‘Liquid City’ Vol. 3: Calamity, Family, Diversity and Beauty [Review]
Through its prior two volumes, Image’s Liquid City has established itself as one of the most intriguing anthology series on the comics landscape. Though it’s only comes out once every couple of years, the collection featuring the work of Southeast Asian creators is nonetheless one of the most beguiling collections of talent largely unknown in the west, and provides a wealth of curious comics in each volume.
This week, the anthology returns with another cabal of creators providing over twenty original stories for the 250-plus-page Liquid City Volume 3. And even though there was a huge leap in quality from the first volume to the second, the newest edition is easily the best in the series.
It can be challenging to rate anthologies, especially modern ones. Rarely does one contain all world-beaters — though Wednesday Comics and certain volumes of RAW, Kramer’s Ergot, and Batman: Black & White are the first exceptions that come to mind — and the weight of mediocre comics can make an otherwise solid compendium soft in the middle.
So let’s just get that out now: like any anthology, there are a couple of duds in Liquid City Vol. 3; a few stories that just are incomplete or just plain inane. At the very least, though, those stories still gain novelty points just by sheer virtue of being different than what you’re used to seeing; there are novelty factors. But the good stories far outnumber the bad, and among the good ones are several real gems.
For the third volume of Liquid City, editors Sonny Liew (of the magnificent Malinky Robot) and Joyce Sim asked their artists, “If you knew the world was ending, what would be the story you would most want to tell?” And just like the first two volumes, the artists responded with an array of styles and approaches vastly different from one another, ultimately making the collection as a whole impossible to categorize. Common themes do appear: stories about family and culture, the fluidity of memory, and the realization of strength through trauma. But even if two or three stories share thematic traits, the ways in which they explore those ideas are always vastly different, and no two entries in this collection are alike.
From that prompt, Liew and Sim drew forth from the creators stories of all shapes and sizes that run the gamut all across the comics medium. Straight biographical comics, twisty sci-fis, tales of magical realism, fantasy comics, and gonzo humor strips begin and end, jostling against and careening off one another, stilled occasionally by a series of pinups, many of which are ridiculously beautiful.
If there is a common trait that all of these stories share, it’s that they’re all vastly different from the types of comics the average American reader is usually exposed to. (The average American indie comics reader will experience far less culture shock.) Though we have seen more American, European, and Asian style-blending over the last few years in the mainstream, it seems like nobody can mix it up quite like Southeast Asian creators. A cursory glance at a few flipped-by pages reveals a wide spectrum of artistic diversity; in single stories, wildly different influences bleed through ink-lines.
Several of the stories deal with themes of family and memory, whether in biographical or fantastic settings. In “The Orson Welles of Darussalam” by Jin Hien Lau, the young artist remembers catching a snippet of an apocalyptic program on pigdin cable and thinks it’s really the end of the world. In what may be the most emotionally touching story of the collection, Tita Larasati explores the politics of race in 1990s Indonesia, the trickiness of cultural identity, and the memory of her Chinese-descended grandmother in “Bloemen Blij, Plukken Wij.” In the quiet, emotional, but nonetheless riveting “In a Different Universe” the end of the world is explored from a much more personal perspective. With a loose style like a more impressionistic Rutu Modan over grey paper backgrounds, artist Shuxian Lee tells of her discovery that her boyfriend had been cheating on her, and the new relationship that it led her to. Quiet, complicated, and dreamy, it’s the standout of the biographies.
Further away from the biographical comics, figures from myths and fables make several appearances. “Let Me See The Giant Fall” by Benjamin Chee is a fantastically-illustrated story about a blind beggar woman in a city besieged by giants; a parable about eternal hardship broken by the occasional glimmering triumph. “Disappear” by Aks Kwan is presented as a biography but tumbles into magical realism when two young brothers encounter a shadowy Na Tuck Kong, a forest spirit from fables throughout the region. Digitally illustrated, “Disappear” is lush and emotive, with apertures of shadow dusting the edges like a haunting. The first story in the collection, it sets the bar very high.
Among the science fiction stories, “The End of History & The Last Man” by Colin Goh and Soo Lee is a straight science fiction story built like a classic EC short, with a great premise capped-off by a magnificently gut-churning twist. But more than just formulaic sci-fi, the story explores bureaucracies, cultural stagnation, and the triviality of human emotion in the face of destruction. “Boy” also deals with bureaucracies, but Elvin Ching focuses on a draconian military service, whereon oppressive training manages to allow the titular boy to find inner strength and transform into a man.
Overall, this is the best volume of Liquid City. A very balanced book with a wide range of material, it offers a weird breath of fresh air for readers scoping for something new. Volume 3 refines the stricter editing that made the second entry such an improvement, resulting in an even better final product. When it comes to the quality of the book, it doesn’t necessarily matter that all the creators are from Southeast Asia, it matters that they’re good. Like Sonny Liew or Gerry Alanguilan, though, several of these artists are deserving of exposure to wider American audience.
A more diverse spectrum of experiences and visions enriches the comics medium and community. Here they happen to be Singaporean, or Indonesian, or Filippino, or Malaysian, but most importantly, they’re very, very good.
More from Liquid City Vol. 3: