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for its political focus, juxtaposition of pragmatism versus idealism, and status of having been drawn in 1998 but unpublished until its inclusion here.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.