I spend a lot of time–probably too much time–weighing the speed at which a comic wants to be read. Novels are easy–a chapter per sitting. Short stories are easy–one story per sitting. Even if you don’t live up to your side of that bargain as a reader, that’s still the intended cadence, and you can reverse engineer the experience you were supposed to have to understand better what the author’s intention was.
But a graphic novel like The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye Presented by Sonny Liew, which is a political history of Singapore refracted through a biographical survey of the work of a fictional and, in the story at least, mostly unsuccessful comic artist whose name changes less often than his styles, is trickier.
The work doesn’t try too hard to make the whole thing hang together narratively speaking. Closure is used throughout to devastating effect, and Liew’s greatest illusion here is his ability to make you feel the weight of passing time without describing what happens during those longer expanses of time very much.
But the narrative jumps and the aesthetic swerves can feel disorienting–I almost said “needlessly,” but I’m not sure that’s true–and the book feels to me as if it’s best read a chapter a day. And I mostly stuck to that. Near the end I did a couple two-chapter days, but it isn’t much of a binge object. The book rewards you for careful attention and reflective reading, not for your willingness to commit to 200 pages of the book at a time. (Saga or the Walking Dead, for example, don’t suffer from this problem.) Even aside from the extra attention needed to successfully negotiate the transitions between stylistic variations, the comics-within-comics themselves are designed to slow you down, to force you ever so slightly to take your time.
And this superfluity of style, this excess of aesthetic alongside a desire to render in realistic detail this fictional cartoonist’s creative process bring home the elegaic notes of a graphic novel which is, at its heart, about the life unlived, the might-have-been worlds we miss or amputate, the continents of our imagination that are given over permanently to the contemplation of what we never were, of whether and how we failed.