The Merlion is a familiar symbol to all of us living in Singapore. Part fish, part lion, it represents Singapore’s early maritime history, as well as the lion purportedly spotted by Sang Nila Utama when he first arrived.
And soon, the Merlion will even have its own comic book.
Starlight Cats: Merlion Rising is an upcoming 48-page book by American comic artist Shane Davis and his Singaporean wife, Yanzi Lin.
The book is set in Singapore, and tells the story of Rebecca, a young Singaporean girl, and a street cat named Barnaby fighting against vicious rat-like aliens trying to conquer Earth.
In the story, the Merlion character is a god to all of the cats of the world.
And instead of a stationary statue spouting water into Marina Bay, this Merlion flies through the sky, dons a rainbow jewel on its head, and sports a majestic green mane and a colourful tail.
And given that the Merlion was not from actual Singapore folklore, but rather was developed by Singapore’s tourism board in 1963 as a marketing tool, this makes it something of a “blank slate” for imaginative storytelling, which is exactly what Davis and Lin have done.
Davis, 40, has been a professional comic book penciller and writer for almost 20 years, working on projects such as DC Comics’ Superman: Earth One, Batman, and New Gods.
36-year-old Lin, who left Singapore in 2017, runs an online store selling Japanese toys to American consumers.
The couple first got to know each other after Lin blogged about an issue of Batman that Davis drew. Today, they have been married for three years and live in North Carolina in the U.S..
We caught up with Lin and Davis to learn more about Starlight Cats — an independent project they’ve launched on Indiegogo — and Singapore’s relevance to the story.
Pitch your book in five words.
“Girl and cats in space.”
Where did the idea for the book come from?
“Shane has been working in comics for close to 20 years, and is the creator of DC Comics’ Dex-Starr, a cat Red Lantern.
Dex-Starr is based on his own pet cat Dexter, currently 18 years of age.
We are both huge animal lovers and especially of cats. Both of us grew up with cats.
Shane had already drawn Dexter into a comic book, and it was only natural to want to draw Yanzi’s pet cat Barnaby into a comic book as well.
We’ve been planning Starlight Cats for about 3 years, and finally decided to take the plunge and tell the story.”
Why did you decide on Singapore as the setting for the book? What aspects of Singapore did you incorporate?
“We both felt that setting the story in Singapore is a great fit as Singapore is a cosmopolitan, multicultural modern city.
A lot of people in the U.S. have heard of Singapore, but there are very few representations of Singapore in American pop culture.
With Yanzi being a Singaporean, we felt we could tell a story about a Singaporean girl and the culture of the street cats with the proper attention to detail that such a story deserves.
Yanzi has been helping the local Cat Welfare Society feed the strays on her street, so her personal experience with the street cats of Singapore and her adopted street cat Barnaby definitely helped us flesh out the story.
The Merlion will be a key character to Starlight Cats, and he is definitely based on the Merlion of Singapore mythology, but now with our own added twist of him being a god-like creature to cats around the world.
And of course, being the foodies that we are, there will be a hawker centre scene included!”
What’s your favourite part of the story?
“Shane’s favourite part of the story involves the Merlion, but he can’t say too much about it without giving things away!
Yanzi’s favourite part will be any part with Barnaby in the comic, since Barnaby is based on her real-life Barnaby.”
How do the two of you split up the work?
“For the script, we work on it together first by working on the main story beats we want the comic book to cover.
This is a freeform process where we figure out which parts of the story we want to emphasise, and work out how well the story flows.
Then we write out the scenes, breaking them into different moments.
Shane then creates rough layouts that we then work out the dialogue into.
After we finalise the dialogues and panels, Shane starts pencilling the pages.
Once he is done, Yanzi takes over to ink the pages before they can be scanned in for colouring by our Malaysian colourist, Candice Han.”
Who is your intended audience for the book? Are you hoping that it’s received by an American audience for them to learn more about Singapore?
“Starlight Cats is an all-ages book. It is definitely aimed at readers of all ages.
We always like to describe it as being similar in tone to ‘An American Tale’ and ‘Spirited Away’.
Shane believes that children are much more perceptive than we give them credit for, and he doesn’t want to insult their intelligence by drawing too simply, thus the decision to draw in his normal style that already has a strong adult fanbase.
While we have chosen to set the story in Singapore, we want everyone to be able to enjoy the book.
We’ve added visual elements to the comic that will show the reader that the story isn’t set in the typical U.S. city/town, and will have some Singapore landmarks as well, as seen on the cover for our first issue.”
Shane, how did you like Singapore? And Yanzi, what do you miss?
Davis: “I really like the multicultural aspect of Singapore where different races and religions can mingle together with no tension. Singaporeans have been a welcoming, friendly bunch to me. I have a great time training in Muay Thai with local gym Onyx MMA.”
Lin: “I really miss the sense of ease in getting around in Singapore. In the USA, you must either learn to drive or else you are probably not going to be able to get anywhere. In Singapore, everything is either a walk or a bus ride away.”
What food do each of you miss?
Davis: “My favourite food is the many local variations of curry. When they make curries in the U.S., unless you go to an authentic Indian restaurant, they almost always put a lot of sugar in their curries!”
Lin: “It is really hard to get good, hawker-style noodles in the U.S. In fact, I don’t think I’ve found any, so that is on my to-eat list whenever I return.”
What are your plans for the future?
“There will be future instalments of Starlight Cats so Singapore will continue to feature in our projects!”
Plan to deliver physical books in Aug. 2021
Davis and Lin launched an Indiegogo campaign for Starlight Cats on Oct. 4.
As of Oct. 11, the campaign has already been 812 per cent funded, with a backing of US$40,635 (S$54,975), far exceeding its goal of US$5,000 (S$6,798).
Davis and Lin shared that they will begin the process of writing and drawing the comic during the campaign, and hope to have the project wrapped up and sent to printers within a few months.
The projected delivery date for the physical book is Aug. 2021, though the couple shared that while they plan to ship sooner, they wanted to give themselves a few months’ buffer time since it is their first time running an online campaign for a book.
The pair said:
“We hope that Starlight Cats will be a story that resonates with readers from all over the world, be they little children or grown adults.
At the heart of it, Starlight Cats is about grand adventures and believing in yourself and your friends, and we think everyone will be able to enjoy it.”
You can watch the trailer for the book here:
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Top photos courtesy of Davis and Lin. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.
This content was originally published here.