Progress of a comic artist

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LEISURE - EL­IZ­A­BETH TAI star2@thes­

Malaysian-born, Sin­ga­pore-based graphic nov­el­ist Sonny Liew talks about his ca­reer in comics.

ASERIES of breaks and youth­ful en­thu­si­asm. That’s how Eis­ner-nom­i­nated comic artist Sonny Liew said he got his break in the un­pre­dictable and highly com­pet­i­tive world of comics.

“When I was younger, I had this ridicu­lous self-be­lief that I would make it some­how. I can’t re­ally ex­plain it. Call it youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance, per­haps. I felt that I had some­thing to con­trib­ute to comics” said Liew via tele­phone re­cently.

Malaysia-born Liew, 37, is cur­rently based in Sin­ga­pore where he has resided since he was in kinder­garten. (His par­ents still live in Serem­ban.) He has worked for big names in the comic in­dus­try, such as DC Ver­tigo, Mar­vel, Dis­ney and SLG. And among his pub­lished works are Malinky Ro­bot, Won­der­land, My Faith In Frankie, and Mar­vel Comic’s adap­ta­tion of Sense & Sen­si­bil­ity.

Yet, de­spite a child­hood de­vour­ing comics like Beano, Lao Fu Shi and Tin Tin, Liew re­alised his call­ing late. He only dis­cov­ered it when he started draw­ing Frankie And Poo, a comic strip for the Sin­ga­porean tabloid The New Pa­per, while read­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Bri­tain’s Cam­bridge Univer­sity in the 1990s.

“I re­alised that this was some­thing I felt re­ally en­gaged with. Com­ing up with the ideas, draw­ing the strip, know­ing that it was go­ing out into the world where it’d get read by strangers … that felt spe­cial to me,” he said.

He de­cided then that he wanted to be in­volved in the arts. He re­turned to Sin­ga­pore from Bri­tain with a de­sire to draw comics for a liv­ing but with no idea how to do so as none of his friends were do­ing that at the time and the in­dus­try wasn’t de­vel­oped in Sin­ga­pore. He ended up do­ing illustration work for a com­pany pro­duc­ing ed­u­ca­tional CD roms.

Af­ter a year work­ing in Sin­ga­pore, Liew left in 1998 to study illustration at Rhode Is­land School of De­sign at Prov­i­dence, United States.

“I wanted to do comics but there seemed to be very few av­enues in Sin­ga­pore and I still had no idea how to be­come a comic artist. So, I thought go­ing to art school would help. Also, I was look­ing at a lot of books on illustration and paint­ing – I had no idea how to paint at that time. I drew with pen and ink. I fig­ured art school would help me learn to paint, and find out more about comics and art,” he said.

Do the ro­bot

It was at Rhode Is­land School of De­sign that he be­gan work on what would even­tu­ally be­come Malinky Ro­bot, a col­lec­tion of strips about two street urchins called Atari and Oliver. It started out as a fi­nal project for a class, but even­tu­ally grew to be­come one of his best known works. (The sto­ries in the se­ries were re­cently col­lected in trade pa­per­back called Malinky Ro­bot: Col­lected Sto­ries & Other Bits from Im­age Comics, and is also avail­able in French and Ital­ian.)

“Af­ter school, I pho­to­copied it, sta­pled it and went to sell it all the lo­cal comic stores in Bos­ton. I think it did quite well be­cause one of the own­ers was very sup­port­ive and she dis­played it at the front counter,” he said.

This gave him con­fi­dence to ap­ply for the Xeric grant, which is given out by the Xeric Foun­da­tion, an Amer­i­can non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that has awarded self-pub­lish­ing grants to comic book cre­ators for over two decades. And when he got it, he self-pub­lished Malinky Ro­bot. Even­tu­ally, Amer­i­can graphic nov­el­ist Kazu Kibuishi of the Flight an­thol­ogy saw a copy of the graphic novel and in­vited him to do a story.

His next break came in 2003 when he was of­fered a chance to work on My Faith In Frankie, a mini-se­ries for DC Ver­tigo writ­ten by Mike Carey. Whilst he’d done a piece for Mar­vel’s Mar­vel Uni­verse Mil­lenial Vi­sions, thanks to an en­counter with Un­canny X-men scribe Chris Clare­mont whilst show­ing his port­fo­lio at the San Diego Comic Con in 2001, My Faith In Frankie was the first proper se­ries he’d worked on for one of the big boys. It was both an ex­cit­ing and nerve-wreck­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Liew, hav­ing been a big fan of

Ver­tigo’s books like Sand­man and Hell­blazer.

Ex­pand­ing hori­zons

These days, Liew gets a steady stream of work, so much so that he hardly finds time or en­ergy for an­other pas­sion of his: oil paint­ings.

“When I went to art school, I wanted to do paint­ings, but it’s hard to do both at the same time be­cause they take a lot of time and en­ergy,” he said.

The way he chooses his comics projects are partly based on the strength of the script and ideas. But he also ad­mits that the ones that come his way tend not to in­volve su­per­heroes.

“Ed­i­tors, when they see my style, give me a cer­tain kind of as­sign­ment. In that sense, I’m se­lected through my style as op­posed to me say­ing what project I want to do or don’t want to do,” he said. “Things with a more lit­er­ary bent, per­haps, like Won­der­land and Sense & Sen­si­bil­ity.”

Many peo­ple would de­scribe his art style as be­ing “whim­si­cal”, though he does try to adapt his style to suit the story.

“I think ev­ery story suits a dif­fer­ent sort of graphic look. So, as far as I can, I try to adapt my style a bit to it but I think at the end of the day, you can’t re­ally break free of your style en­tirely. It’s some­thing that will al­ways will be there at some level.”

Liew works out of a stu­dio he rents and tries to keep “more nor­mal hours” these days.

“There was a time when I was work­ing from home where I was go­ing to bed at 7am and work­ing at 2pm. These days I try to get to work by 10.30am,” he said.

The artist com­mu­nity in Sin­ga­pore is now big­ger than when it was when he first started out.

“More peo­ple are get­ting in­volved in the in­dus­try though its not as strong as, say, in the US and France. The com­mu­ni­ties are still stronger from sheer numbers, but also from the gen­eral ma­tu­rity of the in­dus­tries. Sin­ga­pore is still in a rel­a­tively de­vel­op­ment stage.”

At times, it does feel a lit­tle iso­lat­ing to work in an environment like this, said Liew.

“You don’t get to meet a lot of artists or talk about comics with other cre­ators. One of the big prob­lems in Sin­ga­pore is the lack

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