The term ‘Shangri-La’ originates from Buddhist and Tibetan folklore, made famous by the 1933 novel ‘Lost Horizon’ by British author James Hilton. In all descriptions it is a paradise on Earth, where inhabitants are eternally happy and enjoy great longevity.
In reality three places lay claim to the name ‘Shangri-La’. I once visited one of these places, also known as Zhongdian, in Southwestern China. During the trip my guide described the philosophy of Shangri-La: it can be personal and not found in any geographic location. One might find Shangri-La in spiritual pursuit; another might find Shangri-La in owning a ton of money and property. I integrated this ‘personal paradise’ concept into the story.
I am fortunate to have this story brought to life by the amazingly talented Singapore painter, Kelvin Lim. All art is hand-drawn, oil on cardboard. It took 6 months of planning and discussions to produce the 8 paintings. Some details look like they are done digitally, but they are not; everything is painstakingly painted with amazing attention to detail.
Kelvin is a master of human anatomy, due to his experience at portrait painting, including nudes. We avoided references to specific races or religions, and have made Shangri-La a very ‘inclusive’ story. Harold is Asian; the city of Stark is industrial Western; Lord Powers resembles an Arabian genie; the concept of killing and dying for an afterlife reward in present in several religious doctrines.
Because of Shangri-La’s format, it was vital to employ a different kind of art direction. Several times we toyed with using ‘conventional comic’ angles and close-up action shots, but this simply didn’t work for our single-panel story sequence.
Like the meccha pilots in Pacific Rim, it takes two like-minded creators to craft this short comic, so that the words and pictures work in harmony. Indeed, during the creation process we often came up with the same ideas or solutions independently, then surprising each other when bringing them up. A lot of discussion and iterations went into composing the 8 pieces, and we outline the thought process below.
Painting 1: Metropolis
The first thing we needed to pin down was the ‘look and feel’ of Stark, the metropolis. In the greater ‘Children of Fire’ lore, Stark is the biggest city among all the human factions that have chosen to pursue the path of logic, technology, and wealth. However, Stark should look different from a modern city because it’s set in a post-apocalyptic era: people have to re-discover technologies and rebuild.
Keeping in mind that mass production technologies are gone, we imagined a city of brick and wrought iron, like ten thousand Eiffel Towers hand-crafted and twisted into all shapes and structures. It must not look futuristic or sci-fi, but pre-Industrial Revolution with some remnants of old technologies.
In the first draft the cityscape contained more wingdings, such as steam engine trains and airships. These were removed in the second draft because we felt the technological advancements at Harold’s time should be somewhat limited. Perhaps a century later…
The buildings started out with a ‘war-torn’ look, which was not what we intended. Stark is in its prime. Buildings are hand-crafted but not in ruin. So their outlines were polished up. The golden hue also reinforced the atmosphere of a city in a Golden Age – just bereft of spirituality.
Also crucial was how Harold should appear. He could only be a small figure in the cityscape; this means his body language must reflect his mood well from a long distance and fit the narrative. In addition, his figure must be distinct from the surroundings so readers could make him out in a few seconds. We felt this was executed pretty well.
Painting 2: Harold’s Deity
The first draft had the smog of Stark forming Lord Powers’ face. His beard was actually a swirl of naked female bodies to represent the ’69 virgins in paradise’ he promised. However, this did not convey the idea that Harold was communicating with a deity; he could well be reminiscing another human being. The face and figures weren’t as clear as we wanted, too.
Lord Powers was more convincing in the second draft. He looked like an evil genie, tormenting poor Harold. It was here we broached the issue of nudity. Kelvin is a master of human anatomy and drawing nudes actually showcased his knowledge of the human form. We decided this was not the time for pushing too many boundaries: there was already the message on religiosity and terrorism, so enough boundaries were pushed. We went for ‘implied nudity’, instead of showing actual nudity.
Also related was designing Harold’s clothes. We toyed with a dark coat but felt it wasn’t suitable because Harold wasn’t really a villain. He represented the frustrated everyman, the worker. So we gave him a worker’s outfit. In a later painting (6) he’d wear a toga-like outfit to fit that scene better.
Painting 3: Harold at Work
This was one of the harder ones to compose. We first wanted Harold to visualize his promised 69 virgins while making the bombs. That seemed visually lame and inconsistent with the overall style. Eventually we took cues from classical paintings of scholars at work, such as those depicting Newton or Copernicus. Harold’s posture captured his frame of mind perfectly without even showing his facial expression.
Painting 4: Terror
The first version of ‘Terror’ was the very first painting done for the story. As evidenced from its ‘roughness’, it also helped test what paint style suited the production. Ultimately it could not be used for a number of reasons, which included the big chasm on the ground. Harold’s bombs couldn’t be so powerful as to split the earth. It was meant to be symbolic, but the reader wouldn’t be able to make the jump from literal to figurative understanding from the previous painting.
The second version hinted at the location of the terror attack: the Grand Arena, from the background structure on the upper left. I thought the ripple effect of the flames was made digitally, but they were all expertly done by paint! To capture the debris shapes, this piece used photographs of random furniture, poles, rags, paintbrushes and other “junk”. The lot was then transferred to Photoshop, printed, and painted over.
Painting 5: Pursuit
This took a lot of discussion to compose as well. The first idea was a close-up action shot of Harold running from the authorities. It was most obvious here that such compositions wouldn’t work for the story. Everything had to be from medium or wide angles since we were working with single-panel pages and narrative text.
We explored the idea of a zoomed-out, top-down view of the chase. This would also showcase what Stark’s streets look like. The obvious real-life reference was the old Kowloon walled city in Hong Kong, which we independently thought up and suggested. Kowloon also influenced the designs of the background buildings in the next painting.
To me the most impressive part was the lighting effects from the street lamps and torches. They were hand-painted; no digital work whatsoever!
Painting 6: Infamy
The biggest challenge here was portraying the womenfolk’s reaction to Harold’s good looks. Their body language was critical and should convey their sentiments from a wide angle shot. We referred to some renaissance paintings portraying public prosecution, and toyed with the idea of Harold paraded through the streets, escorted by the police and so on, while onlookers whispered to one another and the women appeared pleased.
Because of the wide angle needed to capture the crowd, Harold’s good looks lost focus and needed indirect ways to communicate. We wanted readers to link directly to the real case involving Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, especially his infamy with some female admirers. So we included a wanted poster (bottom right) to illustrate this.
Among the rough ideas, we settled on Harold being hoisted up a pole in a city square. This communicated Harold’s lonely, lofty, personal battle, with the tilt of his head dictating hope or hopelessness depending on reader interpretation. Street scenery could be included in this composition. There was enough room to capture the women’s reactions as well.
Mood was portrayed beautifully by the blue shade (which contrasted with the red and gold shades in earlier pieces), lighting (especially on Harold), and the painstakingly drawn rain. This final composition was more powerful than just a close-up of Harold’s handsome face with no context.
Painting 7: Exodus
This was another painting in which we toyed with a close-up angle at first. The initial idea was to draw Harold escaping from his cell with the help of his female fans. Then we wanted something more grandiose. The theme of ‘escape’ should also symbolize escape from the material and rationalized life of Stark.
There were enough exodus-themed paintings throughout art history to give us inspiration. We would have Harold lead his harem out of the city. Logistics was out of the window: the band carried no baggage and supplies so the scene looked more dramatic.
Also vital was having a big colour contrast: Stark was placed in a dark zone; the band walk out to a brighter zone symbolizing a new hope. The foreground terrain wasn’t decided at first, so Kelvin painted something cloud-like which could be replaced later. We settled on desert later on, since exodus scenes usually involved deserts. Since this painting had more religious undertones, the subjects wore toga-like clothes.
The next issue was lighting: we could have bright rays of light shining on the desert, but logically the same light would shine on Stark, so Stark would never look dark enough. This was fixed by having dark clouds looming above the city, so the entire area could be dark in contrast. To have dark and light zones evenly represented, we expanded Stark in the final version.
Painting 8: Paradise
Bright and cheery colours were utilized for this one, since it represented paradise. It hearkened to Renaissance paintings wherein everyone was always naked. We were aware of censorship issues in case we got Shangri-La published, and opted for ‘implied nudity’ again: using very small figures in a very wide shot without articulating any details in their bodies. A cooler colour tone was used to contrast with the constant ‘heat’ and ‘anger’ in the earlier scenes, and to gel with the narrative of “cool, turquoise waters”. Paradise on Earth!