Fictional graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye makes bestseller lists on Amazon and New York Times

Sonny Liew at an exhibition of original art from his graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
Sonny Liew at an exhibition of original art from his graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has appeared on international bestsellers lists compiled by Amazon and The New York Times.
Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has appeared on international bestsellers lists compiled by Amazon and The New York Times.PHOTO: EPIGRAM BOOKS

SINGAPORE - Graphic novelist Sonny Liew's The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, widely recognised as last year's best work of Singapore literature, has appeared on international bestseller lists compiled by Amazon and The New York Times.

Liew's book, which is a fictional retelling of Singapore's history through the eyes of its eponymous comic artist and which weaves in the life and career of the protagonist, was picked up by American imprint Pantheon Books and released overseas this year.

It sold well in Singapore upon release, entering a fifth print run and moving close to 9,000 copies. Its sales spiked after the National Arts Council revoked a $8,000 publishing grant for the book, saying that "its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet funding conditions".

Most graphic novels sell about 1,000 copies here, according to figures from its Singapore publisher, Epigram Books.

The book has climbed to the top of online shopping giant Amazon's bestseller lists for art of comics and manga, as well as historical and biographical fiction.

It also debuted on The New York Times' hardcover graphic novels bestseller list at No. 8 for the week ending last Saturday (March 12), according to information sent by Pantheon Books. The list has not been published yet on The New York Times website.

The entry is believed to be unprecedented for any graphic novel published here.

The book has also received positive reviews from industry publications such as Comics Beat and Publishers Weekly, as well as periodicals such as The Economist.

It published a print review last Saturday, calling it a "brilliantly inventive" work that "does not shy away from controversial periods in the nation's history".

Veteran culture critic John Powers, reviewing the book for National Public Radio, an American radio network, called the book "at once dizzyingly meta and deeply heartfelt", comparing it with hallowed comic works such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by cartoonist Art Spiegelman, which is about the Holocaust.

Powers says: "Liew points out the cracks in the official myths... yet at the same time, he hasn't written a subversive tract. It's a Valentine to cartooning, to old buildings and street food, to heroes written out of official history, to ordinary people trying to make a better life."

Liew, 40, who was born in Malaysia and is now a Singaporean, received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2010. He has worked on comics series such as The Shadow Hero, with American Chinese writer Gene Luen Yang. It features an American-born Chinese hero.

He has been nominated multiple times for an Eisner, the comics equivalent of an Oscar award.

In an e-mail to The Straits Times, he says the initial "worry was whether a book that was so focused on Singapore would find an audience outside of the country".

The bachelor adds: "The comics history elements, Chan's life story of struggle as an artist and the experimental story form - I think these help to make the narrative more accessible and interesting to readers who might not know too much about Singapore.

"The book has had a kind of charmed life and I'm grateful to everyone who has supported it along the way."

jianxuan@sph.com.sg