SINGAPORE, March 8 — When is a comic not a comic? When it’s so much more.
Part graphic novel, part art book, part narrative essay, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Malaysian-born, Eisner Award nominated comic artist and illustrator Sonny Liew is a look at Singapore unlike any other before. By reflecting on the life and work of a comic creator whose career spanned half a century, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye comments wryly on Singapore’s past and present while honouring comics as a storytelling medium.
Singapore-based Liew’s past work include the Xeric-awarded Malinky Robot as well as titles for DC Vertigo, Marvel, First Second Books, and Disney. However, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye represents a long-desired opportunity for him to work locally.
The journey began when Singaporean publisher Epigram Books approached a group of local creators in 2013 to produce a series of graphic novels. Liew recalls, “It was exciting for us at the time because we’d been complaining for years that local publishers weren’t willing to take a chance on local comics.”
Since then Epigram Books has published several graphic novels including Koh Hong Teng’s Ten Sticks and One Rice and Cheah Sin Ann’s The Bicycle. Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was supposed to be part of the first wave of graphic novels, but it turned into a much bigger project than initially anticipated.
“The other books tend to be collections of old and new material, or else they were done in black-and-white or monotone. Most were maybe 100 to 120 pages long. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is about 320 pages, mostly in full colour, so that meant it needed more work,” he says.
Liew had always wanted to do a book that combined a history of local comic creators with a history of Singapore during the tumultuous post-World War II era. Working with a Singaporean publisher was ideal as it meant he didn’t need to worry if the book would have any international appeal. In other words, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an authentically local project without diluting its message to make it more palatable for a global audience.
The irony is that this approach worked in the book’s favour as it stands out from more mainstream fare. Somehow both topical and timeless, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a multi-layered celebration of storytelling through the lens of one comic creator. Chan doubles here as both the narrator and the subject matter. His life story parallels the changes in Singapore over five decades since the war; the evolution of his artwork mirrors the evolution of the comic book medium. The different art styles employed go beyond deft sleight-of-hand and actually inform the narrative. This is no humdrum, pasted-together art book.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye differs from Liew’s past projects as he incorporates pages from Chan’s own comics into the book. “At first it was supposed to be a traditional art book, i.e. samples of artwork interspersed with essays, featuring as many comic artists as I could possibly fit in. Part of the rationale was that writing is usually a lot quicker than drawing. Typically, in mainstream comics, script writers can write a 20-page comic in a week, but the artist will take at least a month to draw it.”
After mulling the idea over though, Liew realised that he had never really read any of the art books he owned. He says, “The Art of Daniel Clowes, The Art of Jack Kirby, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, etc. — these are essentially coffee-table books; things that you flipped through now and then, reading a couple of essays that piqued your interest. But they didn’t tend to compel a linear reading experience. Doing a book on multiple artists also presented similar problems of focus and narrative drive, along with requiring a lot more research.”
Ultimately, Liew sharpened the book’s focus to feature a single artist and decided to replace essays with comics. He was mainly influenced by other essayist comic creators such as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comics.
“While this meant easing things up in one aspect, i.e. only one artist featured, it also opened up a whole can of worms in another aspect, i.e. the amount of drawings now needed to replace the essays,” he says.
The challenge now was to blend the essay-style comics of Chan drawn by Liew with samples of Chan’s artwork into a cohesive, linear and compelling narrative. Liew also had to do a lot of research. “It’s about getting a firm enough grip on the history of Singapore so I do not present a factually inaccurate or distorted version of events, which meant trying to understand Singapore’s history in a deeper way that I had before.”
In creating comics, Liew’s personal process begins with the initial idea conception. “After settling on one artist and a comics-to-replace-essays approach, it was a matter of figuring out the overall narrative structure. Biography is still storytelling and I’d never done a narrative this long before. Before, it was mostly just short strips or fictional stories such as Malinky Robot.”
To compensate for this, he delved deeply into traditional storytelling techniques. “I learned about protagonists, inciting incidents, conflicts, resolutions — all the usual things you find in the so-called ‘plot arc’ so that despite the much longer length, there would still be a strong narrative thread running through the story to draw in and compel readers.”
Other areas Liew had to figure out included the design of layouts and the fonts used for the labelling of artwork as The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye still retains the art book element. “In addition, there were a lot of thumbnails, which I had to revise over and over until the story seemed to flow correctly. After that, it’s the actual artwork – lots of drawing, erasing, inking, scanning, and colouring.”
There is still much drawing, inking and scanning in Liew’s future. His next comic will be Dr Fate with writer Paul Levitz (formerly the Publisher and President of DC Comics). Looks like the best is yet to come from Liew, whose growing award-winning portfolio can be summarised in that immortal comic cliff-hanger: “To be continued...”
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will be out at all good bookstores in early April. To learn more about Sonny Liew and his work, visit http://sonnyliew.wordpress.com.