edge of a lake. A submerged city lies in the lake's depths, and the children eke out a living by diving to it to retrieve lost items sought by their patrons onshore. Upon this haunting framework, Song builds a sustained meditation on loss and memory, past and present.

The three essays included in this volume are superfluous. The potted histories of comics in Cambodia and Indonesia read like clumsy Wikipedia entries, and the write-up on how local artists responded to the Philippine floods of 2009 is underwhelming and out of place. Liquid City also suffers from the motley air that bedevils many advocacy anthologies — these are works that have clearly been compiled for a cause (the promotion of Southeast Asian comic-book art) and not aesthetic or cultural commonality. Their curiosity value is high, however, and in parts Liquid City is, to its credit, awash in excellence.