Friday, February 11, 2011

Where Are Singapore's Superheroes?

I read with great interest the Culture Vulture column on Thursday (The Straits Times Life! Wanted: Superheroes, 10/2/11) by Akshita Nanda. I’m a DC Comics fan and was amused and excited when I first read the issue of Birds of Prey that was mentioned in the article, several years ago. Sure, the Singlish was mangled, there was the cringe-worthy yet obligatory Michael Faye reference, and Changi Airport looked more like Paya Lebar Airbase – but at least Singapore got a mention in a mainstream comic book, even if someone else mentioned it for us. 

Madripoor from the Wolverine comics. Hmm, looks familiar.
Perhaps the question we should be asking is not “where are Singaporean comic book superheroes”, but rather why there aren’t any. A good deal of comic book superheroes exist in a fantastical and heightened realm – Superman came in a rocket ship from Krypton, Wonder Woman was moulded out of clay by her mother Hippolyta and the Incredible Hulk had his blood poisoned with gamma radiation. 

Nanda writes that the superpowers all Singaporeans would like to possess include “getting seats in crowded MRT trains, jump queues without annoying others or avoid(ing) traffic jams and ERP gantries while driving”. We are a society that values and is perhaps preoccupied with the mundane. Most Singaporeans did not grow up on a diet of comic book-brand romance: Superman carrying Lois Lane in his arms to the strains of a stirring John Williams melody hold little emotional resonance to us as we go about our daily existences. 

Dystopia.

Utopia?
Within the comic book universes, the need for a superhero often stems from disorder and chaos. Batman rises from the ashes of the murder of his parents to fight crime in a city that is crime incarnate. Captain America wages war against treacherous Nazi agent Red Skull and his hordes of HYDRA agents. Hellboy fights to maintain the fragile balance between our realm and that of demons, spirits and mythical monsters. 

Disorder and chaos on a wide scale is so far removed from the lives of everyday Singaporeans that we can’t even imagine or enjoy a fictional depiction of it. The comic book worlds of Sin City and Judge Dredd are dystopian and bleak, realms of grim squalor where the reluctant hero deals out tough justice. I suppose we prefer drama of a more domestic kind, as evidenced by the large followings of television drama serials. 

As the readers of comic books grew up, so did the material itself. Many modern comic books are not afraid to make big political statements or depict exaggerated allegories. Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor became the president of the United States. Captain America is the product of a top-secret military super-soldier program. After it was ravaged by an earthquake, Gotham City was cordoned off and left to rot. And of course, the Watchmen are government-sanctioned heroes enforcing the tyrannical reign of Richard Nixon in an alternate-universe 1980s. 

Ultimately, a large chunk of comic book superhero fiction is the wish-fulfilment factor. There’s something gratifying about the story of a nerdy, awkward teenager granted superpowers after being bitten by a spider, and the appealing glamour of the rich playboy by day, crime-fighter by night archetype. Here, the biggest wishes we have are to get seats in crowded MRT trains, cut into lines without annoying others and avoiding traffic jams and ERP gantries while driving – and that just may be why there are no Singaporean superheroes. 

4 comments:

  1. oh gosh i'm kinda laughing even though this isn't supposed to be funny >< it's really sad that singapore isn't really good at these things- WE NEED A HERO! A hero who can write out all these legends so we get a (proper) national icon!

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  2. @icepath

    Zhuo Dan, thank you so much for your comment! I'm glad you laughed while reading this - it is a funny kind of sad.

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  3. I saw this in the papers and thought it was excellent. I don't think, however, that the main problem lies with Singaporeans' inability to empathise with superheroes. One would think that the rich playboy-crime fighter archetype appeals to the many Singaporeans who are preoccupied with money and status...

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  4. @musang

    Hey, thank you so much. I appreciate that you read the letter, and that you sought out this full version. You do have a point; the main thing is that many Singaporeans (especially younger ones) did not grow up with classic comic books, and therefore did not have childhood fantasies/memories about them.

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