Four-Eyed Stranger #4: Loving Life in Liquid City

There is no place called Liquid City. None of the 28 stories in this anthology states that it’s set there. However, the preoccupation throughout the collection with the myriad ways we are products of our environment suggests that the titular setting does exist. As Geoffrey Rush says in Shakespeare in Love, ‘It’s a mystery’.

Liquid City could represent the idea of home as a mental construct (it’s a state of mind, man), rather than a specific place. The liquidity in its name suggests something formless and fluid, constantly changing. Think of other water-related terms and tropes: still waters run deep; water erodes; it displaces; you can’t step in the same river twice. All seem applicable to life in Liquid City.

Aiming to showcase ‘artists and writers from South-east Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines, as well as collaborators from beyond the region’, according to its official description, Liquid City features the work of 25 artists and writers.

‘I’m not sure what being Southeast Asian really implies; some arbitrary demarcation of geography perhaps, or maybe a recognition of shared roots in culture and history’, writes editor/artist Sonny Liew in his preface.

“Whatever the case, the comics communities in the region have at least this in common: the search for self-identity, for sameness and difference, whilst caught in the cross current of influences from America, Japan, Europe and elsewhere.”

This emphasis on place brings to mind Wallace Stegner’s statement about the relationship between the imagination and location:

‘No place is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments’, Stegner writes, in his collection of essays Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. ‘Fictions serve as well as facts. Rip Van Winkle, through a fiction, enriches the Catskills. Real-life Mississippi spreads across unmarked boundaries into Yoknapatawpha County’.

This echoes the novelist Jack Hodgins, who also refers to Stegner in his meditation/textbook on storytelling, A Passion for Narrative:

‘The tourist may look at a place and think ‘What does it do? What is it like? How much does it please me?’ but the fiction writer must look at a place and think ‘What does it suggest? What does it mean to me? What does it mean to my characters?”

Liew’s preface brings to mind the poet Lori Tsang, who wrote of the ‘crossroads’ of storytelling and identity in her essay “Postcards From ‘Home'”, from the anthology Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural.

‘History is created from stories conceived at the crosswords of myth and memory’, she writes. ‘Stories people tell to situate themselves in the world, to make sense of their lives’.

The first three stories serve as a strong representation of this crossroads and the desire to situate oneself. They also demonstrate the wildly varying styles presented throughout the book. Despite their stark differences, there are commonalities, one of which is the fascination with the impact of place on identity.

Leong Wan Kok’s “Metamorphosis” playfully retells the Kafka tale of the same name, adding a few key twists, including a fateful forest setting (‘far from the city, what solace’,) and the infamous apartment so vital to Kafka’s version.

Noirstorborg,” by the artist known as F.S.C. (Foo Swee Chin, or FSc), follows a young runaway from ‘the city…from the truth–that under all the colourful fancy skin and meat we are all monsters’, who ventures into the scary fairy tale setting of the story’s title, specifically a giant, mysterious (possibly malevolent) tree.

In Troy Chin’s “The Resident Tourist: Otah Tree“, two childhood friends reunite and try to rediscover a favorite place (another tree, coincidentally) in a neighborhood in Singapore. When they find it has changed, each reacts in ways that suggest a deeper change (as well as alienation and separation) in their lives. As the narrator says: ‘When you’ve been gone as long as [we] have, you can’t expect thing to wait for your return’.

‘I had a vague sense there were a lot of comic creators around the region, but it felt like everyone was disconnected from each other’, Liew said in an interview with Newsarama. “

‘So I guess Liquid City was meant both as a platform for everyone to get their work seen by a wider audience, and also maybe a small step in building a comics community in the region’.

The wide variety of storytelling and visual styles also brings to mind Douglas Wolk’s ‘aesthetic schism’ or ‘camps that comics art is starting to organize itself into’, which he describes in Understanding Comics: a rough, ‘deliberately difficult’ style, or ‘wave’ of comics, and a smoother, ‘self-consciously pretty style’.

‘There’s also a sort of combination of both waves’ tendencies in a few artists’, he writes. ‘It involves rough linework and wild reader-resisting distortions paired with some of the signs of cuteness, like big eyes, ‘cartoony’ expressions, and even animal characters, along with whimsy and emotional openness–deliberate charm to go along with the deliberate ugliness’.

This combination of charm and ugliness, rough and smooth, suggest the classic balance of yin and yang, and serves to encapsulate the overall impression of Liquid City. No stranger to creating strange and magical worlds, Jack Hodgins could have been describing the anthology in this passage from A Passion for Narrative:

‘Sometimes I am playing with fire, sometimes with magic, sometimes merely with little black figures on a page. Always, always, though, I am indulging in the marvellous business of constructing a story, of building a structure out of words, of spinning out a yarn, of listening to the heavy breathing from that other world’.

Liquid City is worth the trip.



Four-Eyed Stranger appears every alternate Thursday and looks at classic manga reprints, and unusual modern work by Asian artists that might not fall under a strict definition of manga.