Sonny Liew: Change In the Air

A comics interview article by: Felicity Gustafson

Sonny Liew's living the dream of writing and illustrating his own comics and he's been up to some pretty interesting things lately, first and foremost being his Malinky Robot series being released in trade paperback form. Malinky Robot's main characters even stopped by to do an illustrated guest review for us at CB recently. He goes into detail about future projects, past projects, inspirations and even some experiences at the Rhode Island School of Design. While not overly enjoying being an editor, Liew prefers doing the artistry of comics and he's got quite a few big names already under his belt like My Faith In Frankie, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Wonderland, to name a few.



Felicity Gustafson: Looking through your list of projects, you've done a pretty wide array of stuff. Sense and Sensibility was based in the 1800s, My Faith In Frankie dealt with jealous gods and 17 year old girls,Wonderland was a mad twist on a childhood favorite and Malinky Robot revolved around a couple of kids in a futuristic cityscape. I'm pretty sure there was even some Iron Man thrown in there somewhere near the beginning. I think it's safe to say you've dabbled in pretty much every genre of comic. Is there one you liked working on the most? Something you maybe feel more proud of?

Sonny Liew: Well, Malinky Robot, in a way, is the most personal project I've ever done because I'm doing both the writing and the drawing. For better or worse, the choices in terms of story structure, pacing, rhythm, etc., are all my own. Working with other writers, there are always things you think might be done differently, but its collaborative process where you have to pick your battles. 

That said, every project has had its own highlights. My Faith in Frankie was my first comic with a major publisher, and having been a big fan of Sandman, it was an exciting and anxious time for me.

With Wonderland, I had a lot of fun fleshing out what was a combination of Tommy's ideas, a visual world guided by the Disney movie and John Tenniel's original illustrations. The topsy turvy world that is Wonderland provided a lot of leeway in terms of visual possibilities. The colouring on that project was also a great learning experience in terms of palettes and techniques.

So most of the projects have been special in their own way, and I've not yet felt myself being anywhere in danger of repeating myself or going through the motions.

Gustafson: How did you get into comics and drawing? Are you living your childhood dream?

Liew: I think most kids grow up drawing, sort of a natural instinct to try and put what they see in their heads on paper. So it's maybe more of a question why some stop. My own dreams of wanting to draw for a living started with old school RPGS like Dungeons and Dragons. I'd try to draw characters and creatures, hoping to one day get to illustrate one of those RPG books. It was around the same time that I discovered 2000AD, and the sheer variety of art styles in that weekly was so exciting, it made me want to be involved in comics in some way.

Getting from that point to actually drawing comics was a long, fairly twisty road though. From an early foray into a badly drawn daily comic strip for a local (Singaporean) news paper , onto the Rhode Island School of Design, self-published books and botched projects of one sort or another. 

I didn't really have a clue how someone went about being a comics creator when I started out. The industry in Singapore at the time was relatively undeveloped, so there weren't really any publishers or other comics professionals to turn to for advice or guidance.

It wasn't until I got to RISD and took a class with David Mazzucchelli that I'd any inkling what practical steps you'd take to try to make a career out of comics - everything from going to conventions to putting portfolio together.

Gustafson: Do you have a dream project? Something you've always wanted to work on?

Liew: I would like to find the time, also meaning money, to work on a longer Malinky Robot graphic novel, but its been tricky finding a publisher for that. Hopefully if the collection does well there could be more impetus for that or maybe I might try something like Kickstarter. But, yeah, that's something I've been working for quite a while now – there are actually some sketches done for the book in the collection - and hopefully will get to complete in the not too distant future.

That aside, I'm still hoping to do a story for 2000AD one day, if just for nostalgia's sake. And there's, of course, the usual wish list of wanting to work with the writers that I grew up reading; everyone from Grant Morrison to Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis.

Gustafson: You seem to be one of the rare literary gems, meaning you can do both writing and illustrations for a comic. Do you prefer to write the stories or draw the illustrations?

Liew: Well, I don't think I could do straight forward writing on its own. The comics emerge in a series of thumbnails, so it's never a purely literary process for me. I do like being in control of the entire process. It does make the final product feel much more personal. Still, just doing the art can be a relief too. You leave all the worrying about non-visual storytelling to the writer and just focus on the best approach to the visual narrative. 

Gustafson: Is there something you do in particular to get yourself in the mood to write or draw? Do you have a routine you stick to?

Liew: I do try to get to the studio fairly early in the morning, so I can check some emails before starting on pages. I like to have something playing on the DVD player in the background. Usually it's some TV series I've seen a half dozen times before so I don't really have to concentrate on it. Star Trek: The Next GenerationBuffy the Vampire SlayerSeinfeld and Doctor Who have gotten quite a lot of playtime over the years. [laughs]

Gustafson: Sense and Sensibility is a classic. It's hard to find someone who hasn't at least heard of the book. I mean, it's Jane Austen. Was doing the illustrations for something like that something you wanted to do in particular? Did you contact Marvel about that or did someone come to you?

Liew: It started with Marvel approaching me to do a few covers for the Pride and Prejudice adaptation. After that, when Sense and Sensibility came up, they asked if I might try the interiors as well. I thought it'd be an intriguing challenge to try and come up with ways of making a story with relatively few action sequences visually engaging.

To be honest, I'd not read any Jane Austen before that, so I had to go read the novel and collect a lot of reference material for British Regency Era clothing and architecture. It did make me a bit jealous of the resources and movies that TV shows had on hand for their visual research. The research department for the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, for example, got to take thousands of photos of rooms, hairstyles and clothing. In comics, you're more often than not winging it and papering over cracks in proper research as much as you can.

Gustafson: If I'm not mistaken, Frankie and Poo was your first comic, correct? Do you feel like you've changed much now that you've worked with the bigger publishers like Marvel and DC and were even nominated for an Eisner award? Congratulations, by the way!

Liew: Thank you! I think there has been change, but probably not so much to do with working with publishers or nominations. The earlier comics were a lot more raw, maybe even intuitive. You had an idea and you put it down. With time and experience, you start learning more about storytelling – pacing through panel designs, all that Scott McCloud / Will Eisner stuff about the language of comics… So things are a bit more considered these days, I think. You do lose some of the earlier raw energy, but with the trade off being a few less gauche moments as well.

Gustafson: I know you worked on Liquid City for a bit, which was a futuristic anthology. Could you summarize the parts you worked on for those you haven't read it yet? Was there a part or some aspect that you enjoyed working on more than others?

Liew: Liquid City is an ongoing anthology project I helped put together featuring creators mostly based in Southeast Asia. I'd been involved in Kazu Kibuishi's Flight anthology and had been struck by how it helped bring creators from all over the world together. The comic scenes in Southeast Asia felt a little isolated with a lot of creators doing great work but no one really knowing about each other. So I thought it might be a good idea to have an anthology project to not just showcase everyone's works, but also to help create a platform for interaction between creators.

So it was mostly an editorial role, though I did do a couple of stories for each volume. Volume 2 even got an Eisner nomination this year, though it was always going to be the Mouseguard collection winning it.

I can't say editing is a lot of fun. Most of the time you're worrying about late submissions or what stories to include or exclude. It's a rewarding feeling at the end, but the process is much less fun then actually writing and drawing comics. I think Ivan Brandon's, who'd edited another anthology I'd been part of,24Seven, advice to me on editing an anthology was simply not to do it. 

Gustafson: The Malinky Robot Collected Stories and Other Bits trade paperback was just released August 24 and is comprised of multiple stories revolving around the lovable duo of Atari and Oliver. Is it safe to say that you'll be continuing with more stories?

Liew: [laughs] Yeah, as mentioned above, there's that graphic novel I've been working on called the "Balloon Bomb Factory." It's a much longer narrative that features time travelers and abandoned cats.

It's definitely a challenge writing a longer story. It's much harder to make all the parts coherently fit together. I think I have most of it planned out and hopefully there will be time soon enough to actually draw the pages.

Gustafson: I read that Malinky Robot was given the Xeric Foundation Award and named Comic Album of the Year at the Utopiales International SF Festival, which is a pretty big deal. Again, congratulations are in order. You're racking up quite the list of accomplishments. How did that feel? Did you expect Malinky Robot to gain so much attention so quickly?

Liew: I'm not sure if it's been quick exactly – the first Malinky Robotbook was published some 7 or 8 years ago and its taken this long to get an English collection together… Still, the grants and awards have been nice. I think as a creator it's inevitable to have dark days when you wonder what the point of it all is, so those things definitely do help make the going a little easier.

Gustafson: As a fan, I feel as if I have to ask, what inspired Malinky Robot? Did you just randomly come up with Atari and Oliver or is there some story behind it all? Do real life situations inspire your stories and characters or are they something you dream up entirely?

Liew: I guess it was a coming together of several threads - my love for cyberpunk settings (Blade Runner, Transmetropolita, Akira, etc.), left-of-centre movies like those by Takeshi Kitano or Wim Wenders, and maybe most specifically a book I'd picked up from a bargain bin at the Brown University bookstore, called "San'ya Blues" by Edward Fowler. It was an account of his time spent as a day labourer there and the many fun, interesting stories of lives, that I thought it would provide a great backdrop for world, especially with some light science fiction dusting.

Other parts of the stories aren't strictly autobiographical or drawn from real life generally – they've more to do with trying to capture the mood and textures of the experiences. Like Atari and Oliver cycling out into the suburbs. Just that feeling of going from a built up city onto rural roads and the change in the air.

Atari and Oliver themselves emerged gradually from sketches in notebooks, an ongoing process with no real beginning nor end. I'm not really sure what Oliver is myself – it's maybe something I'll find out when writing future Malinky Robot stories. It's kind of how their characterizations have come about for me. Nothing's really pre-planned, it's more of a case of putting them in given scenarios and trying to let them tell me how they would react.

Gustafson: I noticed in Malinky Robot, you went so far as to tell the side stories of characters, specifically Mr. Bon Bon, in different format. You used likenesses from favorites like Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes or even making up a new comic entirely to depict the scenes in the story. Personally, I loved it. It was like reading a variety of comics within a comic. How did you come up with that?

Liew: I think David Mazzuchelli's class at Rhode Island School of Design had a lot to do with that. I remember a specific assignment when he asked us to do a horror story in a style we'd never tried before, and that really brought to light how far an art style can make a difference in storytelling. There's also the sheer fun of trying to adapt to different styles and modes of storytelling. 

I guess it's something I go back to fairly often – from the use of 'chibi' characters in some of the scenes in Sense and Sensibility, to the cartoon strip style for the flashback sequences in My Faith in Frankie.

I wouldn't discount the influence of artists like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes either, with their playfulness with comic forms and styles.

Gustafson: Malinky Robot seems to be your baby. You came up with the idea, you wrote it, you did the artistry and it was originally self published. Considering Malinky Robot's success, are you currently planning any new projects? 

Liew: I'm due to start a graphic novel written by Gene Yang, an origins story of a Asian- American superhero. It's a new challenge again art style wise, trying to find something that can accommodate both humour and serious superhero moments.

Again, "The Balloon Bomb Factory," maybe putting together volume 3 of Liquid City. Those aside, hoping to do some paintings as well.

Also, feel free to visit:
Sonny Liew's Website/Blog
Malinky Robot Facebook Page
Buy Malinky Robot on Amazon

To read Felicity's review of Malinky Robot, click here.

Community Discussion