The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

Sonny Liew

Book cover

Highly recommended! Elise read this first because of her connection to Singapore, but I enjoyed it a lot even with a pretty minimal personal connection.

Over the past 10 years or so, there has been an explosion of graphic novels about sort of scholarly topics (for example, Logicomix). The roots of this genre probably go back (at least) to Maus. I think it’s admirable to attempt something like this, but very difficult to execute successfully. In a lot of cases I think the graphic novel format is sort of a (boom-) crutch for accessibility, but doesn’t bring a lot to the table.

Sonny Liew’s execution in ACCHC, however, is very impressive. It is more or less a book about the modern history of Singapore, from a critical perspective, with attention to several historical events that are more or less unknown outside of Singapore. This would seem on the face of it to be very dry material without much broad appeal. However, Liew’s frame story, using the fictional graphic artist CCHC, makes the story much more compelling, while also giving Liew the freedom to explore a wide range of artistic styles. CCHC gives us a single main character to follow through the span of time covered, seeing how events affect his life and livelihood, rather than just having to follow the impersonal succession of historical events. It’s also really fun to see Liew drawing in a variety of historically-grounded styles over the course of the narrative. Oh yeah, also the endnotes! I only realized about halfway through the book that there are endnotes with additional historical commentary and fairly extensive scholarly references.

Now I really want to collaborate with my wife and in-laws on a similar book on the modern history of the Philippines!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars