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Q&A with Sonny Liew

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It’s not every day that indie creator Sonny Liew gets to chime in on THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE, and all things indie comics so let’s do this, with relish.

Q:  From start to finish, how long did it take you to complete The Art of CCHC?  Can you describe the process?

SL: I’d say it about 2 years. It’s a little hard to talk about the exact amount of time because I was working on other projects during that time – The Shadow Hero and a book about the Singaporean painter Georgette Chen for example.

The process started with a lot of research. The book is after all partly about the competing narratives in Singapore’s history, so it was necessary to try to come to grips with the different approaches. There was also a need to speak with people who’d lived through those times to get a better sense of the texture and attitudes of life in those days.

The main challenge was to put the book, with all its disparate elements and shifts in styles, into a coherent narrative.  I worked on the thumbnails of the book for quite a while, trying to make sure it worked before starting on the final drawings.

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Q:  Did you attend art school?  If so, what was that experience like for you?  If not, how did you hone your craft?

SL:  I went to RISD sometime in my mid-20s; I’d been self-taught before that, which meant a very limited education –  I worked only in black and white, and drew mostly using pencils and pens. I knew there were large gaps in my knowledge of art, and flipping through Art technique books just brought more confusion – just what were these mysterious things, oil paints, linseed oil,  acrylics and dammar varnish. Art school was the best thing – homework was drawing and painting, it was like being on perpetual holiday.

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Q:  How do you see the role of comics, when it comes to looking at history or politics?

SL: Comics are a medium like any other, so looking at history or politics is just one of the things it can do. I guess the visual aspect of comics in itself makes it able to do explain some things easier than prose – take instruction guides for instance. And there’s also the double-edged nature of our general attitude towards comics – the perception that it’s a juvenile medium means that we tend to approach comics with our guards down, and that maybe allows us to deliver some stories a little under the radar.

Q:  You mention a perception of comics as juvenile medium.  That’s an interesting perspective, what with so much graphic literature aimed at mature readers nowadays.  In terms of target demographics, what age group does CCHC suit best?

SL:  Well anyone interested in the medium would be aware of the diversity – but we’re still a minority in the wider market. For most, superhero movies and newspaper strips would be what they thought of if comics are mentioned. I’d thought CCHC would work for anyone in their late teens and up, but have been surprised by readers telling me their kids (as young as ten or twelve) have been picking it up and enjoying it.

Q:  What is it about the craft of storytelling that is most satisfying for you personally?

SL: Figuring out news to push the formal possibilities of the medium without losing sight of its narrative drive, and being able to share those stories with readers.

Q:  Which indie comic, that hasn’t been adapted for film yet, would you very much like to see on the silver screen, and why?

SL: Maybe Max Andersson’s Pixy or Mark Beyer’s Amy and Jordan. They both have unique art styles and idiosyncratic storytelling styles that I think would translate into very interesting animations. An adaptation of one of my stories would be welcome too, of course.

Q:  Interesting selections.  And, Andersson’s Pixy is proof positive that Sweden can still blow minds with its art.  Hats off to Fantagraphics for publishing Andersson’s Pixy in 1993.  It would have been a good fit for MTV’s Liquid Television, had it been an animated cartoon.  Which of your own stories would you most like to see be adapted for film or television?

SL:  Yeah, Liquid Television would have been the right kind of home for a Pixy animation. There’ve actually been talks about a CCHC adaptation, though Malinky Robot could also be conceivably turned into an animation. I don’t mind very much which particular book gets adapted – it’s more a question of thinking through how a comic can be translated into a new medium, from one underlanguage to another.

Q:  Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Malinky Robot?

SL:  The Malinky Robot stories feature two street urchins eking out a living in the future-dystopia of a mostly Japanese inspired city, with stories that are more about journeys than destinations – riding out on bicycles to meet friends, trying to get back home after getting a little lost…. I started working on them as a school project at RISD and managed to self-publish, thanks to a Xeric grant. Later on they appeared in the Flight anthologies edited by Kazu Kibuishi, as well as in various collections – the one from Image is probably the most comprehensive.
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Q:  What are three (3) qualities that all memorable tales ought to have?   

SL: I guess things you find in traditional narrative arc would be the obvious choices… and I’m not sure anything outside of those would be necessary or sufficient – there are just so many kinds of memorable stories out there.

Q:  There really are.  If you could only bring five books with you on a long vacation, which five books would you choose?

SL:  A long vacation, not a desert island? That makes it easier, and right now it’d probably be: Inio Asano’s Goodnight Pun Pun, Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Siddhathe Mukheree’s The Emperor of All Maladies, and Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. Mostly just books I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

Q:  Inio Asano’s illustration style is exemplary (particularly his panels in which the sky appears.)  It feels like manga has come such a long way.  In fewer than twenty years, Inio Asano was published twenty times (that we know of.)  What parallels and/or similarities do your own works share with his?

SL:  I wouldn’t venture to say there are parallels, but I do appreciate his sensibilities – the beautifully-observed moments and interactions between characters, the somewhat elliptical storytelling…closer to the work of Yoshiharu Tsuge than Tezuka in many ways. And his constant search for new ways to meet the technical challenges of drawing has also been inspiring to see.

Q:  Of all the graphic literature that’s been produced in Singapore during your lifetime, which have been some of your favorites, and why?

SL: I don’t really have any favorites per se – but I’d say that in the 1980s and 90s there was a boom of sorts here in Singapore and there were a number of creators like Chan Man Loon, Eric Khoo and Colin Goh making and publishing comics that you’d see in the newspapers and bookstores… and just the idea that this was a possibility was something that inspired me to make my own comics. The way things were in Singapore when I was growing up, it was always easier to follow the academic path, sitting for exams, going from one level of school to another – so wanting to make comics was quite far off the beaten path, and seeing all these folks taking those steps made me develop a real sense of the possibilities out there.

Q:  What do you suppose brick-and-mortar comic shops could be doing more of, to remain relevant during these increasingly-digital times?

SL: I think sales figures in recent years have demonstrated the viability of books, with digital sales leveling out and print books making a comeback. Could more be done? In Singapore at least I’d say a greater diversity in the kind of books available might help grow readership base. I remember stores like the Million Year Picnic which had such a range of books, with a family friendly atmosphere – I’d think that would be an improvement on stores that focused heavily on the superhero books. For manga – they really should be selling English translations at a much lower price point, otherwise the lure of free material online seems hard to offset.

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Q:  The Million Year Picnic sounds like it was the stuff of dreams.  Can you tell us more about it?

SL:  They used to have a branch along Thayer Street in Rhode Island, though I think the main store was in Massachusetts. You find superhero comics there, but there was also a wide selection of Indie comics, including a rack devoted to self-published zines and comics from local creators. Just a place you could go to and soak in the sheer diversity of the medium.

Q:  There seems to be more diversity in this medium than ever before.  You mentioned manga earlier, and we’re curious to know, which manga books might you recommend to someone looking to try manga for the first time?

SL:  Well, I don’t know if they’re the best introductions, but manga books that I’ve enjoyed include: Jiro Taniguchi’s A Distant Neighbourhood, the works of Yoshiharu Tsuge, Otomo’s Domu, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba, Kiriko Nananan’s Blue, and Tezuka (the old master himself.)

Q:  What’s a good creative habit that writers of graphic lit might want to consider trying?

SL: Read widely and deeply, not just comics but also other mediums.

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Q:  Digital versus print.  Print seems to be fighting the good fight, but how much longer can it last?

SL: I think we’ll always want to collect books, have that tactile experience, especially for longer narratives – novels and graphic novels for example. Newspapers and magazines might be a different scenario, with the way the internet has developed making so used to the idea of free content, leading to a system where we forget we need to pay for meaningful journalism. I don’t think anyone really knows – just look at all the early attempts to monetize the web that Yahoo and AOL tried – I think it’s more about everyone trying out different things and seeing what sticks rather than being able to rationally decide on the best course of action.

Q:  What’s next for you, as an artist or writer, and as a reader?

SL: I’ve just started work on a new graphic novel, which I’m telling people will be about the anxieties of Capitalism… but it’s very early days yet, so we’ll have to wait and see what it evolves into. I’m also hoping to work on some stories for publishers like DC and Boom.

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Q:  What are you most excited about for 2017?

SL:  I’m mostly just nervous about how the world will turn with the new US presidency. But there are always good comics, TV shows and movies to look forward to – the new Planet Earth documentary from the BBC looks like a real doozy, I’m really looking forward to watching that.

Q:  BBC has a new Planet Earth documentary coming? Nice! They sure do know how to make a documentary. When does the Sonny Liew documentary air on BBC?

SL:  Yes I think episodes are already airing and the trailers I’ve seen look absolutely amazing. As for the BBC…right now I’m just hoping for a UK publisher to do an edition of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, so there’ll be some proper promotion of the book i nthat part of the world. It seems a waste otherwise, given the themes about Colonialism and all.

Q:  Thanks so much for joining us, Sonny. We know time is precious, and we appreciate you sharing so much of your time with us. Before we go, have you any advice for aspiring creators of graphic literature?

SL:   It’s the usual advice of Just Doing It. Like any other craft of skill, you get better with practice, so put aside all the doubts and maybes, and go write and draw your comic, put it out into the world, and start on the next one.

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