Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, reviewed.

You’ve Never Heard of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?

You’ve Never Heard of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?

Reading between the lines.
July 8 2016 1:21 PM

You’ve Never Heard of Charlie Chan Hock Chye?

Sonny Liew’s book explores the history of Singapore—and of comics—through one fictional cartoonist’s life.

THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE.

Pantheon Books

Charlie Chan Hock Chye was born in 1938 and wanted early on, he tells his interviewer, to become “Singapore’s greatest comics artist.” In his remarkable book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, that interviewer, the Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew, mixes hours of conversations with Chan Hock Chye, archival material from the early days of Singapore’s independence, and midcentury comics and artwork by Chan Hock Chye himself to tell the story of one dogged, devoted cartoonist who never struck it big. But though he never became famous, Charlie Chan Hock Chye’s career maps curiously well onto the history of his own tiny, beset-on-all-sides island nation; through his story, readers can begin to understand the life of a young country that’s still in the process of finding itself.

Perhaps those fortuitous parallels are because Charlie Chan Hock Chye doesn’t exist. He is Sonny Liew’s invention, and all those archival newspapers and midcentury comic books were created by the remarkably talented Liew, a master of basically any style of cartooning—from Pogo-style funny animals to Mad Magazine satire to commercial caricature to wartime adventure to gekiga manga. The result is a multilayered masterpiece of comic-book and real-world history, a portrait of the postwar world made in a thrilling postmodern style. It’s funny and rich and satisfying, and one of the best comics of the year. We’re very proud and pleased to have Sonny Liew illustrating the July issue of the Slate Book Review.

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The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew. Pantheon.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

Dan Kois edits and writes for Slate’s culture department. He is writing a book called How to Be a Family and co-writing, with Isaac Butler, an oral history of Angels in America.