The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Presented by Sonny Liew
Pantheon Books, 2015

Sonny Liew is known as a comics artist, having illustrated The Shadow Hero with Gene Luen Yang, My Faith in Frankie with Mike Carey, and the latest DC Doctor Fate series with Paul Levitz. He is the sole creator of this 300-page graphic novel, and it is a striking achievement.  Cast as a biography and art collection of the fictional Singaporean comic book artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Liew imagines fifty years of comics in Singapore that never were, and comments on the history of the country at the same time.

The story opens with Chan at age 72, responding to an off-panel interviewer, telling his life story. Here as elsewhere the off-panel voice is presented as an indecipherable speech balloon, like the trombone representing the unheard adult voices in the Peanuts cartoons. Liew appears as narrator on the page all the way through the book, like Larry Gonick in his various Cartoon History series.  Chan's art style evolves throughout the story, as he moves from the giant robot comics at age 16 to increasingly political stories, as well as autobiographical ones.

Liew also creates period sketches and paintings to show Chan's progression as an artist. We see him influenced by the comics he might have actually seen in Malaysia, like Tezuka's manga and the Disney comics.At the same time the history of comics is being shown, from 1954 through the late 1980s ("Days Of August," the last imitation comic, apes the look and panel layout of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns). The stylistic variety of the illustrations would be remarkable by itself, even without the many rich characters from Chan's life that are depicted.

And then there's the history of Singapore, which is the subject of many of Chan's comics. Liew is so serious about this that there are even end notes expanding on the real-life social history and politics in the illustrations. That history is given at least as much weight as the imagined Singapore comic book history. Which makes sense, because that part of the story is played almost completely straight, apart from a sequence where Chan imagines an alternate history.

It's an amazing performance, combining an array of visual styles with quasi-biographical storytelling and real history. Rich in a way that none of Liew's previous works have been--or could have been individually, as his illustrations were serving other purposes--it makes an indelible impression, and stakes a claim for Liew as a major artist.

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I am so happy that you loved this. To me, you would never guess that all of it was done by one artist.

I love the sadness and joy with which it was written, the way the story was told, and the faux history mixed with real history behind the whole thing.

The way he told the story was incredible--with taped up comic strips, historical artifacts, and partial newspaper articles that are all fictional but convincing. I compared it to Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, which, if you haven't seen it, is a very convincing docu-drama about a fictional jazz singer. This is the exact same feeling I got when reading this book. I found myself wishing this was a real person, and actually believing it was a real person that just happened to be one dimension over.

Unless a comic book about a 41 year old teacher who is secretly a karate-fighting super-hero at night, written by Roger Stern and drawn by Steve Rude comes out between now and December, this is definitely my book of 2016.

It is a remarkable artistic performance by Liew; thanks for the reminder to move it to the top of my To Read pile. I haven't seen Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. It does sound like something I'd like, and I'm generally a fan of his films anyway.

It was one of the one movies that I love but hadn't bought--up until I ordered it from Amazon from one click about two minutes ago thanks to this reminder.

Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) said:

It is a remarkable artistic performance by Liew; thanks for the reminder to move it to the top of my To Read pile. I haven't seen Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. It does sound like something I'd like, and I'm generally a fan of his films anyway.

One other thing I meant to mention. When I posted a short review on Goodreads after finishing the book, Liew himself "liked" it. Hadn't expected that!

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