What if one of Singapore’s most storied buildings, the current National Gallery – the former City Hall and Supreme Court Building – holds buried treasure? Created by writer Joelyn Alexandra and artist Elvin Ching, Unstable Foundations started off as a 2018 graphic novel, and is now expanding into an entire universe of stories.
Released among the second batch of comics from COSH Studios. Unstable Foundations is among the studio’s list of titles which delve into Singapore’s history, sometimes with a fantastical bent.
Unstable Foundations, the graphic novel
A sort of National Treasure with a touch of the fantastical, Unstable Foundations is the story of Madeline, a 21-year-old intern at the National Gallery. Her cousin, Nathaniel, is fresh out of prison with a new scheme in mind: Find buried treasure said to be inside the National Gallery.
The book is a nice balance between Singaporean slice-of-life, and some thriller-style action. Running slightly more than 50 pages, there’s a lot packed into this graphic novel, which means things move at a fast clip as we explore the National Gallery and find out just where buried treasure might be. Ching’s artwork provides a great sense of place – if you’ve been to the National Gallery before, you’ll know exactly how to track the characters.
But the somewhat short length and quick pace means that the tale is over before it really kicks into high gear. Things end neatly, but one feels that there’s room for more puzzles, or even the “hunting” part of “treasure hunting”. Part of it is due to how thin it is: Writer Joelyn Alexandra has admitted that she had to cut down quite a bit to streamline the story.
At one point, our heroine sees fit to teach an elderly old man about issues in Singapore’s “sleepy fishing village once upon a time” narrative. It’s especially poignant in 2020, after our bicentennial, and renewed calls to relook the statue of Raffles at the Singapore River. But it’s a little bit jarring – this is something Madeline (and the writer) is obviously passionate about, but does feel like it halts the pace somewhat. And the choice of who the elderly man is … it’s interesting, though I’m not sure how it will really play out in future sequels.
Good thing then, that writer Joelyn Alexandra is expanding the story with Unstable Directions.
Unstable Directions, the zine
Joelyn Alexandra is now working on expanding the graphic novel, but now in “zine” format, making this now the “Unstable Foundations canon”. Targeted at young adults, and adventure or thrill-seeking homebodies, Unstable Directions started as a companion piece to the comic, but now stands on its own.
The zine expands on what happens after the events of the graphic novel. Told purely in prose form (with some illustrations from Ching) [spoilers ahead] Nathaniel is now in jail for his crime, and Madeline is paying him a visit (all is forgiven, I guess).
This prose story is when it feels like gears are starting to turn – questions abound as a new character is introduced that begins to explain how Nathaniel got his information about buried treasure. This is a step forward in terms of the grand mythology of the universe, and Madeline starts to really get involved, instead of being more reactive to her cousin’s needs.
It appears that Unstable Directions has dropped the more fantastical elements of the graphic novel, moving it into more of a thriller … direction. All this also makes the original comic feel more like a prologue, while this chapter here is the first step in the bigger universe. While I would have appreciated more of Ching’s artwork around to help bring the script to life, I guess this will help things move along – and if there’s enough success, maybe we’ll see more comics to come.
At about 50-pages long, this is really more of a taster. And Joelyn Alexandra plans to publish more of these later this year, so consider me interested.
Unstable Directions: Conversations From The Enigma Exchange: Topaz #1 is now available for pre-order here at S$5. For every sale up till 31 July, 50% will go to AWARE.
Joelyn Alexandra is holding a zine launch hosted by Red Dot Diva on 27 June. Find out more here.