An Interview with Sonny Liew by Lim Cheng Tju

Conducted by Lim Cheng Tju, November 2011

1. How has life changed for you since winning the Young Artists Award given out by the Singapore Government?

Well… there’s the Award money sitting around somewhere but haven’t really had a chance to think of a project to use it on… generally I guess it has raised my profile locally a bit, which means more invites to take part in various art projects. It was mostly nice to have my parents and grand dad come along for the ceremony, meet the then-president of Singapore Mr SR Nathan, see the Istana (official residence of the President of Singapore). They’ve been supportive of my career choices, it’s just one small way of giving back I guess.

2. You contributed to Secret Identities, which celebrated Asian-American Superheroes. Do you consider yourself an American artist (since the bulk of your work is published in USA), Singaporean or Malaysian artist?

I usually say I’m a Malaysian-born artist based in Singapore, which is a factual statement. On a emotional level I’ve always felt a bit in between, a Causeway Kid. My parents and my  father’s side of the family live in Malaysia, but I don’t speak much Malay beyond soccer terms like pass or shoot the ball. Spent most of my time here but I never did National Service… Not American though, that would be a strange stretch.  Even if you think of it in terms of stories, there’s Frankie and Poo, Chang & Eng. Maybe using an english first name has something to do with people sometimes assuming I’m an American based creator. In these days of the internet, Fedex and relatively cheap jet travel its maybe become less important where come from – everybody has assess to comics from the world over, so your influences are going to be myriad.

3. Are you a Singapore citizen yet?

haha not yet, but I’ve thought about it, especially after the last General Election in Singapore (May 2011). Just a feeling of wanting to be more involved.

4. Who has helped you the most to break into the comics industry?

I would have to say David Mazzuchelli, who taught a class at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) when I was there. Growing up in Singapore it was never clear how you went about becoming involved in comics. No artists or studios to join as an apprentice, no comics publishers to send your work to, no conventions to show your portfolio at. Well there was Mr Kiasu and the Comix Factory, but they never expanded beyond that one title. David was the first person I met who knew the ins and outs of things – both in the mainstream and alternative comics fields. The classes were theory laden – panels, structure, text-image interaction… but he was also full of practical advice. It was on his advice that I went to my first SDCC, and he put a good  word in for me with Karen Berger at Vertigo as well :)

5. Which comics company/writer/character would you like to work on/with next?

Well my wish list of writers is mostly based on stuff I grew up reading, a lot of the British creators who worked with 2000 AD. Grant Morrison, Alan Grant, Garth Ennis… For the same reasons I’ve always wanted to do a story for 2000 AD, just a Future Shock perhaps. But they’ve always ignored by emails for most part, I’ve no idea what I need to do to get work there… Getting to do something Batman related would be great, him and Spidey probably my favourtie superheroes, as they are for most.

6. Ray Bradbury just turned 91 on 22 August. Malinky Robot won the Best Science Fiction Comic Album at the Utopiales International SF Festival. What is the future of/for science fiction?

It’s always going to be around I guess – human beings can’t stop imagining their futures. I can’t say I’m the biggest sci-fi fan/reader. Despite watching Star Wars, Star Trek The Next Generation, Blade Runner and Doctor Who many times over, I’ve only read a small splattering of classic or contemporary sci fi, with just a vague awareness of different movements within the genre. So any Big Thoughts on sci fi’s future would escape me. But I don’t think we’ll ever run of, or lose interest in, stories about robots, time travel and alien invasions; they’re all just says of reflecting ourselves after all, and we’re such a self-involved lot :p

6a. Malinky has been translated into French and Italian. When is the Malay and Chinese versions coming out?

Haha no idea. Saya Tak Tau. (Malay for ‘I don’t know’)

7. How has studying Philosophy at Cambridge University helped you in your thinking/writing/drawing?

I had a lot of adolescent questions about everything in the world when I went to college. Religion, Meaning, Political Organization….  All big, woolly issues hard to get a handle on. Philosophy I guess helped clarify them a little – if not providing actual answers, at least helping frame the questions better. Standing on the shoulders of all those geniuses and all that.  But I don’t think the philosophical ideas I read at Cambridge ever directly made their way into any of the comics I’ve done.

Though maybe in a looser sense, when I was drawing  the ‘Frankie and Poo’ comic strips I did for The New Paper, I needed new ideas all the time, so just about everything I read or saw seeped into the comics at some level.

Academic philosophy is its own rarefied world though, and any comic derived from it would be very different from the kind that I do. The Malinky Robot comics for example are much more slice-of-life stories, and if anything from my Cambridge days did have an impact on them, it would probably have been more about the texture of experiences there. Maybe if I did Kramer’s Ergot style art comics it would be a different story, but that’s not quite happened yet.

8. Is there a story which you would want to write but like to get another artist to draw? Which artist?

Hmm never really thought about it; always seen myself on the art end of things at the very least. Just writing a script? That seems odd somehow. An evasive sort of answer would be Seth Fisher, just because that would mean that he was still with us and drawing his incredible comics…

9. What is the obsession with robots?

Everybody loves robots! Haha well on one level its a visual thing – robot shapes, proportion and anatomy give you more freedom than most things you draw. There’s also the whole reflection of humanity aspect. Or the idea that objects could acquire sentience. Maybe at the end of the day it’s mostky about the fantasy of interacting with things that are like us yet not-us. Robots, zombies, aliens, vampires – there’s an otherliness to all of them, yet with a human spark that makes them fascinating.

10. What is with the move into the fine arts? Does it pay better, make you more famous among the high society?

Paintings…. I’ve always been interested in them, one of the reasons why I went to art school in the first place. I did a lot of them in school, and when I graduated from RISD the hope was always to balance the comics and the paintings. It’s tilted much more to the comics side, I guess, but I still try to paint whenever I get the chance.

I used to say that the comics tend to be more commercially driven and the paintings more personal. But that seems to mistate the point, since all art has to communicate in some way, otherwise it’d be too solipsistic and indulgent. Maybe better to say that paintings communicate differently. Though I like to include comic tropes and symbols in the paintings, it’s a different medium, and I think moving from one to the other and back gives me room to explore different possibilities.

I’m happy if people do want to buy the paintings, hopefully for the right reasons, since it means I get more opportunities to paint and get the works seen. But the art market has its own idiosyncracies, with muddier waters than comics perhaps, so that aspect I’m not always comfortable with.

11. Are you rich?

It’s all relative :)

12. Tell us more about your next project on the 1st Chinese superhero?

Gene Yang discovered this Chinese-American superhero character from way back when, and decided to continue his exploration of Chinese-American identity by telling his version of the character’s origins. We’d worked on a short story for Secret Identities before as mentioned, so for various reasons thought it’d be fun to collaborate together again. Aside from that… I guess I’d never thought much about my own asian identity much when I was in Singapore. I think when you’re part of the ruling majority race you just tend to take everything for granted. The times in the US and UK though made me more aware of how things could be very different. Drunk college kids shouting “Chinky Chong” when they drove past you, a general sense of being variously more invisible or more noticeable due to skin colour. So I did explore some of those identity issues in artworks in RISD, and even made Jeriven in My Faith in Frankie into an Asian god. It never really became an obvious part of the story because that was never really one of Mike’s concerns, but I guess I’m just saying there is some natural progression from all that to me working on this project with Gene.

13. For years, you have been trying to build a community of comics artists in Singapore? How successful have you been?

Were you a founding member of the Association of Comic Artists (Singapore) (ACAS)?

Hmm… it’s been a long road and still a ways to go yet. I remember in the early days putting up posters at comic and book stores inviting artists to submit works for a comics anthology. That never got beyond the wishful thinking stage, but I guess Liquid City years later was the same sort of project – an attempt to create a platform for artists to work together and know each other better, to have material more readily available for readers.

Over time I guess we’ve slowly built up some sort of loose community here. Ties with book stores like Kinokuniya and Planerds, working with the STGCC organisers to make sure there’s a local presence at the convention, meeting once in a while with fellow creators to talk about how to make things better…. Measuring success is tricky, though you could argue that strictly in financial terms there’s not yet been anything on the local scene that’s really been Big. Still, again it’s all relative, and I think we are further down the road than we were, say, ten years ago. Panels at the Singapore Writer’s Festival, books on display at stores, National Arts Council recognition even. Small, but culmulative, steps I hope.

I was an ACAS member when it was first founded. I think it was a bit of a premature entity at the time though – there needed to be a more substantial body of local work and creators before something like ACAS would make sense. Are we closer to that today? I think so, though  a looser collective is probably still easier to handle at this stage than something as official as a Singapore Association. ACAS under Jerry Hinds is forging it’s own path; different from the one others are taking perhaps, but at the end of the day we are all trying to help the industry here get better.

14. You have done adaptations. Which novel/non-fiction/philosophy book would you like to turn into a comic book?

John Gardner’s Grendel.

15. Complete these sentences:

Comics are important because….

everything is important. Diversity becomes us, and we all try to make a space for our own particular loves and likes.

The future of comics lies in/with…..

Good Storytelling. Or possibly China.

If I were not a comics artists, I’d be….

Painting more, possibly.

Editor’s Note: Sonny Liew’s Malinky Robot can be read here: