Comic artist Sonny Liew has done work for the biggest publishers in the industry, but now he is tackling a very important, highly personal, and potentially controversial project — a graphic novel depicting some of Singapore’s most controversial events.
From Marvel’s Spider-Man to Flight from Image Comics to his collaboration with Gene Luen Yang on The Shadow Hero, Sonny Liew has been nominated for Eisner Awards and his work has received critical acclaim and praise from both the press and other creators, but The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye will undoubtedly represent one of the most challenging projects of his career. Depicting not only difficult subject matters regarding Singapore’s historical struggle for independence, including the Hock Lee bus riots and notable figures Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, the oversized, 320-page tome will also tackle the sensitive topics like repression of free expression — subjects that not only impact the narrative within the book, but may ultimately affect the books’ publication.
Singapore has always had a contentious relationship with pop culture, especially with comic books. In 2014, with the marriages of Marvel’s character Northstar and Archie’s Kevin Keller, Singapore’s Media Development Authority has worked hard to keep some comics off of the stands and out of reader’s hands (in fact, Liew helped reveal that Archie: The Married Life had been banned). Liew’s newest graphic novel, though, will pose a personal challenge, especially since he plans to cover topics that Singapore’s government may not want to see in print.
“There’s more room for alternative voices these days, but I think there is still a general sense of unease about what you can say and do,” Liew commented. “A lot of people have asked me if I’d get in trouble for doing this book. But maybe it also ensured that I worked extra hard with my editor to make sure that everything was backed up by evidence and research.”
“So it’s fair to say that there have been changes, but government control has hardly disappeared. The mainstream media is still generally pro-establishment, and you while do get more alternative voices online, there have been moves towards a greater policing of the internet too.”
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was not only an educational experience for Liew himself, but with its publication it will represent an opportunity for many people to become aware of the often difficult and complex recent history of Singapore, especially since the book will be released on May 30, just two months after the passing of Lee Kwan Yew, one of the book’s prominent figures.
“When I first started doing research, I was surprised by how much I didn’t know about Lim Chin Siong,” said Liew. “I think unless you lived through that era, or had a special interest in local history, you’d probably only have a vague notion of the part he played, and younger readers might have no idea who he was at all.”
Liew remains optimistic about the work, and its potential to reach new and diverse audiences despite the specter of governmental censorship.
“Maybe telling the story through comics allows the questions to be approached differently. Hopefully, it can reach a wider audience, and engage them in a new way. The medium may not always be the message, but it does affect the way a reader reacts to the subject or content.”
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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!