Shining a spotlight on South-East Asian comics

Sonny Liew (left), and the cover of Liew’s ‘Malinky Robot’ (right) which won the Xeric Award and the ‘Prix de la Meilleure BD’ (Comic Album of the Year) at the Utopiales International SF Festival. — Picture courtesy of Sonny Liew
Sonny Liew (left), and the cover of Liew’s ‘Malinky Robot’ (right) which won the Xeric Award and the ‘Prix de la Meilleure BD’ (Comic Album of the Year) at the Utopiales International SF Festival. — Picture courtesy of Sonny Liew

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 14 — If you grew up reading comics like I did, I’m sure you’d be no stranger to mainstream American superhero titles such as Captain America and Justice League or European fare such as Tintin and Asterix. (The movie adaptations may also have something to do with their mass appeal these days.)

But how many of us would actually go the extra mile and create comics for a living? Eisner-nominated comic artist Sonny Liew is one Malaysian who did just that.

Born in Seremban, Liew later moved to Singapore to attend Victoria School and Victoria Junior College. Growing up in South-East Asia meant his early exposure to comics was a mix of East and West. 

He says, “My mom used to buy me and my sister comics in Seremban. Back then you could still get comics from provision shops and newsstands. We read comics from the UK like Beano and Dandy, as well as ones from Hong Kong such as Old Master Q and the classic Children’s Paradise (‘Er Tong Le Yuan’). We even had what I recognise now as bootleg copies of Doraemon!”

Liew had an omnivorous appetite where comics were concerned, alternating between the raucous Mad Magazine and superhero titles such as his favourite Spider-Man. He says, “In Singapore, I’d get my comics from this second-hand bookstore inside a wet market. A lot of the covers were half torn off, which I thought was strange at the time. I recently learnt that it was part of the whole newsstand distribution system, where they would return half a cover to publishers to indicate an unsold book.”

During his teens, Liew started picking up copies of 2000 AD where the sheer variety of styles and stories by celebrated writers such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison piqued his interest in comics as a possible career.

“However, there really wasn’t a comics industry here at the time, so I didn’t have any sense of how someone would go about being a comic artist. I’d sketched and scribbled my way through school, but there were no conventions to attend and no studios to go learn the craft from.”

Liew went on to read philosophy at Cambridge University in the UK. During his second year he created Frankie and Poo, a comic strip for The New Paper (a Singapore newspaper) that dealt with social and political issues in the island nation.

“I decided that I really wanted to make a go at comics and applied for art school after graduating from Cambridge. I ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design. I worked on comics and eventually put together a portfolio to send to places like Vertigo (an imprint of DC Comics),” he says. 

Liew’s big break came during a trip to the San Diego Comic Con. There, he met the legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont who took a liking to the young illustrator’s portfolio. Claremont subsequently got him a job illustrating Iron Man for Marvel Comics.

“After Marvel, Vertigo contacted me to do a mini-series called My Faith in Frankie, written by Mike Carey and inked by Marc Hempel. I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, so getting to work under the same Vertigo imprint meant a lot. Of course, it’s nerve-wracking too, since I felt pressured to meet a certain standard in my work,” he says.

Liew’s two biggest works to date are arguably Malinky Robot (which he both wrote and illustrated) and The Shadow Hero (written by Gene Luen Yang). The former won the Xeric Award and the “Prix de la Meilleure BD” (Comic Album of the Year) at the Utopiales International SF Festival while the latter is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

Malinky Robot is a labour of love for Liew. He says, “I was inspired by the labouring district of San’ya in Japan. I had found the real life stories of construction workers in Edward Fowler’s San’ya Blues fascinating. So I mixed in a bit of Blade Runner and created a partly real, partly science-fiction world.”

The graphic novel draws a lot of its influences from the films of Takeshi Kitano and Koreeda. He says, “These films often have a structure and narrative approach that I find really interesting and try to emulate at some level in Malinky Robot. The stories themselves are open-ended, slice-of-life pieces that focus on the beauty, joy and sadness of everyday moments.”

Meanwhile The Shadow Hero was a way of paying homage to obscure Golden Age superhero comics while keeping it modern at the same time.  He says, “Finding that balance was tricky. Another challenge was the visual research. The story is set in the 1930s, with all sorts of locales from Chinatown to Hidden Caves and Secret Fighting Arenas, so getting the look and feel right took quite a bit of trawling through books and the Internet.”

Liew’s latest book is Liquid City Volume 3, an anthology of works by 31 South-East Asian comic creators that he edited with Joyce Sim. Contributors include Tita Larasati (Indonesia), Elvin Ching (Singapore), Nguyen Thanh Phong (Vietnam) and X-Men: Legacy illustrator Tan Eng Huat (Malaysia).

“I’d been part of a couple of anthologies before and one day I just thought it’d be great to have one focusing on artists in South-East Asia. I had a vague sense there were a lot of comic creators around the region, but it felt like everyone was disconnected from each other. So I guess Liquid City was meant both as a platform for everyone to get their work seen by a wider audience, and also maybe a small step in building a comics community in the region,” says Liew.

The conceit behind Liquid City was to get creators to do stories if they knew the world was ending.  ”The responses we got were wonderfully varied. We had some dealing with apocalyptic scenarios, of course, but there were also more personal stories about lost loves, days out with friends and even cultural eating habits.”

The same variety can be seen in Liew’s own resume, which spans literary adaptations such as Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility to more offbeat work such as Re-Gifters (Korean martial artist meets California surfer in Los Angeles). No surprise then that this restless, creative mind finds inspiration from a diversity of sources.

“I’ve been more influenced by alternative comic creators such as Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. They tell more interesting stories, and push the boundaries of the comic art form in interesting ways. It may sound odd, but the lives of folks like Hayao Miyazaki and watching the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi have also inspired me, just in terms of being dedicated to the craft.”

Liew is currently busy completing The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, his upcoming biography of the Singaporean comic pioneer, and shows no signs of resting. He says, “My friends are often baffled by my reluctance to take holidays or breaks from work. I find it equally baffling that they’d want to spend their lives working at jobs they don’t feel mad about.”

* Liquid City Volume 3 will be launched at Kinokuniya Book Store Kuala Lumpur on August 23, 1:30pm. Sketches will be given to the first 10 buyers of the book.

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