Sonny Liew Interview
By: Graca Guimaraes
"The sheer diversity of human life means that what counts as important can be somewhat subjective, or at least a niche affair. But insofar as historical matters which can shape us and affect how we behave and think, then a more inclusive account would surely be a good thing."
Graphic novels are used as a powerful medium to convey history and politics. At the same time, they can ignite a new concept of history telling. Eisner Award nominated Sonny Liew talks to BW about his epic and somewhat controversial political graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and why there is need to redeem Singapore’s ‘untold’ history.
B is for... book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Too many to really choose from, but I remember Roger Hargreave’s Mr. Men books having a particular flavor (especially in their illustrations) that I still can’t put my finger on.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Maybe a Dodo - just to see the reactions. And hopefully I won’t get dissected in the name of science or eaten.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A copy of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and a Swiss Army Knife. Hopefully, one will make me feel knowledgeable enough to put the other to good use! Although I’d probably still end up eating poisoned berries. Also, a lot depends on just what sort of desert island this is. (Almost) Everything is contextual after all.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
I wouldn’t really.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
For Graphic Novelists I would have to say Chris Ware. For novels, perhaps Don Delillo.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Banana Milk - even if that’s technically a drink.
When and why did you start creating comics?
Well, my first paid gig was for a local (Singaporean) tabloid called the New Paper which I did a daily strip for about a year at the age of 19. I caught the narrative bug after that and have spent the rest of the time trying to make this comics ‘thing’ a viable career. My parents were incredibly supportive, if constantly worried. The fact that I had completed a degree also helped in giving the illusion of having a fall-back plan. An illusion really - because I’d never planned to fall back on anything and also because it was a degree in Philosophy.
I suppose David Mazzucchelli at the Rhode Island School of Design would be the one teacher that had the most impact (in comics terms). He was the first person I’d met who had experienced and understood the comics industry. Though I’d also probably include folks like Anthony Janello, Nick Jainschigg and Bob Selby who helped shaped my approach to Art more generally.
I remember wanting to do everything during the art school days – painting, sculpting, caricatures, children’s books and concept art. I’ve mostly stuck to comics I suppose partly out of inclination, but also as a matter of choice. I went to art school with the express purpose of wanting to learn to ‘do’ better comics. Also, I thought it made sense to stick with it (comics) even though other possible avenues opened up along the way.
What are your influences and inspirations?
There really are too many to speak of - in the wider sense. Everything from family and friends, to movies and music and of course other comics, which would include everyone from Bill Watterson to Daniel Clowes, Yoshiharu Tsuge to Alan Moore. But for the present, I’d hazard to say that I’m interested to try to do a little of what David Simon (creator of The Wire) has done - that is to have enough knowledge and mastery of narrative forms to tell a really compelling story whilst having something of real purpose to say. Or in his own words from an interview I saw on YouTube:
“I'm not really interested in making entertainment. I know it has to be entertaining, and it has to draw people in and the characters have to be worthy. I know what the form is... but if at the end of the day I've just entertained you, and there hasn't been an argument within the piece, than I've shamed myself in front of my father's ghost."
We would love to hear about your collaboration to bring to life Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and also Warm Nights, Deathless Days, The Life of Georgette Chen?
For the Austen book, I’d gotten involved in an earlier adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (working on some of the covers for that title). I guess they liked my previous work enough to invite me to get involved with the interior work for Sense and Sensibility.
Looking further back, I think my work on books like Malinky Robot, Wonderland and My Faith in Frankie has sort of meant I was known for an art style often described as ‘whimsical and quirky’ which possibly meant it seemed suited for Jane Austen adaptations.
Sense and Sensibility and the The Life of Georgette Chen were quite different in the sense that with the former I was illustrating from a script, while I was doing both the writing and drawing for the latter. If you’re working off a script, part of the goal is to bring the writer’s vision to life, so you mostly focus on getting a visual look and what you feel best suits the narrative.
With a book like The Life of Georgette Chen, I had more leeway to pursue my own narrative approach – the story here was told in the form of daily and weekend comic strips. It was a form that I thought made sense by its ability to capture the rhythms of a life over several decades.
I don’t suppose there are any hard and fast rules for creating comics. For myself, I like to tinker with the story structure until everything is just right. So, I spend quite a bit of time working out the story in the thumbnail stage. I guess that’s a lot like what animation studios do with their storyboarding process.
Your work seems to have mixed influences from a simple retro comic style to artwork that would not look out of place in an art gallery. Was it difficult to maintain both balance and cohesion when you were creating The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?
Hmm… well the central idea behind the book was quite clear from the get go – it would be a telling of Singapore’s history through the lens and form of a fictional comics history. But the exact nature of the book evolved quite a bit. What had been intended as a book with essays and image excerpts of the works with a whole slew of fictional creators ultimately evolved into focusing on one artist (with the written essays transmuted into more comics, Scott McCloud-style).
I don’t think there are exact rules on the decision-making process (a lot of which is intuitive). For my part, I thought that a book covering so much historical ground and containing so many breaks of styles needed to be simpler in other areas. So, some elements were pared down to ensure the narrative was more manageable both on the creative side and for the reader.
I always knew that the book would take on an “Art of…” book format and part of the challenge was to make it all readable somehow. I thought it was at least possible based on prior experimentations in books like Malinky Robot: Bicycle and The Life of Georgette Chen. In these books, the trick was to try to introduce different elements in a gradual and subtle manner – sort of trying to show the reader how to read the book even as they were reading it.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye covers the history of Singapore. Why did you decide to write about this subject?
I’ve spent the bulk of my life here in Singapore and had always been vaguely aware that there were contesting accounts that challenged the dominant historical narrative. The so-called “Singapore Story” was told by the ruling party but any knowledge of both the dominant and alternative accounts were patchy at best. So, I wanted to try to get to grips with things and see if I could craft a story around whatever understanding emerged.
To put it into perspective, you’d have to imagine a United States where only one party has been in charge of all branches of the government and the power they would have been able to wield over the historical discourse.
Ultimately though, I’d argue that it’s not about presenting a revisionist history as much as a more inclusive one - which while it may lose some of the black and white certainty, is also more truthful to the richness of the country’s past.
In The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye you show a historical narrative of Singapore seen through the eyes of some of the leaders of the now defunct Barisan Sosialis party. Is Singapore’s historical narrative something that has deeply affected your life and work?
Well, I grew up reading a lot of Mad Magazine. From that, I maybe learnt to always be skeptical of authority. So even that first paid gig was a comic strip about political and social issues here (Singapore).
Is any of it really important? That’s a harder argument to make because we’ll all always have our own areas of concern and the sheer diversity of human life means that what counts as important can be somewhat subjective, or at least a niche affair.
But insofar as historical matters which can shape us and affect how we behave and think, then a more inclusive account would surely be a good thing.
How was the writing process of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?
There was a lot of research involved – mostly reading of secondary material. The primary research of interviews was mostly confined to getting a feel of how life felt like in the 50s and 60s rather than getting actual facts.
The book was also a much longer narrative than anything I’d ever tried before, so there were a lot of things I needed to learn about storytelling and structure. Books by the likes of John Truby and Robert McKee were excellent primers and guides. I know these how-to-write-a-screenplay books sometimes get derided for being overly simplistic, but for me they really did contain a lot of sound advice. After all, you can take and leave what you want from them.
Looking back at it, all parts of the process were challenging and engaging. So, I wouldn’t really say I enjoyed any part more than another.
We understand that your grant from The National Arts Council of Singapore was retracted due to the political narratives in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. How you do foresee the future for young writers in Singapore. From your experiences, what advice would you leave with a new writer?
The National Arts Council of Singapore's grant guidelines all contain the caveats that they cannot support works that:
“Advocate or lobby for lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public.”
“Denigrate or debase a person, group or class of individuals on the basis of race or religion, or serve to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society.”
“Undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the nation’s security or stability.”
Which are guidelines I’m sure they have their reasons for, but which in application can be arbitrary, and which allows the NAC to not support one of Art’s primary functions – which is to be challenging and dangerous, to speak out against the prejudices of the “general public” and talk about things that can undermine institutions. Which is an odd and somewhat contradictory position for an Arts Council to be taking. It might mean that we end up losing a lot of voices and end up with an Arts scene dominated by the well-enough-to-do middle and upper classes.
Having said that, the withholding or withdrawal of grants is not quite the same thing as prosecution or the banning of artworks. We have to acknowledge that the means of control in Singapore are much more subtle than what other artists face in other countries. So, it wouldn’t be my place to offer any advice to those who have to show much more courage in speaking out.
Historically, comics have often been used for political propaganda. How do you regard the relationship between comics and politics? Do you think superheroes fulfill a socio-political hole in people?
I think comics are ultimately best seen as a medium like any other. It’s political role is just one manifestation of the types of narratives it can tell.
The visual aspect of comics of course has always made it a potent form of communication - as it’s a relatively cheap means of production and distribution. I’d even throw in the notion of comics as a juvenile medium as a double-edged sword - one that misunderstands the medium, but also allows it to potentially deliver messages under the radar.
As for superheroes – I think they certainly could (fill a socio-political hole). However (at least in their movie form) they tend too much to lean towards an empty spectacle. Many of which I’ve enjoyed, but come on – anyone who thinks that any of the Captain America movies made any serious political point or in any way comes close to being a proper political thriller is just deluding themselves.
What is the next drawing in Sonny Liew’s life?
My run on DC Comic’s Doctor Fate just ended, but there’s a second volume of the trade collection out soon https://www.amazon.com/Doctor-Fate-Vol-Prisoners-Past/dp/1401264921
You can follow me on instagram https://www.instagram.com/sonny_liew or even support me on Patreon Comics is a lot of hard work, after all - whatever myths we might have been told!
And of course if readers haven’t read The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye yet, do visit the book’s website here or get a copy at their favorite bookstore or even Amazon.