Talking to Sonny Liew about Singapore and comics

Singpore-based comic artist Sonny Liew came to Seattle last Monday, promoting his new graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (we reviewed the book that day, as well). I sat down with him at Elliott Bay Book Company to talk about his art, the book, politics in Singapore, and his inspirations. This is an edited transcript of the talk.

We published a review of this book today, and it is so good. It's so much fun to read and it's so interesting in a lot of different ways, but one of the things I said in my review was that it really seemed kind of like a love letter to Singapore. Is that a fair thing to say?

I would think so. We did have some problems with the National Arts Council, you might have heard of. Before it was published in Singapore last year they… Initially we had gotten a grant from the National Arts Council to publish a book but when they actually saw the thing in print they decided to withdraw the grant… So it's not really like a love letter, it's like a poison pen maybe.

Do you know specifically what it was that caused them to withdraw?

The clause that they invoked cited that the book undermined government authority I think? Something like that.

But you don't know what part of the book it was?

No, I think it was different parts of it. It wasn't one particular chapter or particular panel.

I've heard you say that you did a lot of research, obviously, it's in the book, but that it wasn't necessarily something that you were taught in Singapore growing up. It was something you came to on your own and decided to do your own research?

Pretty much. Singapore has had a one party in charge for the last 50 years; ever since independence we have one ruling party, which is not unusual in the world. What does make it unusual is it is a fairly relaxed government so it does have the support of the people and been in charge 50 years, but what that 50 years means is that the party is able to tell its version of history for you know, the so-called "Singapore Story". I think a lot of us in Singapore… maybe you read that there is, I want to say, an alternative version of it? Maybe a more inclusive version of history that's been left out.

It wasn't until I started doing a book and doing research that I started to understand what this more inclusive history looked like.

Is there a history at all of comics as an art form? Maybe not speaking back to government as much as you do in yours but is there a history of that?

To some extent. I think in the '50s and the '60s there were a lot of Chinese artists making wood cuts. It turned out to be socialist, left leaning, definitely pro-independence. The wood cuts would depict the ordinary life and how difficult it was under British rule, but I think once PAP got in power they very consciously clamped down on upon cartoons especially of PAP leaders because they were very aware of the power of cartoonists to influence people. I think from '60s onwards, sort of little cutting multiple comics up to present day. I think there was a guy called, I want to say, Leslie Chew, who does an online comic called Demon-cratic and he actually ended up in jail for a couple of days when someone complained about his posting on something or the other.

What influenced you growing up then? I'm assuming lots of Western comics, Golden Age stuff?

A mixture. I used to read The Beano a lot from the UK, Dandy, Spiderman, Richie Rich. Also from Asia; things like Old Master Q from Hong Kong. There's a children's comic called Er Tong Le Yuan ["Children's Paradise"] which is featured in the book. So yeah, I think in Singapore you get books from East and West, a mixture of things.

Every book is essentially made up of semi-arbitrary rules that you set for yourself

Then it's a really interesting conceit that you had for the book, which is that you create this character who has been a comic book artist in Singapore since the fifties and commenting on current events, but also just trying to make good comics and find a life and success doing it. Was it ever your intent to… you don't pass him off as a real person but it kind of is a little bit of a wink, like you never really state anywhere in the promotional materials or anything that he's fake, or that he's made-up, I should say. In the back of the book it says it's fictional, but then I saw there was a book trailer that you made for the book and it actually had an actor, someone who looked very much like him in the comic book, who was looking around at stuff.

I think when making the book I did kind of toy with the idea whether or not to make it clear that he was fictional at some point in the book, like maybe near the end I would reveal that this is a fictional construct, but I think ultimately by trying as hard as I could to keep the illusion it gave me sort of a structure to build the book around. Every book is essentially made up of semi-arbitrary rules that you set for yourself and this is one of those rules that I made up for this book and I think it makes the reading experience more interesting for the reader. If they don't know that he's fictional they can be one way and then when they find that he is fictional they might have a different experience of it, and that has to happen quite a few times. Even Kirkus Review here describes Charlie Chan as a real person so some people have been convinced that he's real and that's pretty interesting for me to see.

I had that. I had a moment reading it too where I was like, 'Oh, this is a real comic book artist that I've never heard of!' And then I thought, well, I know nothing about art from Southeast Asia, Singapore especially, and so I wouldn't have known about him probably, especially if he'd never made a life out here. So it kind of put me in this position where it was interesting, I was like, 'Oh, I don't know if he's real or not' and that kind of changed it for a little bit and so I kind of came around, of course, but it was really kind of a cool reading experience to not know and then to have to face that, and what it means to not know. There's a scene where he goes to the San Diego Comic-Con that kind of plays like that a little bit.

You set in 1988. Why did you decide to set it in '88? Is there something special about that year at Comic-Con?

To be honest it was one of the years I mentioned finding photographs of on the internet. I googled it and found an image of the catalog for that year. It's kind of hard to find all the imagery from all different years and that year when I found the catalog and some photos I figured I could fake his trip to this Comic-Con.

I love that. Actually through the book there's a lot of taped-in photographs or examples of newspaper clippings or the comic books that look very old, that look like your shot reproductions, so from a technique point of view, how did you approach the aging of it? Was that kind of a thing unto itself I would imagine?

Making comics look old is a lot easier these days with digital tools like Photoshop. If you go online you can find at least half a dozen tutorials on how to not just add the texture to make it look old, but also to color it so it looks like it's screen-printed, the little dots and everything. So I guess the trickiest part was to find and scan and show old paper.

So I'd go to book stores and look for old books and usually it's only the front page you can scan because it's got the least text on it, so I bought like a whole bunch of old books and scan them to create textures.

What's your technique in relation to digital work? Like, you do a lot of pen and ink and then digital coloring or…?

Yeah, most of the coloring in the book is done on computer. The only exception, the oil paintings which are actual oil paintings, and the drawings themselves are usually inked, like traditional ink, so I will scan those in and then add textures and colors to make them look old.

I know you studied at RISD, Rhode Island School of Design. What influence did you find there in that environment as opposed to, I don't know, just working on your own or trying to just work only from books? You have access to some of the best teachers in the United States, teaching a pretty traditional program.

There were a lot of great teachers there, painting and drawing and everything else, but I suppose the most direct influence would be a guy called David Mazzucchelli, who worked on Daredevil, Batman and then went on to make his own more indie comics. I think his last book is called Asterios Polyp which is a really amazing book. So he was actually the first person I met who really knew the comics industry, because I didn't go into comic books for a long time before that, but in Singapore there isn't really any kind of structure for that so I was lost for a long time trying to figure out how to become a comic artist, and David was the first guy who told me what I could do to get work and get published and maybe even make a living out of it.

With Charlie Chan Hock Chye - Did he start as the seed of an idea that grew into this book? What was the kernel? It's a big undertaking, this book; it's not like you were doing an episodic comic that grew into a volume, this is all-at-once, a large graphic novel with different styles and techniques.

The initial spark for the book was I was reading a book called Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art by a guy called Robert Sabin, and it was just a history of comics in the US, UK, Japan and France, and while reading it I realized that any kind of history of comics required sort of a background information of the history and culture of the creator at the time was in. So for some reason I thought if I flipped that around, if I consult the history of Singapore through a fictional comic's history, it would be really interesting and it would be a way of drawing the reader in, and they wouldn't realize what was happening until maybe five or ten pages in. They thought they were reading about a comic's history when in fact they were actually reading about Singapore's history.

The initial books was supposed to be a lot thinner, I was thinking 120 pages maybe? The format was going to be a lot closer to traditional art book formats where you have long essays and picture on the side, but when I started drawing the book I realized that the books that I own like that — the coffee table books of Art of Art Spiegelman, Art of Jack Kirby — I would never actually read them from page 1 to page 50 and I would kind of dip in at random points and just read little sections. I didn't want that to happen to this book.

I wanted the readers to read it in a linear way from start to finish. So ultimately I was able to turn the essays into comics, influenced maybe by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, he was one of the first people with the genius idea to turn a book about comics… true comics and while it happened it kind of became a lot longer, because to decompress essays into comics really meant you had to draw a lot more images, and also I think even in a formal sense, a book that's only 120 pages wouldn't feel like an art book. Most art books are just thicker in the hand. In some way that kind of drove the decision to make it a longer book, although I think that the time spent also required that kind of longer book.

There's a character in the book that I kind of loved, Bertrand, who is Charlie's writer and partner for a number of years, and then they go their own way, so he's interviewed later at a park, and he has grandkids with him. He chose a much different life, which was kind of an interesting thing. What was it about him that was showing something about your artist?

I guess Bertrand represents the more conventional route that people will take in Singapore. I don't want to say the safer route but it's just the more stable route, to focus on making a living, raising a family, whereas Charlie kind of goes the other way and earns very little money to do his comics on his own. I think with Bertrand my biggest worry was if he would appear like a caricature, like he would be sort of a stock figure who just wouldn't seem real, but I haven't heard a lot of responses that seem that way so I'm kind of relieved that he hasn't come across that way in general.

No I don't think so, he was a character you kind of rooted for. They're young, and they're working together, they're idealistic and they're going to make it! You're really rooting for them and it creates some of the drama of — like you said — reading this as a one-piece, through as a single story instead of as snippets in an art book or something. I thought it was really interesting. He was an interesting character to see different sorts of lives, and also Charlie's parents who had other opinions about what he should be doing with his time and his life. He's kind of a rebellious character, an iconoclast, right?

To some extent. I guess I based him on sort of different artists out there like Wally Wood, Jack Kirby to some extent. I think a lot of artists, especially first generation artists in the US and Japan, even those were very rarely successful careers in the beginning of their careers because of bad financial planning and bad contracts, would struggle a lot in the middle of careers and so in that sense Charlie's sort of artist's life is based a lot of on first generation cartoonists.

Speaking of those artists, you work in a huge variety of styles in the book. Was there one artist that you liked working as more? Or one that was more fun than working in others?

They're all really challenging! Whenever I finish one section and go on to the next section of a new artist a new style, I wouldn't know if I could pull it off. Some parts, like when I was drawing the artwork that he was supposed to have done when he was 5 years old as a kid, I would draw with my left hand so it would look really rough. When I was doing the Tezuka stuff I use for the first time nib pens, sort of look as if I was learning how to draw with those tools… but you know every section of it was interesting to figure out how to make it work, not just of the art style but the story-telling structure. For example there's a part that's based on Harvey Kurtzman's War Stories, and he has a very particular kind of story-telling rhythm so I had to try to capture that structure as well.

It's interesting you mention the tools because you have this lovely page in the book of panels that just show his tools, his pens and his brushes, and you list them in the back which one each was. Was that drawn from your experience, the ones that you used?

Some of it. I think some of the things and some of the materials he used are a little bit older, I've never used them myself, but I know the people of his generation would have used them, so a bit of both I think.

Audience question: If you had to, like, guesstimate, how much time have you put into making this book?

Guesstimate is a good word because I started doing the book while working on The Shadow Hero so it's not quite clear for me exactly how much time I spent doing that first part but maybe two-and-a-half years, in total? I think probably the drawing itself took a year and a half, and a year of research and sort of planning the book before that.

Audience question: What were your experiences getting this book published? What's your view on publishing today?

When Pantheon first approached I thought it was really incredible news for me because they had done books like Maus and Persepolis, and the Chris Ware books, so they're one of the best publishers out there for graphic novels, but what I discovered is they're kind of more focused on the book market and not so much on the so-called direct market, which is the comics market. So in that sense I feel like we are not quite focusing on both ends. The book might potentially lose some readers because of that.

Like people who would read comic books traditionally aren't going to get it?

Yeah. Might not hear about it just yet. But you know the book industry is complicated, I think. Especially with eBooks coming in and all that. For the most part my own focus is just doing the actual book itself and hoping that the publishers and the distributors can take care of the rest of it.

Your publisher in Singapore, too, I saw on your blog there, they're doing a call for comics and for other artists to come up and put out more, so is there a pretty vibrant scene in Singapore of modern comic book artists?

Yes and no. A lot of people who love comics and want to make comics, but then not many full-time creators in Singapore. There aren't many here either, but I think a lot less. Probably three of us who do it full-time, in Singapore? The rest, we do work on the side and teach, they have a 9-5 job, because comics doesn't pay well in general and Singapore especially if you are doing books just for the local market, it's just really tough.

Audience question: You talk about how you started off with sort of a shorter book and came to this. Was there a point where it was a much larger book and you had to edit it and how would you do that for graphic novels as opposed to literature?

I suppose no matter how long or short it is, for me at least I look at the thumbnails on the right, so it's very similar to what a studio like Pixar would do for their movies, they would do story-boarding first and only when those are in place would they actually make their animation. If I had gone ahead to draw before those were ready then any change can be very time-consuming and a lot of work, so I think if you work on the thumbnails first and figure out the structure of the book and sort of how it needs to be, then it's a lot less painful to move things around before you do the final book.

Audience question: We're actually reading your book for our graphic novel book club, and a couple of meetings ago we read a book by Jeff Lemire who also sort of bridges the world between graphics writing and longer format stuff, and so for an author in your position or in his position, when you're promoting different work, when you're working on different things, do you find yourself speaking to different crowds in different places? Is it all kind of the same sort of people?

I guess there is some quite specific crowd that maybe reads more superhero mainstream stuff, so for those they'd be more interested that I'm doing Doctor Fate than this book, right? Speaking to them, I don't notice a big difference. You still talk about comics. If they ask me about Doctor Fate I wouldn't be able to tell them much about his history because I haven't read any Doctor Fate prior to doing the book. I guess I just hope that more readers will kind of be willing to try all different genres and be willing to see comics as a medium as opposed to being focused on other genres.

Audience question: Do you think that your book has had some influence on maybe the opening of the discussion and conversation in Singapore about expanding on the official view of Singaporean history? What's your sense of that?

My sense is that it's become one of the touchstones that people refer to when discussing questionable censorship or freedom of speech in Singapore. I think in the last year this book and a movie by a director called Tan Pin Pin, her work got banned in Singapore, so a lot of articles do cite these two works as being sort of examples of how things are still a little bit repressive in Singapore. I'm not sure if these discussions do actually change the government's position on things because the thing about the PAP in Singapore is that once they have made a decision about something it's very hard to change to shift the needle where they stand. They're very clear-eyed as to what good governance means and very strong views about what freedom of press entails, so interviews with ministers and politicians in the past year, they are not considered any kind of ground, they have their position and say, "This is what you have to live with in Singapore."

Audience question:I saw on Twitter that you visited RISD again. What was it like to go back to your old alma mater?

Well it's been I think more than twelve, fourteen years since I've been back there, so it was interesting to see the old illustration building which has been renovated quite a bit. The town itself hasn't changed that much I think, it was kind of cool to see that you can go back and still recognize things. It was cool to see my old teachers as well, those that were there for the talk. It was nice.

It must be fun to go back with a book.

Well you know when we were in our school, all the students think that they're going to be the next superstar and it's taken me like 14 years to get to a place where I feel like I'm starting to be able to do what I want to do.

I'm assuming you still do — as you mentioned — a lot of collaboration where you're doing the art and other people are doing some writing. Do you like working alone? What is it about working alone?

Well I prefer working alone I think just because the ideas expressed in the book are more personal I think? Working on Doctor Fate for example, which features a sort of Egyptian-American superhero struggling with his identity. I mostly thought we could have dealt a lot more with you know, the Arab Spring, political issues, but it's impossible. DC itself is very reluctant to go into that kind of sensitive area so there's no way we could really tackle those things.

I guess making one book and it's not a DC, Marvel thing then you have a lot more freedom to explore the ideas that you find interesting.

Audience question: Can you describe more the 14 years after RISD? No, just I'm always curious about how do people go through the journey of wanting to be an artist and how do they get there and what are the ups and downs along the way, if you could tell us your story or career story.

Well I guess the thing that strikes me is that every book that I worked on I had hoped that it would be sort of The Book that would get me where I wanted to go, but when I got Eisner nomination I thought that this would surely mean that I would get a lot more work and my career would be in the right place, but what I have found is that all the things are sort of incremental advancements. Every book you make you kind of learn a little bit more why it works and why it doesn't work, and why people like it and why they don't like it. Also how you feel about it. So I would probably not do another Jane Austen book again because that kind of adaption for me is so tied to the original source you can't break out too much, especially if it's Marvel publishing more traditional.

So, my ambition has always been to have the kind of career that someone like I would say Chris Ware or Daniel Clowes has, where they do really personal work that is still financially viable for them. It's taken a long time to even get close to that, I think. This book for me, when I started it 2 and a half years previous ago, my career was kind of on a plateau, I felt like I was stuck in gear. So doing this book for me was sort of, I call it a moonshot — something that has really low chance of succeeding but you just hope that it does? I mean the publisher in Singapore paid me I think $8000 for the project which meant I had to live off that for 2 years — so my savings were kind of down, down, down, every other month.

But I think while I was drawing it, especially the first 30, 40 pages, somehow I had this sense that this was a book that somehow worked. A lot of stuff you work on you think you know, it's okay but it's not great, but this book, the first quarter of it I felt just really worked. I knew that I had to push through whatever problems came my way.

I've got slides I can send you another time if you want to see the visual progression from university to here.

I think you can kind of see it in your work, too. Like the style in Malinky Robot, I mean obviously the styles are going to be different between the story you're telling but even the style in there is very different, it's sketchier, it's a little bit more experimental or something, it's a little grittier, you know? The art in this book is much crisper, much cleaner, the lines are stronger, it feels more "traditional" comics, with quotes around traditional.

Part of the problem back then was I couldn't really ink. My first project with DC Vertigo was a comic called My Faith in Frankie, I was supposed to have inked and drawn the whole comic but when I turned in the inks for the first volume I got a call from my editor saying — they're very nice about it — saying "it's pretty good, but I think we need to bring someone in to ink over your drawings." So it's the same thing with the early stories from Malinky Robot, Wonderland, I just didn't feel competent in actually doing the inking. So I found a way to use the pencils to manipulate them so that they looked reasonably interesting? So that look was just based on having limitations on inking back then.

When you look back at that is that something that is like, "Oh that's cool, I managed to get around this limitation." Or is it like, "I wish I could go back and fix it"?

No, I like it. I still use that style once in a while for certain kinds of illustrations, especially children's illustrations, so that pencil look has a nice feel to it that I still really like.

Audience question: Can you talk about maybe what you're working on now? Are you on small things or are you…

I'm still working on Doctor Fate for a few more issues, it's supposed to have ended at twelve but they extended another six issues so I'm working on at least four of those. I do have a new book in mind, I tell people that it's set in 1980s Hong Kong, that it's going to deal with things like capitalism and our place in modern society, but it's very vague right now, it probably will change a lot during the development.