Q&A: Sonny Liew on his heroes, the pressure of topping The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and using comics to teach

Image credits: Epigram Books

In our ‘Local Authors’ series, we speak to local writers to shed some insight on their works, thoughts and process.

In the two years since it came out, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has garnered numerous literary awards and nominations – the latest being six nods for the Eisner Awards – and made it to many end-of-year lists around the world, turning its creator Sonny Liew into arguably Singapore’s most well-known graphic novelist. We speak to Sonny about his mentors, the challenge of following up with an equally brilliant work and what he wants aspiring comics artists to know.

How did you get your start in comics?
My first paid gig was with The New Paper when I was 19. I sent in a comic strip I’d created called Frankie and Poo, and they happened to be looking to publish more local content back then, so I ended up drawing a strip for them five days a week for about a year. It was $30 per strip, which is very little moolah in one sense, but it still also seemed absurd and wonderful that anyone would pay me anything at all to write and draw my own comics.

Who were your heroes growing up, and how has their work influenced and informed your own work and worldview?
I loved all kinds of comics growing up – from The Beano to Lao Fu Zi, Spider-Man to Xiao Ding Dang… later on there was Mad Magazine and 2000AD, and still later Calvin and Hobbes. Maybe all those different art styles and ways of storytelling seeped into the brain, and made me interested in both the formal and visual aspects of the medium – in other words, to want to make comics that were visually appealing but also experimental in their storytelling.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won the Singapore Literature Prize 2016 for English Fiction and Book of the Year at the Singapore Book Awards 2016, made the bestsellers lists of The New York Times and Amazon, and was picked up by Pantheon Books in the US. Do you feel pressure to create another equally successful title?
You always hope your books will sell, but the only thing you really have control over is the writing and drawing in the book itself… so the pressure is less to do with success in terms of book sales, and more to do with wanting to come up with something as interesting as The Art of Charlie Chan without repeating the same narrative gambits.

Your book blends different art styles from traditional comic panels to sketches to oil paintings. How did you go about fitting them into the overall narrative?
I’d done some stories that combined different elements, where the parts told one story while the sum of those parts told another – stories-within-stories I suppose you could call it. The Art of Charlie Chan in some ways was a culmination of those experiments with storytelling.

Some cartoonists use the word “closure” to describe what happens in-between panels – how a reader can put together the whole story and fill in the gaps in their heads despite only seeing parts of it. That process happens reading any comic, but maybe what The Art of Charlie Chan tried to do was push it a little more, to have a story that you could somehow assemble in your head, despite all the different forms, objects, genres and art styles that appear in the book.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

You’ve said that you would love for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to be discussed in schools. What’s your take on the role of comic books to not only entertain and engage, but serve as teaching tools?
Anything can be used as a teaching tool – everything is connected so you can start with the simplest object and proceed to explain the world… If comic books can play a part, it would be because they combine words and images – which have always been powerful tools of communication for humans. They can make concepts and ideas more accessible, clearer. Not in the sense of dumbing things down but by engaging more of our cognitive tools and expressing those ideas in new ways.

Your work next appears in Femme Magnifique, a graphic novel anthology that chronicles the stories and achievements of 30 women throughout history. What attracted you to this project and why did you choose to illustrate Elizabeth Choy?
Shelly Bond was my editor for my first foray into American comics – from My Faith in Frankie (written by Mike Carey and inked by Marc Hempel), and headed the Vertigo imprint at DC Comics for a long time. So when she asked if I was keen to take part in her new project, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

There are so many inspirational lives of women to choose from, but  I thought I could focus on someone from Asia, so it came down to a choice between Choy and the Hong Kong film maker Ann Hui… and I picked Choy in the end so there’d be a story about a Singaporean in the anthology.

You studied illustration at Rhode Island School of Design and read philosophy at Cambridge University. How did those years shape you? Do you think you would have been a different person if you had remained in Singapore?
Well… the people you meet, the books you read, the teachers you study under – all these have a profound impact for sure. I’d never had formal art training before going to RISD, so teachers like Tony Janello, David Mazzucchelli and Nick Jainschigg helped open my eyes to a lot of new ideas and techniques.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened if I stayed in Singapore – I’d have had different experiences, but nature plays a role too. I’d be Same Same but Different!

While designers, illustrators and writers are able to make a decent living here, the same can’t be said for comics artists. What are your thoughts on the local comics scene and what do you think can be done to create a more nurturing environment, especially in growing the next generation of artists?
Well if you mean in terms of working within the local comics industry that’s definitely true – we don’t have any kind of infrastructure here to support a comics career. But given the way the world is connected nowadays, there is no reason why you can’t be a comics artist and be based in Singapore. It might be a little harder networking from a distance, but other than that modern technology allows you to work from anywhere in the world.

If we want a local industry to grow, that’s a more complicated question…  we’d need all the stakeholders – readers, publishers, creators, bookstores, schools, traditional and social media influencers, private investors, convention organisers – to all be engaged, or find ways of engaging all of them.

In the Singapore context, the State is also a major factor – we are often misidentified as some sort of neoliberal free market economy despite the ginormous role the government plays in all aspects of life here. But that’s also a complicated issue given that the State has its own needs and agendas.

What advice do you have for aspiring comics artists?
Put your work out there and learn from the process and feedback. Creating comics is a skill, a craft – it’s something you get better at with practice. You’ll be able to understand your strengths and weaknesses by just sitting down to create the comics and seeing how others react to them.

What comic books would you recommend for children in pre-school or primary school?
Classics like Peanuts, Astro Boy, Kampung Boy and Calvin and Hobbes will always have a place in any library. They’re beautifully drawn and accessible but you can also grow up with them, seeing new meanings and layers as you learn more about the world. For more contemporary material, publishers like Scholastics, Boom and First Second put out a lot of great titles every year for younger readers.

Are there any pet projects that you’ve been wanting to bring to life for the longest time?
I always have half a dozen stories I’d like to work on at any given time. The Art of Charlie Chan was one of them, until it actually got done!

Lastly, what would you be doing if you weren’t drawing comics?
I have a romanticised notion of what it would be like to be a private eye. Actually I probably have a romanticised notion of every other career – from selling books to veterinary medicine. And I’m still filled with illusions about the comics business, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

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