Meet Sonny Liew, Southeast Asian Comic Book Hero

By Hans Villarica

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.

Why do you use watercolor-drenched pencil as your primary medium?

Well, to some degree, it was something I stumbled upon. I had very little experience inking comics back then, so leaving the drawings in pencil form was in many ways a practical decision, and the coloring was just a trial-and-error process trying to get the pages not to be a complete mess. It's not actual watercolors. They're digitally colored after scanning the pencil drawings, though maybe the effect has something of a watercolor look. The end result was a pleasant surprise, and I've since used a similar approach in other comics I've worked on.

One thing using pencils does is you retain a kind of energy and rawness that can get lost with inks. Not to say that there aren't artists out there who couldn't make inks work in a similar way; but certainly for me there's something about penciled art that I'm still figuring out how to translate into inks.

How would you describe your work as an illustrator or colorist?

I guess I tend to prefer more muted palettes in comics. Generally speaking, I think my drawing and coloring style probably don't quite fit the mainstream look. My figures tend to be a bit spindly, rather than muscle-bound, which maybe unfortunately means I don't get to draw a lot of superhero comics.

How do you know a particular illustration or page is done or still needs work?

I think your eye learns to spot the problems on a page and you keep fixing them until everything looks right. It could be the anatomy of a figure, especially when foreshortening is involved, so you get reference pictures if need be and redraw it until it works. Because we're dealing with realistic drawings, I guess a lot of it goes back to the Renaissance's discovery of perspective and compositional rules.

Having said all that, deadlines can mean you do cut corners—a little less research, letting go of a drawing of a figure who's scale is not quite right, and hoping that you get away with it if the rest of the book looks alright.

Who is your idol in graphic novel design?

Just one idol? Comic creators are such a varied lot, all with various strengths, so it's hard to pick. But if we're talking about "graphic novel design" in particular, Chris Ware would be at the forefront. His sense of design and use of language, I think, is leagues ahead of anyone else in the field.  A little dense and daunting perhaps, but everything's done with such meticulous care it really does take your breadth away at times.

For readers in the U.S. who might not be that familiar with your work, why would you say they should give Malinky Robot a chance?

I'd say that it's a refreshing departure from a lot of the genre comics out there. It's a science-fiction world without evil plots or conspiracies, just the everyday adventures of two street urchins looking for small joys in the city.

Image: Sonny Liew

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/07/meet-sonny-liew-southeast-asian-comic-book-hero/242260/