Delhi edition of Comic-Con: An arts body should not follow a political party’s ideology, says Sonny Liew
Comics can be controversial too, as 43-year-old Malaysia-born comic artist Sonny Liew’s story tells us. The Singapore-based artist is best known for his work, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was released in 2015 and was the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize for fiction in 2016. It charts the life and career of a fictional comic book artist, the eponymous Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and by weaving together fact and fiction, and different genres, tells the story of the formative years of Singapore’s modern history and the history of comics. But shortly before the book’s release in Singapore, the National Arts Council withdrew its grant of $8,000 for the title, citing ‘sensitive content’ and its potential to ‘undermine the authority and legitimacy’ of the government. The comic became the best-selling local fiction title that year.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye went on to make bestseller lists at Amazon and The New York Times when it was published in the US, which was unprecedented for a Singaporean graphic novel. Besides winning the Singapore Literature Prize, it also won the Book of the Year accolade at the Singapore Book Awards in 2016. It was awarded the Pingprisen for Best International Comic in 2017. At the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con, Liew and The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won three Eisner Awards—Best Writer/Artist, Best US Edition of International Material-Asia and Best Publication Design. It was also nominated for three other Eisner Awards—Best Letterer, Best Colorist and Best Graphic Album-New.
Ananaya Banerjee catches up with Sonny Liew at the ongoing Delhi edition of Comic-Con, where he tells her about the controversy. Edited excerpts:
What, according to you, best describes the theme of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye? Is it a political satire or a modern look at your country’s history?
I would say that it is a book that examines Singapore’s history through the lens of a fictional comic artist’s journey—a real history of Singapore mixed with a fictional comics history. The word that’s often used to describe non-mainstream takes are ‘revisionist’ or ‘alternative’, but I prefer the word ‘inclusive’—a more inclusive history that takes in a wider perspective and more diverse viewpoints.
What was the feedback from your readers?
It’s generally been very positive—you can’t please everyone, of course, but I’ve been especially glad to meet younger readers of 10 or 12 years, telling me they liked the book, since I’d thought the book would only be accessible to a slightly older readership.
Were you expecting to win three Eisner Awards?
The Eisners—that’s something you can hope for, dream of, but not really expect, given how strong the competition always is in every category.
Are you planning to write more comics in the same genre?
In the sense, yes… if one considers trying to find interesting ways to tell stories, or expanding the language of the medium and its formal possibilities, along with a hopefully compelling narrative that engages with interesting questions… though the next book won’t be focused on Singapore or take the form of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
Why was the grant to your comic denied by the National Arts Council of Singapore?
The book had actually been given the publishing grant after the NAC had reviewed the manuscript, but it was rescinded after the book was published, and a few days before the official launch. The reason they gave was that it “potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government, and breached funding guidelines”.
Did you agree with what they said?
The book does examine some of the myths and problems of Singapore’s history—as told by the government—as any good book looking at history should. To argue that this undermines authority and legitimacy would imply that those things were built on questionable foundations that need to be shielded from critical and factual inquiry. Beyond that, an Arts Council should probably not place the particular needs and ideologies of a particular party foremost in its decision-making. The Arts Council was willing to say that artistic merit was no longer a consideration, given the guideline breaches, which is a deeply problematic position for an arts organisation to take.
– Ananaya Banerjee