THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE (Pantheon, $30)presents itself as a coffee-table victory lap. It purports to be a graphic biography of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” punctuated by examples of his work from 1944 (a childhood drawing of Donald Duck) to 2012 (an oil painting of Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew). In fact, it’s something entirely different: a hugely ambitious, stylistically acrobatic work by the Singapore-based cartoonist Sonny Liew.
Charlie Chan Hock Chye is Liew’s invention, and his fictional life story is the vehicle for both a political history of Singapore’s past seven decades and Liew’s visual homages to comics’ most commercially successful innovations. Early on, when we see teenage Chan Hock Chye caught up in Singapore’s 1954 National Service protests, the narrative is abruptly supplanted by an excerpt from a story he published around that time, “Ah Huat’s Giant Robot” — supposedly a fantasy inspired by the young artist’s experiences, but also a parody of Osamu Tezuka’s early comics (complete with yellowed newsprint textures and typeset English lettering).