Comic Book Classics # 18
My first encounter with Sonny Liew’s work came as a result of a four day stopover in Kuala Lumpur. There I spent my time seeing the sights, taking in the atmosphere and dodging the heat. And that’s the overriding memory I have of Malaysia, it’s blood-boilingly hot. The only way I survived the whole thing was skipping from one air-conditioned shopping mall to another. In one of these malls I found a newspapers shop and on one of the shelves I found some comics. Most were your normal hegemonically extruded blandathons: superheroes, manga and the like, but there was other stuff too. Stuff that I bought from the surprised vendor. He looked surprised because the comics I bought were written in Malay and I looked and sounded like the kind of dumbass foreigner who doesn’t speak the local lingo. He was right.
The comics were kids stuff, really. One called Apo? aimed at young teenagers and another called Anna Muslim, supposedly for little girls. Armed with these two examples of local comic book art, I took my first steps into the world of Asian cartoons. As I couldn’t read a word, it was quite a small step too.
I soon forgot about these comics, but something in my back-brain must have kept some residual affinity for Malaysian comic books. A year or so later I first encountered Sonny Liew’s work from the fantastic Liquid City anthologies that showcase the work of Asia’s best cartoonists (which he edits). This godsend of a publication allows us ignorant anglophones to share the talent coming from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines and elsewhere. If you haven’t yet, check out the links on the site to Lat, Leong Wan Kok and Gerry Alanghan.
Liew has travelled a convoluted career path that included a time as a philosophy student at Cambridge and spells working for the Marvel/DC evil duopoly. Born and brought up in Malaysia, he now lives in Singapore. His most widely recognised work is the illustrations for a DC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and, wit Tommy Kovac, Wonderland (a riff on Lewis Carrol’s fantasy world). His own original creation, Malenky Robot, is a hit even in France (where it is published as a BD; an outlet that suits the artwork; a rich almost pastel-like colour palate, beautiful illustrations and quirky stories).
My favourite thing about Liew’s work is his ability to adapt his style in new and exciting ways. Even his superheroes are interpreted in a new and idiosyncratic style. The guy has elan, panache and chutzpah in his drawing arm. Long may he prosper.