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Hey, Charlie: Sonny Liew talks about his new, epic graphic novel

SINGAPORE — Step aside, Avengers, Batman and Astro Boy. It’s time Singaporeans get to know the likes of Force 136, Roachman and Ah Huat’s Giant Robot — not to mention the artist behind these retro comic-book characters.

SINGAPORE — Step aside, Avengers, Batman and Astro Boy. It’s time Singaporeans get to know the likes of Force 136, Roachman and Ah Huat’s Giant Robot — not to mention the artist behind these retro comic-book characters.

After recent graphic novels on a pioneering Singaporean artist (Warm Nights, Deathless Days: The Life Of Georgette Chen) and an Asian-American superhero (The Shadow Hero), artist-illustrator Sonny Liew has upped the ante with his most ambitious work to date: The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which tells the story of an unknown Singaporean comic-book artist who grew up during Singapore’s coming-of-age years in the mid-20th century.

But this is hardly a straightforward biography — even for a graphic novel. Its wildly inventive, post-modern take is crammed with everything from excerpts of Chan’s comic books, historical documents and photographs to archive sketches and even song sheets and campaign posters. Liew himself makes a cameo as he interviews the artist, and the dizzying array of styles he references is a delight for comic-book enthusiasts — from Frank Miller’s classic Batman tale The Dark Knight Returns to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning World War II tale Maus.

Characters and scenarios straight out of science fiction, adventure and children’s cartoon genres mingle with real-life events and people in Singapore’s history such as Lee Kuan Yew and opposition politicians Lim Chin Siong and JB Jeyaretnam.

“The idea of doing a book that links the history of local comics with the story of Singapore was something I came upon maybe five to seven years ago,” recalled Liew. “But at the time, there didn’t seem to be an obvious avenue for getting a book like that published anywhere, so it was put on the back-burner.”

The opportunity eventually arose when publisher Epigram Books decided to do a string of graphic novels. By then, Liew decided to narrow the story down to focus on one artist.

The story figure of Chan was a compelling one for Liew. “Chan’s story for me resonated, especially with those times, given his involvement in student activism through his comics,” said Liew, who added that for his research, he had spoken publishers, artists and historians to fairly capture and portray the social milieu of Chan.

How big was the comics industry in Singapore then? Actually, Liew didn’t think there was one. “But there were definitely artists who worked in the medium, from Liu Kang’s images of Japanese atrocities in World War II to single-panel cartoons in newspapers, pamphlets and other publications. I know there was a much more bustling scene in Hong Kong, even if, looking at post-war population figures, it seemed that the numbers in Singapore and Hong Kong were not dissimilar.”

He added: “On the surface, it seems odd that one place is able to develop a thriving comics industry and the other not. One theory I’ve heard is the social differences of the people who moved to the two countries during and after the war. Singapore saw an influx of labourers and workers, while the so-called intelligentsia ended up in Hong Kong. I don’t know how accurate all this is, but it does offer a plausible scenario to explain why Hong Kong enjoyed cultural growth back then in a way Singapore did not.”

While The Art Of Charlie Chan was, perhaps, the most highly anticipated title among Epigram’s salvo of graphic novels, it took Liew a while to complete it. The graphic novel went from being a 120-page story to a 320-page tome, because, “the narrative really grew out of its own accord”, said Liew. He added that the Media Development Authority had also decided to cancel their grant for the book halfway through the creation process.

The complicated, multi-layered approach of telling the story through a blend of visuals and text, fiction and history, also turned out to be a drawn-out process for Liew, who cited the approach of comic-book legends Scott McCloud and Harvey Pekar as “guideposts” in his creative process.

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye can obviously be seen as Liew’s tribute to the art of comics, but in a way, there is also something deeply personal at stake. You can think of it as Liew’s heartfelt contribution to the Singapore story — as a full-fledged Singaporean.

After being a long-time permanent resident, the Malaysia-born Liew finally took up citizenship two years ago. “I was trying to meet the challenge put forth by the PAP (People’s Action Party) that someone without a stake in the country, who could run off at any time, shouldn’t be offering critiques of Singapore, which I knew this book would be doing at some levels,” he said.

With the graphic novel awaiting its official Singapore release (it has been launched in Malaysia and has been picked up by Pantheon Books in America and Britain), Liew has been busy with another notable project as the artist for the revamped DC Comics title Doctor Fate, which is written by comic-book stalwart and former DC Comics president Paul Levitz.

While Liew has had experience working with the big guns (including titles such as My Faith In Frankie for DC’s Vertigo imprint and a Spider-Man story for Marvel), this is his first official gig on an ongoing series. The first issue is set to be released in June, but he is already working on the second issue.

“It’s been exciting, if a little nerve-wrecking,” he admitted. “Superhero fans can be very vocal if they don’t like how you’ve interpreted their favourite characters!”

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will be launched on May 30, 2pm, at Kinokuniya Singapore Main Store, Crossroads. It is priced at $34.90 and also available on Epigram’s webstore (

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