Spooky storytelling with Sean Lam
A special exhibition at the National Library this month celebrates acclaimed graphic artist Sean Lam, who has just published GEUNGSI, his first work set in Singapore.
Come along and see some 25 artwork panels in which Lam gives full rein to the cinematic style of storytelling that has made him Singapore’s best-known graphic novelist. There are photographs, original drawings and storyboards showing Lam’s innovative compositional techniques.
After graduating from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Lam honed his craft in Japan and won awards for a series of biblical biographies. He relocated to the US and cemented his reputation with a two-part adaptation of Ringworld, Larry Niven’s best-selling science fiction novel.
Lam’s work blends social commentary and detailed cultural settings with horror, myth and fantasy. Whatever the genre, he says, the goal is to say something about the human condition as well as entertain and enthral.
After settling back in Singapore in 2019, Lam decided to write and produce graphic novels with a strong Singaporean context. GEUNGSI is the result.
The A List asked Sean Lam about his influences, the appeal of graphic novels, and his ambitions for GEUNGSI.
Your grounding in graphic novels ranged from Western comics to Japanese manga and Chinese manhua. Which style influenced you the most?
Sean Lam: I love all these styles and they have all influenced me to some extent. I would say a combination of the best of each – American scenic story pacing, Japanese detail and plot twists, and the rich heritage of Chinese folklore. These can all be seen in my current exhibition.
You worked for a major anime production house in Japan before moving to the US, where you eventually produced It Takes a Wizard, the book that cemented your reputation. What did America offer that Japan could not in terms of artistic development?
Lam: Japan taught me to develop a high level of discipline and pay precise attention to every single detail in my work. America offers greater flexibility in time management, allowing artists like me to have more creative space and development time. However, it is a double-edged sword, as it also means I need to have strict self-discipline to push through a thick graphic novel like It Takes a Wizard to the highest standards.
What is the appeal of manga novels for so many people? Is it the fusion of the cinematic experience – telling stories in pictures – with reading?
Lam: Manga novels broke with the convention that graphic stories are only for kids. Adults love the intensity and complexity of manga storytelling. It’s the pacing and visual panels that immerse readers, so they experience the story like a movie. When you add visuals to imagination, what’s not to like? Manga novels are vehicles for artists to express hopes and dreams. It’s not just ‘cartoons’ because this medium can encompass many genres and settings.
GEUNGSI is a fantasy tale set in the heartlands of Singapore. You have spoken about your mission to create comic icons for Singaporeans. Is GEUNGSI part of that?
Lam: The idea to concoct a local story has been in my head for years, after witnessing the international acclaim for work by artists who introduce their home culture to the world, like Tsukasa Hojo. GEUNGSI is my first graphic novel set in Singapore. I hope to achieve a sense of pride and ownership for local readers and introduce Singapore to the world. It is too early to talk about icons, but my hope is to create local characters that readers can connect with. GEUNGSI will not only highlight local societal values and issues, it will eventually branch out to Asia and beyond, because I feel we are all aligned to a common experience.
Replies have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sean Lam’s exhibition runs at the Central Public Library (National Library Building) until 30 Nov. Find out more about GEUNGSI here.