One of the most interesting books I’ve read since becoming interested in the puzzle within a puzzle of meta-fiction is the GRAPHIC NOVEL The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew.
Okay let’s just begin by talking about Singapore.
That was quick, right? If you’re like me (semi-engaged and somewhat geographically astute) then you know basically where Singapore is, but not much more. Such as I did not know it is a city-state. One of a very few cities that act as nation states. They are what they are.
Then I went to Wiki and read a GLOWING account of Singapore’s history. Mt first reaction was WOW, I did not know this—but then, on second thought, why does EVERYTHING sound great.
Sonny Liew born in Malaysia, lives in Singapore. (What’s the difference? Well, now I know.) But the biggest question is this: What does history and geography have to do with comics????
I can’t answer that except this book works. On so many levels. One hand you have real history and then on the other—what is “real” history. History has always been written by the victors and only recently have historians tried to correct a record. Then there are revisionists. Some revision of history does merit to minority groups, gving them a voice in what was once a narrow field of voices, but some revisionism reveals a bias that continues to marginalize and leave others out. History is riddled with subjective view points that we might not ever be able to escape.
Thus, enters Sonny Liew with an outsider’s eye. His main character could perhaps be argued as his alter ego, Charlie Chan Hock Chye, an aging comic designer/illustrator whose story takes us through Singapore’s modernist and multi-cultural history. (It is an old culture but with new beginnings.) He gets behind the curtain of the shiny Wiki entry and tells a nuanced story where opposition is easily dismissed as “communist” and young passionate leaders are destined for prison and exile. In order to attain a veneer of multi-culture amidst unity—there is a price to pay. In order to arise from back streets unto an international mega-city—there are untold sacrifices. The “real” story is much more complicated. And Charlie Chan’s personal narrative loops and is interwoven into the upheavals of Singapore. And not only Charlie’s story but the marginalized comic writers and drawers fighting for shelf space and to gain the backing of a publisher. In a small country you not only have to make it big locally but become internationally renown. For Charlie it is bitter medicine to swallow that he might not ever be able to break out as an artist. His superheroes are the ordinary ones that fight for everyday justice.
AKA the Night Soil Man who turns into a Giant Cockroach
This is a book that is mesmerizing and dizzy with front and back, looping, and turning a story this way and that. We get to see history and the underside of history. And, in the end, our heart hurts for the hopes and dreams of a lonely comic artist.