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LIFE POWER LIST 2015

Sonny Liew: Graphic success

4) SONNY LIEW, 40, graphic novelist

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is one of the year's most prominent literary titles.

The 300-page graphic novel's controversial retelling of Singapore's tumultuous history via the life of a fictional comic artist has landed it in a debate over mainstream and alternative historical narratives, a discussion much needed in a year of introspection as the Republic celebrates its 50th anniversary.

The National Arts Council revoked an $8,000 publishing grant for the book as "its sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet its funding conditions".

This turned out to be, as the Malaysia-born author of the book, Sonny Liew, puts it, a "marketing tool we never expected to have".

"People got to know about the book through the controversy, but they do appreciate it for its content," adds the bachelor, speaking to The Straits Times at his studio at the Goodman Arts Centre.

The book has sold about 8,000 copies here and has had a fifth print run - extraordinary for any work of Singapore fiction.

Typically, most graphic novels sell about 1,000 copies here in two years, says the book's publisher, Mr Edmund Wee.

It has also received critical acclaim - out of 33 writers and artists surveyed by the arts website Singapore Poetry, 13 named it their Book of the Year.

The meta-fictional book, which includes a leftist revisionist telling of the life of the former Barisan Sosialis leader Lim Chin Siong and several caricatures of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, was picked up by American imprint Pantheon Books in June. The international edition will be released next year.

Liew, who has become a Singapore citizen, says: "The fact that we've sold it to American, French and Italian publishers indicates there's something in the book that appeals to readers beyond Singaporeans."

The artist, who was born in Seremban, Malaysia, to a paediatrician and housewife, is arguably Singapore's most successful comic artist.

He received the arts council's Young Artist Award in 2010 and has been nominated multiple times for an Eisner, the Academy Awards of the comics world.

He does not intend to stop producing political works. Already, he has started work on a new graphic novel, in which he intends to use "adventure story tropes to investigate capitalism".

Looking back on how his controversial graphic novel was conceived in 2012, he says: "This book was a conscious sacrifice as the earnings were less than what I can usually make. But I knew it was important and worth the risk of draining my savings to make it happen."


Sonny Liew on the success of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye http://str.sg/ZKc7

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Graphic success'. Print Edition | Subscribe