An exclusive with one of Singapore’s up-and-comers.
Ryan Mennen is an anomaly in Singapore society. Rather than confine himself to the norms of the country’s expectations, he would rather make comics. And he is doing just that, albeit in a part-time method.
Still, he is close to keeping the comic-making dream alive while still doing his best in maintaining relevancy while also helping out the country’s generation of comic book creators and artists. In a country not renowned for its support of the arts for the sake of art, we get to see a glimmer of creative hope in the likes of Mennen’s upcoming series Crimson Star.
The comic book series is set in Singapore, features a Singaporean superhero, and is created by an all-Singapore creative team who know their Batmen from their Spider-Men, clones included. Its target? Comic-book lovers and folks who like the glory days of 70s, 80s, and 90s superhero comics, unashamed of their goofy-in-real-life heritage.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview (I’m KKP) where we talk about his upcoming comic series, his comic book thoughts, Singapore, and the Singapore comic book/comic convention:
KKP: Why do Crimson Star in Singapore?
Ryan: Part of being with Crimson Star is that we want to get as many local artists on board to give them an opportunity to be published, or noticed, or get them some exposure.
For every three issues, we cycle to a new team. A new penciler, a new inker, or colourist. We get to promote them to the local art scene; let people see them. We have got these comic book talents here in Singapore and we’re working on an original title and so on.
KKP: How many issues are we talking about here?
Ryan: Not to get too much ahead of myself but I’ve planned 65 issues which in comic book terms is five years worth of stories. We would have probably drawn the line somewhere. I don’t want to drag the season for too long.
KKP: Why the rotating artists per story arc routine?
Ryan: I’m going a bit Grant Morrison on it. Every three issues is a new story.
Together, a full year will tell a larger story, of course, but every three issues your minor arcs are settled. It’s an opportunity to bring on a new artist and maybe have the story depicted in a different style.
It’s a great way of featuring artists but also a great way to appeal to an audience that may not be reading comics yet, here in Singapore because to the casual fan or to the person who just doesn’t read comics, they will only one idea of how comic looks like.
Maybe this might be a way to tell them, “No, there is a very large variety of art styles that go behind comic book-creating.”
KKP: Of course. Funny you also mention that Grant Morrison– Would you consider him as one of your influences when it comes to writing or you had many others?
Ryan: I definitely have many influences when it comes to writing but Grant Morrison– Recently, even artist or a writer has worked substantially on Superman, chances are they are on my list of inspirations. In the case of Grant Morrison, All-Star Superman was a very large influence on Crimson Star, actually. The idea of being the best you can at all points in time.
With Crimson Star, it’s actually kind of the other way around because he comes from a world where superheroes are commonplace but he lives in quiet Singapore and he appreciates quiet Singapore for being quiet. He actually wants to maintain the quiet and safe feel that he never has but the thing is that’s just not going to happen.
All-Star Superman is always about a character being at his best, a character who’s a trained hero, with lots of experience. In fact, Crimson Star is an inverse of that. It’s about a guy who is just becoming a hero and he’s doing it with a mentality of already being reluctant to be a hero. A reverse All-Star Superman if you will.
KKP: Yes, I can definitely see that like the inverse thing where the superhero is only– A Crimson Star is only going to make noise when he feels that something’s being pushed, is it?
Ryan: Yes, kind of. I guess, it puts him in a whole new view of superheroes. Every superhero since Superman is either a vestige and extraction, an abstraction or an inversion. I guess the other vestiges would be Thor, Captain Marvel, Gladiator.
Then you got other characters just sort of extractions or an abstract idea. I would say Spiderman is an abstraction of Superman. The ideas of being an orphan and you know, “With great power must come greater responsibility?”
KKP: Yes. A man trying to be a god per se.
Ryan: Yes, kind of. In Superman’s case, it’s a god trying to be a man. It’s always there. Of course, the most famous inversion of Superman, I guess, would be Batman.
KKP: Of course, a man who happens to be rich trying to be a god.
Ryan: Yes, in many ways, to many villains, Batman is the devil made real. They are a superstitious and cowardly bunch.
KKP: Crimson Star and Superman should be in that position where he’s a man, not trying to be the opposite or a god presiding in his life and then stepping up to help his home turf out.
Ryan: The Crimson Star universe has been filled with superheroes. In this fictional universe, the first superhero appeared during World War 1 and the world has become filled with them over the last 60 years. In that sense when he becomes Crimson Star, he doesn’t really see it as a very big deal to have powers because the world is so chock-full of them already.
Having lived in New York for a short while before moving back to Singapore, the character is so used to looking up in the sky and seeing a boy, a plane, and a man flying. It wasn’t really a big deal to him. If anything, the bigger deal is that he shares the ideology that superheroes are potential nuisances. It can’t be a coincidence that a superhero appears and then over the next 10 years of his career, a whole bunch of masked freaks pop up.
KKP: …Your wannabes, and also your greenhorn do-gooders…
Ryan: Yes, I know all sidekicks come with the best of intentions. There’s a reason why they say that–
KKP: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Ryan: Yes! With Crimson Star, I don’t think we’ll ever see him in a position where he’s a god trying to be a man or a man trying to be a god but rather a man who believes that no matter the situation, no matter the circumstances, and no matter the tights you wear, you’re still a man.
Once you get a little bit too big for your britches, that’s how you get stuff like flying through buildings, wrecking Metropolis, and then making out with Lois Lane.
KKP: You’ve been in Singapore your whole life, you were born and from the country itself. Now, is there anything that you’ve learned through your life and times in Singapore that kind of want to bring in to Crimson Star or anything that happens in history in Singapore that you want to infuse in this tale?
Ryan: Crimson Star is set in 1988, as I said, it’s a five-year series and it will actually end on the cusp of ’93.
KKP: Why that specific period?
Ryan: That’s when the history comes in because that was kind of a transition period for Singapore. We went from being a very modern port/fishing village to becoming this incredibly urbanized city. Within this space of less than a decade, we became the New York of Asia. That definitely had an impact on Singapore. That’s kind of why there’s such a large disparity between say, children born in the ’80s and children born in the ’90s.
Children born even as late as ’88 like myself; we’re still a bit like “kampung” kids, we still have that neighbourhood feeling inside. Then you’ve got kids that were born not even 10 years later and they’re living in some cool digital world and stuff. It’s such a small gap in terms of time but a very large disparity in terms of psychology.
That’s what I wanted to see through the eyes of people and characters during the era of Singapore. Of course, Singaporeans, I think, in general, we like things to stay the way they are.
KKP: You wanted to play it safe, you want to keep the status quo in a way.
Ryan: One of my favourite analogies is that, regardless of the small floods and small twisters offshore and stuff happening, we still treat the country like we are impervious from natural disasters. We’ve had tremors but nobody talks about the risk of earthquakes.
No one’s actually living in a fear because I think, it’s a very Singaporean thing where we deal with a problem when it is right up in our faces. It’s still 1965.
In many ways that’s actually kind of a nice way to live, as opposed to always having to look over your shoulder and see whether there’s a volcano erupting or something. I like it and I think, it’s something that it’s worth immortalizing in our literature.
KKP: Of course. Especially, when you write it in the guise of a superhero comic book. Not really social commentary. More like, this was the way things were back in the era of Singapore.
Ryan: Yes. And instead of natural disasters, here, they’ve got a very global issue that’s coming to our shores, which is superheroes. Do we really want it? We’ve not had it. We have peace, now having some guy clad in red armour flying around, what does this mean for us?
KKP: When this issue starts with Issue 1, Issue 2, people already know who Crimson Star is in Singapore or is he kept hidden for now? Try not to spoil it.
Ryan: Yes, sure [laughs]. Thanos demands my silence as well.
One of my priorities for Crimson Star is to capture the tone of comics from the ’80s. What I liked about it was, a lot of comics back then always started out with a very clear point of an origin story.
Crimson Star will feature the same style of narrative. We’re not going to see him as Crimson Star for a few issues. We’re going to see him as the person that he is, as a man that he is. That’s very important because we need to understand who the man is underneath the costume.
KKP: Before all the crazy things happen.
Ryan: Yes, exactly. It’s the way like the basic hero movies even like Superman 1. He had a good hour of Clark Kent. I’m a big fan of Batman Begins, we had a good hour of Bruce Wayne to deal with.
KKP: Even the Superman: The Animated series does this. The first four episodes all buildup to Clark Kent being Superman.
Ryan: Like the Bruce Timm animated series right? For Batman, they created a slightly-different origin story in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. There were the flashbacks and stuff, and there was also his old school vehicle pre-Batmobile. I always thought it would be really hilarious to see him drive that because it’s easier.
KKP: Speaking of Bat-iterations, have you watched Batman Ninja? It’s nuts.
Ryan: No, I have not actually. Most of my time to watch stuff has been occupied by Infinity War [chuckles]. I’ve seen it twice.
KKP: I think Avengers: Infinity War’s balancing act is done well. What are your thoughts as a seasoned comic book writer?
Ryan: I’ve always had an issue with how the Russos have been doing the Captain America movies, Winter Soldier and Civil War. By the end of the movie, no matter how many characters are brought into the plot and stuff, it always just comes down to two people.
It is a very great way of writing a story, if it is about two people but with Civil War, for example, it’s a lot more than just Tony and Cap but they made it about Tony and Cap which is a smart way of avoiding the problem of having 12 people sitting down and arguing.
I had concerns that that would become a play with Infinity War because you can’t bring it down to just two people in Infinity War. Sure, even if you wanted to and Thanos is one of them, who’s going to be the other?
If you have Tony versus Thanos, everyone else is going to say Tony is not that much of a Cosmic Hero. If you had Cap, everyone’s going to laugh and say, no way Cap survives against Thanos. I would possibly say Cap beats Thanos but that’s because I’m biased.
KKP: [laughs] Character never truly dies in comics.
Ryan: What they did do in the end is that they turned a relative story structure weakness into a strength. Instead of the movie coming down to just being about two people by the end of it, they broke the movie up into clusters of two to three people in different locations.
KKP: It’s still one guy who gets focused the most, it’s still Thanos.
Ryan: Yes, exactly and that’s the best part because they did this multi-narrated structure and then they weaved through a singular story and that’s Thanos’ journey. It’s great because, for a guy that we’ve seen all so few times, I was actually very underwhelmed by his first appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought–
KKP: Yes, he was on his throne. And we’re all thinking, “Will he ever get out of the throne?”
Ryan: I was disappointed very much with how he appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy. Infinity War salvaged a lot of things.
KKP: That was good, although it’s kind of sad that he won’t be travelling on his throne like in the comics.
Ryan: Somethings have to be changed and if it means losing the “Thanos Copter” or having him getting arrested by the NYPD. I’m fine with losing some of that absurd stuff.
KKP: Plus the whole committing genocide just to appease one girl when chocolates or flowers would suffice.
Ryan: I’m guessing Death is not big on chocolate or flowers.
KKP: You never know.
Ryan: Maybe dark chocolates. Like, really dark chocolate.
KKP: The bitter stuff. Anyway, coming back to like influences and stuff, obviously you’re busy writing your own comic.
What comics do you read to take you back to your creative space? Which ones take you back to your zen moment before you go back to the grind?
Ryan: Very early one in the game, that was one thing I told myself, I would never stop reading no matter how much I could write. In terms of current stuff, because that’s slightly fewer, I generally read trade paperbacks. I don’t generally have the time to read them monthly.
A constant influence however in terms of my writing is– I really like what they’re doing with Superman and Green Lantern in the DC Rebirth right now. I’m enjoying that.
KKP: The one where New 52 Superman died and the other Superman came into this same universe…
Ryan: The Convergence Superman which is the pre-New 52 Superman. Yes, he’s back. The two Supermen merged and that’s the new– [chuckles] Comics. What are you going to do about it?
Green Lantern’s good. I’m really enjoying the Green Lanterns, which is the one with Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz. That’s a different story, Trinity which is written drama, featuring my favourite artist Francis Manapul.
Earlier on in terms of inspiration, in terms of as you said, remembering why it is I’m in this business, I always go back to Mark Waid’s Birthright. My entire influence of how an origins story should look like is from Birthright. John Byrne’s Man of Steel to a smaller extent and definitely Batman Year One.
But Superman: Birthright’s always been very definitive to me. I’m going to have to get back on Invincible soon because it’s finally over.
KKP: It’s finished. You got to catch it. That’s a masterclass in doing a long-spanning superhero series from start to finish.
Ryan: I agree. I love Invincible so much because it’s very clear that government influence was a lot of influence of Nightwing in there. He is my second favourite DC hero, so it’s a joy to read that.
KKP: Now he’s a detective, right?
Ryan: I do need to catch up quite a bit on that wing. I would say things I would definitely go back to would be Birthright, Kingdom Come.
KKP: Yes, Kingdom Come.
Ryan: That’s makes me sound a lot like a Mark Waid fanboy because the other one I’m always reading is Irredeemable.
KKP: Also by Mark Waid.
Ryan: All three are Mark Waid’s babies. I’ve always watched my favourite run on X-Men which is Astonishing X-Men.
KKP: Okay, that’s the one I kind of missed out on. I think it was after Grant Morrison’s Run, right?
After much comic book talk…
KKP: Now, with this comic coming up which is Crimson Star. That’s around the middle of May? End of May?
Ryan: We’ve got the Ashcan Edition by the end of May. We’re going to have a bit of a book launch for that but the main series should be out in October.
This gives us the time we need to make sure there’s a public awareness of this thing and hopefully that people see it, and the shells of shocks they actually know. That’s a new single very superior. Whether or not they pick it up I do not know. As long as they know what it is.
KKP: Personally this is something that you have to plan ahead and pace out the waiting in-between issues.
Ryan: Definitely. I think if there’s anything being a comic book fan has taught me is that waiting is essential. Patience is a really worthy thing. I still remember reading how Hal Jordan’s return in Green Lantern Rebirth. We had to wait about four years for Blackest Night. We think it’s something that I’m pretty sure I’ve learned my lesson in.
KKP: What do you think about the comic buying group here and all the comic cons that have been happening in Singapore where there’s a huge emphasis on toys?
Ryan: Is there a huge emphasis on toys?
KKP: I’ve noticed, yes.
Ryan: I’ll be honest. I don’t consider that. I think, however, that there’s a huge emphasis on collectables.
At least, the people who are into toy exclusives. At that cost, I am pretty sure they are not taking two other figures and knocking them against each other and playing with them [laughs].
What I would say is that we don’t have true comic book conventions. But there are a lot of anime conventions and manga conventions.
Which is great! Unfortunately, it’s starting to do this thing where: to the person who doesn’t know the difference, it feels like there’s a saturation of comic book conventions when in truth, we don’t have one. I mean, STGCC is a joke.
KKP: Yes. That’s exactly the thing. That’s why I mention some of the things earlier. That feels more like a toy convention, not a comic–
Ryan: I don’t even think it’s a toy convention. Just because you have toy collectibles there it doesn’t mean it’s a toy convention.
KKP: A bunch of statues here and some busts there.
Ryan: Exactly! I mean that’s basically, except it’s not affordable to the common man. It’s a thousand dollars statue. I think it’s great but I would never sacrifice a paycheck for that. Not unless my paycheck was Tony Stark’s.
KKP: Yes. You compare that to something like San Diego comic con. It’s rather been around longer but there’s always going to be a floor at the bottom where your average joes or people who buy comic 50 cents can get their fix.
Ryan: Exactly. Which is why I feel the honesty at STGCC has filled the community in Singapore about two years now. Because for two years now, we’ve already had a comic book store in STGCC.
KKP: There are still artist’s alleys and people lining up for folks like Tom King.
Ryan: Yes. You have that. Which is good because you get to meet them. Meeting artist is part of the experience. Getting good deals, meeting other fans. Chitchatting over going through bags and shoe boxes. I think that’s the other end of it. We had Comic Odyssey from the Philippines, over the last two years, I think. They have been stable.
I have to say that if you are of a convention that brands itself Singaporean and you don’t have a single Singaporean comic book shop, be embarrassed. They have Kinokuniya which is great because, well, the store itself has a ton of good discounts that are still ongoing.
That’s not even somewhat during STGCC. I think it’s at the end of the day we don’t have a comic book convention in Singapore. We just don’t. We won’t have conventions that pretends to care about the comic book community in Singapore but no. We couldn’t give a shit as long as the– What’s it now? $20?
KKP: I think so.
Ryan: Yes. It’s already SG$750 for an artist is to set up a slip of a table.
KKP: Holy s***.
Ryan: Yes, I wish, to put it politely, it fucks off. I liked it when conventions are done in the little open space area outside Suntec. They have booths being sold for $50. Sure, you didn’t have Phil Noto or Tom Taylor but you did have somebody who was thriving to enter the industry, who cannot afford a table.
My first time in STGCC was in 2010. We had to rent an SG$3,000 booth. That’s fine, you see, because it was three days. I am from a company. My company has money, but a SG$750 booth for an artist who’s trying to make it in the industry? Definitely not.
KKP: It better be a damn good table for indies.
Ryan: Yes, that’s asshole already right there. I’m perfectly aware that this is on the record. Yes, I’ve never really been private about my thoughts about STGCC.
Honestly, I would encourage people in the industry to speak out about this. Stop thinking the invites. Stop letting them suck you up. I stuck up to you. If you feel that they are doing something that’s unjust to the small man, to the small guy, fight it. I’m never going to be in the STGCC as long as they are charging SG$750 for a small booth.
They could offer me a free booth and all I give a shit. I don’t want to be a place that is trampling on the little guy. As I once said there’s no comic con in Singapore right now. Even I’ve been travelling to Malaysia for a couple of them.
KKP: You mean Comic Fiesta?
Ryan: No, there’s one in August in Johor. I can’t remember the name, but I remember it having a very strong presence of Western-styled artists.
They do like those really cool ones where they just need a ATM and a shopping center and they host their mini-convention or sale there. It’s pretty cool stuff. It’s not about whether they’ve got more talents like in STGCC and all that but it just comes down to the fact that they seem to be legitimately trying to help the artist.
KKP: Which is good.
Ryan: Yes, which is honestly everything that a comic con should be. If you’re going to charge so much of money, bring down RDJ, then we’ll talk. Bring down RDJ to do a panel, unveil exclusive Avengers footage here in Singapore, then we’ll talk about $700 booths but until then let’s not pretend we’re in New York.
KKP: I guess one way to actually improve the scene is to follow Malaysia’s example. Even the Philippines show a better example of fandom and fan support than Singapore.
Ryan: The Philippines has got two conventions, one’s in July, one just ended in March.
KKP: You went for those right, did you?
Ryan: I went for the press event for the one that was in March but that’s January, I’ll probably be going for the July one if the schedule permits. I think it should.
KKP: It’s a good opportunity to promote your comics too.
Ryan: It’s my first time in a convention, I think I’ll like to go as a fan.
KKP: Okay, fair enough.
Ryan: They did bring out some pretty good guests, they had Tyler Hoechlin last year and I loved him as Superman in Supergirl, so if they’re going to bring out someone like Henry Cavill or something, I won’t be in my booth then, I’m going to be queuing up. Wouldn’t be the most responsible thing for me to do right now.
After a ton of reminiscing about San Diego Comicon 2007 when you can get weekend tickets on the day itself…
KKP: Let’s cap it off. Is there any advice you wish to impart to rising stars and budding artists in Singapore.
Ryan: Well, just do it. This is my fourth, fifth, maybe my thousandth time but I’ve still not made it.
I’m not going to really say that my advice counts but I’m going to say this: no one succeeded without trying.
Crimson Star will be out in October. Meanwhile, you can get more details about acquiring issue 0.5 on their Facebook page.