The artist also weighs in on whether it is the art form of the people

It was a 2017 article in Singapore’s The Straits Times that really propelled award-winning cartoonist Sonny Liew into the public eye. The article stated that the National Arts Council had withdrawn a grant of about US$6,000 from Liew's graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

The official reason given for the withdrawal was that the novel's content “potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy" of the Singapore government and the country's public institutions. The 320-page novel tells the story of a comic artist in Singapore whose work reflects the country’s changing social and political environment over a span of more than 50 years. 

Despite this bump in the road, Liew moved on quickly. His novel, which was published by homegrown publisher Epigram Books in 2015 and US publisher Pantheon Books in 2016, won him three Eisner Awards, the global comic industry’s equivalent to the Academy Awards. He was the first Singaporean ever to win the accolades.

Liew’s knack for producing cartoons with a political or social slant stems from a deep personal interest in these issues. “My cartoons are a reflection of what’s happening around me and the things I’m personally engaged with,” he says.

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As a 19-year-old second-year philosophy major at Cambridge University in 1994, he landed a gig with Singaporean tabloid paper, The New Paper, to contribute a daily comic strip. Titled Frankie and Poo, it was loosely inspired by American cartoonist Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and featured two main Frankenstein-like characters based in Singapore, talking about politics and social issues. 

Later, he enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design to prepare himself for a professional career as a comic artist. From there, Liew found work with American giants Disney, DC Comics and Marvel, where he did mostly non-political comics, before conceptualising the idea for his graphic novel between 2009 and 2010. After several years of refinement, the book was published to wide acclaim.

Here, Liew shares his thoughts on the development of the comic industry and his role in raising social and political awareness through his medium.

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Are cartoons inherently political?

For Liew, cartoons are often a reflection of its creator’s views and experiences. At the same time, they can depict whatever the artist wants them to, be it a completely innocent theme for children or a socially charged message to spark dialogue. 

“You can argue that even if people leave politics consciously or unconsciously out of their cartoons or everyday conversations, there’s always going to be some political ideology playing out in the background,” he says. “This is because we’re constantly making assumptions about what society is and what the world is like. I think the reason why my cartoons have a more political slant to them is that these topics take up a more upfront position in my life.”

Shedding light on his environment

During Singapore’s general elections in July 2020, Liew posted a series of political cartoons on his Instagram account. His purpose was not to discredit any political party or candidate in the race, but to illustrate the evolving situation from his perspective.

“The last few weeks have been about the elections, which I was very engaged with,” he says. “Whenever I read the news, I would naturally have some reaction, be it emotional or intellectual. And this might have resulted in ideas for cartoons that I'd post on Instagram."

“I think what I’m doing isn’t that different from what others are doing. It’s similar to how some people would go to a local coffee shop to discuss their opinions about the election with each other, or share their thoughts on Facebook or Twitter."

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The role of comics today

In 2013, American cartoonist Chris Ware told the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that comics are a “working-class art form”. When asked if he agreed with this, Liew commented: “Historically, yes, when people were less literate and educated, and comics were a way to communicate things visually.” 

“However, with television, film, social media and all the different digital platforms available now, I feel that comics no longer have that unique edge to communicate the ideas and opinions of the working-class community. It may still be relatively cheaper to produce a polished comic strip than, say, a film, but this could become less true over time as we’re now seeing some YouTubers filming their videos with their phones.”

Having said that, Liew believes that the history of comics and how we’ve traditionally interacted with them have helped us to see them as a relatively accessible form of content. “Most people grew up reading comics,” he notes. “So we tend to have the mindset that its content is relatively juvenile, even though it can be intellectual and complex."

“In this sense, we generally approach comics with a less guarded perspective as compared to a full-text book, for instance, which we may see as harder to get through because it has so many words. This, in turn, has enabled some comics to stay under the radar of authorities, who haven't noticed their subversive undertones yet.”

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