EXCLUSIVE ART: Dissecting DOCTOR FATE With Sonny Liew

Part 2 of our look at DC’s revamp of the Golden Age stalwart.


Cover for Issue #5

A very Chris Ware-esque cover for Issue #5. Art by Sonny Liew.


Doctor Fate is one of my favorite titles right now. It’s a smart, modern reinvention that casts an interesting new light on one of DC’s oldest characters.

I spoke to writer Paul Levitz about it (click here) and now we have his artistic collaborator, Sonny Liew, whose work I really dug in The Shadow Hero.

I don’t normally do this, but I do want to point out that the final order cut-off for Issue #5 is Monday 9/28. I mention this because sales haven’t been quite as robust as the critical response and I’d like to keep reading this.

EXCLUSIVE ART from Issue #5

EXCLUSIVE ART from Issue #5

Dan Greenfield: You have an illustrious career — pardon the phrase — but very little of it is with mainstream superheroes. Tell us about making that transition.

Sonny Liew: I’d met Paul at the Singapore Toys, Games and Comic Con some years back when he was a special guest there. We’d kept in touch off and on, and I think the work on The Shadow Hero (with Gene Yang) made him think of me as a possibility for Doctor Fate. I’ve tried to find balance between my own style and the needs of a more mainstream approach, and that’s been an interesting challenge. Especially with the endless rain and floods in the story — organic forms which I’ve always been a little wary of drawing, I’ve had to find ways to learn to depict them convincingly, along with the large spectacles that come with any superhero story. …

I’d initially thought I’d agreed to doing only the 8-page teaser, so both sides could get a feel of how things might go. But the next thing I knew I started getting these “Congratulation” messages from friends, and realized that the series had been announced with me onboard. I suppose that was a good thing, I’d have been very wishy-washy about making a decision otherwise. …

The Shadow Hero probably gave editors a chance to see that I could work within genre conventions, and it also coincidenced with the mentality of the new DC You approach of moving away from a house style.


But how frustrating is it that a lot of mainstream comics readers still want that over-muscled style?

Hmm… You can’t fault anyone for their tastes, it’s something that develops over time, subject to so many factors. There are many areas I know I still have to improve on artwise, and insofar as its a question of shortcomings rather than style, I’m very glad to listen to criticisms and try to get better. The only thing I wish we could move away from is the tendency in some mainstream comics art to dwell only on surface sexuality.

I can still see the appeal of a nicely rendered human form on a technical level, but it’s strange to me that it would be something you’d want to come back to time and again without introducing any new conceptual ideas to the mix. The possibilities of the illustration and comics mediums are so vast, paddling about in the limited pool of sexy women or muscley men just seems a little crazy.


I mentioned to Paul that I enjoy the sense of place that the book has. How familiar are you with that part of Brooklyn — and New York in general?

I’ve only been to New York a couple of times, so unfortunately most of my visual research is done online. Things like Google Sketchup and Earth help a lot too. I do wish comics had Disney-esque budgets — I remember reading about animators getting to travel to China for visual reference-gathering for a movie like Mulan and thinking, “If only we could do the same for comics.” But it definitely helps that Paul has specific locales in mind for the story, rather than generic ones. It gives the story a more authentic grounding.

Sales on Doctor Fate haven’t been great. How do you confront that when you’re working on the book every month?

I’ve wondered about that. I’ve seen reviews saying that there hasn’t been the same kind of PR push behind the book like say, Ms Marvel, had. But to be honest I haven’t gotten too involved in that side of things — maybe because of the newness of an on-going series, I’ve focused mainly on trying to draw the best pages I can. I started on the series a little later than would have been ideal, due to demands of my last book The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, so scrambling to meet deadlines has been the priority, and I figure I can leave DC to let me know how best to handle the selling of the book.


To me it makes a world of sense that Doctor Fate — or, more precisely, Khalid — is a Muslim hero. Not everyone sees it that way, unfortunately, so I do want to address the 800-pound gorilla: How much do you think that has affected the sales of the book?

Well, I mentioned Ms. Marvel, which I think has been a big hit partly because the protagonist is Muslim — so I don’t think that in itself would be the issue. Maybe a question of marketing angle? Or maybe it’s just that Ms. Marvel came first, so Khalid being Muslim didn’t quite generate the same level of mainstream media attention. Personally I haven’t seen too many of the negative reactions against the character’s religious identity, so I’m not quite sure what the rationale behind any discontentment might be.

On a far more prosaic level, let’s talk about the costume. Of all the characters of the Golden Age, Doctor Fate has one of the most striking looks. Two bold colors and a basic, yet exciting design. Is Khalid going to forever be in the hoodie? Whose idea was that anyway?
The initial idea was to have Khalid acquire different parts of the costume as he learned to handle the powers of Fate better. At some point though, I asked Paul and the editors Andy, Brian and Amedeo how this process would work, and they told me that there’d been very positive feedback on the new look, with just the helmet and medallion over Khalid’s street clothes. So there was an editorial decision to not introduce the rest of the costume, at least for the moment. That said, readers do get to see it in Issue #4 within a specific context!

And I’d also ask — what’s wrong with a hoodie? Anger at hoodies is something I’ve seen in some places, and it’s a little baffling to be honest. If you’re saying “I want the full costume,” that’s one thing, but if it’s more about “I hate hoodies,” that’s another.

From Issue #4

From Issue #4

Tell us about how you collaborate with Paul.

Hmm, heh, pretty much the same with other collaborators: I get the script, break it down into thumbnails, offering some minor storytelling adjustments if need be, before getting feedback from Paul and the editorial team about whether the thumbnails work. Then it’s off to the pencilling and inking.

By and large I leave the wider thematic and structural concerns to Paul, and try to flesh out the script as best I can. I think it would be interesting if the comic could touch on more contemporary issues, everything from the consequences of the Arab Spring to ISIS — but this first arc is more about Khalid learning to deal with his new-found powers and responsibilities. Perhaps those engagements will come later.

Its been fun working with Paul. His wealth of experience shines through and his suggestions for tweaks to the thumbnails have a clarity to them that sort of make you go, “D’oh! That makes perfect sense!”


What would you like to tell readers who haven’t picked up the book?

It’s worth a read! Filled with magic and Egyptian gods! Maybe a bit of a slow burner for the first few issues, but things build up to a really exciting climax. Also there are talking cats and dogs, which the world always needs more of.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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