STUMBLING INTO FATE
Right now, this is largely because of two words: Dr Fate. Liew is handling art duties on the DC Comics series, to be written by former DC President Paul Levitz. Liew has had to dive right into working on it, especially after the multiple delays for Charlie Chan.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad if I started when I needed to start for Dr Fate, but the problem was Charlie Chan took so long,” said Liew. “When Paul first asked me I said ‘yeah I should be done by whatever month, plenty of time’, but then actually it wasn’t. I finished so late. So right now I’m scrambling to catch up with the deadlines.”
This will be Liew’s first major ongoing title, though it’s unclear if he will stick around for as long as the title lasts.
“As long as I guess the book sells or as long as they think I’m not screwing it up, I suppose it can go for as long I want it to,” said Liew. “Part of me wonders how long I want to do this for. Even though it pays very well, it’s not the same … I don’t think you’re ever as creatively engaged with as when you do your own stories.”
And moving onto Dr Fate so quickly after finishing Charlie Chan has left Liew wanting.
“I was hoping a couple of weeks’ break after Charlie Chan, but it didn’t happen,” Liew signed. “In that sense I’m a little bit disappointed.”
One result of the multiple delays for Charlie Chan was the timing of its release: 2015 is Singapore’s Jubilee year, and also marks the year in which its founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away.
“If we had published it before, and then he passed away, the book would look incomplete,” admits Liew. “So ultimately it was sort of a good thing – that the booked was delayed, not that he passed away!”
This also helped resolve one of the problems Liew had with the graphic novel’s structure.
“Initially in the book he was still living, so it was kind of an unfinished thing,” he said. “For me it was more of a question of where to put that fact. To put it at the very end, then it becomes too much about Lee Kuan Yew. But if you don’t put it there, where do you put it? So in the end I put in the page where he appears as an old man.”
“And I think in the long term, that’s a fairer assessment of the man,” he added. “I mean, the initial grief was very strident … the initial almost deification of Lee Kuan Yew was expected given how long he’s been around and his impact, but I think over time there’ll be more of a balanced view of what he did.”
But for those that think that the book aims to paint Lee Kuan Yew as “evil”, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“That wouldn’t make sense, it’s not even fair to him to say these things – that he’s an evil guy,” said Liew. “Again, part of it is a narrative thing – I was setting up two characters who were sort of in opposition. I think the book needed that to create tension in the way, and you can’t really side one or another. In some way I side with the underdog a lot more – when in sports, for example. But being balanced was definitely important, otherwise it would be just a TRS (The Real Singapore) kind of thing, you know.”
“It would have been difficult not to be balanced,” he added. “A lot of what the PAP (Singapore’s ruling party) says or does is very persuasive. You might complain about the ideology, but a lot of what they’ve done and said is pragmatic. For myself I wouldn’t be comfortable with just a very leftist point of view that denies what the PAP is saying.”
Another thing to remember is that a lot of this is portrayed through the lens of Charlie Chan himself.
“I hope at some level there’s a distance between author and character … sometimes it’s hard to distinguish all the lines but I think some of the things expressed in the book are Charlie Chan’s, rather than my point of view,” said Liew.
“Even then, the ‘little me’s there (scattered throughout the book) are a persona … a version of me rather than the real me,” he added. “I do care about all the issues involved, and … there’s more to the real history than just the Singapore story.”
In the story, it’s clear that Charlie Chan sympathises with the trade union leader and left-wing politician Lim Chin Siong. Liew confessed to not knowing that much about before he started work on the graphic novel.
“One thing that struck me was that I was only very vaguely aware of Lim Chin Siong,” said Liew. “It was interesting to me that someone who was so well known back in those days was almost totally unknown these days. Part of what made me think there was more to it was when I talked to older people about what they thought of Lim Chin Siong and almost all of them were very respectful of him. One book seller said ‘he is a good man’ (他是个好人 in Chinese), my grandfather told me ‘Lee Kuan Yew was most afraid of him!’ (以前李光耀最怕是他的!) Just the fact that the older generation had such strong memories about this man … it speaks volumes.”
And it’s looking through history through Charlie Chan’s eyes that we get, in some sense, a better idea of both Charlie Chan and Lim Chin Siong.
“Well, it sort of mirrors Charlie Chan versus failure and success, in a sense,” said Liew. “One question I ask myself is, is Charlie Chan’s admiration of Lim Chin Siong to some degree come from the fact that he’s also a failure himself. So he kind of identifies with him. That set up makes it interesting … Everything in the book is to make the reader engaged, so whatever choices I make, most of it is driven by trying to pull the reader into the story.”