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Sonny Liew matures to master status with The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Also reviewed: Agony, Superman: American Alien, and Midnighter

Mostly known for collaborative efforts like The Shadow Hero with Gene Luen Yang and Doctor Fate with Paul Levitz, Sonny Liew gets the space to fully demonstrate his capacity as a cartoonist in The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon Books). Delivering a hyper-political work that seamlessly blends the life and art of the fictional Chan, Liew audaciously rises to the challenge. The book, which was previewed on this very site, interweaves photographs, a framing narrative from Liew’s perspective, and a collection of sketchbook excerpts, “autobiographical” comics, and meta-fictional comics purportedly authored by Chan, telling his story from a dozen angles at once.

Conceptually, the work is bold and inventive, and it sees Liew jumping from aesthetic to aesthetic. Readers familiar with his other work will recognize his knobby figurework: anatomically exaggerated characters composed of thin lines and situated against detailed backgrounds. But effectively emulating Jack Kirby and Osamu Tezuka, Liew also demonstrates a natural facility with a number of storytelling idioms and a chameleonic ability to move from one to the other. Some pages take the form of scans of original pages weary with the wear of production; others replicate the yellowed decay of old newsprint, lost and rediscovered after 50 years. Liew knows when to lean into the pastiche and when to distance himself from it. Disparate textures, ideas, aesthetics, and storytelling modes abound, but he stitches them together to heighten the whole rather than undermine it.

Visually and conceptually complex, Liew primarily employs these non-fictional conceits to craft a verisimilitude and shine a light on Singapore, a country most Westerners know little to nothing about. This setting is paramount to Liew’s story, and the political history of Singapore runs through the book—functioning as the primary source of drama and intrigue. The linguistic and cultural wedges and similarities that separate and unify China, Malaya, and Singapore occupy most of Liew’s attention, and it’s amazing how well he explores these incredibly complicated issues. He makes them easy for Sino- and/or Malay-ignorant readers to understand, and he makes their effects on the individual intimately felt. Chan serves as a lens through which Liew views the ways these problems manifest themselves in a person’s life, dictating what opportunities are available and to whom they’re available. And while much of the politics of the work is specific to the time and place in which Liew situates his story, there are also infinitely vital and universally relatable themes like the repudiation of colonialism—a theme that is as topical today as it was then.

With this juggling of characters and ideas, Liew delivers a book that is not simply an elaborately drawn comic but an intellectually fecund one, too. A mature work to be sure, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye displays the full breadth of Liew’s cartooning and formal ambition. Here, Liew positions himself as not just an artist to watch but a cartoonist to watch—someone whose illustrative skills are neck and neck with his writing. [Shea Hennum]

Book lovers of all stripes recognize the NYRB Classics line as one of the best imprints going. The publishing arm of the venerable New York Review Of Books is dedicated to bringing overlooked or forgotten volumes back into print, and its distinctive combination of discerning taste and attractive design have made the publisher into a kind of Criterion Collection for out-of-print books. Improbably, the company has decided to make an entrance into the world of comics, with the launch of a new New York Review Comics (NYRC) sub-imprint. Its entry into comics publishing is cause for celebration.

NYRC’s first offering sets a high bar for its curatorial efforts. Mark Beyer’s Agony originally saw print in 1987 as a “spin-off” of sorts from Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW anthology. RAW was the most significant comics anthology of the 1980s, providing early exposure to some of the great cartooning talents of the era as well as some of the only glimpses into European comics culture available in that period. Beyer was there from the very beginning, with his Amy and Jordan characters appearing in the premiere issue.

Agony presents the continuing misadventures of Amy and Jordan, two forlorn urbanites navigating (poorly) the vicissitudes of a denuded world. Bad things happen to them, not just once or twice but over and over again, until the reiteration of traumatic misery becomes rote. It’s not called Agony for nothing: Amy and Jordan are fired literally on page one, and from there it’s no time at until Amy is decapitated by a hideous ghoul. Her head is thrown into an aquarium and eaten by a giant fish. Jordan jumps into the water to try and get the head back, but he ends up swallowed by the same fish. Thankfully, he’s saved by aquarium staff. He steps out of a hole in the side of the fish with Amy’s head, which is reattached to her body during a brief hospital stay. That’s just the first 17 pages.

Amy and Jordan are eternally cursed, harried from city to city and through the countryside by avenging spirits of a cruel world. Beyer’s primitive art conveys a world of arbitrary and unreasoning terror, in which characters exist merely to suffer for imagined sins. It looks, as the old cliché might put it, like something a child might draw. But not a happy child—more like something a child might draw in the context of a visit with a mental health professional tasked with recommending whether or not said child should be tried as an adult. It’s easy to see why Daniel Clowes likes Beyer’s work enough to provide a jacket quote for this reprint, but Clowes has never succeeded in conjuring up something this exquisitely, gleefully hopeless. Beyer has an eye for the childish grotesque rivaled only by Rory Hayes, a debt Beyer acknowledges. This kind of primitivism is easy to dismiss but hard to ignore. It’s rough stuff, especially for any reader who lingers long enough to see that Beyer isn’t joking around. [Tim O’Neil]

With Superman: American Alien #4 (DC), Max Landis’ grand experiment is halfway over. Each issue presents a different chapter of Clark Kent’s life, a brief glimpse into how a farm boy from Kansas became Superman. By his own admission, Landis, better known for his movie writing, wanted this job badly and actively campaigned for it. Unfortunately Landis’ enthusiasm may be his greatest weakness; it’s much harder to tell a story in a couple dozen pages than in a feature-length movie, especially when you have a lot you want to say.

This issue focuses on Clark’s first real time away from Smallville, particularly his attempt to get a job. This is the first issue that is not self contained and readers who haven’t checked out the preceding one will likely be confused. It’s also the most heavy-handed book, with Lex Luthor exhibiting nearly cake-stealing villainy in a monologue that’s far too heavy and frankly an insult to Luthor’s intelligence. Landis also packs in the first real interaction between Clark and Bruce Wayne, tucking so many references to previous creators and Superman mythos that the story becomes bogged down with the weight. It’s to be expected that a writer explicitly hired to explore Superman’s origin story might push things in a slightly new direction, but Landis takes this too far, implying a much more codependent relationship between the creation of Clark’s alter ego and Batman than feels natural, given the past near-century of backstory.

Jae Lee’s style, loose and sketchy compared to the other artists featured in American Alien so far, feels like a strange fit for a Superman title at first, but as the issue progresses the panels begin to feel introspective and almost as philosophical as Landis’ writing is trying to be. If Landis had trusted Lee and colorist June Chung more and lightened up on the dialogue, this would have been a much stronger book. Lee and Chung have worked together in the past on titles like Batman/Superman, and they’re an excellent team capable of doing more than Landis gives them to work with. The panels featuring Lois Lane in particular feel dynamic and full of life, though that could be in part because it’s been so long that anyone featured a version of Lois Lane that was more focused on her job and her own goals than Clark Kent.

Overall, this is the weakest of the American Alien books so far. Maybe if Landis had more time to work with Lee he would have seen just how much the art in a comic can lighten the load he seems to think dialog needs to carry alone. Maybe if he’d stuck closer to the boyish enthusiasm Clark displays when he gets a scoop, the book would feel fresher. Regardless, he tried to pack too much into this issue and while it’s still a decent read, it’s not nearly as fun or interesting as the other three. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Structure is the driving force when it comes to Midnighter, Vol 1: Out (DC). The protagonist, M, can see everything, all at once: Because of the computer in his brain, every outcome is already known to him. This would suggest that, for the character, time is less linear and more simultaneous: All things happen at once. Readers will get that same experience for the first three issues of the trade.

The narrative bounces between short, non-linear scenes, and it frequently alludes to information through narrative ellipses. This is especially true with the issues drawn by Aco; the artist brings a distinct ability to communicate action with several small panels, conveying several events at once. This translates to powerful action scenes and is a perfect technique for the character, but this execution and the larger structure of the trade issue can often be overwhelming; it’s not as smooth as it could be. We mere humans are not as gifted as M, so reading this way across a few months can be something of a trial.

The key with the trade is that the book teaches readers to read like M as they go on. Unlike 20 pages every 30 days, with the trade you get the benefit of an uninterrupted experience. And by the time you hit issue #4, where things get a little more linear—straight-shooter Dick Grayson is now involved and Stephen Mooney’s art is much simpler, reflecting the clearer moral compass that the character introduces—you feel more prepared to engage with the text going forward. You’re M now. You’re ready for whatever writer Steve Orlando and the rest of the creative team throws at you. It’s a better experience—though still not a perfect one—and is especially recommended to anyone who abandoned ship after trying to read the monthly issues.

M is a fantastic mix of compassion, violence, control issues, fun, and gray morality. He’s a bit much at first—a little chatty—but the more time readers spend with him, the more endearing he becomes, and Orlando’s dialogue makes that journey easy. This book should also be commended on its approach to queerness. M is a gay hero and this book is gay as hell—but the story is less about discussing homophobia and coming out than it is about displaying gay social life and community. It implicitly interrogates the highly racialized Grindr-esque dating scene by showing M with other men of color. Queerness is everywhere.

Any readers who gave up early: Start again, and come back for the trade. Midnighter was a strong read and one of the most enjoyable superhero narratives to come out of DC in a long time. That’s because—structure aside—the creative team makes him, first and foremost, a person. [J.A. Micheline]