Meet Sonny Liew, Southeast Asian Comic Book Hero

Our Q & A with an artist who, in a scene dominated by the U.S. and Japan, represents a different region—and a different style

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At Comic-Con in San Diego, which begins today, visitors will no doubt be scrambling to preview upcoming sci-fi releases, hobnobbing with comic-book legends from decades past, and collecting products from countless stalls. A few may scan Asian comic-book works, mostly from Japan and Korea, but perhaps hardly anyone will notice Malaysian-born comic-book artist Sonny Liew - which is a shame.

Liew, who has been nominated for several Eisners (the comic-book equivalent of the Oscars) for his work in Wonderland and Liquid City, writes thoughtful and original stories made all the more compelling by his muted but striking coloring style.

In this Q & A, Liew discusses his design philosophies and the ongoing struggle of Southeast Asian artists to make it globally. He also talks about and shares a sneak preview of his latest graphic masterpiece, Malinky Robot, which will debut in the U.S. next month.


What is Malinky Robot about?

The main protagonists are two street urchins called Atari and Oliver. Malinky Robot for the most part follows them on their various adventures in San'ya, from stealing bicycles to panhandling and watching movies.

Part of what I tried to capture are the small moments of epiphany or simple happiness we sometimes find in everyday life. Sadness and melancholy too, and the bittersweet most of all. Maybe the collection is a reaction too to some of the comics prevalent these days that place a premium on spectacular fights and explosions, women in spandex, and all sorts of casual violence.

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Tell me more about the inspiration for Malinky Robot.

The story setting, I guess, comes from two things I find visually engaging: cyberpunk movies like Blade Runner with near-future dystopias, crumbling buildings, and rag-tag clothing; and the oversaturated signage you find in Asian cities, particularly the use of cartoon characters in advertising.

Another spark was a book I picked up at the Brown University thrift store by Edward Fowler called San'ya Blues. It's about a year he spent as a day laborer in San'ya, a run-down neighborhood in northeastern Tokyo, and I thought the setting would give Malinky Robot a kind of grounding from which all sorts of stories could be told.

What exactly is a "Malinky Robot"?

It's funny. I thought "Malinky" was a totally made-up word, and "Malinky Robot" was simply a nonsensical title that sounded nice. I found out later from a friend from Russia though that "Malinky" is a Russian or Slavic word. I think "Malinky Robot" actually translates loosely as "little work" or odd jobs, which was a happy coincidence.

Walk me through the process of making Malinky Robot.

Usually, the first thing is the loose story or plot. Once I have a rough idea of what happens in the story, it's off to the story-structure stage, where I do quick storyboards trying to connect all the various ideas and events. That's probably the toughest part, trying to wrestle the thing down into a cohesive form. After that, it's a fairly mechanical process of doing finished thumbnails, pencils, scanning, coloring, and so on.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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