On The Mic: 5 things we learnt about cartoonist Sonny Liew

Dhany Osman
·Editor
·4-min read
(PHOTO: Crispian Chan)
(PHOTO: Crispian Chan)

LISTEN: Use the player above to listen to our full interview with award-winning Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew

SINGAPORE — In the latest episode of Yahoo News Singapore’s “On The Mic” podcast, we caught up with award-winning Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew.

Here are five things we learnt about the artist:

1. He’s not afraid to explore big topics

Liew’s 2015 graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, explored a controversial period in Singapore’s history. His upcoming personal project will tackle another big topic: capitalism.

“I would say that I am personally more left-of-centre, or left-leaning in my views. But I think it’s too easy to repeat those arguments without looking deeply at them.

“What I’m trying to do here is research enough to try and understand the other side first and try to present a view that’s not just preaching to the choir, but trying to incorporate multiple viewpoints,” he explained about his choice of subject matter.

He’s also collaborating with media scholar Cherian George on an illustrated work called Red Lines, which will explore media censorship around the world.

Liew said he was drawn to the project due to his interest in issues such as freedom of speech. “There’s a chapter about this and my own experiences facing censorship,” he said.

2. Art first, commentary second

While his work often examines topical issues, such as Singapore politics and the COVID-19 pandemic, Liew said he is first and foremost a cartoonist.

“I don’t see myself as being an academic or social commentator. I think I come at it more as a cartoonist who’s interested in certain topics and I try to do comics about those things,” he said.

Speaking about Charlie Chan, Liew said that underneath his narrative’s “fictional skin” he also took pains to ensure that the work stayed true to historical facts or at least presented a perspective that could be defended.

“There was a fictional layer of a comic creator over the historical narrative. So I kept the historical narrative accurate but I could invent things on the fictional layer.”

3. Art schools struggles

Liew said it was his experience of having his comic strip Frankie and Poo published in The New Paper back in 1995 that inspired him to pursue his craft further. This saw him enrolling in the Rhode Island School of Design to study illustration.

The going wasn’t easy as Sonny recalled:

“It was tough in the sense that I wanted to learn to do things like paint and learn about colour. Having never done any of those things before, I remember taking the painting class and our first assignment was to paint a still life and bring it into class.

“No one could tell what I was trying to paint. It was quite traumatic,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Liew said he felt comfortable in art school as it involved drawing and painting all the time. “It felt like I was not doing homework all time, even when I was doing homework,” he recalled.

4. The comics that inspired him

Asked about his comic book inspirations, Liew said it was the British science-fiction series 2000 AD that sparked his passion in the medium.

“Part of the reason was that it was maybe a bit more adult. It was a departure from the Richie Rich and Archie that I read when I was younger.

“And combined with the fact that they would have five stories per week, all of which had very different art styles, I think it started to open my mind up to the fact that the medium was very open-ended; that you could do a lot with comics,” he recalled.

Describing his interest in comics as a “growing process”, Liew also cited comics like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman as inspirations.

5. Support for the arts

During the 35-minute interview, Liew said that while there is government support for the local arts scene he questioned if there are strings attached to such backing.

“I think the government does actually pour quite a bit of money into the arts here in Singapore. The question is: What are the constraints of that? What do they not support in terms of the arts?

“And I think that's partly a question of censorship and constraints,” he said.

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