The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew

I don’t seem to have the nostalgia bug that many comics readers have. I don’t feel the need to reread the Herb-Trimpe-drawn Hulks that were my first purchases from 25-cent bins. There are books that I can reread many times — Paul Chadwick’s “Concrete” and “Jar of Fools” by Jason Lutes come to mind — but those are rare. I like to move forward.

Art by Sonny Liew

Art by Sonny Liew

“The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” is a book from 2016 by Sonny Liew. The cartooning brings to mind a cliche of reviews: It is a bravura feat of artistry. In terms of the styles of art, the design of the various materials that the story presents through layout, and coloring and tones, Liew demonstrates such a facility with his goal of depicting the various layers and levels of a long-lived artist’s life that I had to study the book for several minutes to determine that it was the work of only one artist.

Art by Sonny Liew

Art by Sonny Liew

The story, in the aspect of comics-making, may go too far in depicting the different styles of the titular artist. When I think of the people who made comics and art for more than 50 years such as Kirby, Davis, or Eisner, none of them changed their styles so drastically once they reached maturity. While I love 1940s Jack Kirby art, once he hit the 50s, his style had mostly coalesced and he only made incremental stylistic changes to his art, revising layout approaches and fine-tuning the mark making over time. Will Eisner’s brush seemed to loosen and gain emotion in the last 30 years of his life, but other than that, I don’t see a dramatic shift in style, he was already experimenting with his layouts in the 40s. Jack Davis got looser but was immediately identifiable to fans of his overwhelmingly detailed 50s EC work.

In service of making the book look like the work of another artist, one who had a long career with many various projects, Liew went a little too far in varying the styles. The transition from the rudimentary, early-career manga-style work to Kurtzmanesque 50s work, to Mort Drucker-style 60s to Walt Kelly to Frank Miller to Carl Barks storytelling designs seems an unlikely transition for a lifelong comics maker who is renowned. I can see the oil paintings as a reasonable change in style; the medium can change the message, of course.

Interestingly, this flaw actually highlights a great strength of the author. I hadn’t seen such adeptness in his comics work previously to suggest such an ability to ape styles and techniques from throughout comics history. The Tezuka-influenced early work of the fictional artist is obviously drawn by the same artist as the Pogo riff mid-book, or the 80s grim and gritty comics that appear later, but the change in styles is admirable. Even Mad Magazine would have different artists for most parodies, Wally Wood being a notable exception in the ability to ape fellow creators (“Never draw anything you can copy…”). Art seen in an early aughts Sonny Liew Marvel story intended to be in 60s style didn’t show a desire to copy the stylistic ephemera of Ditko or Kirby. It remained wholly identifiable as Liew.

Here I have to admit to being a poor reader for a major aspect of this book. I had honestly never thought twice about the history of Malaysia or Singapore. My entry into this story was comics, and being quite familiar with the history of them allowed me to not become overwhelmed by the density of the historical material. I fully admit that I finished the book with a nominal knowledge of the facts behind it, which is not a flaw of the author.

Art by Sonny Liew

Art by Sonny Liew

Coming to the history and politics of Singapore so cold, I had a hard time evaluating whether the metaphors designed for the work of “Charlie Chan Hock Chye” were heavy-handed or adept. Liew is constantly providing context, but I am probably missing some subtleties that make these allegories more creative and engaging. For example, it was difficult to tell if the political message of the Harvey Kurtzman E.C. pastiche was broad and unsubtle because many of Kurtzman’s stories were the same, or if it had a subtext that I was missing as an ineffective reader. There is a Walt Kelly Pogo-style strip later that feels like it holds a little more nuance, but then a later story, with running commentary by “Sonny Liew” reads as though it is teenaged parody, akin to the worst of Mad Magazine.

I also wonder whether readers who don’t share my knowledge of comics so immediately recognize the forebears of the styles in the book, which gather the context of time and history they mean to entail. There are endnotes which define some of the comics creators whose styles are referenced, but others are left out. I took a Frank Miller Dark Knight reference late in the book to encompass meaning in both the context of the sociopolitical landscape in which it was created (80s leftist Western Culture feeling overwhelmed by Reagan and Thatcher and the Cold War) and the context of the comics and manga industry which had been referenced earlier in the book (American Pre- and Post Code comics, British and Japanese post-war, e.g.), reading it’s tone as both reflective of the time and the mood of the “author”. The endnotes don’t mention Miller at all.

Speaking of the mood of the title character, my favorite aspect of the book is the consistency of definition of his personality. I was completely engaged with the story of this man, and how he navigated his world, personal and political. He is so fully defined that late in the book, I found myself thinking of him as a real person. The conceit of this being a biography became realized and I was invested in his story to the point that I wondered what happened to him after the end.

This book is certainly the work of an artist who has matured in his storytelling to a point of being able to deliver an engaging, intelligent, cohesive narrative told across a man’s life and bring it all together through disparate styles into a compelling narrative of both man and country.

Empire State by Jason Shiga

Jason Shiga is a singular artist that I have to admit I’ve slept on. I had purchased several of his self-published mini-comics (I would confirm this if my “archives” were in order), but I never really engaged with one of his books until Demon. As I eagerly await the next volume, I found some previous books to catch up on.

Art by Jason Shiga

Art by Jason Shiga

I tend to enjoy comics that are playful in narrative technique such as Matt Fraction and David Aja on Hawkeye, or clever in structure such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons with panel structure in Watchmen, or self-aware such as Grant Morrison in Animal Man. At the same time, I occasionally become overwhelmed by relentless changes in narrative structure, such as the book-length “Here” by Richard McGuire or the more diagrammatic Chris Ware pages, which pull me right out of the narrative.

Jason Shiga’s “Meanwhile” fell too far into play for me to engage with the story, and in retrospect, while reading the short comics I didn’t value his patience and playfulness with the narrative. If I were to tell you the plot of “Empire State” I could do so in about three lines. That is because the plot is the least important part of the narrative Shiga has built here.

The art is simple and straightforward and the figures are so simple that at first read I undervalued his art for its weight and authority. There are a few clunky panels or figures, but these are rare and only standout amongst so many pages of figures, backgrounds, and layouts which put the characters front and center in a world that feels absolutely real in a way that the best comics artists can do using such abstract designs.

Art by Jason Shiga

Art by Jason Shiga

Detailed backgrounds and flat limited palette colors serve to highlight the story flow and help the reader focus on crucial information. Shiga plays with timelines to accentuate the character’s progress through their arc in the story. At one point I thought I had found an error in balloon tail placement, but then realized quickly that I was being given key information about a time jump instead. Once I absorbed that I needed these context clues, the characters became an even greater focus, which is crucial when the rendering is so clean and unburdened by detail.

I don’t care to discuss spoilers in plot and character development, so that will admittedly make this essay light. Just believe me when I tell you that Shiga does not waste pages, panels, or words in delivering his story. I found the main character’s arc incredibly affecting, even though it has a gentle touch. A complex and compelling story told in a direct style.

Art by Jason Shiga

Art by Jason Shiga

A Quick Thought on Entertaining Comics

I just read these old writings (out of order, naturally):

Chris Mautner on E.C.

Gary Groth in Response to Chris Mautner

I enjoyed reading both, but there was a glaring omission in that neither talked about the worst thing about the Feldstein E.C. stories (more than the Kurtzman, but not exclusively), the captions.  These have too frequently broken what I feel is a critical rule that captions need follow, specifically, that the words and pictures work together to provide something they can't separately.  Groth puts it better than I am able: "[...]burdened by formula and cliche, the writing prolix, overwrought, and fatuously earnest."

My least favorite thing about the captions, however, is that they were so frequently unnecessary.

krigsteincaption

This caption is a complete waste of my time.  Many of the Krigstein stories do not suffer this same indignity, as Kurtzman-as-editor-or-writer had a masterful eye for cartooning and using the whole of the page to tell the story, not relying on dry, expository captions to describe what was already so wonderfully rendered.

Optic Nerve 13 and 14 by Adrian Tomine

    For the first time as an adult I traveled to New York City in 2013.  I stayed in Brooklyn and one of my first searches was for the nearest comic book shop.

    I found that Bergen Street Comics was several blocks away and checked their website to make sure they had interesting stuff.  Not only did they look like my kind of store, but they had a signing/book release scheduled for just a few hours later.  Adrian Tomine was celebrating the release of the latest issue of Optic Nerve at the time, issue thirteen.  Optic Nerve is of one of the few remaining comic book series being continually, if slowly, published that originated in the early '90s. This period was the last comics boom, when there were enough stores around to support the sales of periodicals that weren't all about genre.  It's only been in the last several years that the market has been built up by fine retailers, like Bergen Street Comics, to support a market other than the top 50 sellers in the industry -- the Walking Deads, the company crossover events, your Jim Lee-drawn or Grant Morrison-written superhero books, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

    The first time I shook Adrian Tomine’s hand was at APE Con in 1994 (or so), around the time of the release of the first issue of this very same series.  I had purchased artwork as well, and had done the same in various venues in the intervening years.  When I said “hello” to him, he was as genial as ever, and even noticed that I was familiar. It reminded me that in comics you can walk up to and have a conversation with the creators who shape and influence the field as though they were a friendly face from down the street.

    Tomine has quietly improved his art and writing over the years. Steadily, glacially releasing new comics stories that add slighter layers of depth and subtlety. His draftsmanship has stayed roughly the same, with the only evident weakness being a somewhat posed figure form. In his illustration work, his most constant appearances in the world, usually at the New Yorker and its ilk, He has developed some tools that he doesn’t use in the comics, particularly the color and scene-building of these more dense illustrations.

    His line work in the comics has taken on an ever-so-slightly rougher edge over the years, which serves to give his work its own signature. His writing has matured to a comfortable level of nuance. While it may be unfair to compare the writing to stories that came out more than a decade ago, that’s also only a 150 pages of comic work ago as well, so one must compare. As per usual, the stories are character driven, and they invite a re-read much more than stories from the first five issues of this same series do. Again, this seems like slow, but steady improvement. It’s nice to see him build his skills as a distinctive cartoonist, after shedding the artistic influences of his earlier work.

    Issue fourteen, released roughly two years later, sees the trend continue. There is as much familiarity in his characters as there is distinctness, the sign of a thoughtful creator. There is even a story in this issue in which he departs from his clean-line approach and develops a rougher, more expressive line. This short, which honors deceased Japanese master Yoshihiro Tatsumi, uses a style of draftsmanship that is unique for Tomine in his oeuvre. I was happy to see this little experiment in action. The only comics work I can think of that came close was the short book he did about getting married, in which the art appeared to be closer to sketchbook style. The main story from issue fourteen uses a twenty-panel-per-page layout that is a welcome tool for using his typical, pen-drawn finished work. It also helps enhance the power of the form with a tight pacing per page that supports the arc of the story.

    These two issues are a strong addition to the series, and to Tomine's legacy.