Staring into eternity: The wonderful comic world of Sonny Liew

The Eisner Award winning artist hard at work at his drawing board. — Picture by Tom White
The Eisner Award winning artist hard at work at his drawing board. — Picture by Tom White

SINGAPORE, July 15 — Reading a comic illustrated by Seremban-born artist Sonny Liew is a bit like dipping into a box of chocolates. Just like Forest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get.

The 43-year-old’s portfolio runs the gamut from superhero work with the Big Two (DC and Marvel) to grittier creator-owned efforts such as his bestselling graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which won the Singapore Literature Prize as well as three Eisner Awards.

In Eternity Girl, his latest work for DC Comics, Liew and writer Magdalene Visaggio spin a tale about superhero Caroline “Chrysalis” Sharp who longs to escape her immortality. (Living forever is a very superhero sort of problem, no?) Of course, the real story ends up being far more meta than that and Liew’s quirky art serves to pull readers in deeper and deeper.

From initial sketch (left) to finished artwork (right). – Pictures courtesy of Sonny Liew and DC Comics
From initial sketch (left) to finished artwork (right). – Pictures courtesy of Sonny Liew and DC Comics

“I liked the idea of it: a superhero suffering from depression. While it’s not something I’ve suffered from myself, it is clearly a real issue for many people. Something that we get reminded of when the most unlikely people in the public eye succumb to it. So I thought it was a worthwhile project to work on,” he says.

Beyond an intriguing concept, the commercial aspect of any comic matters too, naturally. Liew says, “DC and Marvel pay viable page rates, so you can save some money for the next more personal project. I want to work on things that help me learn a little bit more about the world, about things that I have questions about: the conceptions of Singapore’s history, for example, in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.”

Besides Visaggio, Liew has teamed up with a veritable who’s who of comic writers, including Gene Luen Yang on Shadow Hero Comics and Mike Carey on My Faith in Frankie. Each has its place in his repertoire. A wise comic creator views every collaboration as a learning opportunity, that will later inform his own solo work.

He explains, “When I’m working on both writing and drawing, there are many decisions to be made: story structure, character development, scene turns and more. Whereas working off a script, the emphasis is more on trying to flesh out existing ideas.”

Focusing on the visuals, plus the deadline schedule of a monthly comic, also pushes Liew to learn new techniques for the art side: “You try whatever tricks or shortcuts to get a particular effect in less time. Every writer has their own approach; you do get to see it up close and try to absorb what lessons you can. I remember being struck by a certain story structure that seemed to run across Mike Carey’s work, despite the stories being very varied in genres and tone.”

Liew’s latest comic is Eternity Girl, written by Magdalene Visaggio (left). An inked page from Eternity Girl #5 (right). – Pictures courtesy of DC Comics
Liew’s latest comic is Eternity Girl, written by Magdalene Visaggio (left). An inked page from Eternity Girl #5 (right). – Pictures courtesy of DC Comics

When Liew works with writers who are also fellow artists, as with Gene Luen Yang, his own approach to the storytelling shifts accordingly. He recalls, “Gene provided both a script and a thumbnail breakdown, which was very good on its own. So for that I made adjustments to make some scenes maybe a bit more cinematic, though maybe it was more about a different visual style. I could have worked off his thumbnails and it would have worked equally well.”

Over the years, Liew’s style of illustration has evolved, even incorporating painting techniques of late. His covers for Doctor Fate, written by Paul Levitz (former president of DC Comics), in particular, are quite striking. These were digitally painted, based in part on techniques Liew had learnt in art school working with traditional analogue media.

“I try to keep up with new software and hardware. Recently I tried Manga Studio after putting it off for a long time — the new version isn’t even called Manga Studio any more! — and found that it does make some things a lot easier, even if it does tend to produce a certain look, and you do lose some of the more organic feel of traditional inking. The hope is that you keep learning and evolving, though there remains a thread that you can draw.”

After completing Eternity Girl, Liew will be busy with upcoming projects such as scripting a few issues of Adventure Time Comics, as well as collaborating with academician Cherian George on the censorship of cartoons (www.drawingfire.ink). A new creator-owned graphic novel is also on the horizon, revolving around capitalism.

Sonny Liew, one of the most interesting comic creators working today. — Picture by Crispian Chan
Sonny Liew, one of the most interesting comic creators working today. — Picture by Crispian Chan

He shares, “I’m still in the research phase, so the final shape and structure of the book is constantly shifting and evolving as I discover more about the story I hope to tell. It’s been a process of rebooting the brain to some extent — I poured everything I knew into The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye — so I’ve had to start over again, so that the new book won’t be too much of a rehash of the ideas and formal experiments from the last one.”

Reading a Sonny Liew comic is like staring into eternity... and for that experience to be endlessly fascinating. Getting a peek behind the scenes, learning more about his process, as we have, doesn’t lessen the awe or the mystery one bit.

Perhaps his work is like a box of chocolates, after all, if that box never runs out of surprises. Each chocolate its own unique, special flavour. As readers, we can’t wait to taste what’s next, to have some more.

Eternity Girl is currently published by DC Comics as a six-issue miniseries. Visit www.sonnyliew.com to learn more about Sonny Liew.

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