Gene Luen Yang: I first became aware of Sonny Liew in the YA section of my local library, where I came across a well-worn copy of My Faith in Frankie, his DC Vertigo graphic novel with writer Mike Carey. I was charmed from the opening page — and if you’ve seen Sonny’s art, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sonny’s line work is fluid, expressive, and exuberant.
A few years later, I was invited to do a short story for the Secret Identities anthology. When the editor asked who I wanted to work with, I blurted Sonny’s name. Lucky for me, Sonny agreed.
We’ve had a fruitful partnership ever since. Our latest effort, a graphic novel titled The Shadow Hero, will be released by First Second Books in 2014.
Just goes to show you, good things happen in the YA section of your local library.
Recently, Sonny and I had a chat about life, comics, and The Shadow Hero.
Hi Sonny! Though you live in Singapore, you’ve been active in the American comics industry for a while now. Where might American readers have seen your work?
Sonny Liew: Hi Gene! The likely places would in the Flight anthologies, where I contributed a bunch of “Malinky Robot” stories, maybe in the books I did with Mike Carey (DC Veritgo’s My Faith in Frankie and Re-Gifters for the short lived DC Minx line). There’s Wonderland from SLG/Disney Press (with Tommy Kovac). I think the Sense and Sensibility adaptation I did for Marvel has probably sold the most books thanks for Ms. Austen.
GY: How did you become a comics fan? What kind of stuff did you read as a kid? Any favorite characters?
SL: I grew up in Singapore and Malaysia, pretty multicultural societies, so the comics I read were both in English and Chinese. I loved them all – The Beano, Dandy, Spiderman, Lao Fu Zhi (aka Old Master Q), Doraemon, Archie, Donald Duck….
I suppose there’s a kind of wild anarchy in kids comics that really appeals to a child’s mind. It taps right into something primal, these pictures and word balloons, things going Krrassh, Booom, Klablooie/
It’s hard to pick a favorite, I remember them all very fondly. All I can safely say is that Spidey was my favorite Marvel character, mostly because he was so good at backchat.
GY: Most Americans, including me, are pretty ignorant about the comics scene in Southeast Asia. What’s it like?
For most part the industries here aren’t as developed as the Big Ones — the US, France and Japan. We have no real infrastructure in place to constantly produce books, or for aspiring creators to learn the craft.
Still, we’re trying to build what we can – the Liquid City anthology I edit, and published by Image, is one small gesture towards raising awareness of comics from Southeast Asia, and of letting creators from different countries get to know each other a little more. Volume 3 is just wrapped up and should hit stores in the near future!
The biggest challenge is probably producing work that can match the quality of comics coming from the US, Europe and Japan – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg issue, with lower standards meaning less profitability, which in turns means less money to help build better standards.
I’m proud of companies like Gempak in Malaysia who have made inroads though – after years of growing pains they’ve managed gain a strong foothold in Malaysia’s domestic market. It’s very encouraging to see their books widely displayed and sold in bookstores there.
GY: How did you go from reading comics to making them?
SL: It started with a comic strip I created during my summer vacation when I was 19 – I sent it in to a couple of local (Singaporean) newspapers, and one of them actually picked it up as a daily strip!
The pay was minimal, something like $30 per strip, but the process of creating them felt so engaging I knew thereafter I wanted to do something comics (or at least art) related.
Still it was a long road from there to my first proper gig, which was My Faith in Frankie. I actually got asked to do a pencil test for “Fables” before it was ever launched, but unfortunately botched it up pretty badly.
GY: I’ve been a huge fan of yours since before we met. Your art style fits in this… in-between space. You balance the dramatic with the comedic, the otherworldly with the familiar, Eastern influences with Western ones. How did you learn to draw? Are you consciously trying to achieve something with your art, or is that just how it comes out?
SL: I think there’s always a mixture of effort and what comes naturally when it comes to style. You can’t help be influenced by the things you read and see, and on my part, I try to adapt my style as much as I can to the needs of the story, whether it’s a little more realistic or cartoony, for example.
As someone of Asian descent, I also think a lot about how Asian faces are depicted. Malaysian artist Lat (whose books have also been republished by First Second) wrestled with this as well – consciously finding a way to depict an Asian nose in a way that avoided the high bridge of Caucasian noses – he came up with this wonderful squiggle that captured something very Asian in his character’s features.
I don’t think I’ve ever done anything as innovative, but I’m always trying to avoid visual stereotypes and clichés as much as I can.
GY: Malinky Robot, the graphic novel you did with Image Comics in 2011, won the Utopiales Science Fiction Festival Award for Best Comic Album. It’s a collection of short stories starring two street urchins named Atari and Oliver. It’s funny and wistful and heartbreaking. Are the two leads based on anyone you know? How about the futuristic metropolis they find themselves in, was that inspired by a real-life setting?
SL: Heh, no, they were just based on sketches I drew in a sketchbook…. The setting itself was inspired by labouring district of San’ya in Japan though. I’d picked up a copy of Edward Fowler’s San’ya Blues and found the real life stories he told of construction workers on the tail-end of society fascinating – and so I mixed in a bit of Bladerunner and created a semi-real, semi-science fictional world and called it Malinky Robot.
GY: Malinky Robot is a curious mix of East and West. Even the protagonists’ names, Atari and Oliver, reflect this. What interests you about the relationship between Eastern and Western culture? What aspects of that relationship did you set out to explore in Malinky Robot?
SL: Hmm, I think the east-west thing is just a natural result of the world I’ve grown up and live in. Singapore has always absorbed influences from all directions – you get Hong Kong martial arts movies alongside Hollywood blockbusters, cartoons from Japan, China, and the US.
What Malinky Robot really is about for me is trying to capture moments – the wind against your face in a bicycle ride, hanging out with friends – all these things mundane, precious and fleeting. The sci-fi/dystopian setting allows me to break free of real-world constraints and cobble together all sorts of things I like – robots, neon signs, telephone wires, crumbly buildings.
Somehow putting those things together just made sense to me.
GY: You experiment quite a bit with both emotional range and the medium itself. In one section, you mimic classic American newspaper comic strips to tell the tragic past of one of your secondary characters, Mr. Bon Bon. The results are deeply affecting, in part because you force your reader to do some work and puzzle things together. What was your thought process behind this experimentation?
SL: I’d have to say creators like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Chester Brown have been big influences. The way they’ve pushed the language, shown what possibilities there are, has been incredibly inspiring, if a little daunting.
That aside, I think non-linear storytelling and experimentations bring their own pleasures. You’ve got to find a balance though – much as I love Ware’s work, I thought Building Stories got a little too indulgent!
GY: For some of your projects, you’ve handled both the writing and the art. For others, you’ve collaborated. Can you talk about the differences between the two?
SL: Working with a writer means . . . well, a lot less work! There’s the hunting down of visual references, the thumb-nailing, drawing . . . but you get that and more with your own stories.
It’s probably a bit two-edged – working with another creator you can get a brand new dynamic neither alone would have (kinda like words and images as Scott McCloud would tell us!), but at the same time the vision for the story may not be as pure or undiluted.
That said, The Shadow Hero is of course a perfect mix, so everyone should buy many copies of it and make us both very rich.
GY: You’ve worked with some pretty famous fictional characters. You’ve done Spider-man comics with Roger Landridge. But more impressively – to me, at least – you’ve worked on quite a few literary classics. You illustrated a Sense and Sensibility adaptation for Marvel Comics and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland for Disney Press. With these works, you’re putting on paper characters that have existed in people’s heads for a long, long time. Did you feel any pressure? How did you balance your own creative vision with audience expectations?
SL: Basically, I try to look at the existing works and see if I can adapt visual elements into my own approach that will allow it to be both fresh, yet have traditional elements in them.
With the Spider-man story, for example, I tried to incorporate Steve Ditko’s panel layouts and some of his character poses, and with Sense and Sensibility I stuck close to Regency era fashions and architecture, but tried to inject something fresh to it – with the characters appearing in chibi form in some scenes.
GY: Let’s talk about our upcoming project The Shadow Hero. We’re reviving the Green Turtle, an obscure Golden Age superhero created by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian Americans in the American comics industry. What was your initial reaction to Chu Hing’s work?
SL: I thought the whole attempt to cover up his face (as you recounted in your interview with Boing Boing) was fascinating and hilarious. He went to ridiculous lengths – which made it visually interesting, but also made you really think about cultural expectations in the mass media that continue to this day. Just ask Sessue Hayakawa!
GY: Chu Hing’s Green Turtle was a World War II hero. We’re telling his origin story, set in a fictional 1930’s American Chinatown. Maybe I’m biased, but I think you nailed it with your art. It just feels authentic. How did you go about creating the environment? Did you have to rely on a lot of source material?
SL: Thanks, Gene! I spent a lot of money buying books on amazon with old photos of San Francisco, especially the Chinatown areas. I Googled endlessly and looked for movies set in the right place and era. I always wish we had Disney budgets and time – you read about their artists travelling to jungles and far off countries to gather visual references.
GY: Was there a particular part of The Shadow Hero that you enjoyed drawing the most?
SL: I always find large bodies of water tricky to draw, so anything without oceans were pretty good. The whole Green Turtle and Red Centre talking in flashbacks in a restaurant scene cross cut with his Ma looking for him is probably my favorite.
GY: What other projects do you have coming up?
SL: I’m working on a art book/autobiography about a pioneering Singaporean comics artists whose career began in the tumultuous 1950s, called The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I’ve shown you the work in progress actually, what do you think of it?
GY: I admit, that last question was basically a setup for you to talk about Charlie Chan Hock Chye. You combine a variety of popular comics genres into a single narrative that covers both the life story of a Singaporean cartoonist and the history of Singapore. What do I think? I think it’s brilliant. I hope it explodes in the global comics scene like a bomb — a bomb of unadulterated goodness.