The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye - First Graphic Novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize

Described by NPR Fresh Air as “a startlingly brilliant tour de force”, Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye became the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction on July 14, 2016. A1MP4JMgFRLThe Art of Charlie Chan, which also won the Book of the Year accolade at the Singapore Book Awards, is a masterpiece that weaves together a dizzying array of styles and forms to construct a moving portrait of a fictional comics artist while examining the narratives behind the Singapore Story.

It was thrust into the spotlight after Singapore’s National Arts Council withdrew its grant for the book just before it was launched, claiming that it breached funding guidelines through its “retelling of Singapore’s history (which) potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the Government.”

Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, it was a New York Times Bestseller, and is due for release in France by Urban Comics and in Italy by BAO Publishing.

Review: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

It’s hard to say presently what comic books or graphic novels will shape and evolve the art form. There are some times that I sincerely hope a title will influence the next batch of creators that want to make comics, but you just never know. Only with our eventual hindsight will we know if Sonny Liew’s, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is one of those works. In the present, though, in the year 2016, I can tell you that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to beat this book. I mean I’m already penciling it in for my best original graphic novel of the year and of course I’m going to read more, but there is just something amazing and incredible about this work. Since talking about The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye on this week’s podcast, I have debated about my approach for the review. The reason being is that I don’t know if it’s a spoiler. I'm not sure if it will change how you read the book. I know that I didn’t have the information going into the reading, but then I usually do have the info and chose not to read it. So I will give you the option right here to decide not to read my review and instead read the book without the information. Before you go, just know that I think this is one of the best comics in years and relevant to the medium in many ways.

With that said, let’s move on.

You may be asking yourself at this point, “who is Charlie Chan Hock Chye” and “why haven’t I heard of him before?” Well, the simple reason is that this book is a work of fiction. Well, fiction in the sense that the characters like the title character of Charlie is fictional, but that the history that it uses as it’s backdrop is real; so real that creator Sonny Liew has noted in the back. I’m not kidding. That is some dedication.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye CoverNow I suspected while reading it that I was reading a made up character’s life, the biggest give away is the art since it’s all Sonny Liew’s unmistakable style. Liew does go through some incredible efforts to mask the style so not knowing that it was a work of fiction I kind of wondered. In the end, it doesn’t matter because you’ll believe that Charlie is a real character and that you just read about his life and journey all through his comics. And what an incredible journey it is.

Here’s the hard part… I’m going to do my damnedest to tell you what the story is about, and if I miss something or interrupt it wrong then that’s on me, but this is probably one of the most complex stories I’ve ever read because of how the story is presented. It is an onion that doesn’t stop until the end.

What Liew does with the story is present Singapore’s history and two important figures from the history. The other side of this is that he uses Charlie and his friend and co-creator Bertrand to show us the world of comics in Singapore and that I would argue America as well, but not only that but a bit of comic history as well. Soon enough though Charlie and Bertrand also become allegories for the two historical figures that we’re constantly seeing develop throughout the story as well. When all of that isn’t happening, we’re being given a very open window into the world of being a struggling independent comic book creator. And I’m sure I’m missing plenty, and there’s some that I’m leaving out because it does you nor me any good to have it all meticulously explained.

That part of the story that I find absolutely fantastic is how not only is the history of Singapore presented, but then we’re given two character’s journeys that in many ways mirror those two figures, but done instead through the backdrop of political comics. You could even make a comparison that Charlie and Bertrand are the Singapore counterparts to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, respectively.

All of this is wrapped in the blanket that is Liew’s magnificent artwork. If you want to see an artist flex their abilities and showcase their many styles, then look no further. I don’t even know if I could accurately say how many different styles that Liew uses in this book, but it’s quite a few. Quite a few.

What is also incredible about the artwork and the storytelling, in general, is that Liew creates entire comic books that become a part of the book. You read comics from Charlie just smack dab in the middle of the story because they illustrate the points that the story was just presenting. There are numerous comics created which is why the style shifts so much.

Two of my favorites, not that there was a bad style in the batch, but my personal favorites came in the form of the first comic book “Forward!” I know I’ve seen the style that Liew is homaging before, but I can’t say for sure, so I won’t. It looks Japanese inspired, and I will leave it at that. I liked it and would honestly read a comic book in that style. The second was for the “Skinapor Inks: Stationery & Supplies” comics which was cartoonish, but had almost a MAD Magazine influence to it. All of the art, in general, was detailed and showed a master at his craft.

Much like the podcast, I don’t feel as if I’ve broken down The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye in a satisfying way. As I’ve said, it has layers and I could do a study series on the many complexities of this book, but at the end of the day, it’s just too enjoyable to do that. Don’t let the complexities scare you off either because the masterful part of Liew’s storytelling is that you’ll naturally absorb all of this while reading the book.

Simply put, if you enjoy comic books/graphic novels then you absolutely need to do yourself a huge favor and pick up The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.


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The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Creator: Sonny Liew Publisher: Pantheon Books Price: $30.00 Release Date: 3/1/16 Format: Hardcover; Print