Daydreams in Monochrome
Graphic-novel adaptation refines and revivifies local tale
By Malcolm Tay
Gone Case: A Graphic Novel (Book 1)
Yong, a 12-year-old about to take the most crucial exams of his primary-school years, has issues. His kid brother annoys him, his friend's slutty elder sister catches his eye, his parents aren't getting along, and his beloved granny has died. "Yong, you have to learn to be the man of the house now," chides his mother. But the adults around him have their own troubles; no one has the patience to guide him through these rough seas.
In Gone Case: A Graphic Novel, Yong's pre-adolescent scuffles are rendered in sharp relief by illustrator Koh Hong Teng, who shows a deft hand for detail and pace in adapting the book of the same name by Dave Chua. While Chua's wistful tale rambles at parts, its colloquial dialogue patchily romanised and often straining for naturalism, Koh's visual narrative stays focused, yet expressive.
The graphic novel is based on the initial four chapters of the original tome – a Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award winner in 1996 – but has none of the clutter that bogs down its source. Captions and word balloons add adequate commentary and verbal exchange without getting in the way, leaving the black-and-white images to carry the story forward and convey shades of feeling.
Such a pared-down approach makes for streamlined reading. More vitally, it well evokes Yong's maturing outlook on life, where much goes unsaid and more can be gleaned from the silences and absences; where he, a child, is helpless to prevent the events and decisions that alter his world.
Hence, he observes his father staying out late more frequently, his grandma wasting away in hospital, his mother placating the creditors at home. When he is made a prefect in school, he receives a necktie from a teacher, who tells him to "ask your dad how to put it on", not knowing that his father has already moved out.
Amid the changes in his life, Yong occasionally loses himself in daydreams, which Koh skilfully translates on the page into vivid metaphors. While keeping vigil during his grandma's wake, he imagines overlapping stacks of joss paper creating a long, deep escalator that she would ride into hell, to be greeted by a welcome sign in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay – an inspired departure from the same scene in the book.
If there is a misstep here, it would be the sound effects that seem odd to the ear: "pok… pok…" for a pillow being fluffed up, "kruu" for someone drinking from a straw. Yet, this first part of Gone Case remains a worthy addition to the growing canon of comics and graphic novels about Singapore. Hopefully, Koh will conclude the adaptation with the verve and dexterity he has displayed here.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011