Talking Comics with Sonny Liew
Sonny Liew is something of a personal hero to me. Growing up, my biggest ambition was really to become a comic book writer (that I've failed at miserably, in case you're wondering). Having spent several years just constantly visiting the now-defunct Comics Mart in Serene Centre and eventually working there for some time, all I ever wanted to do was to tell stories through the medium.
I'll be honest. Before the National Arts Council pulled its grant for Liew's 2015 The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (that we reviewed over here), I had only heard of Sonny Liew from Liquid City, a comic anthology he edited and contributed to in 2008. The NAC cited, "The retelling of Singapore's history in the graphic novel potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions and thus breaches our funding guidelines, which are published online and are well known in the arts community." Because of the online backlash, I decided to pick up a copy and fell in absolute love with exactly how smart the writing and concept was.
We recently got to sit down with Liew and have a little chat about his work.
Sean Mossadeg: I am a huge fan of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I thought everything about it was amazing. Let's talk about the art though - the crazy number of styles used AND the fact that the storyline called for it was just genius. How'd you do it?
Sonny Liew: In my early works, before this, I had to experiment with different styles for other comics. But a lot of styles in this particular book I hadn’t tried before. So I had to sort of learn it on the fly. Some of it I already knew from what I had read over the years and having been in the comic industry for a while so I kinda had a vague sense. But for this book, the methodology was to do a timeline of Singapore’s history and to do a timeline of comicbook history and see what would match and what could be a good fit for the particular historical period.
SM: So why'd you choose Singapore history?
SL: Looking back, I think the trigger point would be a book called No Man is an Island by James Minchin (note: the author is allegedly banned from entering Singapore) which is sort of this historical biography on Lee Kuan Yew but it was quite critical. So that kind of opened my eyes to the idea that there maybe a sort of a different story, that’s not found in the mainstream and not found in textbooks here.
SM: Yeah, I think it was quite interesting because after reading through, I started searching a little bit more and you realise that there are other parts of the story that have been out there and not quite covered. But back to you, how did you first start out in art?
SL: All kids start drawing by copying, you know? Mickey Mouse and whatever it is. My sister and I would copy all this cartoons when we were kids. In fact, I think my sister was a better artist than I was when we were growing up. But she stopped at some point and I didn’t, and that's the main thing. Most kids draw naturally and then it’s a matter of letting you find the motivation or some kind of inclination to continue or not. And I was self-taught up till I finally went to art school in my 20's.
SM: And before that, you were reading philosophy (at Clare College in Cambridge University). It seemed like your parents were pretty chill at the idea of what you wanted to be versus what they wanted.
SL: My dad is a doctor, so he always had hopes that my sister and I become doctors. He was never like insistent about it. He kind of had this hope in the back of his mind, but he would never say, “You must become a doctor.” I think the fact that my sister went into economics and became a banker at one point, allowed me more leeway and they became more lenient. That’s sort of how a family works right? If one sibling is responsible, the other can be a little bit less so.
SM: So from studying art, graduating and then working with Mike Carey (author of graphic novels such as Lucifer, Hellblazer and several X-Men runs) is pretty damned cool. Would you consider working with Carey on My Faith in Frankie as a highlight?
SL: That was like, my first big gig after art school, I think. So, it definitely was a highlight but not just working with him but the fact that it was also a DC/Vertigo comic book. I'm a huge fan of The Sandman, so it was quite a wow factor. But it was quite a long process from there to here. I mean that first book that I did with them, I was supposed to do all the art - pencils and inking. I finished the first issue and they came back to me in a very polite way, “We think you might need an inker to come on board and polish things a little bit.” So I had to just do the pencils and Marc Hempel did the ink. So, a lot of things I thought I knew, even at that stage, I realised I wasn't quite there yet. I've had to learn to paint better, colour better, ink better.
SM: What’s the process like? I mean, did you sit down with Carey himself, or was it like a very sourced sorta situation?
SL: No, I mean at that point, working over the net was pretty well-established. I met him a few times at different comic cons but for the work, we just mostly e-mailed.
SM: Do you think there is, especially with these sort of things where a lot of the work is outsourced across the world, a need for more "geographically-close" creative teams? I mean, the Golden Age of comics had like writers and artists, both working on something together like day in and day out. Was it necessarily better?
SL: It definitely still happens with, I’m guessing graphic novels like Saga.
SM: Yeah, I don't think Brian Vaughan works with anyone besides Fiona (Staples) right now.
SL: Yeah, that kinda partnership still exists today definitely and some teams are still very close. If you look at someone like Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, who are both incredible artists and writers, they've done several books together and that still isn't lost in the industry. I think it’s just more varied nowadays. I think in the industry back in the 1950s and '60s probably, everyone had to work, say in the Marvel bullpen. Now we can be together or you can be far apart and I think that’s a good thing. Thirty years ago, I would have had to move to the U.S. to do work. I think things, generally are better. Everything from contracts to pay rates have all gone up so no complains at this point of time.
SM: What inspires you these days?
SL: I suppose The Wire would be one of them, the TV series. Partly because I think David Simon does two things - a great job at storytelling but also stories that are politically or socially relevant. And that really interests me because I suppose I like to try and do the same for my comics. I'd like my work to be able to be relevant to the world today but also, presented by good storytelling. Hmm. So, him. Who else? Comics wise, I like Chris Ware. He did ACME Novelty Library, Jimmy Corrigan. Him and Daniel Clowes really pushed the formal language of comics and that's something that really intrigues me.
SM: How would you define the language of comics then?
SL: At its core, it's just pictures and words, right? And then how do they interact and what do they… *snaps fingers* I’ll show you an example. (Liew's nice enough to bring out Ware's ACME Novelty Library) So what Chris Ware does is he designs every single element including the "advertisements" that are inside. So you can see how this inspired Charlie Chan. The text itself on the ads is actually all part of the story. Or at least part of the tone, of the story. And there is this section where he does this sort of Superman-character, this hero guy that ends up in jail. And then he starts drawing these hieroglyphs. If you look very closely, these symbols actually retell the story of everything. Yeah, and you can find them on the spine as well, another retelling. I think he is probably the most experimental writer and yet, he's clear about it. The book in itself becomes just another way to tell a story. It's something that I try to bring to my work.
SM: Yeah, I think the alternative comic scene is something we don't get exposed to much? I've been reading mainstream for years and years. It tends to be a "finish reading then forget about it" sorta thing. Yeah, it's very rare that something makes you go, "Whoa."
SL: Oh, and what was the last one to make you do that?
SM: (floundering) Oh, err... not to sound like a fanboy but really, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. But I don't know. I've been lazy as hell in buying comics. I just pick up whatever Kinokuniya's pushing. Haven't bought a single issue (the thin comics and not collected ones) in years.
SL: Yeah, I do the same now.
SM: Okay, so in a local context, the literature scene in Singapore has seen a lot being done. A lot of anthologies that are being produced, a lot of local publishers are pushing content and the writers as well that are pushing the boundaries. What else do you think can be done?
SL: Everyone involved in the industry asks this question, like, “How do we get more sales, more people involved?” Almost all the art in Singapore is heavily dependent on grants or donations. I was under the impression that theatre for example would make money, like Hotel (by W!ld Rice) but I found out through my involvement with SIFA that it wasn't quite the case. And they told me, “No, even Hotel makes a few hundred thousand dollars, but that doesn’t cover the half a million dollar cost of production. They are still dependent on grants and donations. So it would seem like the solution is more money? But, then I talk to the NAC and they told me that the issue is that government budget is based on surveys of the population with what they want and they, the population, want a bus stop near their houses, and not the arts. So the government is limited in its range of what it can give to the arts. So as an artist or a writer, the only thing you can do is try to produce good work. That in theory should push attention, should push sales, and should push sort of some credibility. There are a lot of other things the industry can improve - better editors, better marketing, better everything. For writers and artists themsellves, I think it’s just about making good books.
SM: So can you tell us more about your new stage production Becoming Graphic for SIFA? Because reading the pitch, I just can't imagine it.
(Becoming Graphic will see Liew's work transformed into a play on stage, helmed by theatre director Edith Podesta)
SL: Okay, the pitch was just something we had to put up (laughs). And I remember thinking, “I’m not sure this is actually how it'll pan out so I'm not sure if we should put i in.” I mean, I finished the thumbnail for the comic that is supposed to set the stage for the play and now I'm drawing the art for it. Some of which will be finished on stage. So Edith (Podesta) is building a play around this story and an early part of the process we did a few weeks ago was to go through a lot of comic books and discuss the language of comics. She's new to the medium so we were trying to look at new ways of translating comics to theatre. Interesting things like how do you do framing, how you replicate the way we have speech bubbles and all that. So we've spent a lot of time experimenting with it on the stage.
SM: Would it look like a play or more like a play inspired by graphic novels? I suppose the balance is a hard thing to strike.
SL: Well, it's meant to be both. The framing's probably one of the more interesting bits. We've managed to create a sense of comic framework by using light and shadows. Everything isn't fully done yet, so I can’t quite explain it. But I have seen interesting things in the first few weeks of pre-production and rehearsals. Edith is a great playwright and director so I've no doubt that it'll end up really interesting.
SM: Apart from the SIFA project, what else are you concentrating on?
SL: I've a trip to the San Diego Comic Con and I’m partly working on my next graphic novel that I've been telling people it's about capitalism. It’s gonna take another two or three years to finish like Charlie Chan and in between, I’m talking to DC about other projects and other publishers as well.
SM: I've a question about the industry now actually. Growing up with several comic characters, do you mourn them when you feel like they have lost their soul in some sense?
SL: *laughs* You mean like when they turned Captain America into a Hydra agent? I thought we’ve invested in the comic spirit for quite a long time. I still like Spider-Man, Batman but it feels more like a memory thing and also based on the new movies. I don’t have a huge attachment... Also, a lot of changes happen in an alternative universe sorta thing and they can go back anytime they want. So I don’t feel like it's ever permanent so not that big a deal. There was a time after The Dark Knight that comics became quite dark and violent. It lost some of that innocence of Spider-Man in the Stan Lee era, but again, nowadays things are so varied. I think the new Batgirl is supposed to be very fun, right? And I think Marvel and DC are now very conscious about having to diversify. So they are doing stories that are more female reader-friendly as well and more diverse.
SM: Is the onus on creators to include more diversity in their cast, say their stories and everything? Like in The Art of Charlie Chan, which focuses on a young Chinese boy, who grows up to be a Chinese man - did you get any diversity-skewed feedback?
SL: I think if you have awareness of the problem and you make decisions based on that, then that should be the key. For example in Charlie Chan, I’ve been told that I left out women's roles and LGBT issues. And to be honest, I didn’t even think about it. Women's issues, I did a little in the sense that history tends to forget a lot of these things and I was wondering if it made sense for the book. But as for the LGBT rights (in context of the book), if I had thought about it while writing, would I have put it in? I don’t know.
SM: But also with the context of the era that Charlie Chan was based in.
SL: Yeah, maybe in the last few pages. Instead of drawing Scrooge and talking about money laundering, I should've done that. I would say that it’s good to raise these issues, so that the people in office that need to be aware are aware of these things. But at the end of the day, you have to see if it fits into your story. Like Charlie Chan focuses a lot on Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, but at the expense of people like Goh Keng Swee. And that was done in order to keep the book manageable, right? Otherwise, you'd have a sprawling cast. So I think if you are aware and you make choices that are for the story, I think you can justify it. As opposed to you know, shoehorning characters to make sure that every race is represented.
At the time of our interview, Sonny Liew was nominated for six Eisners. He ended up winning three categories, Best U.S. Edition of International Material—Asia, Best Writer/Artist, and Best Publication Design for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. We sent over our congratulations and asked Liew a few more questions via email.
SM: So, what did winning for those three categories feel like?
SL: A little surreal - it was very gratifying, but took a while to sink in. I'd gone in fully expecting not to win any given how strong the other candidates in all the categories were but I do admit by the time the last one rolled around, I thought the book stood a good chance but it was the year of Wonder Woman. :)
SM: You're the subject of a lot of scrutiny right now. Is there a little resentment to people trying to use your art as a political agenda?
SL: Hmm... Not as far as I'm aware. I think anyone who reads the book will see that it's a balanced account. The wider issue is really the nature of arts funding in Singapore, and I think what's important is to have more dialogue between the NAC and the arts community. We're in a relationship of a kind after all, and communication is key to helping the arts grow and flourish here.
SM: Is there anything you'd like to tell readers in regards to the NAC?
SL: Just that there needs to be more dialogue, rather than antagonism and silence.