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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Interview with Sonny Liew

Shadow Hero coverThe Shad­ow Hero
writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

Grow­ing up in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, what were the pop­u­lar com­ic books?

Well in terms of what you’d see at the news­stands , there was Old Mas­ter Q or Lao Fu Zhi from Hong Kong. In schools, there’d always be some­one read­ing Tin Tin, Aster­ix or Archie. Myself, I also read a lot of Beano, Richie Rich and, a bit lat­er on, Mad mag­a­zine. That last one prob­a­bly turned me into a life­long dis­si­dent.

How old were you when you start­ed draw­ing or paint­ing? What were your fre­quent sub­jects?

I think draw­ing comes very nat­u­ral­ly to kids, it’s just an instinct to pick an pen or cray­on and scrib­ble away. But I sup­pose I con­tin­ued draw­ing at an age when a lot of peo­ple stop—the ear­ly to mid-teens? By that stage I was very caught up with role-play­ing games like Dun­geon and Drag­ons and Drag­on War­riors, so a lot of it was fan­ta­sy art fea­tur­ing bar­bar­ians and elves.

What deci­sions took you on your life path from Cam­bridge [Uni­ver­si­ty] to the Rhode Island School of Design?

I start­ed doing a com­ic strip for a local Sin­ga­pore­an news­pa­per whilst I was still in Cam­bridge, and that whole process—thinking up ideas, finess­ing a punch line, draw­ing the final art—it just felt like some­thing I could be total­ly engaged with. So I was pret­ty sure I want­ed to do some­thing arts-relat­ed after grad­u­at­ing, though it took me a while longer to fig­ure out that I ought to go to art school, to learn every­thing from paint­ing to sculpt­ing, col­or the­o­ry and com­po­si­tion.

p. 60 illustration excerpt

p. 60 illus­tra­tion excerpt

At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a comics artist?

Look­ing back at it now…I guess dis­cov­er­ing works by cre­ators like Chester Brown and Charles Burns—they opened up my mind to a dif­fer­ent kind of comics then what I’d been used to—complex, per­son­al sto­ries that took the medi­um to whole new places. I sup­pose I had a sense then that engag­ing with the medi­um could be a lifetime’s endeav­our.

How does it work in the comics world…how did you get signed on to The Shad­ow Hero as the illus­tra­tor?

Heh, I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong term, “illus­tra­tor.” Comics is a com­bi­na­tion of text and images, there’s no real way to divide the two in the way the sto­ries are told. It’s more a case of sto­ry­telling as a whole, with the writ­ing and art­work being han­dled by dif­fer­ent peo­ple in some cas­es. It’s a minor detail maybe, but per­haps does have some sig­nif­i­cance in the way books are clas­si­fied or con­ceived in some places, espe­cial­ly those more  used to prose nov­els, where illus­tra­tions are seen as sec­ondary, an add-on rather than an inte­gral part of the sto­ry.

In any case…Gene and I had worked togeth­er on a short sto­ry for the Secret Iden­ti­ties anthol­o­gy a few years a back, and his sto­ry is that I was the first per­son he thought of when he had The Shad­ow Hero script ready. I’d like to believe that’s true! On my end, it was a no-brain­er to get the chance to work with Gene again on the project.

The col­or palette you chose for The Shad­ow Hero goes from a fair­ly neu­tral gray and brown palette to vivid­ly intense reds, greens, and golds. How did you choose those col­ors?

Top: from p. 3;  Bottom: from p. 87

Top: from p. 3;
Bot­tom: from p. 87

It’s usu­al­ly a mat­ter of tri­al and error, tweak­ing the palette until it looks right. It’s always a func­tion of sto­ry­telling, and in the this case, we need­ed dif­fer­ent palettes to mark out the past from present, as well as a look that evoked the feel of the orig­i­nal Green Tur­tle comics.

Did you con­fer with Gene Luen Yang while you were draw­ing the sto­ry? If so, did parts of the sto­ry change based on your dis­cus­sions?

Only minor things like lay­outs, rather than any deep­er struc­tur­al or the­mat­ic con­cerns. Gene’s scripts are won­der­ful­ly clear-head­ed, and the changes I sug­gest­ed were most­ly to add a lev­el of visu­al dynamism where pos­si­ble. Or maybe just to jus­ti­fy my pres­ence on the project.

Did you refer to Chu Hing’s Green Tur­tle comics when you were doing your sketch­es?

For sure! I don’t own any phys­i­cal copies of the com­ic, but for­tu­nate­ly these days you have access to dig­i­tal ver­sions.

Who was your favorite char­ac­ter to draw?

Uncle Wun Too. There was a won­der­ful eccen­tric­i­ty about him, and I got to draw him in a cos­tume that paid homage to Old Mas­ter Q.

Art of Charlie Chan coverWe’re look­ing for­ward to The Art of Char­lie Chan Hock Chye (Pan­theon, ear­ly 2016). What can you tell us about your work on that book?

The book con­tains three main strands, I think—the life of a long-for­got­ten comics artist, the sto­ry of Sin­ga­pore, and the sto­ry of comics. The main chal­lenge was to try to bring them togeth­er in a nar­ra­tive that would be both for­mal­ly inter­est­ing and com­pelling. It’s the most chal­leng­ing thing I’ve ever done, and it’s been called mul­ti-tex­tured and lay­ered… but I’m going to go with the blurb Gene wrote for the book: “A joy to read…masterfully weaves the his­to­ry of Sin­ga­pore with the his­to­ry of comics into some­thing you’ve nev­er expe­ri­enced before.”

 

 

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