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How can a ‘common’ comic artist survive in Singapore?

How can a 'common' comic artist survive in Singapore? This question comes to mind if one reads the Facebook post of Sonny Liewon Tuesday, 13 September, the famed artist of award-winning graphic book, "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye".

The book that won the Year for Singapore Book Awards 2016 and Singapore Literature Prize 2016 (English Fiction) had its earlier approved $8,000 publication grant withdrew by National Arts Council (NAC) due the "sensitive content" depicted in his 324-page comic book, "The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye".

The book uses different forms of comic illustration to depict the life of a Singaporean artist which spans across 60-odd years of Singapore history.

The first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, co-founder of People's Action Party and former Secretary General of now-defunct Barisan Sosialis are depicted side by side within the book.

The publication was awarded a grant of $8,000 from NAC before it was published. According to Mr Edmund Wee, from Epigram Books, $6,400 was disbursed to his company, and he would have to return the $6,400 back to NAC.

SLP Sonny Liew
Sonny Liew presented with his award, Singapore Literature Prize 2016 (English Fiction)

Liew recalled his thought process in applying for a grant from NAC, “On the eve of making a decision about accepting a Creation Grant from the NAC for my next book, I thought I’d be open to the financial side of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (CCHC), for what it’s worth – perhaps to be clearer to anyone wanting to draw comics what the challenges are, perhaps to start a dialogue with government agencies and publishers about the realities of the process.”

“CCHC took about 2 years to complete – the research and bulk of the writing and drawing took about 18 months, followed by another 6 months or so of editing and polishing.”

He then showed the income generated from the book and said, "Comics tend to receive lower advances in the book world as they’re more of a niche market than, say literary fiction, so the breakdown of the moolah from CCHC so far:

  • Epigram Books Advance: S$9000
  • Epigram Royalties (2015): S$5,333.23
  • Pantheon Books Advance: USD$25000 = about S$33,750 (1.35 exchange rate)
  • Less Agent's Fee and Epigram Cut= S$20,000
  • French Advance: 15,000 Euros = about S$23,000 (1.5 exchange rate)
  • Less Agent's Fee and Epigram Cut = S$13,200
  • Italian: USD$3617 = about S$4900
  • Less Agent's Fee and Epigram Cut=S $2,800
  • SG Lit Prize= S$10,000

Total net income came to about S$60,000. Liew noted that the net sum he received from Epigram Books in 2015, was close to $0 after taking into account the cut off rights sales, but noted that this figure will get healthier as the book continues to do well in 2016. This means that Liew received, over 24 months, about $2,500 per month.

He wrote that this is not such a bad thing,  "if you think of it in terms of ‘doing something you love’, but quite sobering when compared to other endeavors, from teaching to engineering or management, medicine etc."

In contrast of the meagre monetary compensation for his work, one such project under Marvel/DC projects generates about $10k/month for the average artist, leaving aside the superstars and outliers.

Sonny Liew continued, “For my next book, the hope was to be able to work on something exclusively for 18 months – so there was an application for the NAC’s Creation Grant, for 50k, which is the grant cap.”

“The NAC’s offer is considerably less. I’m not sure I can mention the exact figure before making a decision on it, but let’s say it’s somewhere between 15k to 20k.”

“As of now, it’s impossible to be certain how much the next book will receive in terms of advances from publishers – but with a ballpark guesstimation of 50k, that will translate into maybe monthly earnings of S$3,000-4,000 per month.”

“Which again is not a bad amount, though maybe a reflection of the thought Gene Luen Yang offered on comics in a conversation - which is that you can be a pretty good Engineer and make a good living, whereas a pretty good Comics Creator will face a bigger challenge in being able to afford the costs of a house, education for kids etc." wrote Liew on his thoughts.

Noting that the number does not yet take into account things like paying for editorial fees or research costs, as well the uncertainty in the reality of the 50k figure "guesstimated".

Writing that if a Singaporean comics creator did a book that wasn’t lucky enough to get overseas publishers interests, that monthly income would drop drastically to something like S$1,000 to S$1,600 a month, depending on the advance received from a local publisher.

Liew pointed out that the Creation Grant’s explicit goal is to support “The creation, adaptation, and re-development of distinctive artistic content. Through a rigorous creation process, we seek to expand the canon of Singapore-made works that engage audiences at home and abroad.”

"The ceiling for a Literary grant was raised in time from S$2,500 to S$5,000"

However, according to the NAC, the S$2,500 increase is meant mainly to reflect projects that “involve multi-disciplinary components such as a performance showcase and exhibition.”

So this means if any artist is in the work of making comics, he or she is stuck with a $2,500 cap on the grant- which Liew thinks need addressing.

Liew recalled that for a period, the NAC wasn’t sure how to categorise comics – "it involves both Text and Images – so is it Visual (S$5,000 grant cap) or Literary (effective S$2,500 cap)? In the end, they opted to place it in the Literary category." But he points out that NAC fails to take into account the visual side of comics.

"All things being equal, most comics writers are able to turn out a script in a week, whereas the drawing takes months, based on the US mainstream monthly 20-pages or so comics."

Liew wrote on, “So I suppose this is an open call of sorts to the NAC to review how it approaches comics in its grant structures – an actual S$5,000 cap would be more in keeping with the demands of the medium – though I'd argue a figure closer to S$100,000 for the effort and time needed to complete a proper graphic novel would be a fairer reflection.”

The tables attached below are screencaps from the NAC’s grant website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/…/supp…/funding/grant-recipients.html of the Creation Grant in 2013 and 2014.

nacgrant2013

nacgrant2014