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Tag Archives | Sonny Liew

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.”




Interview with Gene Luen Yang

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

What qualifies a comics character as a superhero?

You’ve asked a question that lies at the very heart of geekdom.  I don’t know if there’s a solid answer.  Most superheroes have superhuman abilities, but not all.  Most superheroes wear colorful costumes, but not all.  Most superheroes have goofy aliases, but not all.

Maybe a character just has to make herself into a symbol of something bigger, something more.

The Shadow Hero is an origin story—you and artist Sonny Liew created a back story for a character and series that had a brief, four-issue life back in the 1940s. You knew your end point: The Green Turtle would end up helping the Allies’ war effort during WWII, and because you wanted to make the superhero Asian, you had a start point. With those two points pinned on a board, what was the next step in writing the story?

Lots and lots of thinking.  I debated how old the protagonist should be, where he should come from, who should be in his supporting cast.  Having predetermined beginning and end points actually made things easier.  Often, I’m frozen by indecision.  Those “pinned” points narrowed my options, at least a little bit.

I knew I wanted the character to be of Chinese descent but raised in the West, like me.  I researched the history of the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, and found some good story fodder.

The protagonist, Hank, is content to work at his father’s side in the family store when he’s thrust into extraordinary events.  He’s not born with his superpower and he never dreamed of being a superhero. Why did you choose to work with this dramatic path?

Often, immigrants’ kids are born into dreams.  We’re born into a set of expectations.  I wanted that to be a primary tension of the book: Hank’s mom wants one thing for him, Hank himself wants another.

Superheroes are deeply American.  They were invented in America, they’re most popular in America, and at their best superheroes express America at its best.  Hank’s mom sees “superheroing” as a way of becoming American, a way to finally be accepted by her family’s new country.  Hank could care less, at least in the beginning.  He just wants to be comfortable.

Shadow Hero illustration

You’ve stated in interviews that The Shadow Hero is about the immigrant experience—about being the child of immigrants, especially.  Could you discuss this for our readers, many of whom teach and otherwise work with children of immigrants?

Almost every major superhero was created by children of Jewish immigrants: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men.  Consciously or not, they embedded their life experience into their creations.

Immigrants’ kids often grow up with one name at home and another at school, one set of expectations at home and another at school.  We negotiate between two identities.  That’s a convention in the superhero genre.  Superman isn’t just Superman, he’s also Clark Kent.  Batman is also Bruce Wayne.  Spider-man is also Peter Parker.

I sometimes wonder if that’s why I loved superheroes so much as a kid.  I saw myself in them.

Chinese in America coverPlease say a bit more about the research involved in writing about pre-WWII Chinatown and other settings or elements.

 I read about early Chinese communities in San Francisco, New York, and Hawaii.  Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America was particularly helpful.

Have you ever made your own superhero costume?

I haven’t, but my friends have on my behalf.  For my bachelor party, they dressed me up as a character they called Weiner Man –cape, underwear on the outside, an absurd and slightly inappropriate chest insignia.

My friends are mean.

You are also a veteran high school teacher. Your graduate-school work focused on the value of comics as an educational tool, and you’ve listed on your blog some comics that are a perfect fit for a  S.T.E.M. curriculum. On another site, Comics in Education, you list professional resources to help teachers learn to integrate comics into the classroom. If you were to tell an unconvinced teacher the singlemost reason to include graphic novels within the curriculum, and not just as independent reading, what would that be?

Simply put, certain types of information are better communicated through pictures.  I love words.  I read words for fun and I read words for work.  Words are incredibly, incredibly important to me and I never want them to go away.  But words can’t do everything.  Can you imagine putting together a Lego set by following words-only instructions?  So many concepts can be better explained with pictures: osmosis, the binary number system, factoring.

I don’t see comics as a replacement for prose—I see comics as another tool in the toolbox.  Teaching is such a difficult profession.  Shouldn’t teachers have access to as many different tools as possible?

Secret Coders coverYour forthcoming Secret Coders, Book 1 (illustrated by Mike Holmes) will be published this fall by First Second Books. Could you briefly tell us about this book and the series it launches?

I’m very, very excited about Secret Coders.  This is my first explicitly educational graphic novel series.  It’s also my youngest – it’s middle grade.

Secret Coders is a bit like Harry Potter – our young protagonists find a secret school.  However, instead of teaching magic, the secret school teaches coding.  Mike and I hope that, as our characters learn to code, our readers will too.

A final question about The Shadow Hero: If you hopped into the way-back machine and landed in seventh grade and had to give a very short report on The Shadow Hero to your classmates, what one thing about the book would you want to share with them?

It’s got punching in it!  And mahjong!



From the Editor

by Marsha Qualey

ph_catI made my professional entrance into the world of children’s books in the early 1990s when the first of my YA novels was published. One thing that has changed drastically since then is the increased media coverage; YA lit is an especially big show right now. While you still run across some vestigial articles of the “Should Adults Read Children’s Books” nature, gone are the days when a children’s book author would be dismissed out of hand as not being a real writer, especially by writers of literary fiction and poetry.

My response—most often delivered to unappreciative but patient cats but a few times when face to face with those writers—was always, “Well, where do you think your readers come from? Do you think readers don’t exist until they discover your writing?” #snap!

Okay… #sadsnap. 

Shadow HeroAnother thing that has changed is the prevalence of graphic novels in the classroom, libraries, and publishers’ catalogues. For the second time in its short history Bookology’s Bookstorm™ book is a graphic novel: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero.

I’ve had the good fortune of working with Gene in a writing program for adults. He is a natural, brilliant teacher. I’ve observed die-hard novelists and poets emerge from one of his Writing a Graphic Novel workshops excited about this new storytelling form.

Of course it’s not really new, just new to us here in the mainstream US book world. Wouldn’t you love to go back in a time machine to a library conference in the 1940s or 50s and tell everyone about comics in the classroom? Can’t you just see the white gloves flying up to smother gasps or cover ears?

Later this month we will have interviews with both Gene and Sonny. Today we’re rolling out the Bookstorm™ and a couple of related features—storm cells, you might call them (and yes, it’s pouring as I write this.) We also have a thoughtful Knock Knock essay by author Lynne Jonell: “Justice in Another World.” Skinny Dip interviews and our regular columns will of course appear throughout this week and weeks to come.

Enjoy—and thank you for stopping by.



Bookstorm: The Shadow Hero


In this Bookstorm™:

Shadow HeroShadow Hero

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

As we become a culture adapted to screens, visuals, and moving pictures, we grow more accustomed to the storytelling form of the graphic novel. For some, their comfort with this combination of visuals and text telling a story satisfies a craving to “see” the story while they’re reading. For others, the lack of descriptive detail and measured, linear momentum through the story feels like a barrier to understanding. With the variety of graphic novels available and the inventive ways in which they’re assembled, we encourage you to keep trying. Find a story that intrigues you and persevere … we believe you’ll grow accustomed to this form. In time, you’ll add graphic novels to the depth of offerings you eagerly recommend to students, patrons, and friends.

We selected Shadow Hero for our featured book this month because the superhero has been present in comics since the early 1900s and current films and television have reawakened an interest among children that we believe can easily transport them into reading. Yang and Liew have given a back story to a superhero, The Green Turtle, originally created by talented comic book artist (and fine artist) Chu Fook Hing in the 1940s. There’s plenty of action, humor, mystery, and suspense in this new book … all the right ingredients for the best reading.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. For Shadow Hero, you’ll find books for a variety of tastes, interests, and reading abilities. Shadow Hero will be comfortably read by ages 10 through adult. We’ve included picture books, novels, and nonfiction for the plethora of purposes you might have.

Graphic Novels About Superheroes. With the popularity of The Avengers and X-Men, Iron Man and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there are a number of graphic novels about superheroes available for different ages. Some have mature content. Many are accessible for younger readers. Whether or not they’re wearing capes, superheroes are appealing because of the possibilities.

Graphic Novels About Mythology. The Green Turtle is a part of Chinese mythology. We hear a lot about Greek and Roman mythology, but there are compelling myths around the world. Graphic novels make those traditions and stories available to readers who might have trouble with straight text.

Fiction about Superheroes. Longer texts, without illustrations, often hold as much attraction for comic book readers if the stories are engaging. And there are picture books that are just right for the readers who are too young for graphic novels but have the interest.

Comic Books, Nonfiction. Whether it’s learning how two boys came to invent Superman, the superhero from Krypton, or examining infographics and statistics, or listening to a podcast with Gene Luen Yang on public radio about his inspiration, The Green Turtle, there’s a lot of research and learning to be done with superheroes.

Drawing. For those kinetic and visual learners, telling a story through drawing, populating a page with characterization and setting and voice is a way to use comic book art for developing writing skills.

Chinese History. There are many, many books, some of them quite scholarly, about Chinese history. We’ve selected just two, both of which are also visual histories.

Chinese Art. China is such a large country, with a civilization that is thousands of years old, that these books organize the information in order to present the diversity of arts in a way that makes sense.

Chinese Immigration. There are fine books about the immigration of Chinese and Asian Pacific people to America, the Golden Mountain. We’ve selected a few, from picture books to novels to memoir. 

Chinese Food. Readers learn a great deal about different cultures from the food they eat, their traditions for preparing food, and the ways they share it with their community. We’ve found cookbooks for both learning and eating, for adults and for children.

Chinese Geography. It always helps to have a good map to reinforce the visual knowledge of a country. You’ll find suggestions for maps, downloads, photos, and facts about this large country in Asia.

Techniques for using each book:



My New Hero

I am a fan of superhero comics. After reading about talking ducks, precocious teens at Riverdale High, and an equally precocious rich kid, I wanted something with a real story, not a situation. I wasn’t allowed to buy comic books, so I had to rely on the kindness of cousins. Whatever I could scrounge up […]