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Comic tragedy

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 22, 2016

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This is me, Bins. Today I got a book in the mail. I ordered it. “See?” I show it to She-Who-I-Live-With. “I got this for you.” It’s called The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, by Singaporean artist-cartoonist Sonny Liew.

At once, she is suspicious. “Why suggest a book even before you’ve read it?” I say that I heard the review on NPR, National Public Radio. I believe this radio channel is maybe the best thing in the entire Western Hemisphere. Maybe even the Universe. Except that every book they talk about makes you want to order it at once. “Ohhh! You always fall for NPR!” she screams (well, no, she does not really scream. But it sounds more interesting).

“No, no — you will like it,” I assure her. “It’s by a Singaporean cartoonist, writing about an imaginary cartoonist, called Charlie Chan Hock Chye ...” Really, it is completely fabulous, this thing. Even I, from the continent of Tintin and Asterix (because they were Belgian, you know? Not French, like me), have to admit it is a fantastical concept: the make-believe biography of a failed cartoonist, who documents the history of the tiny island nation of Singapore. Wooah. Superb.

Needless to say, Madame is not impressed. “Sounds boring,” she says. “Just pick up the book,” I tell her. “You will love it.” “You’ve not even read it!” she exclaims. “I don’t need to,” I say. “All the online reviews were ecstatic.” She opens the book, flips through the pages. “Hmmm. The artwork is ...” pause “... not bad.” Another pause. “Amazing.” Then she goes quiet as she reads. “It’s very clever,” I tell her. “You know, the artist who narrates the story? He never existed.”

Now she’s shaking her head. “No! He MUST have! Look — there are photographs of pages from his early comic books, complete with those little dots from half-tone printing, and the acid-yellow stains of old cello-tape!” I am grinning as I listen to her. “— and that is what makes it brilliant!, no?” I tell her, with triumph in my voice. “It is all make-believe. The work of the author. It is also a metaphor for the cultural life of Singaporeans: permanently suppressed.”

She makes a face at me. “At least let me read it and make up my own mind!” Actually, I have partially read it, because Amazon lets you read bits of it when you complete your order. I read up to the place where the imaginary cartoonist shows his comic book reconstruction of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, using animal characters. It’s a tribute to Art Spiegelman’s Maus told in a Southeast Asian accent. In another section, Charlie Chan shows us his version of Spider-Man: bitten by a cockroach, Roachman scurries up the walls. And fights for the poor, the downtrodden.

Later, when Madame has finished reading, she is quiet. I ask her what she’s thinking. “Well ... I thought Charlie Chan seemed a bit like me.” I ask her to explain. She shrugs, “It’s kind of obvious: failed Asian cartoonist, never finds an audience, dies in obscurity ...” I laugh and shake my head. “Do not give yourself airs!” She nods and sighs. And looks away.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on April 22, 2016
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