Artist behind Charlie Chan Hock Chye says he wanted dialogue, not controversy

As innovative and well-loved as he is controversial, Sonny Liew is a breath of fresh air to the Singapore arts scene.

The Malaysia-born comic artist spent his formative years in Singapore at Victoria School and Victoria Junior College, before venturing to the UK to read Philosophy. He went on to graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001, which rewarded him with his first break into American comics where he worked on Vertigo Comics’ My Faith in Frankie. Before that, his debut comic strip titled Frankie and Poo had already appeared in The New Paper in 1995 and was compiled by Times Publishing a year later.

Over the course of his relatively young career, he has already served as the editor of South East Asian comics anthology Liquid City. His illustrious (pun intended) body of work includes Disney’s Wonderland, Marvel Comics’ Sense and Sensibility, First Second Books’ The Shadow Hero and DC Comics’ Doctor Fate. He is also the creator of the award winning Malinky Robot.

Interviewer (I): Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Sonny! I must admit that I’m a big fan of American superhero comics, and from your body of work, I see that you’ve worked on not one, but two of such titles!

It’s really inspiring to have a role model like you, someone who’s lived and attended schools in Singapore, go over into American comics and make a name for yourself in such a competitive industry.

Could you tell us a little about how you first got your big break in America and the experience of working for an American comics company?

Sonny (S): Well, Sense and Sensibility was for Marvel but I don’t think it counts as a superhero title- it was a time when Marvel was thinking of branching out a bit more, though my sense is they’ve been more focused on the superhero stories since Disney’s takeover.

My first opportunity in the US I actually botched — DC Vertigo sent me the script for their new title “Fables” after I’d sent in my portfolo — but the pencil test I did wasn’t really up to scratch…. and of course Fables went on to become one of DC Vertigo’s biggest hits of more recent times. They did offer me a chance to work on a 4-issue mini series later though — My Faith In Frankie. That was very exciting, just because I’d loved reading the Sandman, and this was something in a sort of similar vein. It was also my first time working with Mike Carey and March Hempel as well.

I suppose it felt like a culmination of dream, though looking back maybe it was more of a beginning.

I: I’d like to stay on the topic of overseas experience for a comic artist for the moment. In your view, how important is it for an aspiring comic artist to gain that international exposure? If I were an aspiring comic artist in Singapore, would I have much of a future working on just local and regional comics, and why do you think this is so?

S: Well…. if you look at success stories like Mr. Kiasu, there does seem to be the possibility of success in the local market. The main issue is that Mr. Kiasu made a big splash than sort of disappeared off the map, it didn’t really leave behind an industry infrastructure — and I think that’s what is still missing here. Things like editorial support, knowing there is a way to get your work published and seen. It’s something I hope we can gradually address with things like Speech Bubble.

The other issue of course is the age old problem of recognition — it’s still partly the case that international validation is required. And in brass tack terms, you also get higher pages rates and advances from foreign publishers. But things may be slowly changing, if the local music scene is anything to go by.

I: I really appreciate your candour and insights! Since we’re on the topic, I’d like to talk a little about your Facebook notes talking about the state of arts funding in Singapore.

In this post, you gave some very practical advice to aspiring comic artists with regards to how much we can expect to earn if we decide to go into comics full time. Many people were shocked that even with all the grants and prize money, you ended up living on only $2,500 a month, no more than a starting graduate’s salary!

I’d like to understand a little more about what went through your mind as you wrote that post. Maybe you could give us a sense of what you really wanted the public to know about the issue.

S: Put it this way — when I was working on AOCCHC, the only income I was sure of getting for that book was the 9k advance Epigram was offering. So a lot less than 2.5k over the two years working on the book. Back then I saw it as a kind of moonshot, a sacrifice to try doing the kind of book I was really interested in. And I also had a sense that the book was doing something rather unique with the comics form, and the hope was that once it went out into the world, it would somehow give me further opportunities to work on books of this kind.

And as it turned out, with rights sales to the US, France and other places, and the success of the book in Singapore, it did in many ways pan out rather well.

The hope therefore was that I could get support from the NAC to work on the next book, so the creation process would be a little less painful. So when the grant offer came in, and it was a lot less than what I applied for, it seemed as though there things that weren’t making sense within the system. I won’t go into the details of it, but essentially having talked to the NAC a bit more since then, we’ve managed to clarify that the requirements (readable thumbnails rather than finished artwork) are more manageable than had been feared or implied.

It can all get a little boring I suppose for people not involved in the industry, but this sort of clarification I think is important here in Singapore, where the funding bodies often have good intentions, but it is only via engagement and dialogue that we can improve the conditions under which creators operate. You can call it the Policy Wonk stuff — things that are not the most exciting, but have real impact of the practice of arts here.

I: You’ve also attracted a number of people who disagree with your criticisms. For example, we have practicing artists like Colin Goh of Dim Sum Warriors fame, who agree with the National Arts Coucil (NAC) and say that the grants are only meant to kick-start an artists career. He says that as artists gain more exposure and put out more products, you could potentially earn much more in passive income than the flat figures offered by the grants.

What would you say in response to their replies? Or are they missing the point behind your posts?

S: Colin is a friend, and I think he agrees that the NAC should recognise the labour intensive work involved in the actual drawing of comics. I don’t think he was disagreeing with the criticisms, though the Today article might have sounded that way in parts. No one really expects the NAC to be able to support fully the creation process, especially in light of the opportunity costs involved for creators who could be working on more commercial projects… the issue was that the NAC has set the Literary Arts grant cap nominally at 50k, but was giving out a lot less than that to comics projects, and the reasons behind this needed to be clarified — which I think dialogue has achieved.

I: Speaking of the NAC, I’m sure many of us have become very curious about your life after the publication of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (CCHC).

After NAC made the controversial decision to withdraw funding for your publication, in what ways were you affected if at all?

S: The controversey definitely raised the profile of the book, so many people have spoken of the Streisand effect. On the flipside, the NAC’s official stance is now that they can support the Artist but not the Book, so there’s sort of a schizoprenic approach to CCHC — I’ll be part of the Writers Festival for example, but CCHC won’t be featured directly. I’d like to think that the quality of the book has allowed it to shortcircuit the system a little — and hopefully in the longer term will lead to, yes, more dialogue about the way the NAC approaches more controversial projects.

I: My final question — if you were given the power to do any three things for aspiring comic artists in Singapore today, what would you do?

S: Well…. set up a publishing house that pays decent rates and advances, with strong editorial and marketing support. That’s enough of a pipe dream, I think!

I: Thank you for your time, Sonny!

If you would like to find out more or order The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, please visit his site here. To support Sonny, please visit his Patreon account here.

Interview by Sam Tan, a youth journalist with The Singapore Daily.

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Originally published at singaporedaily.net on September 23, 2016.