Sonny Liew is a Malaysian-born, Singapore-based illustrator of internationally acclaimed comics and graphic novels. What attracted him to the form? “It started out with just a simple love of comics growing up – The Beano, Lao Fu Zhi, Spiderman. That grew into an understanding of comics as a unique medium blending visuals and text into a language all its own, so learning and experimenting with the craft has kept me engaged for the last umpteen years.”
Some Asian languages, like Japanese, are notoriously difficult to read. Does Sonny think this has anything to do with the popularity of graphic novels in Asia? “No. I think prose sells well in Japan too, so I don't think it's a question of language difficulty. That said, comics and graphic novels can be easier to digest than narrative text, but that’s not particular to Asia. During and after Word War Two the American cartoonist Will Eisner produced illustrated instructional booklets for the US Army that were very well received. Understanding and processing a visual image, or a combination of visual and textual information, is probably easier for the human brain than comprehending text alone.”
The Malay she-devil, the Pontianak, seems made for horror. Does Sonny detect any specifically Asian themes in local offerings? “There’s a natural urge to create stories close to our home and hearts, but I think what might make a story "Asian" is the particular temporal or geographical setting, a specifically Asian world in which the story unfolds, rather than thematic concerns.”
Whether they were “Asian” or not, which types of local offering does he see working well internationally? “I'm guessing most stories that translate well deal with universal human conditions and issues - love, death, taxes. So a good story set in an interesting world, I think that would be the key to international success.”
Most of Sonny’s internationally published books have been collaborations with authors from the US or the UK, and none of his novels have been set in Singapore. What if he tried selling internationally a book set in his hometown? It seems Sonny is about to discover how easy, or difficult, that will be. “I'm working on one right now, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, for a local publisher, Epigram Books. A local book for a local publisher makes sense in many ways; how the book can then be marketed or sold outside Singapore is big question. Right now I'm focused on trying to make the book work in its structure and storytelling - and I guess hoping that if the narrative is successful, then later that in itself will go a long way into making selling it easier.”
What advice does Sonny offer to other graphic novelists in Asia who want to reach an international audience? “Sometimes you can rely on the luck of the zeitgeist - riding the right wave at the right time - but generally I think it's still a question of crafting good stories. A combination of good and interesting art, and a strong story spine I think would make a book work anywhere.”
If you are a graphic novelist, app creator, comic aficionado, or similar, then do please post with your opinions.