Progress of a comic artist
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.
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