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 The article stated that the National Arts Council had withdrawn a grant of about US$6,000 from Liew's graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.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.
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.