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Interview: Sonny Liew

An alternate Singapore – that’s the crux of cartoonist Sonny Liew’s new graphic novel, Chen Huiyun finds out

It looks as though the Flash himself stirred up a hurricane in Sonny Liew’s office. There are comic books strewn about everywhere – but one in particular catches our eye: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The graphic novel tells a sprawling tale that refracts the history of the Lion City through the world-weary eyes of the titular character, a significant yet forgotten homegrown cartoonist. And, like Liew’s studio, The Art of Charlie Chan is a whirlwind of styles. He hopscotches across Silver Age panelling, pencil sketches, children’s book art, and more. It is the Malaysian-born, Singapore-based Liew’s magnum opus, and will surely rank among the finest examples of local literature. The artist tells us more.

'We associate comics with a less mature medium – although it isn't, really'

What’s the story behind this project?

Part of it is doing something about Singapore. I’ve done comics about local issues, but for a pretty long stretch of time, I did work for US publishers. Two to three years ago, I thought it was a good time to reconnect with things that are closer to home. It is about home in a sense.

There’s no denying the political commentary in the book. As an artist, do you feel compelled to use your art to tackle such weighty themes?

Most creators would say that certain things engage them, and they wanna express that. I’ve always been interested in Singapore’s history and politics to a certain degree. This sounds abstract, but I believe that there’s a common humanity between people, especially Singaporeans from the same background.

Comics are a visual and literary thing combined. I think it might give a different entry point into Singapore history and culture, given that most see comics as a juvenile medium. Partly because of the prominence of superheroes in the mainstream, we associate the pictures with a less mature medium – although it isn’t, really. While that association is not good for the medium, it does help: someone would rather read this book as opposed to a history textbook. The challenge is for me to make the narrative accessible and compelling despite the dense content.

You’ve also published several other works, including Warm Nights, Deathless Days and The Shadow Hero. Is there a general vision you have for your works?

I’ve tried to take charge of the direction a little bit. But overall, in the larger scheme of things, the main goal is to reach a point at which you can do your personal projects and make it commercially viable. That’s the main pull for creators. The ideal we aim for is to bring the two together.

Growing up, who were your favourite comic book characters?

I remember reading a lot of British comics like The Beano, Dennis the Menace and all those guys. And also a lot of Hong Kong comics like Lao Fuzi and Xiao Ding Dang back then. By the time I hit junior college, my favourite comics were 2000 AD and Judge Dredd.

Any advice for aspiring comic writers?

It takes hard work, talent and luck, as with any other career. Get your work seen out there, whether it’s through self-publishing or the internet. No matter how good you are, nobody’s gonna know unless you put your work out there.  

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is available at all major bookstores.

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