One recent weekend, in the grey drabness of Suntec City Convention Centre, a girl dressed as a French maid slumped beneath an escalator. With her glazed eyes and finger to mouth, a swarm of shutterbugs naturally descended. Meanwhile, a boy in a trench coat was roundly ignored, and amidst the other cosplayers angling for shots, one, with towering hair, said to another: “Gatsby right?” “Ey, how you know?” the answer went.
Upstairs, the Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention hosted other special guests. These included: Mario and Luigi (sans Princess Peach), a female Dr. Who, a historically accurate German soldier, Imperial Stormtroopers, and all the Power Rangers in their multi-coloured, skin-tight latex. The scene was either a second childhood come alive, or a breeding ground for sexual fetishes.
Down the Artist Alley sat Sonny Liew, peddling a quieter vision of life in the city. The boyish comic artist got his start with Frankie and Poo, the variously satirical and absurdist strip that, amazingly, ran in The New Paper from 1994 to 1995.
Made while reading philosophy at Cambridge, Liew then hopped across the pond to comic central, the Rhode Island School of Design. It was in America that he received his big break, co-creating DC Veritgo’s My Faith in Frankie (2004) with Mike Carey (Lucifer). Fittingly, it revolved around the titular character who has her own personal God and “a back-from-the-dead boyfriend with a demonic agenda.”
These dark visions led him to the house of Disney. Wonderland (2006-7) was a sequel to the classic animation, starring the White Rabbit's maid Mary Ann. With this graphic novel, Liew scored his first Eisner nomination, which is often regarded as comic’s most prestigious award.
His second came after Liew turned his focus to home. Having failed to obtain an American visa as a freelancer, he returned in 2005. The two volumes of Liquid City (2008 and 2010), which he respectively edited and co-edited, were groundbreaking anthologies of Southeast Asian comic artists. They compiled such gems as the legendary Lat (The Kampung Boy), homegrown social realist Koh Hong Teng (contributing the wordlessly wrenching “Regrets”), and manga-inspired Troy Chin (The Resident Tourist).
Liew’s latest, Malinky Robot (2011), makes the move from a regional to specific city – the futuristic, falling apart San’ya. Sub-titled “collected stories and other bits”, here is a metropolis writ small through the “little adventures” of “two street urchins”, Atari and Oliver, and the other denizens of San'ya.
Drawing influence from neon-lit Japan and arthouse cinema alike, not very much happens in Malinky Robot’s bustling city. In “New Year’s Day”, for instance, inventor Mr. Nabisco leaves behind his diminutive robot after drinks, and for the next 15 hours and eight minutes, we follow the robot as he tries to find his way back to his master.
Liew paints this journey in a style reminiscent of variegated watercolours, and with exquisite detail: the robot ambles through emptied alleyways, weaves between schoolchildren, receives a free top-up of petrol, and crosses path a female robot. Just in time for the New Year, he reaches home, and you realise that it is the pulse and rhythm of a city that is the drama. “We made it through another winter! Cheers”, it ends.
Going by the buzz at Singapore's Comic-Con, Liew’s tone poems have obviously struck a chord. As fanboys and girls gather around his booth, we sneak in a word with this indie superhero.
POSKOD.SG: Cities loom large in your works. What’s a Liquid City?
Sonny Liew: We wrestled with trying to find the right title for a long time. Liquid City’s supposed to suggest the fluidity and flux of cities, and to a certain degree hints at neon lights and passing cars.
Unfortunately, I found out later that Liquid City’s also a series of adult videos.
You were born in Seremban, Malaysia. What was that like?
I came over [to Singapore] when I was pretty young, around seven, and Malaysia was mostly a place I went back to during the school holidays. So it's a place I associate with lazy afternoons of not doing much – playing with plastic toy soldiers and watching Cantonese martial arts shows on VHS.
Do I feel Malaysian? At immigration, they always tell me I should throw away my passport because I can’t really speak Malay. But having never done National Service, I can't say I feel fully Singaporean either; maybe more of a Causeway child, caught between the lines.
In the foreword to Liquid City: Volume One, you write, “Personally I’m not certain what being Southeast Asian really implies”. Now with Volume Two out, are you any more certain?
In terms of comics at least, I guess we’re influenced by both the East and West. But you can probably say that of most places, and with the Western stuff getting so influenced by manga, it’s very difficult to draw boundaries these days.
Influences aside, a more practical issue is that in Southeast Asia, the comic industries tend to be somewhat underdeveloped. There's a lack of editorial and publishing support, and aspiring creators often have to forge their own paths, whether it's trying to make it overseas, or learning the ropes of self-publishing from the bottom up.
There's also a relatively lack of comic writers; most of the creatives here are focused on art rather than writing. With Liquid City, one problem we faced was having a lot of artists with amazing styles, but sometimes still in search of a good story to tell.
Lat, your childhood hero, is collected in Liquid City. Why does he mean so much to you?
When I was younger his stories just seemed very funny and engaging. Simple, even. But reading them now I realise how much incredible storytelling is going on. The rhythms, structures, and pacing, especially in longer narratives like Kampung Boy and Town Boy, really mark him out as a world-class storyteller.
And there's his development of a uniquely Malaysian style – his special squiggle that makes up the 'Asian nose' probably the most obvious of the lot.
Your debut Frankie and Poo was forthrightly political. “Mee Reebus Man”, for instance, was a hypothetical movie about a protesting hawker found guilty of heading a Marxist group. Starring [former political detainee] Francis Seow, the hawker’s sentenced to co-host “Showbuzz”.
What was the reaction like?
Most of the more contentious strips weren't seen by anyone outside of The New Paper. They would self-censor and sit me down to explain the concept of OB [out of bounds] markers.
“Mee Rebus Man” was one of the strips they didn’t use, and unfortunately those were ones that I thought were the best ones.
Things only really came to a head during my final year in college, when a whole bunch of strips I'd done to tide me through the examination period were deemed unusable because of the political content. They asked for more, and I told them I couldn't realistically provide any. So that was kind of the end of the strip.
Now with Malinky Robot, you have moved to a more elliptical form of storytelling. One critic even called it an “art-driven comic”, versus its “forgettable and occasionally nonsensical” stories.
I would like to think that readers or reviewers who see the stories as simply art-driven are missing the point, but it's hard to make an objective argument out of it.
The stories in Malinky Robot don't quite follow conventional storytelling rules, and I have wondered if the departures are justified. I guess all you can do is try to learn as much as you can about the so-called rules of storytelling and figure out what to take on board and what to reject – a case of knowing the rules before breaking them.
I’m inspired by films like Broken Flowers (2005) by Jim Jarmusch, or Blade Runner (1982), where it's more about the environment and atmosphere and things never get fully resolved. Of course, all of it is artifice, but it somehow feels more like real life to me.
What drew you about Japan’s San’ya to set Malinky Robot there?
I had read Edward Fowler’s San’ya Blues (1998), in which he spent a year there as a labourer after giving up everything. It offered a different perspective of Tokyo, this being a time when the general perception of Japan was still one of a very homogenous society. So it was a little surprising to find out that there was this whole different strata.
In a way, it's connected to Singapore as well. There's a similar use of foreign labourers here that's tied in with their dispensability. Cheaper labour costs aside, the government knows that the construction industry is one of the most vulnerable to economic downturns, so an easily dispensable foreign workforce helps provide a buffer zone in terms of unemployment rates. It's a workforce that's crucial to the city's growth, yet never quite accorded the rights they should have.
Have you gone to San’ya?
Only on Google Maps! I’m planning to go to Japan next year though, so I might visit the place then. At the same time, maybe not seeing the real place has its advantages; it becomes more of a fictive city, half real, half imagined, made out of different parts of the world.
There's a crumbling old shopping mall called Wisma Punca Emas in Seremban that I used as reference for a building on the cover for the French edition, for example.
So what is it that keeps you drawing?
It doesn’t feel like work. When I went to art school it was incredible for me to get homework and that was to draw or paint! It was like being on holiday all the time.
It only feels like work when I have to draw something really mundane. Things too similar to what you've done before, so the execution is mostly a mechanical process, with no real avenues for growth. I remember a guy came up to me and said that he wanted a realistic painting of a potato chip. I had to turn him down.
Words Dan Koh
Illustrations Sonny Liew