Buro exclusive: Interview with Sonny Liew

Buro exclusive: Interview with Sonny Liew

There's no such thing as bad publicity

Text: Alex Tham

Sonny Liew's latest book, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, flew off the shelves here. We speak to the artist-writer about his influences and challenges

It has been a surreal month for Singaporean artist-writer Sonny Liew. The name should ring a bell  he's drawn for Marvel and DC, and has received Eisner nominations (the comic industry equivalent of an Oscar) for his artwork.

He made the news recently when the National Arts Council withdrew an $8,000 grant on the eve of the launch of his book — The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Why? The book contained 'sensitive content'. The controversy lured a huge crowd to the book's launch at Kinokuniya Singapore the following day. Not surprisingly, the book sold out its first print run. 

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has many layers. On the surface, it tells the story of an apparently forgotten pioneer of Singapore comics — the eponymous Charlie Chan. Through Charlie's unpublished works, we get a glimpse of the comic book history of Singapore. But it isn't an objective one. It's a version told by a boy with a giant robot, talking animals, a superhero named Roachman, and even an alternate dimension where the Barisan Sosialis wins the 1963 elections. Charlie definitely did not pull his punches, and his works provoke the reader to wonder about what might have been. In the end though, Charlie's commitment to his art and refusal to be pragmatic meant that success and recognition would elude him.

Although Charlie's own tale is poignant, the art that fills Liew's book is a joy to behold. The reader flipping through it will encounter many styles, each telling a different story. Comic book buffs will be delighted to spot the stylistic references to Osamu Tezuka, Walt Kelly, Frank Miller, and more. The facsimiles of different media, such as the comics printed with four-colour process, the old newspapers, and the full-page oil portraits, all give the book a feeling of authenticity. The reader, however, will have to ask if feeling real is the same as being real.

Force 136

Congratulations on selling out the first print run of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Did you expect such a reception? 
Well...yes and no. You're always filled with the fantasy that every book you publish will do fantastically well, but that's leavened by the cold hard reality of knowing that most books struggle to break even. I had a sense whilst doing it that Charlie Chan was breaking some new ground, but it was impossible to predict the reaction to it. The way things have turned out have been far beyond realistic expectation, not just in terms of sales and awareness here, but also having the book picked up by publishers in the U.S. and other countries.

Were you formally trained as an artist?
I was mostly self-taught until I went to art school in my mid-20s. I really did learn a lot in school; it was a chance to meet teachers and fellow students who could inspire and instruct you. Formal art school isn't a necessity, but you do need mentors and peers to learn from. For myself, at least, the journey did have to go through the Rhode Island School of Design.

You've said that the British weekly 2000AD, home of Judge Dredd, was an early inspiration to draw and write comics. What was it that inspired you?
It wasn't just Dredd; what was interesting about the weeklies was that it featured four or five stories, each with different artists with very varied styles. Compared with things like Richie Rich or the DC and Marvel comics, there was much less of a house style. Combined with some of the brightest writing talent emerging, and it was just a feeling that the stories were on a cutting edge — which I think they actually were from the '80s to the '90s, with folks like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Simon Bisley, etc. all emerging. Lots of lightning in bottles.

You curated an anthology for Image Comics called Liquid City that featured comic artists from Southeast Asia. Is there a particular regional comic style or is it as diverse stylistically as it is culturally?
Aside from the influence of Lat on a section of Malaysian creators, I would have to say no — that's partly due to our position in between the east and west, and the fact that there hasn't been a really developed comics industry in Southeast Asia. So we end up drawing influences from places like the U.S., Japan, France, Hong Kong, etc. And as it gets filtered through each artist or collective, you end up with a very diverse collection of styles and approaches.

Your art style seems to have some Japanese influence mixed into it. The work you did in Sense and Sensibility, for example, has some panels that look almost like manga.
For Sense, yes — it was an attempt to break up the visual monotony in a story that featured mostly people in rooms having conversations. Also as a visual way of showing shifts in tone —in film and television, you have the benefit of music to help do that; with comics perhaps you're left more reliant on visuals. I'm sure there's some manga influence there — I've loved Doraemon, Astroboy, Akira, Yotsuba and more.

You do a lot of your own colouring. Is there a particular reason why you prefer to do it yourself?
I really enjoy the process: trying to figure out a palette that works for a scene or a story, tweaking it this way and that until it looks right. So if the scheduling for a book allows for it, I'll usually do the colors as well. For a DC or Marvel title though, you really have to break up the process and have a team working on a book to meet the schedules. Then it becomes a different mindset, seeing how all the different sensibilities come together to produce something new.

Ah Huat's Giant Robot from The Art of Charlie Chan Chock Hye

You've worked with Marvel, DC and Image; would you say that having a distinctive drawing style is more of a help or hindrance for breaking into the American comics industry?
Style is a very tricky thing to get a handle on — subject to changing tastes, specific editors. My sense is that it has a lot to do with timing and circumstances as well, having the right conversation with the right person at the right time. But those things you can't really control. You can only work at your storytelling, improve yourself technically, maybe try to absorb what influences you think will help improve your art. And then hope things fall your way.

Several of the comics you've drawn, like The Shadow Hero and the new incarnation of Dr. Fate, have racial minorities as protagonists. Have your own experiences as a minority in the American comics industry influenced your approach?
Not so much in the comics industry; more to do with experiences living in the U.K. and America. In Singapore, being Chinese, I never got a sense of being an outsider in terms of race, so it was a bit of a culture shock when I was there. If you're part of the majority it's really easy to see the whole socio-economic structure that supports you as a natural, given thing. And of course when you hear about movie studios trying to make an Akira movie with Caucasians in lead roles you think there's a need for a pushback, to make alternative voices seen and heard.

Would a Charlie Chan find an audience in today's Singapore?
Talent is a tricky thing to assess. I think the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis explored that a little, and to me that's one of the interesting questions raised in my book — just why did Chan fail in commercial terms? Was it bad luck, circumstance or talent? We would like to think that plain artistic merit and success go hand in hand, but I think the way the world works is more complicated than that.

A portrait of Charlie Chan

Do you think we rely too much on caricatures at the expense of heart? The one iconic Singaporean comic character everyone knows is Johnny Lau's Mr Kiasu. Even Charlie's Singaporean superhero was the Roachman, a nightsoil collector who gained super powers after getting bitten by a cockroach.  
I don't think nightsoil collectors are to be scoffed at, so I'm not too sure about the premise of the question! And roaches here in Asia have a different status then in most western countries, if only because of the relative size of the species here.

That said, I don't think the division between parody and heart is an accurate binary. There's no reason why parodies can't be heartfelt. It's maybe more a question of how deeply a work looks at the question raised, rather than the forms in which they are raised.

Now that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is done, what's the next story that you've been waiting to tell?
There are lots of story ideas and projects I want to work on, but time, time, time! All stories at some level boil down to trying to find our place in the world though, a way of understanding life. So maybe something to do with the modern state of capitalism next? Should be easy-peasy.

The second printing of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, published by Epigram Books, will be in stock at bookstores on 19 June.