Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

There is a contradiction at the heart of this excellent graphic novel, but I don't know if I should point it out to you. Perhaps I can hint at it. Liew here tells the story of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, his fictional "greatest Singaporean cartoonist," in a dazzling book that combines Chan's "real" work with the story of his life. And Chan's work is almost entirely about the history of Singapore -- the political struggles around the founding, the heavy hand of the ruling party for decades, the suppression of dissent and "crime," and the muzzling of free expression for so long.

Chan becomes an inevitably political creator: no matter what else he might want to make stories about, the politics is so pervasive and oppressive that it pushes everything else out of his work. Whether as metaphor or direct story, Chan's work is the story of Singapore and of the lack of free speech. And his comics are, of course, themselves suppressed and marginalized, seen by few and printed obscurely. He works for years all but alone, barely connected to any audience.

Is his story depressing or discouraging? If so, it's the story of Singapore that is those things: Liew has made Chan a mirror for his times, the perfect witness and agitator, the one who always points out the flaws and failures and corrupt bargains. But Chan struggles on, making his comics however he can, year after year. He is a hero. He is Singapore's greatest cartoonist.

Liew brings a local's eye to this story; he's Malaysian by birth -- the country that Singapore was part of, and broke away from -- and has lived in Singapore for years. And his art is supple and amazing here, transforming from page to page to show Chan's artistic development or narrate his life at the time. (The book design is equally strong, with tinted pages and borders to indicate each varying style -- the whole thing is a marvelous package.) The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is not the story of my country, but it's a story with lessons for every country, every place that might think about giving up a little liberty for stability. And it's clearly one of the best graphic novels of the year already.

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