As a medium, comic books fall somewhere between literature and film – it can have the depth of well-written literary works but stir emotions like powerful works of cinema. Despite the versatility of comics, the comic book scene in China still remains largely underdeveloped. But even in the stagnant state of affairs, Chinese comics still possess their own unique characteristics, especially independent productions. “For any comic book, being interesting is key,” says Newliu, a Sichuan-based independent comic book artist. But how do you define “interesting”? For every person you ask, you’ll most likely end up with a different explanation. But a crucial part of making a story “interesting” might begin with having full control of the creation and publishing process, a perk of being an independent comic artist. This allows for more experimental works, a sense of intimacy, and creative freedom. This freedom is partly what has allowed Newliu to create his highly compelling stories.
Newliu’s comics often combine his vivid imagination with personal memories. His storytelling is highly influenced by cinema, and he has sourced inspiration from black-and-white silent films, arthouse films, and cult classics. But, to date, the movies that have influenced Newliu the most are the works of Takeshi Kitano. Quite similar to Kitano’s approach, many of Newliu’s messages are veiled and implicit. In addition, his narrative structure is also quite similar – he begins with a slow-progressing storyline that builds momentum before reaching an explosive climax, followed up with a wind-down period that brings the story to a calming conclusion.
In China, many comics illustrators who want to make livable wages while still creating must make compromises. They’ll work as teachers or take on commercial illustration gigs. There are very few comics artists who are full-time illustrators in the country. After all, due to the avant-garde and non-mainstream nature of independent comics, they only appeal to a niche readership. Newliu says that he himself is thinking about taking on a teaching job, stating that he sees it as simply a means of making money to support his drawing habits.
Undeterred by the challenges he faces, Newliu says that even if there’s only one person reading his comics, he’ll still give it his all. His first-ever independently released comic, Angry David, received a highly positive reception. It took him four years to put together the story, but such is the cost of creating a quality story. The unfortunate thing is that there is far less to gain for artists producing a well thought-out piece of work when compared with churning out fast, commercial works.
So considering the unfavorable situation for comic book artists in China, perhaps the melancholy that forms the foundation of Newliu’s stories is justified. His comics often revolve around a humble protagonist who puts in a great deal of effort towards his goal but still ends up failing; it’s a conclusion that won’t be satisfying for most readers, but it’s a realistic depiction of life and the challenges that people face in it. “Tragedy is life,” Newliu comments. And just maybe, seeing a story where the main character does all the right things but still faces failure is far more interesting than the overly optimistic, unrealistic drivel that dominates the mainstream. Newliu shares that his upcoming work, Lee and I, will be an equally bleak story. The comic will revolve around the starting of a business and all the failures and compromises along the way. Despite the depressing nature of Newliu’s comics, it feels normal to laugh at certain moments of his story. Perhaps this is confirmation of the saying: “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”