Is a graphic novel the best format to put Singapore’s dating scene (or lack of it) on blast? Probably not in lesser hands, but in How to Date a Dozen Men, by Samara Gan, this debut author succeeds. In 200 pages, she invites the reader to ride shotgun on the wild ride of romance in the midst of a pandemic.
At the start of this semi-autobiographical graphic novel published by Epigram Books, Samara must find balance. She has a grueling day job, while spending all her free time focused on being a comic book artist. As if that wasn’t enough, she also finds herself suddenly confronted with societal expectations to find a suitable life partner. The pressure finally gets to her, and she sets out to date men in Singapore, despite her lack of relationship experience.
Meet Your Match, Samara
While Samara begins (as many do) with dating apps, she quickly discovers the sheer gender imbalance on these platforms. An inundation of attention-seeking profiles overwhelm her days. Abandoning them, she turns instead to a matchmaking agency. At first, she balks at the exorbitant cost, but finally relents and, with a “match agent”, creates her profile. The agency promises her at least one date a month, for a year. And that is how she encounters just about every kind of man in Singapore.
We follow her excitement prior to her first match. Then, just as she’s preparing to meet her second match, the COVID-19 pandemic causes a lockdown in Singapore. You can’t help but feel for her as she figures out How to Date a Dozen Men throughout this unprecedented year. Her own inexperience in the dating scene, coupled with a matchmaking agency that just pigeonholes her, leads to excruciating encounters with one man after another.
As she retells her experiences, you cringe with her. One after another, each man falls (often significantly) short of the mark. They’re just not worth a second date with her. More than once, you hope that she is exaggerating some of their flaws. Creative licence, you know. But just ask anyone who’s had to go through the Singapore dating scene! They’ll tell you these are very, very real people.
Does the matchmaking agency that claims a 99% success rate finally get at least one Mr Right for Samara? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Despite this being her first graphic novel, Samara demonstrates the ability of an experienced creator. She writes with a tone of voice that is so easy-going and familiar. As the protagonist, she comes alive through the pages, keeping you captivated. This is a good thing, since the subject matter can sometimes feel repetitive as Samara goes on date after date.
As a slice-of-life narrative, what passes for plot development is often little more a revolving door of male characters. Fortunately, Samara’s writing and art are so complementary. Each panel is charged with so much vitality that you never feel the story dragging.
An all-rounded creator
My favourite story bits are when Samara hangs out with her best friend. These scenes serve as an overarching narrative device throughout the book. The sheer chemistry between the two friends is a joy to behold. They also provide a much-needed contrast (and relief!) to the horrifying dates Samara is recounting.
Samara also includes a very poignant scene with her mother, which sets up the book’s climax. It is in these pivotal moments that we get to see Samara simply as herself. As someone without the expectations and stress of being on a date.
As an artist, Samara has established a style that is deceptively simple and accessible, honed over years of rigorous practice. Each page is laid out with clear and determined vision that you easily forget this is her first graphic novel. There are multiple creative decisions Samara makes throughout the book that are just so clever. For example, giving eyes to only a few key people! This both reduces her workload as an artist, and really drives home how inconsequential many of the characters actually are.
Throughout the book, Samara elevates the story by peppering it with meme-inspired images that are unique and original yet essentially recognisable. While some of these are in-your-face, others are more subtle and they are all a ton of fun to spot.
A rare perspective of history
At first, I approached the book as the rarely documented experience of modern-day dating. But How to Date a Dozen Men is much, much more than that. Not only is it a semi-biographical tale, but it also provides a snapshot of a specific time in history, namely the initial year of COVID-19 in Singapore.
This is a valuable first-hand account of what it was like to pursue romance in 2020. In both word and art, Samara recounts vividly her experiences of this time. From dates via video call during the pandemic lockdowns, to wearing face masks and dining in pairs when such restrictions were slowly eased.
For that alone, How to Date a Dozen Men is a worthwhile addition to your graphic novel library. But for an impressive creator like Samara Gan, maybe you should start clearing a whole bookshelf for what she’ll come up with next. No pressure, Samara!