November 3rd, 2011
Sonny Liew is an extremely talented comics creator working out of Singapore. He has worked on high profile releases for the Big Two, such as Re-Gifters and My Faith in Frankie for Vertigo, and Sense & Sensibility for Marvel. But his recently released collection of his own Malinky Robot comics through Image are perhaps the best indicator of his idiosyncratic and hugely engaging style.
We caught up with Sonny recently for a freewheeling chat about his craft.
Hi Sonny. First of all, I have to ask: why comics? What made you want to do this for a living?
I think I first had an inkling when I picked up copies of 2000AD when I was maybe 14, 15. I’d read comics like Asterix, Tin Tin, Beano, some Spiderman and so on growing up, but 2000AD at that time really was – as the magazine claimed – “Zarjaz”! Maybe it was the sheer variety of styles in the weeklies, or the incredible lineup of writers like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison in the collected monthlies, but it really did blow my mind. Simon Bisley’s first comic ABC Warriors appeared at the time, and there was Bradley, Strontium Dogs and Bad Company. I could also never get enough of Chopper and the Supersurfs.
But there wasn’t really a comics industry in Singapore at the time, so I didn’t have any sense of how someone would go about being a comic artist. There were no conventions to attend and no studios to go learnt the craft from. I’d sketched and scribbled my way through school, but it wasn’t till I was in my second year in university in the UK (studying philosophy at the time), that I did my first paid comic strip. It was for a Singapore newspaper, a daily strip called “Frankie and Poo” that dealt mostly with social and political issues in Singapore.
I caught the bug then – the process of thinking up ideas and putting them down on paper just felt right, totally engaging in a way unlike anything I’d really done before then. There were still twist and turns before I got to make a living out of it, but that was where it all started, I guess.
How did you get started in the industry?
After “Frankie and Poo,” I spent a couple of years doing illustration work, before deciding to go to art school. At the Rhode Island School of Design, I was fortunate enough to take classes with David Mazzucchelli, who was really the first person I’d met to give me a sense of what was required in the comics industry – from putting a portfolio together to attending conventions. He put a good word in for me with Karen Berger at Vertigo as well, which eventually led to My Faith in Frankie.
We should talk about your recently released collection of Malinky Robot from Image. Are you pleased with the reception it’s received? It must be nice getting it out to a wider audience.
I think it’s gotten really good responses where it’s been seen. But I’m still trying to figure out ways to get the book noticed in the mainstream press, which I guess is the problem most creators face – with just the sheer volume of books out there, it’s easy to get crowded out by bigger names and publishers. I mean Frank Miller’s Holy Terror by most accounts is a pretty bad book, but it’s still going to sell by the truckload. I guess you can’t begrudge the man who wrote Dark Knight and Sin City though :p
You’ve previously published the issues of Malinky Robot yourself. How do you feel about self-publishing in general? What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks?
Well, only the first issue, “Stinky Fish Blues” was actually self-published. I’d gotten a Xeric grant for it whilst living in the US, and finally got round to putting the book together after coming back to Singapore. Then, as now, I think one of the major issues was distribution. For “Stinky Fish,” I quickly realised that getting the books shipped out by Diamond in the US was going to be much costlier than anticipated. So although there was the plus side of getting most of the profits from sales, shipping costs meant that I only ever broke even. I guess it’s useful to try self-publishing just to learn the ropes – to see what kind of issues publishers face, and to learn some of the technical requirements needed, from setting up pages in programmes like InDesign to going for press checks. Overall though, I think working with publishers does make life a lot easier, whether it’s in terms of marketing and distribution clout, or just having other people deal with administrative issues, so you can focus more on actually making the comics.
I first came across Oliver and Atari in the first two Flight anthologies. How did your involvement in those come about?
I think Kazu Kibuishi had seen “Stinky Fish Blues” and sent me an email to see if I’d like to be involved in the second volume. I had no idea at the time that Flight was going to be such a big success – in fact, it seems to be one of the places where readers recognise my work most from. That aside, seeing other creators’ works in progress on the forums is always inspiring and instructional.
I’d like to talk about your working technique. Is this a full time job for you now?
Yeah, pretty much. I do freelance projects in comics and illustrations, and also do paintings for exhibitions when I get the rare chance.
How do you work? What’s your discipline like?
I try to get in by 10.30 am and work till 7 pm at least – longer if need be. I used to work vampire hours – up till 8 am, sleeping till the afternoon – but that made me feel all out of sync with the rest of the world, so I’ve been trying to avoid that the last couple of years. Self-motivation aside, it’s actually not that different from any 9 to 5 job. You have deadlines and editors breathing down your neck when you don’t meet ’em!
Your art has a very individual look to it. I see glimpses of Taiyo Matsumoto and the animator Bill Plympton in your work, and it has a real illustrative feel to it. Who are some of your inspirations artistically?
The conscious ones would probably be Bill Watterson and Geoff Darrow, and Katsuhiro Otomo too, although that’s maybe more in terms of storytelling. A lot more probably via some sort of osmosis: Dave McKean, Phil Hale, Guy Davis, Seth Fisher and Masumune Shirow, to name a few. I think what I aspire to is a kind of combination of detail (like with Fisher and Darrow), together with a kind of looseness and fluidity that you find in someone like McKean. There are many incredible artists whose work never quite feels close to me, and I think it’s usually because their styles become a little too rigid. Maybe someone like Scott Campbell or Jim Lee – just the way their characters tend to end up looking the same, as though you’re seeing a great actor perform play the same role in every movie she or he’s in. I remember looking forward to seeing Lee’s big art book when it came out a while back, thinking that there’d be personal work in there that would reveal a different side of his art. But then it turned out to be just page after page of the same grimacing. Seeing McKean’s work on Cages, on the other hand – everything panel is a drawing unto itself, a new exploration, a surprise.
What’s your actual working method? You clearly use computers in your work, but how do you achieve the look you’re aiming for?
The computer’s mostly for colouring and adding text – the drawings are still drawn on A3 sheets for the most part. The sketchy look in Malinky Robot and Wonderland partly emerged out of necessity – my inking wasn’t really up to scratch – but I also like how the pages looked in raw pencils. An energy and softness that you lose with inks, maybe. In any case, the pencils are scanned in, and darkened a little in photoshop, with the colours added as a layer underneath, the pencil layer set to ‘multiply’, for those who have any idea what I’m talking about.
The stories of Oliver and Atari are really great. They’re cute without being sentimental, and there’s an underlying sadness to their adventures. Part Huck Finn, part Gummo. These are kids who don’t go to school, steal and don’t have any particular prospects for the future, yet they are totally sympathetic characters. What’s the inspiration for them?
They just kinda emerged out of sketches, and the setting of San’ya in Malinky Robot. I never really plotted out any character arcs or futures for them – I don’t even know what Oliver is supposed to be exactly, really. I just place them in stories and environments and in some ways look to see how they’ll react, so I’m really finding out about them during the writing/drawing process too. Maybe it’s a form of improvisation, even if it all takes place inside my head.
There is a freewheeling, spontaneous feel to their stories. How much do you plan the stories?
There’s usually just a simple outline – “Stinky Fish Blues,” for example, was based on the idea of two kids finding an animal thought to be extinct and what happens afterwards. After that, I do have certain scenes in mind, a given setting or event, like Atari and Oliver cycling out to the suburbs in “Bicycle.” I don’t write proper scripts per se; it’s usually in the form of rough thumbnails. Once I have a few scenes ready, the challenge, I guess, is then trying to figure out how they connect structurally. There’s no real method to the process – I just try to find things that feel intuitively right. Sometimes a scene, a moment or a transition can feel forced, false or clichéd, and I think it’s something you’ll be aware of on a gut level. Getting them right is probably the trickiest part of the process, but also the most rewarding – sort of an ‘Eureka!’ moment when you figure out how exactly to approach things.
One of the things I like about the world of Malinky Robot is that you don’t overexplain it; it just is. It’s futuristic, but still recognisably our world. Do you have a clear idea about the ‘rules’ of the world, or is it still pretty vague and open?
It’s definitely on the vague and open side. I think details will get filled in over time, with newer stories, but it’s not the kind of sci-fi world that needs too much explanation. Or if they are required, I’d want them to hopefully emerge in ways that don’t feel too clunky. Maybe it’s also something that comes from indie and arthouse movies, or something like Bladerunner – stories that leave you a bit puzzled perhaps, but in the same way that real life leaves us puzzled. Not so much plot holes or illogical events, as they are necessary ambiguities.
I thought in particular the story ‘New Years Day’ about the robot making its way home across the city was superb. You achieve a lot without many words, something I try to do in my own work, and you really imbue the robot with a lot of character despite the limited facial acting or body language available to you. It’s a brilliantly simple piece of storytelling. What’s your favourite story from the collection?
I still like how “Bicycle” turned out – the stories within stories was a bit of gamble that I think paid off. “Karakuri” has a nice rhythm and flow to the storytelling too. It’s hard to pick, really, they’ve all got different aspects that I like!
Do you have further plans for Oliver and Atari?
I’ve been working on a longer narrative called “The Balloon Bomb Factory” for a while. The “Sketches” section in the collection are drawings from that project. It’s taking a while to put it together though. It’s not the easiest thing to find a publisher for a project like Malinky Robot, since it eschews conventional narrative and doesn’t have an easy elevator pitch. So it’s something I’m working on in between projects, although hopefully, there’ll be better luck with publishers now that the collection is out.
In the gallery section, you have some great work form people like Roger Langridge and Skottie Young. Who are your friends/contemporaries in the industry?
Hmm… well, David aside, there was Jon Foster, who once popped in for a class in Science Fiction Art. Paolo Rivera was at RISD at about the same time as me. GB Tran, who did a book called Vietnamerica for Pantheon Books, I met whilst we were both sitting in line for a portfolio review at SDCC, and we still catch up every time I manage to make a trip there. Most of the rest I guess are people whose work I admire from a distance, more acquaintances or professional collaborators given the geographical and timezone differences. I do get to meet up with Tan Eng Huat quite often since he lives in Malaysia, together with other artists based in the region. And Joe Keatinge has really been really supportive and encouraging too. But yeah, overall, being this far away, not getting to attend many of the conventions and my own natural introversion does make it a little trickier to connect more closely with other creators in the US or Europe.
I should talk a bit about your other work. You’ve worked on My Faith in Frankie and Re-Gifters with Mike Carey and Marc Hempel. Both were very well-received. How did you find working on them?
My Faith in Frankie was exciting and nerve-wrecking – the former because I’d been a fan of titles like Sandman and Hellblazer, the latter cos every issue had all these scenes that seemed really daunting to take on. Brasgash swallowing Jeriven and exploding into tiny pieces cos he in turn had swallowed the Angels of Entropy – my first thought was, How on earth am I ever going to draw that? With Re-Gifters, I wish mostly that I could have had better access to reference image of Koreatown – the devil is always in the details, and it’d have given the book a better grounding. As it was, I was left with what I could find online, and taking photos of the TV screen whilst playing Grand Theft Auto. So a lot of winging it, papering over gaps, and hoping no one would notice. Contrast that with the New York Four….
How did you feel about the failure of the Minx line? There was some great stuff that came out of it in its short lifespan.
With Minx, DC was trying to tap into the female teenage readership that had helped propel manga to the forefront of comic sales. It’s easy to say in retrospect what went wrong, but I think they made as decent a fist of it as you could hope to. I think part of it was that the books never found its identity in bookstores, never quite fitting in comfortably in the Young Adult, western comics or manga sections. The books were manga-sized in format, for example, but the stories weren’t the kind of long-running sagas that make manga so addictive and collectible. It would have been cool of course to have been part of a line that would have grown into something bigger, but that’s the way the luck of the dice, I guess.
You worked with Marc Hempel on the art duties. He’s such a fantastic and underrated artist. What was it like working with another artist? How did you feel about the results?
I’d read Marc’s Gregory years before working on My Faith in Frankie, so I was fan of his work to start with. In truth though, Shelly Bond had brought Marc on board only after it became clear my inking wasn’t quite up to scratch yet, so it did feel like a kind of personal failure on my part. The same with the covers, perhaps, though it’s hard to begrudge that decision, given the amazing job Marc did with those! Overall, I think it was a chastening experience at the time, that showed just how much more I had to learn as a comics creator. And the results were always cool to see – Marc’s inking style and my pencils I think worked together to produce sort of a unique look, and you have to give Shelly kudos for pairing us together.
In general, how do you find working from someone else’s scripts as opposed to writing and drawing your own stuff?
Working with scripts makes the going easier in many ways. You don’t really have to worry about story structure, except in the sense of trying to introduce visual ideas to reinforce structural ideas. Most of the time, the writer will provide their thoughts on camera angles and distances as well, so you’ve also got that to work off. There’s never quite anything like writing your own stories, though. It may be more challenging, but the pacing and rhythms of the story are your own, so it’s usually a much closer representation of your own sensibilities. With Malinky Robot, for example, they are stories I feel more connected to, everything from themes to the ways the characters interact with one another.
You’ve also worked on the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for Marvel. That’s a very different project! How did you find working on a period piece? Were you out of your comfort zone?
There was a lot of visual reference material gathering! Books and DVDs from Amazon and eBay, searching for Regency-era hairstyles online, etc. As with Re-Gifters, I was often left wishing there were bigger research budgets for comics. Reading about how the art department for the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice got to visit mansions and take hundreds of photos of costumes just made my own research feel very inadequate by comparison. The visuals were a little tricky, given the real-world setting. There wasn’t much room for flights of fancy visually, and the need to include a lot of text made it harder to pace the story naturalistically. I did try to introduce sections where the characters appeared more cartoony, as a formal and visual way of representing the more lighthearted scenes. I think it worked for some reasons and maybe felt a bit disconcerting for others; at the very least, though, it might have introduced some visual variety into a story that otherwise took place mostly indoors and had relatively little action.
What comics are you reading at the moment?
I’ve been reading a couple of volumes of Chew, David Heatley’s My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and recently finished Mike Carey and Glenn Fabry’s Neverwhere.
Finally, what have you got coming up?
Well, the longer Malinky Robot story aside, I’m working on a book written by Gene Yang, an origins story of a Chinese-American superhero set in the 1930s. I’ve recently finished a painting for an exhibition here in Singapore, and hope to do a few more before the end of the year.
You can purchase Malinky Robot here (and I heartily recommend that you do):
the FB page is here:
and check out Sonny’s blog here: