The Art of Sonny Liew

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Comics are fun, but if one is to make a career of it, one needs luck and lots of talent. And one needs to take bold initiatives and to experiment. A very adult way to stay young, really.

Sonny Liew.

In Seremban, a young Sonny Liew stumbled across an issue of the British anthology comic series, 2000AD. “My mind was blown,” he said. “They did a weekly magazine with like five stories in there, and every artist had a different style.” After sustaining himself for years on a steady diet of Marvel and Lao Fu Zi comics which featured a very consistent art style, the sheer eclectic variety in 2000AD introduced Liew to a world of new possibilities.

Fast forward to 2014, and Liew can count himself among those unique talents he once admired. His quirky, sketchy style first gained widespread attention with My Faith in Frankie1, a supernatural romantic comedy with British writer Mike Carey about a girl and her own personal deity. Since then he’s illustrated a wide variety of stories, from comic adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility to Spider-Man to a biography of Singaporean painter Georgette Chen. His most recent published work is The Shadow Hero2, written by Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, Avatar), a graphic novel set in the 1940s about the first Asian-American superhero.

Sense and Sensibility.

For a full-on Liew experience though, his short story collection Malinky Robot is a must-read. Instead of illustrating other people’s scripts, Liew is in complete control here, blending humour, tragedy and slices of life tales in a dystopian science fiction world, and producing a powerful showcase of his unique voice while pushing the medium in new, exciting directions. The book was awarded the Xeric Award and it won the 2009 Comic Album of the Year at the Utopiales International SF Festival.

Now based in Singapore, Liew was in Penang last November for the George Town Literary Festival, and we caught up with him to chat about comics, writers and Hollywood.

The Shadow Hero.

Did you always know that you wanted to do cartooning as a career?

No, it wasn’t until I was in the UK. Just for fun, I drew a comic strip and sent it to newspapers in Singapore, and one of them actually picked it up as a daily strip. While I was doing the comic I felt like I was really engaged in the process, the ideas and the drawing.

So how did you break into the business??

I was very lucky to have met a teacher in school whose advice was firstly to just send in your portfolio to publishers, and secondly to attend comic conventions. So I went to the San Diego Comic-Con in, I think, 2003? And I just walked around showing my portfolio to anyone who was willing to see it. I showed it to a guy called Chris Claremont, who did –

X-Men.

Yeah but at the time I didn’t know who he was. But he liked it and he introduced me to an editor at Marvel and he gave me a one-issue book. I’d also gotten work from DC/Vertigo. The first book I did was a four-issue miniseries, My Faith in Frankie. They also sent me a package of a new series and asked me to test for it, and it turned out to be Fables, but of course back then I was really raw-lah (laughs). It was horrible. I didn’t get the gig.

How did Malinky Robot come about?

The first one was done for school at university. For our final project we had to do a story, so I came up with this. Eventually I got the Xeric grant to selfpublish it, and I think that led to Kazu Kibuishi offering me to do a story for the Flight anthology. That’s how it built up.

I like how you push things in a different way in your comics, I remember in Malinky Robot you did this page that’s done in a Sunday comic strip style but was really dark.

My heroes are people like Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware – people who really push the medium in a very interesting direction. My goal is to be able to combine accessible storytelling with a bit of experimentation. I also like stories that kind of go nowhere but just capture moments in life. I would like to combine a little bit of experimentation with traditional narrative. That’s what I feel is interesting, as a storyteller.

My Faith in Frankie.

Your work has been quite diverse. You’ve done a bit of superhero, Jane Austen, sci-fi… what draws you to a story?

After school I tried applying for Lucasarts, and the art director sent me an email saying, “I don’t usually do this but we like your work – but we feel it’s a little bit left of centre.” Meaning that it’s not mainstream. I get quite a lot of offers from all sorts of weird places. I choose them partly based on whether I think the story’s interesting. I remember turning down The Surrogates, then it became a movie with Bruce Willis. I thought the story was not interesting enough, at the time. I made a lot of bad, bad moves in my career (laughs).

But I try to find stories that I think are interesting, at the conceptual level. Shadow Hero, I thought it was interesting, the whole American Chinese thing, and I think I feel more connected to stories about where you are and where you come from. I kind of got the whole Asian American experience when I was in the US and UK as well. Especially in the US I got an acute sense of being in a minority group.

In what sense, can you say?

Well, you’re walking around the streets at night, this guy would drive past, drunk, and call out “chinky chong”, you know?

Malinky Robot.

Oh man.

(Laughs) What the hell, right?

(Gene and I) actually worked on a short story before, for an anthology called Secret Identities. That was an anthology of Asian American superheroes. So when he did this story he thought it would be a good choice to work together again. The script for Shadow Hero was already done. In fact most of the scripts I’ve worked on were already finished. In Gene’s case he’d actually done thumbnails for it. The only thing was that his thumbnails were like 2x3 grids. And they work! It’s just that I felt that it could have been more dynamic and I wanted to justify my involvement (laughs). If I just copied him it felt like I was not doing much work.

What happens when you’re drawing someone else’s script?

With Mike Carey, his scripts are very clear. With My Faith in Frankie, the major change was the flashbacks; it was supposed to be told in a traditional style but I thought it would be nice to do it in a comic strip style, in this case mainly inspired by Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips. He was happy with it so we changed that part. But for the most part it was following what he already wrote.

At the conceptual, maybe thematic level, it’s still someone else’s story and you don’t quite feel like it’s dealing with the questions that you as an artist want to deal with. It’s always fun to do someone else’s stories, but it’s never quite as engaging or enriching as your own stories.

Most of my books are still published in the US, although in the last year and a half I’ve been trying to do more local stories. I did a book with Epigram, a local publisher in Singapore. It’s coming out this year, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. The idea behind it was to do a book about Singapore history together with the artist’s history. It’s 300 pages and coming out… I want to say March 2015. But what’s really exciting is that I think it’s going to be picked up by Pantheon Books in the US as well. The contract hasn’t been signed yet but it looks like it’s going to happen.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

You also edit Liquid City, a comics anthology that aims to promote South- East Asian artists. What made you start something like this?

The impetus of it was being involved in Flight. They had a forum where you post your own progress in the forum and all the other artists will give comments and advice on what could be better. There was a sense of community and camaraderie. I felt that in Singapore and Malaysia and South-East Asia at the time, artists were kind of isolated – we were doing our own thing. So I thought it would be cool if we could do a book like that and everyone could get connected, as well as showcase their work to a wider audience. First thing I did was I googled words like “comics + Indonesia” and I looked for people who have emails and contacts, and I just emailed them asking if they’d be keen. Once I got a long list of artists who want to be involved, I just emailed Image Comics with the idea.

I remember reading My Faith in Frankie all those years ago, then for a few years after that it’s like you dropped off the radar for me personally.

There was Re-Gifters… but as far as I can tell part of it has to do with finding editors who really like you. For a short period there were a couple of editors at Marvel who liked my work and commissioned covers, but then they both left and after that it was kind of hard.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Is there a lot of politics involved?

It’s hard to tell. When I’m cynical about it I say yes. I find that when you go to conventions, if you’re better at networking, it’s more likely you’re able to get work. Like Evan Dorkin, for example; he’s a really funny guy in person so for him to get work is very easy. But then I look at someone like Tan Eng Huat; he’s very quiet, he never goes to conventions, but he still gets a lot of work from Marvel.

The big money seems to be in film adaptations, but you’re not actively shopping your work around to studios, are you? Is that something you’d like to do in the future?

I was very troubled when I first saw Cowboys & Aliens (the comic). At my first comic-con they were at this booth with all these comics, and they were very open about it: “We’re doing this to eventually get a movie.” And it worked. But the comic itself is very blah. I don’t think they were doing anything interesting with it. They just wanted a way to pitch to movie companies. I would never do a comic just to promote it as a movie.

 

But as for your existing work…

Yeah, we’ve been trying to sell Frankie for the longest time – at least, Mike Carey was pushing it. And there were times when it seemed quite close, like two years ago we were close to getting a TV series, but it never quite happened. But getting optioned itself gets you some money. I remember a comic artist called Sam Hiti, I think he got optioned like 10 years ago, and from what I understood he spent the next five years living off the royalties.

I would think of it as a very welcome bonus, but it’s not something that you can really aim for as an artist.

When did you realise that, wow, this could actually be a career for you?

I’m still struggling with it! Every year I think, “Is this really what I want to do long term? Will I be able to save money for retirement?” and all that. Which is why I’m excited about the new book. If it works out, hopefully I can do more of my own projects and balance between what I want to do versus what I have to do to pay the bills.

1 Published by Vertigo, the mature readers
imprint of DC Comics.
2 Published by First Second Books.

It took him five years, but Jeffrey Hardy Quah finally found a really good reason to write about comics in this magazine.



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