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.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …