A fascinating look at a clever, uncompromising artist married to the times in which he lived.


In this graphic novel, Liew (Shadow Hero, 2014, etc.) presents the life and work of an obscure comic-book creator in tandem with the turbulent modern history of Singapore, the land both call home.

This celebration of the real if largely unknown artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye opens with his two-page comic juxtaposing a pair of prominent Singaporean leaders—Lee Kuan Yew, the long-standing prime minister who shrewdly if brutally oversaw the country’s rise as an economic power; and Lim Chin Siong, a charismatic, populist orator who was outmaneuvered by political rivals, jailed as a dissident, and exiled, ultimately dying in obscurity. The opening is telling for its political focus, juxtaposition of pragmatism versus idealism, and status of having been drawn in 1998 but unpublished until its inclusion here. Born the year Superman and British children’s comic Beano debuted, Chan—a lifelong if self-taught student of the craft—became a sampler of comic styles, beginning with the manga-inspired tales of a boy and his giant robot, moving on to Dan Dare–style alien-invasion science fiction, comics strips in the vein of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, gritty street-level superheroics, and homages to MAD magazine and Windsor McCay. Sociopolitical issues abounded, with the giant robot responding only to commands given in Chinese (underscoring a Singapore divided by its English and Chinese schools) or colonialism playing out with alien overlords standing in for British rule and real-life figures and events in prominent if thinly veiled roles. Chan also created autobiographical comics detailing the struggles of a career frustrated by the repressive regime under which he lived (exacerbated by Chan’s compulsion for political commentary). But, acting almost like a politically minded Henry Darger, the undeniably talented Chan never stopped digesting his world into art, even if much of that work never saw publication. Liew provides sharp commentary throughout, illustrating interviews as well as accompanying strips that decode Chan’s layers of allegory.

A fascinating look at a clever, uncompromising artist married to the times in which he lived.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87069-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2016

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Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.


Design veteran Chwast delivers another streamlined, graphic adaptation of classic literature, this time Mark Twain’s caustic, inventive satire of feudal England.

Chwast (Tall City, Wide Country, 2013, etc.) has made hay anachronistically adapting classic texts, whether adding motorcycles to The Canterbury Tales (2011) or rocket ships to The Odyssey (2012), so Twain’s tale of a modern-day (well, 19th-century) engineer dominating medieval times via technology—besting Merlin with blasting powder—is a fastball down the center. (The source material already had knights riding bicycles!) In Chwast’s rendering, bespectacled hero Hank Morgan looks irresistible, plated in armor everywhere except from his bow tie to the top of his bowler hat, sword cocked behind head and pipe clenched in square jaw. Inexplicably sent to sixth-century England by a crowbar to the head, Morgan quickly ascends nothing less than the court of Camelot, initially by drawing on an uncanny knowledge of historical eclipses to present himself as a powerful magician. Knowing the exact date of a celestial event from more than a millennium ago is a stretch, but the charm of Chwast’s minimalistic adaption is that there are soon much better things to dwell on, such as the going views on the church, politics and society, expressed as a chart of literal back-stabbing and including a note that while the upper class may murder without consequence, it’s kill and be killed for commoners and slaves. Morgan uses his new station as “The Boss” to better the primitive populous via telegraph lines, newspapers and steamboats, but it’s the deplorably savage civility of the status quo that he can’t overcome, even with land mines, Gatling guns and an electric fence. The subject of class manipulation—and the power of passion over reason—is achingly relevant, and Chwast’s simple, expressive illustrations resonate with a childlike earnestness, while his brief, pointed annotations add a sly acerbity. His playful mixing of perspectives within single panels gives the work an aesthetic somewhere between medieval tapestry and Colorforms.

Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60819-961-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.



Continuing his apparent mission to refract the whole of English culture and history through his personal lens, Ackroyd (Thames: The Biography, 2008, etc.) offers an all-prose rendering of Chaucer’s mixed-media masterpiece.

While Burton Raffel’s modern English version of The Canterbury Tales (2008) was unabridged, Ackroyd omits both “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson’s Tale” on the undoubtedly correct assumption that these “standard narratives of pious exposition” hold little interest for contemporary readers. Dialing down the piety, the author dials up the raunch, freely tossing about the F-bomb and Anglo-Saxon words for various body parts that Chaucer prudently described in Latin. Since “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” for example, are both decidedly earthy in Middle English, the interpolated obscenities seem unnecessary as well as jarringly anachronistic. And it’s anyone’s guess why Ackroyd feels obliged redundantly to include the original titles (“Here bigynneth the Squieres Tales,” etc.) directly underneath the new ones (“The Squires Tale,” etc.); these one-line blasts of antique spelling and diction remind us what we’re missing without adding anything in the way of comprehension. The author’s other peculiar choice is to occasionally interject first-person comments by the narrator where none exist in the original, such as, “He asked me about myself then—where I had come from, where I had been—but I quickly turned the conversation to another course.” There seems to be no reason for these arbitrary elaborations, which muffle the impact of those rare times in the original when Chaucer directly addresses the reader. Such quibbles would perhaps be unfair if Ackroyd were retelling some obscure gem of Old English, but they loom larger with Chaucer because there are many modern versions of The Canterbury Tales. Raffel’s rendering captured a lot more of the poetry, while doing as good a job as Ackroyd with the vigorous prose.

A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-670-02122-2

Page Count: 436

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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