TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new graphic novel that he describes as an astonishing work of imagination. It's by the Singaporean writer and illustrator Sonny Liew, who was born in Malaysia, studied philosophy at Cambridge University and is best known in the U.S. for his DC Comics series Doctor Fate about an Egyptian-American superhero. His new graphic novel, his biggest and most ambitious work, spans decades. Here's John's review of "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye."
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It wasn't so long ago that comics were considered artistically marginal, adolescent fantasy. All that changed with the 1986 release of "Maus." Art Spiegelman's graphic novel - as they're now called - tackled the Holocaust and its effect on his family. "Maus" won a Pulitzer Prize and unleashed the ongoing wave of masterful books that includes Alan Moore's "Watchmen," Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan" and Allison Bechdel's "Fun Home." Grappling with everything from sex and politics to violence and alienation, these comics took you places that you haven't gone before. That happens again in "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye," a startlingly brilliant tour de force by the Singapore artist and writer Sonny Liew. Although the premise sounds simple - it's the biography of a fictional comic book artist - what Liew does with it is anything but. At once dizzyingly meta and deeply heartfelt, the book spans 80 years and in its complicated layering remind me of everything from "Maus" and "The Tin Drum" to, believe it or not, "Ulysses." The book's hero is Chan Hock Chye. His English-language name in a little joke is Charlie. Chan is born in 1938 Singapore. And from the beginning, this shopkeeper's son loves to draw. When he first discovers comic books at the local library, he's forever smitten. He dedicates his whole life to making them, becoming a monk of the craft. Never married, he turns down commercial jobs to spend decades creating comics that don't make money. But while Chan personally leads a quiet, almost invisible existence, his career is shot through with the great drama of history. He lives through the epic transformation of his tiny island home from a Third World outpost of the British Empire to a sleek country often called the Switzerland of Asia, clean, orderly and so prosperous that its per capita GDP is one and a half times our own. Over the years, Chan experiences the Japanese invasion of World War II, Singapore's messy struggle for independence and the eventual emergence of a seemingly all-powerful ruling party. He watches this skillfully run if sometimes repressive state become a safe haven where billionaires move to stash their cash. Now, Liew doesn't present this transformation so baldly. We watch it happen by reading the comics that Chan supposedly creates about these events. Of course, Liew himself creates them all, both naive and sophisticated, with dazzling virtuosity. Man, can this guy draw. Giving us a grand tour of comic book history, he works in styles that reference everything from Britain's "The Beano" and Japanese manga to Mad Magazine, "Pogo," "Spiderman," even Scrooge McDuck. Every page hums with visual invention, including those pages in which Liew himself turns up, a bespectacled little dude, to comment on the action. Although "The Art Charlie Chan Hock Chye" is probably the greatest work of art ever produced in Singapore, the book was controversial there. It's not a country big on dissent, and Liew points out the cracks in the official myths erected by the party that's ruled for the last half-century. Yet at the same time, he hasn't written a subversive tract or poisoned pen letter. Even as he regrets the country's missed opportunities, the book is filled with affection, even love. It's a Valentine to cartooning, to old buildings and street food, to heroes written out of official history, to ordinary people trying to make a better life. Most moving and most universal is Liew's portrait of the artist as a young, middle-aged and old man. By today's standards, Chan would be considered a failure. His work doesn't sell. His apartment is modest. And as the country around him grows richer and glossier, he lives in obscurity, all alone, creating comics about a success-mad culture that ignores him. Near the end, the aging Chan jets to San Diego to attend Comic-Con in hopes of finding kindred spirits and maybe landing some work. The trip doesn't pan out, yet he doesn't let this disappointment stop him. Back home, surrounded by his pens and ink bottle, he keeps doing what he's always done - pursuing his art in the face of a world that doesn't seem to want it. You see, Chan would rather remain marginal forever than give up doing what he cares about most. And Liew makes it heartbreakingly clear that such devotion is one of the highest forms of grace.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. He reviewed "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" by Sonny Liew.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with a recovering heroin addict who now works with addicts and is part of the harm-reduction movement. Tracy Helton Mitchell was one of five young addicts profiled in the 1999 documentary "Black Tar Heroin." Now 18 years sober, she's written a memoir about her addiction and recovery that includes her insights into today's heroin epidemic. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.