Doing the Write Thing: Sonny Liew & Hsu Li Yang
Sonny Liew and Hsu Li Yang.
You could say these two guys are at the top of their game.
Sonny became the first graphic novelist from our shores to win not only one, but three Eisner Awards—the comic book equivalent of the Oscars—for his graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which became a New York Times bestseller. He's also drawn for Marvel, DC, Image Comics, DC Vertigo and a whole lot more. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye also picked up the Book of the Year gong at the Singapore Book Awards and was the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize.
Meanwhile, Hsu Li Yang is the head of the Infectious Diseases Programme at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, the Adjunct Associate Professor at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; the Senior Consultant and Head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Tan Tock Seng Hospital; and Deputy Clinical Director at the Communicable Diseases Centre.
So what do these two very different people have to do with each other? Well, they've collaborated to come up with The Antibiotic Tales, a comic that dispels the myths and misconceptions about antibiotics, antimicrobial resistance and much, much more. Here, they share more about this new work.
Why did you decide to create this comic?
Hsu Yi Lang: I am a big fan of Sonny Liew. As I read the Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, I thought that if there was anyone who could translate the complexity and controversy of issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance without over- or downplaying the risks as we understand them today, while creating an engaging story as a vehicle for communication, it would be Sonny.
Sonny: I'd seen news about the dangers of antibiotic misuse popping up in the news every now and then, with quite dire warnings about what might happen if we aren't careful... so a chance to help spread that message in some small way, while learning more about the issue, seemed like a worthwhile thing to do.
Beyond that, there was a more personal angle—my dad worked as a Paediatrician for many years (he retired a couple of years ago), and he'd always hoped me or my sister might follow his footsteps and study medicine. Neither of us ended up doing that, but working on this project felt like a link, a thread that connected to that world. I'll never be a doctor, but at least I worked with one on a comic about an important medical issue!
Sonny, how does The Antibiotic Tales differ from the other graphic novels and comics you've done?
Sonny: The basic challenges remain the same—learning about a subject before trying to figure out a way to make an interesting story out of the material. The learning part was made a lot easier with an expert in the field like Li Yang being able to explain the issues and answer any questions I had, and we worked together to find a narrative structure that we hope turns out to be engaging for readers.
Why did you decide to do this in the form of a comic?
Hsu Yi Lang: I have been to a lot of conferences and workshops on antimicrobial resistance, mostly medical and public health-related. These are largely “echo chambers” where we preach to the converted. At the same time, there are few efforts to educate the general public, and these are largely simplified or alarmist in messaging. There is a big need to fill this gap, to make more people aware of the issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance - including the trade-offs for dealing with it - and perhaps to come up with better and more diverse solutions in the future. Such solutions cannot come from just a small group of doctors, scientists and policymakers. This comic is an experiment in public health communication.
What were the key lessons you’ve learnt during this process?
Sonny: Mostly it was a reinforcement of some thoughts about many of the challenges we face as species—how complex they are, and how solving them requires changes at many different levels. The importance of legislation, or regulation in that process—left to our own, most of us probably have short term interests, or misinformation guiding our choices, that result in things falling apart for everyone in the longer term. Demanding antibiotics for the common flu for example, or farmers using antibiotics in animal feed—these are things that need to be curbed, but relying on so-called market forces to do the job is a kind of crazy libertarian fantasy.
Hsu Yi Lang: The key challenge is how to communicate some of the nuanced and complex issues revolving around antimicrobial resistance, medical practice, and animal husbandry, in a way that can be easily understood. Whether this has been successful will depend on the views of the readers!