Malaysian-born Sonny Liew has seen his works published in various anthologies such as the second and fifth volumes of the Kazu Kibuishi-edited Flight and Ivan Brandon’s 24Seven.
Liew, who’s currently residing in Singapore, first broke into the
international comic book scene with an illustration of a version of
Iron Man from the year 2020 published in Marvel Comics’ Marvel Universe 2001 Millennial Visions.
And he has Chris Claremont, to thank for his big break. The story goes
that Liew had taken the initiative to travel all the way to the United
States to attend the Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2001 and
it was there that he showed his portfolio to the living legend and
godfather of the X-Men. Claremont was so impressed with Liew’s work
that the former showed him around the convention and well… ‘nuff said.
One thing led to another and in 2002, Liew was one of the five artists who received a $2,500 grant from the Xeric Foundation to finance his self-published creator-owned work, Malinky Robot: Stinky Fish Blues. The Xeric Foundation is a private, non-profit corporation established by Peter Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Malinky Robot then found its new home and publisher in SLG Publishing and a follow-up to the first book entitled Malinky Robot: Bicycle, which included the short story, “Dead Soul’s Day Out”, originally included in Flight Vol. 2, was published in late 2005.
At SLG, he collaborated with writer Tommy Kovac and worked on the Eisner-nominated series, Wonderland, which was then part of the SLG/Disney publishing deal.
Liew’s work has also caught the attention of DC Comics’ Senior
Vice-President/Executive Editor – Vertigo/Minx, Karen Berger and he
later teamed up with British comic book writer, Mike Carey, and
"America's Most Beloved Semi-Obscure Cartoonist”, Marc Hempel, twice on Faith in Frankie (published under the Vertigo imprint in 2004) and Re-Gifters (under the Minx label in 2007).
It was recently announced
that Liew has brought together creators from Southeast Asia, namely
Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, for Liquid City,
a unique anthology to be published by Image Comics in November. The
project will feature “Robots, Monkey Kings and Giant Whales” and aims
to present “an edgy vision of lives in cities past, present and future:
from Leong Wan Kok’s distinct post apocalyptic landscapes to Lat’s
charming take on Malaysian life in the ‘60s.” It will also re-team Liew
and Carey for a short tale entitled “Face”, which is a “meditation on
colonialism”. Other contributors include kenfoo, Charlene Chua, Lefty,
Jon Foster, Gerry Alanguilan, FSC, Koh Hong Teng, Drewscape,
Kuanth,Thanh Phong, Troy Chin, Shari Chankhamma and many others.
We spoke with Liew about his special project.
Newsarama: Hi, Sonny. Great to have you with us again. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we? How did the idea for the Liquid City anthology come about?
Sonny Liew: Well, I'd been part of a couple of anthologies before – Flight and 24Seven
- and one day I just thought it'd be great to have one focusing on
artists in Southeast Asia. I had a vague sense there were a lot of
comic creators around the region, but it felt like everyone was
disconnected from each other. So I guess Liquid City was meant
both as a platform for everyone to get their work seen by a wider
audience, and also maybe a small step in building a comics community in
NRAMA: So, in order to get things cleared first before we proceed further, these are not manga, right?
SL: Well, that depends on how you define "manga" I guess. Even
within Japan the term covers so many genres and styles; so I'm not sure
if its something you can easily define yourself against, unless its
some kind of caricatured vision of big-eyed characters engaging in
hijinks. That said I think some of the creators in the book clearly
have been influenced heavily by manga visual and storytelling styles.
For most part though I think creators in the region are caught in a
cross current of influences from all directions, so the comics in Liquid City cover a lot of different ground.
NRAMA: As you said, you’d contributed to anthologies before but you're not imitating their models, especially Kazu’s Flight, for Liquid City, are you?
SL: Actually I did turn to Kazu and Ivan Brandon for a lot of
advice on how to organize the anthology; I would have been quite lost
without their help. Douglas Wolk in Reading Comics describes Flight as a representative of the "Smooth Wave" in comics, compared with, say, Kramers Ergot. Liquid City falls much more in the Flight
camp in visual terms; the stories though are meant for an older
readership, with slightly edgier and darker themes, especially in the
works of guys like kenfoo and Suttichart Sarapawanich.
NRAMA: Why an anthology then? After all, the anthology concept remains a hard sell, especially in the U.S....
SL: As opposed to...?
NRAMA: Oh, I dunno… Superhero comics? Original graphic novels
(OGNs)? So, what are your thoughts on this subject? Do you think that
anthologies allow readers to sample a variety of comic creators’ works
with fans getting more bang for their buck and creators having an
avenue to get their works notice?
SL: Well, yeah, I think anthologies are always a way of letting
readers get a wide sample of works and creators that they can explore
further if they like what they see. I guess I've never had a problem
with the format, since I grew up reading comics like Beano and later on 2000AD - comics weeklies that were collections of different stories and artists. And if you look at stuff like Raw, Flight, Drawn and Quaterly and Kramers Ergot, I think there's definitely a niche for anthologies to exist in.
NRAMA: In terms of marketing, what do you and the gang have in mind to get the word out there?
SL: Well, Image is doing part of the marketing; for our part
we'll try to get the word out in magazines, websites (like Newsarama!)
and other media. We also have a website where you can see previews of
the comics (www.liquidcitizen.net/previews.html).
NRAMA: Who are you targeting?
SL: Readership-wise, I hope anyone who enjoys comics will check
out the anthology, with the only caveat being that its not quite as
all-ages friendly as Flight, with some creators dealing with slightly edgier themes and stories.
NRAMA: Did you have Image in mind from the get-go? After all, you'd done projects for other publishers like SLG and Vertigo...
SL: I did talk to SLG as well; they were interested but the book
was ultimately a little outside their scope. Image has had a lot of
experience with other anthologies, from Flight to PopGun, so they were kinda the obvious place to approach, and they showed a keeness on the project from very early on.
NRAMA: What can you tell us about the Image "deal" that got you
signed with them? Anything that you can share with our readers and
aspiring creators who're considering approaching Image to potentially
getting their projects published?
SL: The whole idea behind Image, the reason why Todd MacFarlane
et al created the company in the first place, was to give comic artists
and writers more creative and copyright control over their works. So
what you get is the full retention of rights over your works, with
Image taking a cut of any profits to cover publishing and promotional
costs, and, well, a little profit for themselves as well. As far as I
know, you don't get page rates or advances, as you would with some
other publishers, but the upshot of that is that Image is probably more
willing to test out different material.
NRAMA: What is it about Asian, especially Southeast Asian,
creators and their works as a whole that set them apart from Japanese
manga-ka and other Western works?
SL: I think the divisions are a little less clear these days,
with comics from different regions influencing each other more and
more. I think creators in Southeast Asia are part of that trend,
absorbing a multitude of influences whilst trying to find their own
voices. Lat, of course, is one artist in the book who has long been
producing comics in his unique style, and I think the rest of us are
striving to achieve a little of that ourselves.
NRAMA: That’s right. With Liquid City, you've got a
mixture of some of Southeast Asia's living legends like Lat and
established pros (Gerry Alanguilan and yourself) and other
fan-favorite and popular Southeast Asian creators (Kaoru, the Gilamon
gang, etc). How did you go about selecting the creators?
SL: It really was kinda an ad hoc process; looking up names I
knew, Googling for new contacts and getting the word out any which way
that I was looking for artists and writers to take part in the project.
As with any anthology you really have to start with a big pool because
people will always end up dropping out due to other work commitments.
In the end though, I think we managed to get a great group of creators
together - both established names like Lat and exciting new talents
like Nguyen Thanh Phong.
NRAMA: What was your initial pitch to them? What ideas or suggestions did they bring to the project, if any?
SL: Just whether they were keen to be part of an anthology
featuring mostly Southeast Asian artists. I think everyone had a sense
of the isolated nature of comics communities in the region and were
keen to change that, so there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project.
NRAMA: As the editor of the anthology project, what're some of
the contributions that stood out for you? Which ones do you think have
the potential to be developed further, be it as a one-shot special,
mini-series or ongoing series?
SL: This is a bit of an odd question because all the creators
involved have a passion for making comics, and are producing new work
all the time - they already are working on one-shots and ongoing
series; Troy Chin for example has his own website where he publishes a
prodigious amount of work, Leong Wan Kok is working on a new book at
the moment. If the issue is whether they will be commercially
successful works... that's not a question I have an answer to. I think
all the stories in the book have special qualities, so its hard to say
what stood out; the inclusion of Lat's work though did give me a
special buzz, just because I'd grown up reading his comics and come to
appreciate their craft and beauty more and more every year.
NRAMA: Although it mainly features works by creators from
Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, it's interesting to
note that Mike Carey and Jon Foster are listed as contributors as well.
At what point in time did you invite them to participate in the project?
SL: Heh, pretty early on. The idea was to have them collaborate
with writers or artists from Southeast Asia; I'd hoped Jon for example
could do a collaborative piece with Wan Kok, some sort of comics jam.
It didn't quite work out in the end, but I'm still chuffed that we got
a Jon to contribute a piece. So the boundaries got expanded a little;
it’s something I'm more than happy to live with.
NRAMA: You'd previously worked with Mike on My Faith in Frankie and Re-Gifters. What was it like to be teaming up with him again?
SL: It felt like comfortable, I guess.. familiar in a best sense of the word. I knew from MFIF and Re-Gifters
how great Mike's scripts were - the storytelling so assured that the
thumbnails almost work themselves out. The real challenge was in trying
to develop a visual style suitable for the story, and I think what came
out in the end was at least a first step into a new territory I hope to
explore more in the future.
NRAMA: Who actually came up with the story for "Face"?
SL: I suggested some ideas about colonialism and its ambivalent
legacy in Southeast Asia, but beyond that it was mostly Mike's ideas. I
think he's since written a prose version of the story for a short story
NRAMA: And what about Jon Foster? Even though he's only
contributing a piece of pin-up, just getting the award-winning painter
and illustrator's name on the project must've been the icing on the
SL: Heh! Yup, I'd been amazed by his work ever since he came in
as a guest speaker for a class in Science Fiction Illustration at RISD
taught by Nick Jainschigg, and seeing his style evolve over time has
been really inspiring, so its definitely something I'm happy and
NRAMA: How long did it get from merely an idea for an anthology
to finally putting the whole thing together and signing the deal with
SL: I can't remember the exact dates for any of these, but it
does feel like a long time... Ivan Brandon told me his advice for
anyone wanting to put an anthology together was simple: Don't do it.
Because it’s always going to be a somewhat painful and time consuming
process. But he also said that finally seeing the book come out more
than makes up for that, and I'm pretty sure he's right there too.
NRAMA: On the editorial and production side of things, what was
the most challenging aspect when it came to putting the whole thing
SL: Just making sure everyone got in their work on time. Beyond
that, it was the usual editorial issues of trying to figure out if
stories needed fixing, and how, or if a given submission were right for
the anthology. I'm getting a big helping hand from my graphic designer
friend Danny Yee in the design aspect of the book as well - I'd be
mostly lost at sea in that respect otherwise.
NRAMA: Did you have any works that you had to say no to or leave
it for a follow-up volume? In saying that, would you consider doing it
again? Do you already have creators and ideas ready for a second volume?
SL: Well, there were a couple of stories that we had to leave
out in the end, mostly due to storytelling issues. I guess that's the
toughest part about editing - inviting someone to participate in the
anthology and then having to not use their work afterwards... Most of
the problems were due to time management issues; artists with day time
jobs or other projects who couldn't get enough done in time for a
feedback process, meaning that the final stories sometimes had things
we couldn't work out in time for deadlines.
NRAMA: Other than this, you’re also part of another anthology book, that is, Jerry Yang's Secret Identities: Asian American Superhero Anthology. How did you get picked for the project? And what's your short tale about?
SL: I'm working on a short story written by Gene Yang (American Born Chinese);
as with other stories in the anthology it explores issues of race and
culture through the superhero genre. So a bit of people hitting each
other in the usual way but also tackling issues that Asians face in
dealing with problems of self-identity and cultural assimilation.
NRAMA: Finally, you've also been working on your pet project, Malinky Robot for a number of years now, right? Have you got an update on the project?
SL: I'm talking to publishers now about collecting the existing
stories together into one volume, and remain at work on a longer
graphic novel called The Balloon Bomb Factory.
One thing to add to the Malinky Robot bit - there'll be a French collection of existing stories out in March.