Monday, November 16, 2015

Sonny Liew's "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye"

A biography of the artist as a hero, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is full of swagger even as it pays tribute to its comics predecessors. The virtuosic display of different comics styles, the mind-boggling meta-meta-meta narratives, the political satire. The result is an astounding feat, which sets a high bar not only for Singapore comics, but also for Singapore fiction. Yet much remains familiar. Singapore history may be re-interpreted but its periodization is not challenged. The reading of the historical protagonists may be flipped, but there are still clearly heroes and villains. And the greatest hero of all is the artist, who is depicted as uncompromisingly dedicated to his art. Singapore art needs such a heroic image, perhaps, given its frequent and forced accommodations to authority. Still, the terms of the artist's exaltation are traditional: he foregoes a love interest; gives up having a family; disappoints his parents. Heterosexual love, family, and happy parents are self-evident goods in the graphic novel; they are not subject to the kind of interrogation that the novel applies to political history. The artist is essentially male, as are all the politicians. Women are peripheral characters to the political and the personal stories. Having surrendered his claim to a place in bourgeois, Chinese, Singaporean patriarchy, the hero-artist reasserts his maleness in his art, ending aptly with a page of nine panels, eight of which depict the phallic instruments of his art.

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