Setting: Singapore, mostly between the 1940s and 1980s.
Premise: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a graphic biography of Singapore’s greatest comic book artist, Singapore’s very own Osamu Tezuka, Stan Lee and Will Eisner, rolled into one. It is also a treasury of excerpts from his greatest works over the decades, from the manga-inspired robot comics of his teens, to the gritty war comics of the post-war period, to his forays into space opera, social satire, superheroes, and talking animals. There’s only one thing though: Charlie Chan Hock Chye never existed.
Why you should read this book:
- For its unconventional approach to the graphic biography genre. I am generally not a fan of graphic biographies (excluding memoirs). There are a few great ones–Chester Brown’s Louis Riel comes to mind, about the founder of Manitoba, as does Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive, about Marie Curie. So often though, I feel like the authors rely too much on an interesting subject to do anything formally interesting. And, because there’s only so much information you can pack into a book if you want people to also look at your drawings, many graphic biographies end up feeling, at worst, simplistic and unsatisfying, and, at best, like a light and fun introduction to something you can read a deeper and better take on somewhere else. Not Charlie Chan though! This is the real deal. It’s refreshing to read a graphic biography that’s secretly not interested in its subject. Or, rather, one that’s more interested in telling a history of Singapore that’s more inclusive than the one that’s officially told. AND paying homage to some of the greatest comic book artists of all time. AND reflecting on the way comics, no matter the genre, shape and are shaped by their socio-political context. In fact, Charlie Chan doesn’t even exist! I think that’s brilliant. I don’t know what Liew’s thoughts are on biographies as a genre but I hope aspiring graphic biographers read this book and feel inspired to take more risks with the form.
- For the art. Because it’s a love letter to comics, and a fictional anthology of an artist’s work through the decades, and it is a comic in its own right, Liew’s book is packed with great art. Liew does an amazing job switching styles to show how Chan’s art changed through the decades, and is equally adept at forging Pogo-style funny animal comics, Tezuka-style robot comics, EC-style gritty war comics, and so on. There are even a bunch of drawings from Charlie Chan’s childhood at the beginning of the book—which Liew apparently did with his left hand to make them convincingly tremulous.
- For the history of Singapore. Before reading this book, I knew very little about the country generally. Now I have a good general sense of the key events in Singapore’s twentieth century—de-colonisation, Japanese occupation, the successful and then quickly unsuccessful merger with Malaysia, the rise of the People’s Action Party. And I’d probably know more if I’d read more of Liew’s detailed notes at the end of the book, or any of the books he recommends in the bibliography. It’s not a particularly controversial opinion that reading about a country different from one’s own is in itself a good thing to do. But reading about the weird ballet between Malaysia and Singapore in the mid-Sixties was also very interesting in light of what’s going with Britain and the EU right now. Also—the two situations are in many ways very different, but they are just similar enough that it’s mildly comforting to know that Singapore was not an absolute trash fire after it left Malaysia.
- For the ending. For all the things this book does well, I found that the story took a little while to get going. Perhaps Charlie Chan as a person/character—as opposed to as an artist—was a bit too passive for me to find his personal life compelling. But the final few chapters—they moved me. They really worked. Both in terms of their cleverness—no spoilers, but it’s pretty meta—and in terms of their emotional punch. I won’t say more about this.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye should be pretty easy to find in the US. In the UK, I haven’t seen it in bookshops, but you should be able to order it anywhere if you want to own copy. Or maybe ask your local library to order it! That way you’ll read it, and loads of other people will be able to read it too. I’ve recently discovered you can do this and it’s changed my life. And a librarian friend has assured me that libraries want people to order new books, so everybody wins.