What do you know about Singapore, the Southeast Asia city-state? It has been said that the S in Malesia marks this very city as part of the merger with the previously independent Malaya (well, if you don’t account for the British rule, of course). Singapore is also the home of a comics creator who has been called the Tezuka of his part of the world. Now those are some big and heavy shoes to fill …
These are just some of the topics that come to mind when reading Sonny Liew’s marvelous historic(al) account of comics, politics and history of his homeland. Especially to those of us from the West, the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is that other guide to Asia we need … to something different than China’s economic growth, Japan’s manga tradition, North Korea’s great meme leader and South Korea’s Gangham Style (yes, I went there).
Sonny makes himself the narrator of Charlie’s story, in which he presents the life of this prolific comics artist who would aspire to become the greatest comics creator of his time, while at the same time recollecting and reflecting the historical setting that has directly influenced Charlie’s progression as an artist. That may sounds a bit obvious, because we are always connected to the mesocosmos of our direct vicinity (if not shaped by it), but in this case Charlie’s comics were most often politically inspired and thus echoed a larger voice of the nation.
Imagine the liberal ideology of Kelly’s Pogo or even Aesop’s Fables (if you want an even older predecessor) shaped by the interplay of Singapore’s independence and prosperity, underlying British rule and Chinese influence in the area.
Imagine the Spiderman prototype: a meager nobody entrapped in the slums of his existence, only to be bitten by a cockroach and devote his newfound superexistence towards noble deeds, employing the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” before it was cool. The name Roachman is thus more than apropos. Obviously, there is no love lost between spiders and roaches.
These are just two examples of an array of styles, themes and genres that Charlie still eagerly partakes in, all visually individual and yet distinct from the style and font Sonny employs for his own character, so amidst the cleverly presented underlying narrative there is never any confusion about who is presenting the tale(s), while we are given explanations of Charlie’s stories and commentary on the present political situations. The metanarrative enriches the story to the point that it perfectly reflects Charlie’s uphill battle to be more recognized and praised in the world of comics (even across the pond) and Singapore’s struggle between identity and prosperity.
Charlie’s distinctive feature is his uncanny ability to echo what almost seems like a whole tradition of comics. Could we really have been blind to such an imposing figure of comicana?
Oh, did I by any chance forget to mention that Charlie is Sonny?
Well, not in the literal sense, but Charlie is the essential component of the story that needed a determined, opinionated and politically smart creator through which the author/narrator was able to retell the historicity and political turmoil of his part of the world.
(As a Slovenian, I can certainly attest to the political scuffles of our former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.)
The personal driving factor of the author … shaped by the social sphere … to in turn deconstruct his historical fabric through fictive means? Ingenious!
If you fell for it and were not sure what is fiction and what reality, you are not the only one. And that is half of the fun and genius of this book. Indeed, this is historical fiction at its finest. Sonny’s pacing is on point, when he seamlessly captures the natural progression of the story, the story within the story and manages to make the different styles both stand out and carry the narrative forward. This is storytelling fluency on various levels.
The splendor of all of it may be the fact that you are urged to reread the work, especially if you want to play the game of metanarrative with the author, which you definitely should. I know I will.
The real beauty of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is that by the end of the story you feel the plight of the characters, whether it is Charlie, his family, colleagues, comics characters or even several political figures. And that is the essence of true storytelling, whether it is historical, fictional or anywhere in between. The author’s ability to offer his readers genuine suspension of disbelief and allowing them to get completely emerged in the story is a precious commodity that should not be taken lightly.
If graphic novel as a form was seen as the maturation of comics as a medium, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye marks the artistic coming of age of Sonny Liew (obviously not to the detriment of his other works). His finest work so far, especially because in it you can see traces of some of his previous comics like Re-Gifters or The Shadow Hero, the seeds that have been laboriously watered and have blossomed into an exemplary work that transcends the medium of comics, yet could have only been created within this visually creative neck of the woods.
I admit that over the years of researching literature and comics I have been trained to be skeptical when it comes to high praise of a work of art in any medium, because it is hard to be objective about mastery of a given subject matter, especially because there are just too many technical, structural, ideological factors at play. When we observe a work, we partake in its majesty and we can easily become fans who become too invested in it and consequently subjective, so constructive criticism falls prey to admiration for admiration’s sake, especially when author notoriety can blind the taste of objectivity.
However, every once in while we are treated to a work that stimulates our fandom and critical prowess at the same time … Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is that type of exceptional product.
The rest is silence.
ARTICLES VS. BLOGS
There are a couple of reasons why I started writing this blog; while I predominantly needed to force myself to begin writing again, because it allows me to be a quasi-creative smart-ass (because the world always need more of them … ahem), a big part of it is just the pure freedom of doing something for yourself. Maybe this stems from the disillusionment of the academic field in general or perhaps my one inaptitude to sustain (in) it, but the inherently rigid presentation of your subject matter becomes very tedious very fast and even somewhat castrates your writing voice.
Any sort of “scientific” analysis has a broad formalistic approach and straying away from it is a big no-no. The irony of writing about artistic endeavors a bit more artistically or philosophically in a field that only cares about those pesky contributions is quite clear. But this irony is multilayered further, when critical analysis is your cup of tea (I’d say bread and butter, but that implies actually making a living from it …).
And you thought there wouldn’t be humor in this verbal atrocity, right? Before this turns into a sob-fest, my point is that you can’t really try new things in academic context. This is meant primarily ideologically; in my case a failed attempt at a semi-fictional, self-reflective dissertation about mythology in comics, while It even had Santa Claus in it and he would’ve been a bas-ass mo-fo. Writing under the guise of the department of Comparative literature and literary theory – while you’re researching comics and myths which are both equally and yet differently removed from literature per se – messed me up on one hand and opened my eyes on the other.
Now, arguably, this isn’t meant as an ego-trip or a diary of sorts, but an open-minded and open-ended discussion about things that others might find interesting, might (dis)agree with, and hopefully might also find useful in any shape or form.
As it pertains to comics, myths and life in general, hybridization is always a bastard child that few people want and even fewer of them understand, even though it’s essential! Hell, sometimes you don’t even understand yourself apart from the general idea, you just have to find a way to talk about five different subjects simultaneously without reverting to lunacy, no biggie. At least that’s how it feels, because discussing one topic after another is not nearly the same thing. When you’re under strict guidelines, the issue becomes exponentially bigger, if not overwhelming, until you feel it up your own ass … and trust me, it really gets deep.
Choosing your own topics and structuring them any way you want is cathartic, plain and simple. While constructing criticism is not just necessary for progress, but can be a real godsend, not just a slap in the face. There will always be a big learning curve if you’re opened to it… including this present text and project.
Relatively speaking, and this should be taken with a smarmy grain of salt, academic verbiage is prone to more scrutiny by those in the know (as it should be), as much as the more mundane, personalized writing is more likely to be scrutinized by anyone reading it (as it should be). At least that’s the theory. But in actuality, having an inspirational discourse about your article with your fellow experts is as likely as having an immediate impact with your blog. At least that’s the theory in Slovenia. It’s more about marketing and visibility than pure ability. There’s plenty of talent, but its application is a beast that can devour any and all of your progress and would-be success. That’s the way the proverbial cookie crumbles.
Blogs and comics will always be centered more to the left. They will always have an edge and will always stand for a more stream-of-consciousness approach to formulating your ideas and expressive potential. That’s part of the appeal for me as well. While you definitely become more well-rounded with age and experience, there’s a certain x-factor here that urges if not demands you to have a chip on your shoulder. You have to prove yourself to the greater literary, writing sphere (in terms of comics this is a misnomer, but more on that in a future post). This is far less of an obstacle when you denounce all would-be gods of literary discourse and write from your heart and for your heart. Feeling your subject-matter is both a necessity and a curse, because you become obsessed with perfection and the desire to make a meaningful contribution. The paradox of writing for yourself in a social format where readership is key doesn’t elude me, but, hell, I love paradoxes. They keep you on your toes and broaden your linear horizons (I have Daoism to thank for that). Now that’s a God anyone can relate to.
Given that I’ll be in one way or another seemingly forever immersed in the world of comics, I think it’s important to share the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly issues that arise in the evolution of the medium. Arguably, there is a pesky thing called point of view, but then again the fun of creating and comprehending art is just that: FUN. Discussion and debate, especially when given merit and under the guiding principle of constructive criticism, can provide an invaluable tool for the authors and the readers, where the first can approach their subject matter and readership better, while the latter can understand their favorite authors and comics from many more angles and can (dare I say) read between the panels better.
The topics will be chosen randomly and will gradually be developed more in-depth, if the need for more discussion arises or just for shits and giggles.
ISSUE #1: PAGE NUMBERS
For most people, this probably doesn’t rank high on the problems list, let alone it being an issue, but this has been bothering me for a long time now. Page numbers or rather lack thereof may not seem important when you’re immersed in a story (of any kind of sequential format), but I started viewing this as a problem when I began analyzing comics (for the most the Anglo-American comics tradition).
In the world of academia, references rule that often too self-righteous kingdom full of rehashing. Nevertheless, there’s really no way around it, because if you want to analyze anything, you have to point to a particular panel on a particular page for example, otherwise your observation can verge on oversimplification and generalization of the I-like-it-because-it’s-pretty kind, even if you’re actually making a valid point.
Page number may seem arbitrary for most readers who just want to enjoy a comic. We can extend this to literature as well, since they share the book format as a tool for dissemination, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a literary work of any kind without page numbers … or rather, if you do find one, its omission of numbering will signify a special feature rather than editorial forgetfulness or just a postmodern phase for example. That’s not to say that literature is treated more seriously than comics (and not just in the academic sphere), but as a researcher of comics you can get discouraged or even somewhat angry, if you have to count the page numbers by hand, when the thing you wanted to point out just to happens to be at the end of a let’s say 400-pageish graphic novel. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mentally traversed back into my childhood, as I was sitting behind my desk, thumbing the pages of a thick comic, remembering my kindergarten years, counting the pages of a coloring book. But I guess that’s the charm of comics as well.
The easy (if not almost a cliché) answer to the lack of page numbers is that their exclusion gives the reader a sense of timelessness and offers a greater immersion into the story. That was at least a small part of my quasi-enlightening remarks during my Hellboy analysis for my diploma. Arguably, this works well in the context of the canon’s first trade paperback Seed of Destruction, but generally speaking I’d prefer page numbers, even if some of them are left out due to bleeds, splash pages, double page spreads and the like, as the norm seems to be in graphic novels like McCloud’s Sculptor for example.
To a great extent, this becomes a question of format as well. Single instalments of a given comic (especially of a comics series) are generally collected in trade paperbacks, deluxe editions and other collections. While all of these different formats and reprints can definitely be adorably wicked marketing tools for the sake of regurgitating the same comic and spreading the flame of fandom, this is also a means for the authors to be rightfully compensated for their hard work, since the effort of creating comics is still undervalued. Further, different formats of a comic can be distinguished by flipping some odd-numbered pages to even-numbered, thus somewhat changing the climax before the turn of a page (as in later instalments of Lucifer) or numbering can occur only in future collections (Absolute Sandman).
Numbers rule the world and not just in science, or dare I say nature. In comics, numbering is an underwhelming analytical tool that adds formalistic depth to a medium where thinking outside the box and pure artistry have been the driving forces of endless possibilities. A cheesy concluding sentence that should have been omitted for a witty pun, but, hell, I like it. Personally, comics shouldn’t stray away from a tool that takes away far less than it gives. Page numbers are essentially invisible to the reader, especially when the story gets you hooked, but they add volumes to the researcher. Plus, as silly as it may sound, you can get a sense of accomplishment when you see that you’re already on page 200 as opposed to just roaming around the pages. Maybe I take comics too seriously, but that doesn’t take the slightest panel away from being able to enjoy their entertainment value, creativity and technical prowess.
All I’m saying is that the equation in this case is simple: numbering in comics equals two birds, one stone. So book it!
In the next issue: Graphic novel?
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …