The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is one of the most intricate and impressive graphic novels I’ve ever read. It’s a biography of the great Singaporean comic artist Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and traces the evolution of Chan’s career by showing the wide array of artistic styles he experimented with. These range from Marvel-style superhero comics to celebrity caricatures, cartoonish science fiction, manga, noir, and more. All this is complemented by explanations and annotations of Chan’s work, which are also presented in graphic form.
The work is complex not only in style, but also in content. A driving theme throughout Chan’s career has been uncompromising political satire. Thus the survey of Chan’s work is also a dense and dizzying tour of 20th-century Singaporean history. The comics depict the complex Singaporean identity following independence from Britain, as the tiny nation-state struggled to define itself ethnically, politically, and economically.
While this is a weighty topic, there’s an ever-present humor in Chan’s comics. For instance, his superhero parody is called Roachman. Roachman worked as a human waste collector in Singapore’s pre-plumbing period, and gained his powers from the bite of a cockroach. His transformation into a superhero allows for commentary on the social ills of the day, as well as providing a snapshot of a country just before rapid urbanization and development.
The big conceit in all this is that Chan isn’t real. He’s a fictional character invented by Sonny Liew to take readers through a simultaneous history of Singapore and of 20th-century comics. One lasting impression from this book is that it must have been so fun to create: inventing not only an artist, but also his works, and the additional meta-layer of being a faux biographer/art historian. Only someone with an enduring love of comics could have produced this work.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
by Pantheon Graphic Novels
2016, 320 pages, 7 x 1.2 x 10.4 inches (hardcover)
$18 Buy a copy on Amazon
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
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