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In a galaxy far far away (or more accurately, on an island nearby), a superhero has his own origin story.
Crimson Star, inspired by Singapore’s footballing superstar Fandi Ahmad, is the creation of 34-year-old Darth Ryan Mennen (yes, like Darth Vader, it’s on his IC).
The Superman fan wanted to test if a comic book about a local superhero would be successful in Singapore.
Local superheroes have had a mixed bag of reactions over the past few years, from the ill-fated Virus Vanguard to the more recent Singapore Tourism Board-led Merlion campaign (yes, in a collaboration with Ultraman).
But Crimson Star is a project that Ryan, as he prefers to be called, has been working on for 17 years, ever since he was teenager with comic book dreams.
In Crimson Star, protagonist Fandi Ishak is a true-blue Singaporean son who works as a journalist in a fictional New York City protected by superheroes. There, he strikes up a relationship with an alien being (or a “non-terrestrial American”, as she jokingly calls herself) called Starlight.
After a series of tumultuous events, Fandi finds himself the reluctant possessor of alien technology that allows him to fly and shoot energy beams, not to mention other yet undiscovered powers and a cool suit!
Ryan says that he first had the idea of writing a Singaporean superhero, set in the rapidly urbanising Singapore of the 80s and 90s, when he was a teenager in 2005.
Ryan based his main character on his childhood hero, Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad. To him, the footballer’s cool, calm and collected demeanour on the field is exactly what superheroes should be like under pressure.
“Local talents don’t know how much they mean to us,” Ryan tells The Pride.
It is also important for Ryan to recognise the main protagonist’s challenges in the late 80s in Singapore, being part of a minority race.
He says: “It’s not about brown skin but about people feeling represented. Any good fictional world should make people feel like they are included. So why not (have the hero) a Malay guy?”
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In fact, when Ryan met Fandi Ahmad and told him that he was basing a comic-book character on him, the real-life hero was amused and flattered.
It was a chance meeting and Fandi was in a hurry, so it wasn’t a very long chat, says Ryan, but he hopes to be able to pass Fandi a copy of Crimson Star to see how his character turned out!
Why in Singapore?
As a kid, Ryan used to have his mind wander to a galaxy far far away.
While most of us would be writing about some variation on “my favourite birthday party” in primary school compositions, he was already writing 500-word fanfiction about Jedi fighting each other with swords (yes, not lightsabers).
He would often have his many notebooks, full of scribbled notes and half-written stories, confiscated because he couldn’t stop writing during lessons.
It was the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999 that triggered Ryan’s writing bug.
Talking to The Pride, he quotes a character in the movie, Qui-Gon Jinn: “Your focus determines your reality.”
A hero’s journey
As a young boy, Ryan was always interested in theatre, he even wrote and adapted plays in secondary school.
After finishing national service, he moved around, teaching drama, working in a creative agency and freelance writing.
In 2010, he finally decided to pull the trigger and started creating comics with a group of friends. They set up a now-defunct media company, but that set the stage for a new content creation agency called The Fandom Menace (TFM) a year later, which focuses on raising the profile of local artists and illustrators.
Salvation Sam, which debuted in 2010, was Ryan’s first comic publication. But it wasn’t easy selling superheroes in Singapore. Back then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just starting to take off and there was always a niche demand for comic book stories, but local content was still a hard sell.
In 2016, he started his first Kickstarter campaign to make Crimson Star a reality. It had a modest goal — just $5,000 — but fell short.
So in 2018, he tried again, this time succeeding raising the $1,888 needed to release an ashcan edition of Crimson Star. In comic book parlance, an ashcan edition is not intended for sale and is created solely to establish trademarks on potential titles.
That led to a successful third Kickstarter campaign last year, and the 77-page first issue of Crimson Star was born.
Ryan told The Pride that a total of 450 copies of Crimson Star: Book One were sold (400 of them overseas) during the first print run, which was sold out. He is considering a second print run.
The team behind the comic
While Crimson Star: Book One is published by CS Comics, it’s TFM that has been laying the groundwork — finding and supporting local artists — since 2012.
Crimson Star isn’t the only comic book that Ryan has worked on over the years.
Through TFM, he has collaborated with other artists and illustrators on comic book projects such as HERO (which is a comic based on fictional takes of local hero stories like World War II hero Lieutenant Adnan Saidi).
“I am only contributing to the process of what’s already here (in Singapore). We got international quality talent here,” says Ryan.
Another one of his projects is SingaHeroes: an anthology of local superhero concepts inspired by Singaporean themes such as a Merlion kaiju, and another based on the Singaporean martial art Singafist, which has fallen out of popularity here.
For Crimson Star: Book One, Ryan worked with 19-year-old illustrator Tasha Leah Santiago.
Tasha started working with Ryan and TFM when she was in Secondary 3. Yet, she says, they never treated her any differently for being the youngest member of the team.
“I think the biggest most important takeaway from working with (Ryan) is that I should not be afraid to express myself through my work,” she says.
Ryan wrote Crimson Star as a 60-page issue but it turned into 77 pages through Tasha’s illustrations. That shows the level of faith he has in her.
To Tasha, Ryan and the rest of the team are her ‘found family, good friends and the best mentors’.
Most importantly to Ryan, he wouldn’t have made it this far without the help of “his number one supporter”, his 26-year-old wife Hijanah Hernandez, who works as a content strategist and has been running TFM & CS Comics with him since 2016.
He jokes: “I wouldn’t be able to do this if my wife isn’t well-employed. Living in Singapore is such an expensive thing these days.”
Ryan is more than grateful to have her support during the times when he was only halfway through his writing projects.
“As a person, I live one life. But as a writer, I live 100 and more lives,” says Ryan.
Even though he prefers to be alone, as a writer (especially a comic writer) he often has to mingle with people. Research is critical, says Ryan.
In creating Crimson Star, he sought advice from his Malay friends to get representation right.
“Labels matter for people because it’s about inclusion — identity,” he says.
When Ryan is not writing, he organises workshops and discussion panels.
One such event, Made-in-Singapore (MiSG), features local talents in Singapore and is set to run every weekend in August this year to celebrate National Day.
Ryan also believes that writers should be open to debate and criticism.
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His hope for Crimson Star is to have it enjoyed by kids and appreciated by adults.
“My dream is that a 5-year-old can pick it up without his parents worrying about it being too violent, yet have an adult read it and enjoy the themes in the comic,” he says.
Ryan made his dream come true. He created a superhero — not just for kids but for everyone.
He might be too modest to admit it, but in overcoming the odds to bring his dreams to life, he is a superhero too.