The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Presented by Sonny Liew
Pantheon Books, 2015
Sonny Liew is known as a comics artist, having illustrated The Shadow Hero with Gene Luen Yang, My Faith in Frankie with Mike Carey, and the latest DC Doctor Fate series with Paul Levitz. He is the sole creator of this 300-page graphic novel, and it is a striking achievement. Cast as a biography and art collection of the fictional Singaporean comic book artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Liew imagines fifty years of comics in Singapore that never were, and comments on the history of the country at the same time.
The story opens with Chan at age 72, responding to an off-panel interviewer, telling his life story. Here as elsewhere the off-panel voice is presented as an indecipherable speech balloon, like the trombone representing the unheard adult voices in the Peanuts cartoons. Liew appears as narrator on the page all the way through the book, like Larry Gonick in his various Cartoon History series. Chan’s art style evolves throughout the story, as he moves from the giant robot comics at age 16 to increasingly political stories, as well as autobiographical ones.
Liew also creates period sketches and paintings to show Chan’s progression as an artist. We see him influenced by the comics he might have actually seen in Malaysia, like Tezuka’s manga and the Disney comics.At the same time the history of comics is being shown, from 1954 through the late 1980s (“Days Of August,” the last imitation comic, apes the look and panel layout of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns). The stylistic variety of the illustrations would be remarkable by itself, even without the many rich characters from Chan’s life that are depicted.
And then there’s the history of Singapore, which is the subject of many of Chan’s comics. Liew is so serious about this that there are even end notes expanding on the real-life social history and politics in the illustrations. That history is given at least as much weight as the imagined Singapore comic book history. Which makes sense, because that part of the story is played almost completely straight, apart from a sequence where Chan imagines an alternate history.
It’s an amazing performance, combining an array of visual styles with quasi-biographical storytelling and real history. Rich in a way that none of Liew’s previous works have been–or could have been individually, as his illustrations were serving other purposes–it makes an indelible impression, and stakes a claim for Liew as a major artist.
Starve, Volume 1
Brian Wood (Writer), Danijel Žeželj (Illustrator), Dave Stewart (Colorist)
Image Comics, 2016
Brian Wood returns with another dystopian story about a celebrity chef pulled back into the world after going into self-imposed exile. Turns out that Gavin Cruikshank still owes his network episodes of the show he created. Starve was originally a celebration of food and cooking. In Gavin’s absence his bitter ex-wife has had him declared legally dead and taken control of the show, turning it into an arena sport pitting chefs against each other for the pleasure of super-rich patrons.
In his absence things have changed pretty dramatically in the world at large. There’s been a huge economic crash, dramatically increasing the distance between rich and poor–everyone but the very rich is having trouble just getting enough to eat. Sound familiar? The world of Starve is a more extreme version of the current situation. It’s a dystopia, but not the total ecological disaster Wood created for his recent series The Massive. His cooking show is now the number one show on television, but it’s much meaner than he intended it. It has become a battle between chefs, preparing expensive (and sometimes illegal) food for a panel of rich judges, presided over by his old rival chef Roman Algiers.
Gavin’s wife Greer is bitter because he came out as gay after many years of marriage, years which she spent putting up with a lot of erratic behavior. But he was there for his daughter Angie–at least until he abandoned his family and ran off to Asia. She’s an adult now, and Gavin needs her forgiveness more than anything else. Much of this first half of the miniseries–this volume collects five of the ten issues–revolves around their relationship. The fact that they even have a relationship drives Greer crazy, which Gavin takes a guilty pleasure in.
So Gavin returns to the show he created as a contestant. The competition becomes increasingly difficult, as Greer demands that Roman find a way to knock Gavin out of the running. Gavin is still a brilliant chef, and he’s tougher and cleverer than anyone expected. Things come to a head in ways I won’t spoil here, but Gavin ends this arc determined to get his show back–for the right reasons this time. He hates the way the honorable craft of cooking has been turned into blood sport, and he has promised Angie to make things right with her mother, as well. It will be fascinating to see how he accomplishes those goals in the second half of the series.
It’s always good to see Danijel Žeželj’s art. His distinctive, heavy lines–almost like woodcuts–are unmistakable. Yet it’s surprising how adaptable his work is to different kinds of projects. His Vertigo work includes the El Diablo Western miniseries (with writer Brian Azzarello) and the graphic novel Luna Park (with writer Kevin Baker) about Russian mobsters.
Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Rian Hughes Collected Comics
Rian Hughes, illustrator; Grant Morrison, Tom De Haven, & others, writers
Image Comics, 2007
For some reason I overlooked this collection of artist Rian Hughes’ comics work when it came out. The big attraction for me is two early Grant Morrison comics. “Dare” revisits the classic British science fiction hero Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. The new story is set in the Thatcher years, and Dare is called out of retirement to be the patriotic face of the ruling party for the elections (headed by a woman obviously modeled after Thatcher). It’s a dark tale, as Dare’s optimistic patriotism confronts dark realities, in the same vein as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Not as classic, but it still holds up well. Hughes has a bold, iconic style, well suited to futuristic settings and architecture.
Raymond Chandler’s short story “Goldfish” was adapted by Tom DeHaven. It delivers all of the hard-core detective noir you would expect. Hughes’ art style here is remarkably similar to the Parker noir stories illustrated by the late, great Darwyn Cooke. The hard-nosed Philip Marlowe dialog is presented in a relentless six or nine panel grid, the stark black and white images enhanced by color shading accents. A tough little story about some very hard people, with a great little twist at the end.
The final story is the other Grant Morrison story “Really and Truly.” Reminds me a bit of his later series The Invisibles with its trippy surrealism and international flavor. Quite a bit of puckish humor as well, starting with the fact that the title heroines are named Really and Truly. The imaginary Russian slang is reminiscent of the language in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Much lighter weight than “Dare,” but a fun romp, and I’m happy to have been able to read it.