Sonny Liew’s book is a perfect, multilayered example of that one might call “archival comics,” something that Tony Venezia and others have theorized about, explainable as works that “instantiate in fictional form the generative accumulation of documentary detail associated with historiographic practices, producing tensions between fragment and whole, image and text, past and present, and, of course, material text and changing contexts” (“Archives, Alan Moore and the Historiographic Novel”). All of these points are played out in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye in order to construct a discourse that thematizes a celebration of comics as a medium in itself and of the multicultural crossroads of Singapore, specifically where comics are concerned, but also engages in a discussion about national identity, the power and price of the interrelationship between politics and material comfort, identity and compromise, aesthetics and freedom, comics canon-making and -breaking and, ultimately, of presenting comics as a way of discussing and even re-thinking history.
At a first level, this book seems to be a straightforward account of the life and work of Singapore’s greatest comics auteur, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, born in 1938 in Geyland Road, when Singapore was a British colony. Contemporary international artist Sonny Liew weaves varied materials in order to create a mixed performance of such a biography. Using multiple examples of Chan’s own published and unpublished work, including a 1991, multi-volume autobiography entitled The Most Terrible Time of My Life, along a potpourri of other materials, from newspaper and magazine clips, administrative documents and pictures of toys, drawings and paintings, and interspersed interviews with Chan himself and one collaborator, Liew organizes this trove in such a way that allows for a mostly linear, chronological biography.
As Chan declares himself right at the beginning, being born in 1938, the year that The Beano was launched in the U.K. and Superman hit the American stands, “maybe [he] was always destined to become Singapore’s Greatest Comics Artist.” There wouldn’t be much to doubt Chan’s words, taking in consideration the sheer volume, diversity and mastery of his output. This would be an incredible opportunity to expand our knowledge about less-known comics traditions from around the world, and possibly adding Chan’s name to a growing field, where mutual international recognition is finally starting to take root, even if slowly. The problem is that Chan never existed outside Liew’s outstanding book.
It is probably a very tired cliché to call Singapore a crossroads, to be sure, but the fact is that where comics are concerned, still to this day one might find there the presence of comics a little from everywhere. Either Chinese traditional, historical narratives or classic literature adaptations, Hong Kong fantastical sagas, British humor, North-American superhero adventures, Japanese contemporary titles, and a mix-mash of local (comprising stuff from the neighboring countries) political cartoons, humor magazines, slice-of-life/nostalgic books, and so on. Within the so-called comics centers (arguably, the United States, Japan and France-Belgium) there is quite some internal diversity, to be sure, but up to a certain moment there was not that much translation going on. So you would have to be at peripheral countries that were open to material from abroad (Portugal was like that as well), translating it or not, to be exposed to all these different traditions at one time. But Singapore’s multiculturalism, including that at the level of language (we come across English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Bahasa), is quite unique, I believe.
This reality is mirrored in Chan’s long career, as he tried out many genres, styles and editorial approaches to his many projects, that spanned from the mid-1950s, when he was but a teenager, with a giant robot comic book, up to his 70s, when he is found working on his autobiography, finishing a meta-textual masterpiece and revisiting his accounts of Singapore’s history via pastiches of famous comics oeuvres. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye uses this device to quote from many comics-sources in order to refer to Chan’s either influences, if following a model he admired, or convergences in styles, if he happened to hit a common thread that was being explored elsewhere in the comicsworld. Perhaps we could think of Svetalana Boym’s theorization of nostalgia’s entanglement with mass culture, and how it lead to a change in the regimes of memory, to understand how Liew deploys the very history, diversity and celebratory nature of comics to trigger this memory work, which is not solely concerned about the life of this fictional author. For this is the other surprising strength of Liew’s endeavor. Engaging with this fictitious account of a comics artist, the book consequently and repeatedly unpacks further layers, that actually moves us away from a simple celebration of comics as such to engage with larger, collective concerns.
Hal Foster, in “An Archival Impulse”, wrote that “archival art is as much preproduction as it is postproduction: concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces (perhaps ‘anarchival impulse’ is the more appropriate phrase), these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and history alike – that might offer points of departure again.” Does this not play right into Liew’s choice of presenting the story of an artist who ultimately failed his grandiose dreams? Much of Chan’s “oeuvre” included in the volume is actually unpublished material, or else it was issued in publications that were either self-published or put out by small presses, hinting at the idea that perhaps their print runs were never spectacular to begin with. An uncompromising author means also a life of difficulty. Moreover, when we look at the “collective history” strand of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, we will see how these “obscure traces” write themselves over the “absolute origins.”
Let’s remain in the “comicworld” that is both archived and created in the book for now, though (bear in mind that an archive does not simply hoard, piles up and files objects but constitutes the very notion of what is or not archivable, which will play a role a little ahead). This book creates very significant, albeit differentiated, affinities with Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville, or Seth’s It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, or Olivier Josso Hamel’s Au Travail, in the sense that these books commingle (fictional) individual memories with larger historical contexts that act upon collective memories, via the corpus of comics (more or less anchored in reality or actual examples), as a sort of evocative object (Sherry Turkle), loaded with cathexis. Comic books that rethink or reassess comics history, their cultural cachet, and their psychological power. In assorted structural strategies and with obvious different narrative goals, these works draw from the archive of comic’s history, sometimes engaging in direct quotes, pastiches, parodies, imitations, and so on, so that one can ponder how important they were to the protagonists but also how they played an important role in the foundation of the identities, cultural background or political field of their own period of emergence.
So the comics that appear here – created by Chan but echoing the actual, historical models – can be seen, at a certain level of interpretation, less as narrative media filled with fantasies and heroes but rather as a popular stream of reflections about society at large. One can go back to each and every pastiche source, every cited original text, and be reminded of their relationship with their own historical circumstance. Pogo and McCarthyism, TDKR and late-Reaganism, Carl Barks and veiled ideological tensions between capitalism and rural traditions, Kurtzman’s common man’s perspective on war, Tezuka’s display of power for anti-violence purposes, Stan Lee superhero fantasies that mirror the social anxieties of growing pains…
Sometimes these pastiche strategies means imitating narrative, stylistic, materialistic or editorial practices that can either highlight the ideological contours of the original texts (as in Moore’s et al.’s 1963 series), open retcon rifts that allow for further elaboration and complication in the expanded storylines of their characters (a recurrent trait of too many Marvel and DC titles to count), or allow for dissipating subsequent myths that do not allow us to look at history in a more critic manner (something that occurs in Émile Bravo’s Spirou. Le journal d’un ingénu, on which Benoît Crucifix and myself wrote an upcoming chapter). This is exactly what takes place in Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
Each and every work by Chan seems to be modeled after greatly known, very popular, extremely influential examples of the international history of comics, from several geographical, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds, reverberating Singapore’s multicultural reality. What’s more, their genres, humors and attitudes also reflect Chan’s own psychological state, although at the same time they reflect back at the comics themselves as if they were a singular organism developing and “growing up.” So, flipping the pages of this book, and fictitiously flipping the pages of Chan’s own works, we come across many “models,” either explicitly stated by Chan and Liew-as-narrator or not. We have, obviously, Tezuka’s many earlier, career-making works, Harvey Kurtzman-led E.C. war stories, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Dan Dare‘s colorful two-pager chapters, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, the 1960s Marvel rebirth’s type of stories, Mad parodies, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and a more-or-less shifting pastiche style of several sources of alternative scenes that can be associated with the likes of Adrien Tomine or Jiro Taniguchi. This has several conceptual effects, apart from the very act of drawing from the comics archive. In one sweeping act, it bolsters, of course, both Chan’s and Liew’s own protean power (comparable to Roy Sikoryak’s practice, for instance).
But this has also a flip side. Now, I do not know much, if anything, about the local Singaporean tradition of comics, but while there is a disparaging but extremely obscure cameo by Johnny Lau’s Mr. Kiasu, there is not that much engaging with potential local production, even from across the Malaysian border, perhaps. I wonder if engaging with successful and frankly great artists such as Lat, author of Kampung Boy, or even popular edutainment works, such as those issued by Asiapac by Tian Hengyu, would inflect the book closer to the local flavor. No hot, high-octane 1990s Hong Kong manhua here. The aftertaste, sincerely, is that this is a book with its eyes set on mainly Western, not to say Anglophone, readers. I may be wrong, lah!
Ever since Maus that there is a wider acceptance and understanding that one can deal with History through the comics medium. To a many extent, this purported biography of a fictional Singaporean comics artist is but an excuse to create a very personal account of Singapore’s own political, coming-of-age story through a much beloved medium. In fact, this is an encapsulated story of The Little Red Dot, especially immediately after World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese, until it gained independence in 1963 and then throughout the next decades, and its outstanding if costly re-founding as a First World country. But this is not an “official version” of Singapore’s history, its “absolute origins.” Quite the contrary, it also forces a rethinking of that master narrative.
In a CNN piece on this very same book, a politician called Baey Yam Keng is quoted as protesting that Government fundings (Liew got some funding for this book) should be bestowed upon applicants but within the proviso that they understand that “they should not put any public institutions in a bad light or put them in a derogatory position.” In other words, either you follow whatever State-backed propaganda (and if you think this word is too-loaded, to quote current American politicians, womp womp) is at hand or you’re considered to act against the interests of the nation. But what prompted this? Once again, I’m delving into issues that I do not know much about, but I’m drawing from the book itself.
While not the protagonists of the main storyline (which belongs to Chan), Liew casts two historical figures as the recurrent spearheading figures of that historical strain, to wit, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong. Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister for 31 years but would still remain in power in different capacities for further 21 years. With such an impressive staying power as ruler of the country, he is seen as a central figure in Singapore’s powerful, identity-building mythos, being dubbed “the founding father” in many, many accounts, to no surprise. Lim Chin Siong, on the other hand, was a founder of the People’s Action Party (or PAP, of which Yew was also a founding member and First Secretary), but was quickly ousted as a Communist and violence instigator, and basically disappeared from the most straightforward, mainstream histories of the PAP, the break from British colonial rule, the federation with Malaysia, and Singapore’s autonomy. Siong was swept aside, and whatever role he had at the roots of these historical processes, and even his close relationship with Yew, was completely rewritten not to say obliterated. Considering the pragmatic and materialistic successful formula that held sway of Singapore for the decades to come (one of the “Four Asian Tigers”), I am almost certain that the positive light thrown at Siong in this book is not that very much welcome bu the powers that be. After all, Yew is the august name of the great master narrative of Singapore, and to have such a role being shared with Siong is probably tantamount to lèse-majesté towards official Singaporean accounts and versions.
These characters appear because, in the story, Chan created a series with Bertrand Wong entitled Invasion, in 1957, emulating Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare (for a magazine called Dragon that was a material copy of Eagle). In it, a young man wakes up in the future and discovers that his city, Lunar City, has been invaded by an extraterrestrial species called the Hegemons, and people have to speak and adapt to Hegemonese to get by. While the allegory seems too thinly veiled (Hegemonese, get it?) about British rule, one must bear in mind not only that Chan was in his early 20s, and that this was the late 1950s, but also that Dan Dare itself, or even Oesterheld and Breccia’s El Eternauta, and many other sci-fi cum political allegory series in the future would follow similar paths. There’s nothing wrong with allegory and the simpler the better, to tell you the truth. Anyway, the authors – i.e., Chan and Wong – cast Yew and Siong themselves as different paladins who, fighting for the independence of Lunar City, join forces. But this is not all. The two political icons would appear once again in Chan’s funny animal series Bukit Chapalang the following year, a little more covertly in the superhero series Roachman in 1959, in an unpublished Sinkapor Inks series in the early 1980s and in different, more fantastical guises in a late, unfinished 1980s “graphic novel” called Days of August (which mixes TDKR‘s visual and formal strategies with The Man in the High Castle‘s plot premise).
Chan is depicted then as an alternative, slightly dissident political voice in Singapore, and such a narrative mechanism allows Liew himself to recast Siong as a powerful force in the historical shaping of Singaporean identity. Better placed people than me are probably working on this incredible dimension of the book right now.
Where this retelling of the historical episodes is concerned, the book is a little unbalanced, especially in the sections heavily occupied by the series “Sang Kucing & The Ants” and “Sinkapor Inks,” as they both rely heavily on close metaphors and puns with the local politics. It’s as if the first part seems more concerned about Chan’s personal life (his relationships with his parents, then friends, then collaborators, and so on, a little like Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life) but as we thread on, and Chan gets older and more isolated, his inner world takes over to the detriment of everything else. Because of that, Liew himself pops up in chibi form, introducing textual notes and a strip-like device in which he explains things to a youth. But not only is this a little contrived as it breaks somewhat the rhythm of the book, even taking in consideration its drastic shifts of pacing and style.
Undoubtedly, Sonny Liew has an incredible grip on the incredible variety of styles and materialities that presided over the many types of comics he cites and playfully pinches from. The heavy, almost minimalist contours of the early lines is as close as they can be to Tezuka’s own beginnings, and they give way to a more streamlined linework of the early issues of animal war comics Force 136, with its very limited palette. This very comic book gains an inflection when it introduces Harvey Kurtzman’s influences, with added, expressive lines, a more rigorous page composition and even a similar use of the textual matter and the famous technique of the camera-on-character’s-dramatic-moment strip. A more complex color work comes into the scrap with Invasion. Days of August has a myriad of composition techniques that shadow’s Miller’s in The Dark Knight Returns, from its “talking heads” and media scenes to striking establishing shots, ominous interruptions by an impeding storm, and so on and so forth.
But the illusion has its limitations, naturally, especially when it comes to terms with page composition, as not always the purported series follow closely their models, and even less so the shot composition, which is more similar within “Chan’s own style” (bodies and heads closer to the margins, for instance, and mostly frontal shots) than the supposed variation amongst the many sources. Still, Liew creates riveting quotes and playful games of recall and detail with the attentive readers, providing many incredible details: the opening pages of Force 136‘s comics are amazing, the text-heavy Mad parody is spot-on, the TDKR pastiche is brilliant. And, at least in one case, it provides a moving, magnificent short story: “The Girl on the Bus” is a 6-panel story that might remind one of the best short stories by Adrien Tomine (“created” in 1988, it would be a precursor to the type of slice-of-life stories so many artists would be famous for in the early 1990s); despite needing the whole context to understand it wholly, perhaps, it is an example of excellence of economy and emotion restraint on its own.
With more than 300 pages, in a big format, filled with multiple information strands, this is an impressive tome and quite a read. But what does it add to? Well, I think the result is as multiple as its constitutive elements. A fictive biography. A celebration of a comics’ canon. A reassessment of the history of modern Singapore. A display of comic’s expressive variety. A lesson on how popular media can reflect and act upon political struggles. A moving read. A brilliant archive of tensions.