By Lim Jun Rong Terence
Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media
Sonny Liew didn’t expect The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to be so well received internationally. (Photo credit: Terence Lim)
Like many of us have done at some point in our childhood, Sonny Liew, too, loved to copy drawings of cartoons and characters when he was young. “The only difference,” he says, “is that I never stopped drawing.”
And it’s a good thing that he didn’t. Sonny is now the recipient of three prestigious Eisner Awards – the equivalent of the Oscars for the comic industry – for Best Writer/Artist, Best Publication Design, and Best US Edition of International Material (Asia). These recognitions are for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was also the first ever graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. The story of a fictional cartoonist in Singapore from the 1950s to the present day was also on the bestsellers lists at Amazon and The New York Times.
“I didn’t even think it would sell anywhere outside of Singapore,” the 43-year-old says with a sheepish smile. “I really didn’t know whether anybody else would be interested in it.”
The success is bittersweet though. The comic became a subject of controversy when the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew its grant in 2015, citing politically sensitive content in the book. Sonny’s relationship with the NAC is still shaky after three years.
“They still maintain they will support me as an artist but they won’t support the book itself, which is a strange kind of division,” Sonny says. “I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
One among a Handful
The boyish-looking comic artist’s first step into the industry was when he worked on a daily strip named Frankie and Poo for The New Paper. He then studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001.
Shortly after graduating, Sonny was signed to work on My Faith in Frankie for DC Vertigo, which also published The Sandman.
“I’ve been a big fan of Sandman,” Sonny said, “so the chance to do a story for the same imprint, sort of in the same universe was very exciting for me.”
Sonny mainly worked as a hired illustrator for publishers in the US and has published a few short comics of his own.
He is now one of the few full-time comic artists in Singapore.
He says comics are generally treated as something childish by default in Singapore, but feels that can actually be an advantage.
“You can do very serious things but people don’t approach it with this kind of trepidation,” he explains. “That gives me the opportunity to get under the radar a little bit.”
The Next Chapter
It’s a busy period for Sonny. He has been working on the Eternity Girl series for DC Comics. Local media recently reported he will also be contributing to the comic version of Adventure Time, the well-known animated television series from the US. Sonny is also currently doing research for his next comic.
Researching and writing for The Art of Charlie Chan was his chance to learn Singapore history—something he knew little about. Similarly, his next comic, he reveals, will be his curious venture into economics and capitalism.
The challenge? Making the book as engaging, but distinct from The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
“What I would like to do is to be able to make something…as interesting and yet not repeat the same things I did in this book,” Sonny says. “I’m not sure how it can be done, but I hope I can.”