Graphic Take on the Story of Singapore

Graphic Take on the Story of Singapore

Illustration alum Sonny Liew 01 IL (right) checks out new comics work by seniors during his April book tour stop at RISD. | photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH

As Sonny Liew 01 IL studied a table full of original comics pages spread out for him by seniors in Illustration, he noticed a major difference compared to what he and his peers were doing at RISD 15 years ago. “All of this looks so much more polished than when I was here. What happened?”

Though it was a rhetorical question, Liew was impressed. “I’m not sure what [feedback] I can offer all of you. These are really cool,” he told students. The Malaysian-born Singaporean artist returned to campus in April to talk with students and speak about his most recent graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2016, Pantheon Books), a virtuoso work of historical fiction that has left critics similarly impressed.

Above: Ah Huat calls out to his Giant Robot in Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, 2016)

The Economist calls Liew’s epic tale of Singaporean history through the life and work of the city-state’s supposedly “greatest comics artist” – a fictitious character he created – “brilliantly inventive.” Publishers Weekly ranked it among its most-anticipated books of 2016 and on Fresh Air, National Public Radio critic John Powers described Liew’s whirlwind mash-up of comics genres as “at once dizzyingly meta and deeply heartfelt, [reminding] me of everything from Maus and The Tin Drum to, believe it or not, Ulysses.” Ultimately, he says it’s “probably the greatest work of art ever produced in Singapore.”

Building on the success of Malinky Robot and The Shadow Hero (a graphic novel he created with writer Gene Luen Yang), Liew began imagining Charlie’s story about five years ago. While doing some extensive reading on the history of comics in the US and Europe, it dawned on the him that he could invent a history of the medium that mirrors Singapore’s own struggles with occupation and independence. He says there is a game-like quality to the book: with each stylistic shift – with every new homage to comics masters from Osamu Tezuka to Frank Miller – his protagonist becomes not just an avatar of the evolution of sequential art but also Singapore’s eminent journalist and social critic.

"I believed in [the book] from the beginning. I knew there was something worth pushing to the end."
Sonny Liew 01 IL

At once playful and heartfelt – and unmistakably hard-hitting in its political critique – Charlie Chan Hock Chye first surfaced in Singapore in spring 2015, but only after Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) rescinded the publishing grant it had awarded Liew in support of the book on the eve of publication. Perhaps the NAC underestimated him as “the guy who draws robots for Marvel and DC” when it awarded him S$8,000, the artists says, but the government did not appreciate his unsympathetic view of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, when they saw the finished product. Still, after the NAC withdrew its grant, he was determined to press on with efforts to publish his book internationally. And, thanks in large part to the media attention the grant withdrawal generated, the graphic novel sold out its first print run in a matter of days.

“I believed in [Charlie]” from the beginning, says Liew, whose run illustrating the DC Comics series Doctor Fate wraps up this month. “Working on the first 20 to 30” pages of a book that ultimately consumed 320 pages, Liew “knew there was something worth pushing to the end” – no matter how long the book needed to be to tell the story.

Liew created his first comic strip, Frankie and Poo, in 1995 while studying philosophy at Cambridge University’s Clare College in the UK. After graduation he worked in Singapore for a short time before applying to RISD in 1997 and studying with influential mentors such as current Illustration professors Nick Jainschigg 83 IL and Tony Janello and accomplished comic book artist David Mazzucchelli 83 PT. Liew credits the latter, who is now also well known for the 2009 graphic novel Asterios Polyp, with showing him a different way to create sequential narratives. “Before I came to RISD my work was more linear, more mainstream. The way he explained the language of comics helped me conceive of new ways to tell stories” – an influence that permeates The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

“Working in comics isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination,” Liew told students during his well-attended talk at the ISB Gallery, speaking candidly about the ebbs and flows of freelancing for large comic book publishers. Finding inspiration in graphic novelists like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, who have found success doing personal, independent work, he has turned down assignments that could have led to big breaks. Liew now admits that it’s exciting to hear his work favorably compared to such revered graphic novels as Ghost World, Jimmy Corrigan and Asterios Polyp but takes the accolades in stride.

“How long will it generate good buzz?” he asks, adding: “You can’t really control those things.” With The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, however, Liew has created a work of art that transcends buzz: a grand, wholly original celebration – and elevation – of the comic book and the amazing stories people are able to tell through that singular format.

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