Thursday, 26 May 2022

Crime Noir Graphic Novels Spotlight: Elaine Chiew Chats with Felix Cheong and Arif Rafhan on their collaboration for SPRAWL

Felix Cheong, courtesy of author

About the Author:

Felix Cheong has written 23 books across different genres, including poetry, short stories, children’s picture books and flash fiction. His works have been widely anthologised and nominated for the prestigious Frank O’Connor Award and the Singapore Literature Prize. He has also collaborated across disciplines with musicians and artists. 

Conferred the Young Artist Award in 2000 by the National Arts Council, Felix has been invited to writers festivals all over the world, including Edinburgh, Austin and Sydney. He holds a masters in creative writing and is currently a university adjunct lecturer. SPRAWL is his first graphic novel. 

Arif Rafhan, courtesy of Arif Rafhan

About the Illustrator:

Arif Rafhan is a comic artist based in Malaysia. His work can be seen in publications both in Malaysia and Singapore, Gila-Gila magazine (Malaysia), anthologies, and webcomics. He also works with Lat (Kampung Boy) as his inker and colourist. He has also collaborated with Felix Cheong on a second graphic novel, Eve and the Lost Ghost Family.

Book cover, courtesy of Marshall Cavendish

About the Book:

A hardboiled detective.  His knuckleheaded partner. And a bar girl with a mysterious past. 

Their lives intersect in the most unlikely of places – a murder scene, where a minister who supposedly killed himself 20 years ago, is found dead again. 


In the tradition of noir comics like Sin City, Sprawl is gritty and laced with dark humour. Innovative and surprising in its blend of poetry and art, SPRAWL is the first in a new graphic novel series by Felix Cheong and Arif Rafhan. 


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Felix and Arif. Congratulations on SPRAWL (Marshall Cavendish, 2021), a hardboiled detective graphic novel involving a murder and a police conspiracy. How did the book come about and what is your collaboration process?


FC: This book has been more than 10 years in the making, would you believe it? It began as a verse novel. Back when I was pursuing my masters [at the University of Queensland], almost poet and his pet dog Down Under was writing a verse novel. I thought I’d give it a go, especially after watching The Monkey’s Mask, a verse novel by Dorothy Porter adapted into a film.

The trigger for the story was “Sprawl”, a song about the chaos of the city by Arcade Fire. The lyrics had its hooks on me for the longest time. I imagined a noir-ish, Sin City-like Singapore. Corruption at the highest level of society, filtering down to the cops.


But after 14-15 poems, the story was stuck in a rut. As with most things mouldy, I just left it alone. In 2020, I picked it up again after publishing In the Year of the Virus (Marshall Cavendish, 2020). That poetry comic book gave me the confidence to write differently. Poetry not as standalone lines on the page, but as narrative handmaiden to art. That was when I approached Arif.  


AR: Our collaboration was 100% virtual. We had a chat on the phone and once we got aligned creatively, we continued our discussion through text messages. Basically, I would provide visuals and modify them accordingly, based on Felix's feedback. But Felix has been gracious and letting me go wild with my imagination. So, I am very thankful.

FC: Your wild imagination is just right for the book!

 EC: I absolutely adored the colour scheme, and what Felix referred to in his dedication as ‘noir chiaroscuro’. It’s stunning and suits this crime noir genre so well. What is ‘noir chiaroscuro’ and how did you decide upon the colour scheme? 


AR: Based on Felix's vision, I recollect the feelings of watching noir films and reading noir comics and use that emotion as my objective in visually creating the SPRAWL world. I love how [Humphrey] Bogart's films, Sin City, and all those emotions are regenerated through this book.


FC: I call it ‘noir chiaroscuro’ simply because it sounds impressive!


EC:  Felix, you’re adept at crossing genres, but this is your first graphic noir, yes? Why have you ventured into this arena?

FC: Yes, my first graphic novel. You should call me promiscuous rather than adept! With each genre I venture into, I learn to fall in love with its conventions, pay respects to its tradition, find out what makes it tick. It’s my way of relearning how to write. I don’t like resting on laurels – they’re prickly and make me itch!


With SPRAWL, I was experimenting with fitting poetry into the comic book form. How do I make my lines work within and between the panels? How do I write speech bubbles that rhyme and still sound like speech? How do I connect the narrative dots between poems and still keep the thematic heart of the story, and keep the reader turning the page?


It helps that the first-person detective voice of the genre, with its wise-guy idiom and terse diction, is actually very poetry-like.      


EC: Arif, since the plot involves BDSM, was it difficult to decide how much to show vs. suggest? Did you consult other crime noir graphic novels that also dealt with this?


AR: I'm from Malaysia and I believe our censorship board is as strict as Singapore's. So, when I presented the pages to Felix, I was ready to amend and modify those images if they were deemed too much.


FC: As it turned out, the National Library in Singapore seems to deem those scenes as too much! SPRAWL is not available on the open shelves. You can only read it in a quiet corner in the reference library. Oh well.


EC: What do you feel makes this crime noir unique as compared to others in the genre?


AR: To me, crime noir is a timeless relatable genre as it deals with self-reflection through narration and point-of-view. It is very personal and intimate to the readers.


FC: I try to inject some “Singaporean-ness” in the story, particularly our obsession with grooming scholars and clearing a career path for their rise. [The protagonist] Sam, for instance, has to babysit scholars to earn their street cred. Like his current partner, who is book-smart but not streetwise. The murder victim, a corrupt minister, was once a mandarin too, before his fall from grace. The book highlights the blind faith we have in our scholar-ministers. Just because you’re great in your studies doesn’t mean you’re a great human being. 

Words by Felix Cheong, Artwork by Arif Rafhan

EC: For me, one of its unique elements is the cinematic quality of some of the visual frames. Such as the one above. Do you feel that graphic novels have expanded their repertoires greatly since the genre’s beginnings, especially to blend in filmic influences and innovations in visual aesthetics? 


AR: Comics and films have blurred the line ages ago. Comic panels are film's storyboards. Comic (especially noir) has made its panels like a camera’s point-of-view and uses the same principles of framing as a director of photography uses. And of course, my influences are not limited to comics alone. I use films, music, and historical artifacts as my references in creating comics.


FC: Indeed, the three major influences behind the story are noir or neo-noir films: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Chinatown (1974) and, of course, Sin City (2005). 


EC: I must compliment you as well, Arif, on certain details that show that this is more than just a crime noir. It’s that ‘human element’. Is this something you always try to include, Arif?  

Courtesy of Arif Rafhan

AR: Yes, every single frame tells a wider story than the narrative itself. I usually try to portray the world created by showing its consequences around it; the people who are affected by it and so on. It is important to make the world believable and relatable to the readers. It also offers some ideas for sequels or spin-off in the future.


EC: My favourite frame in SPRAWL is below. Although I confess to having seen many such images, in graphic novels, in films, and elsewhere, it still gets me every time: the man, the woman, the rain, the city. Two questions: (1) what do you think gives certain comic tropes its enduring appeal? (2) do both of you employ specific strategies (words and visuals) to create a dreamlike noirish quality to the work? 


FC: If you notice, this scene recurs in “The City of Dream II” page. But this time, Sam’s optimism is upended. He realises the futility of upholding the law in a city that’s essentially corrupt to the core.


AR: When I had to do this page, I told myself; Don't replicate the scene visually, but rather portray the essence of the scene. So, I used the feeling of reflecting oneself about his or her future while looking out the city in the rain. Both characters were having mixed feelings, they were only accompanied by the headlights, and the conversation they were having is witnessed by the city; that whole package. This is what I try to portray visually and I hope the readers can get the same sentiment as I had when I created this page.


FC: When I planned the story, I tried to use recurring scenes, like a leitmotif, so that the second time you see it, the scene resonates differently. 


Like the alley where Sam escapes death once, is the same alley where he’s eventually gunned down. Or the bar where he first meets Bess, is the same bar where Andrew Chao [the supposedly dead minister] meets Bess.  


I don’t think it’s just comic tropes per se, but tropes in general. Every genre has its tropes that are identifiable, be it characters, situations, scenes or dialogue. They are useful in shaping the form of the story, in helping the reader pigeonhole the story. But also a tradition for the writer to draw upon, and subvert. 


For instance [spoiler alert!], Bess is the typical noir femme fatale, but I also made her into an avenging angel. Sam’s partner, Jack, may initially appear like your comic sidekick, but he turns out to be Sam’s nemesis too.

Courtesy of Arif Rafhan

EC: Felix, what has been the reception towards SPRAWL? What have been responses towards this intrepid mash-up of poetry with crime noir and graphics?  


FC: So far, it’s a bit of a slow burn, mainly because the book hasn’t received much press. But those who have read it say they like our innovative mash-up, that they’ve not thought it possible to harness poetry in this comic book form.    


EC: Should we look forward to more SPRAWL adventures? 


FC: Originally, it was meant to be a one-off book. After it was published, I asked Marshall Cavendish if we could make it a series and they said yes. I’ve already finished writing the sequel, SPRAWL 2: GOD’S LONELY MAN, which takes its inspiration from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Arif is now doing the artwork. We’re looking to wrap the series in three books. 



NB: SPRAWL is available at bookstores like Kinokuniya. You can also order it online here: