• In Their Lonesomeness, a Common Thread
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Jean Chen ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Tender Is the Night is a collaboration between comic artist Huihui and playwright Chien Li-Ying. The text version of this work, which was originally a submission to a call for scripts, also appears in Observations of a Transvestite, a collection of Chien Li-Ying’s plays. In the epilogue to that work, Chien wrote, “Sexuality is the greatest window into an individual’s behavior, the subtleties of interaction, the unfathomable depths, the shame, joy, and quotidian life all find abundant expression within sexuality. This subject has always fascinated me, and I’ve always wanted to write a play that could bring life to various forms of human sexuality, which is why I’ve included the work in this collection.”

    I have always admired Chien Li-Ying’s plays and still remember the profound impact Observations of a Transvestite, had on me the first time I saw it. Later on, after reading Tender Is the Night, I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to see the play staged. Of course, in reality this would be impossible. Why? Because the play depicts nine sexual encounters playing out in nine different rooms. At least for now, a racy performance including nudity and sexual acts would probably not be allowed on Taiwan stages.

    Then the graphic novel version of Tender Is the Night was published.

    Huihui’s previous graphic novel series Blowing-Up Adventure of Me had a dedicated readership in the independent comic market. The novel follows the protagonist as she honestly confronts her own sexual timidity – in Huihui’s pictorial world, the desire and longing for intimate encounters find both gentle and ardent embodiment. With Tender Is the Night, Huihui brings Chien Li-Ying’s script to life, providing a visual representation not just of the script’s many stage changes, but also the deeper desires, and subtle expressions of alienation underlying the physical act of sex.  

    This is how the novel’s publisher, Faces Publishing describes the book: “A romantically ostracized printshop worker, a lesbian’s clandestine encounter with her wife’s paramour, a woman’s feeling of emptiness with her hearing-impaired boyfriend, a gay little person practices fellatio, an impasse between a self-abasing portly woman and her chapstick-seeking male bedfellow, and elderly illicit lovers acting as each other’s emotional anchors…with its depictions of nine physical and sexual relationships rejected by the mainstream market and its appetite for conventional stories of love and marriage, Tender Is the Night has laid the first brushstrokes of a contemporary Taiwanese ukiyo-e, an exploration of the unlimited possibilities and stringencies of gender and sexual identity.”

    The nine short graphic novels that unfold in the nine different rooms of Tender Is the Night might all find a common thread in the book’s catchline: “Can you treat me like you would a normal person?” What seem like the stories of strangers are ultimately our own: even if the sexual experiences and body types of the characters differ from the reader’s, there is no sense of “other” in these 9 stories, they are narratives in which we can all find common ground. After all, who hasn’t felt the solitude, loneliness, self-abasement, masochism and longing for bodily warmth and connection experienced by the comics’ characters?

    Huihui renders act upon act of sexual romance with a gentle touch, deftly attending to the minute details of every scene and carving out the fine grains of each character’s semblance and personality. Their acts of mutual longing and rejection form an exquisite engenderment of the human interactions as well as the relationships between people and sexuality captured in the original script. With scenes of lovemaking and nudity appearing every few pages, Tender Is the Night is clearly an x-rated graphic novel, but Huihui isn’t so much interested in arousing readers’ sexual desires and bodily urges as she is in stirring those deeper and more profound levels of the psyche – whether you’re a hot-blooded lover or a cold and distant recluse, as long as you’re human, chances are that deep inside you, too, wish to be loved.

    What makes Tender Is the Night so enthralling is its authenticity: the sexual acts themselves and the humanity that unfolds around them all evince a sense of honesty and sincerity. There is an austere and unvarnished quality to Huihui’s storytelling, so much so that it almost seems to derive from the perspective of an indifferent bystander. Three of the nine stories involve encounters between a couple and a third person – yet, the outsiders’ perspectives often highlight the simultaneous complexity and purity of the couples’ love. In “Chapstick”, Huihui has her slightly homely female protagonist ask a man who is trying to flee from her: “Is there something wrong with me?” This blunt outburst is no doubt a symptom of her continual frustration with the judging eyes of her peers.

    In the postscript, Huihui asks her readers to reflect on which of the chapters had the deepest impact on them.

    For me, it was “The Turning of the Seasons”.

    In this tale of an elderly love affair, Huihui uses an identical framing for the male and female protagonist in each slide; only the background changes to reflect their peripatetic journey through a shifting series of hotel rooms. The rooms feature the standard trappings of most cheap hotels – the sprawling double bed with bedside tables on either side and the obligatory framed prints of famous western paintings. As time passes and conversations and scenery shift, so to do the selection of paintings on display. In the very last room, the painting hanging on the wall is Gustav Klimt’s famed “The Kiss”.

    “The Turning of the Seasons” is short in length and, tucked as it is in the very center of the book, serves as an ellipsis that aptly separates the chapters that come before and after it. Yet, this fleeting vignette focuses on a much more profound kind of relationship. In the love and companionship of the elderly, each is witness to the most unsightly aspects of their partner, to the atrophy and wasting of their physical bodies. As such, they cling not to each other’s corporeal flesh but to the heart and soul nestled within. As they conclude their lover’s hotel rendezvous and return to their families, we see that it is these brief escapes which give them the courage to once again face reality.

  • A Groundbreaking Comic Collection Adapted from Music That Melds the Old with the New
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by Jacqueline Leung

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Comics may be sequences of still images, but this has not stopped artists from using the form to make titles about music, for which there is already a considerable list – like the widely popular Japanese manga Nodame Cantabile on classical music; NANA, about a rock band; and BLUE GIANT, whose protagonist is a jazz musician. Taiwan has also been releasing comics about music in recent years, including DEMO and BLA BLA SONG. Among them, Island Rhapsody has to be one of the most intricately conceived titles. Different from the works mentioned, it is a two-volume collection of short comics by ten artists, each working with a different style. The short pieces do not have multiple growth arcs for its main characters or complicated plot twists, nor do they divulge knowledge about music and its instruments. They are inspired by songs, but rather than being mere visual adaptations, they get to the heart of the tracks, reaching through the cracks of time and space to explore different narratives.

    Island Rhapsody is configured after the travel program Listen! Taiwan Is Singing hosted by popular musician Chen Ming-Chang, who likes to travel and sing. In the show, Chen went around Taiwan to experience its regional cultures, and together with his friends, he would play his signature yueqin or guitar while they sang famous tunes from the places they visited. Ten of those songs were later selected for this collection. Each short comic comes with a QR code that links to the actual track, as well as printed lyrics and an introductory text and commentary by music critic Hung Fang-Yi.

    Appreciators of the collection may worry about its specificity to Taiwan, that despite all these materials providing context, other readers may still find this to be a barrier. Or, alternatively, that readers may not be able to accept this sort of “adaptation” or “translation” because of their musical taste. But even if one skips all the commentary and goes straight to the comics, one can still get pleasure out of it.

    The first volume starts with “If I Open My Heart’s Door” by Sen, told through the eyes of a female protagonist as she revisits the streets and her old home in her hometown. Like a metaphorical door to the heart, the story draws readers into its imaginary world. In a somewhat similar vein, the second volume finishes with GGDOG’s “Salt Ponds – The Home of the Black-faced Spoonbills”, which has the protagonist waking up in the summer heat of his room at the end. Although the “salt zone” of his dreams is reduced to a small, mundane complaint of daily life, there is a sense of lingering aftertaste savored by both the protagonist and the readers. Inexplicably, as if in a reverie, the beginning and the end of the collection connect despite showing vastly different artistic portrayals.

    Four of the ten comics are influenced by science fiction, while the other six take place in real life. As the stories intermingle, reality and fantasy become indistinguishable. If one were to insist upon a central theme, each story features a main character exploring their sense of belonging, whether permanent or temporary, to the places they reside as well as their careers and lives, which leads them to action or contemplation.

    Each of the stories exhibits the unique visual languages of their artists. Ding Pao-Yen uses short, urgent strokes and gray tones to portray a desolate city besieged by rain, while Tseng Yao-Ching adapts the regional festivity of the song “Miss So-Lan Wants to Get Married” into a modern-day vignette on the subtleties of human relationships. ROCKAT sets his story in the year 2040, when the traditional Lukang becomes a famous tourist spot under a Chinese Federation. Zuo Hsuan’s story of a young foley artist trying to find meaning in his career is heartwarming and inspiring, while Lo Ning depicts scenes from the countryside and opera performances in the rain to express the nostalgia of visiting one’s hometown. Cao Chian visualizes the physical and psychological struggles suffered by Beitou hostesses with thick, dark lines, while Peter Mann’s comic about the strife of women pursuing success is told as a lighthearted tale of parents and children working together. Mu Ke Ke narrates the meeting and separation of childhood friends, showing how loneliness comes to all regardless of age.

    In an interview, Alan Lee, editor-in-chief of the comics department of Gaea Books, said, “It would be too boring if these comics were complete adaptations of the lyrics, readers can just listen to the songs. The artists should also get to show their creativity, they’re not here to only illustrate the lyrics.” With this direction, the artists commissioned for this project only had to consider the number of spreads they were given and were otherwise given the freedom to work on their comics. Judging from their striking contributions, this approach has allowed them to come up with different narratives as well as ways to enliven the reading and listening experience – appreciators of the collection may come across pleasant surprises as they go through the songs and the comics.

  • Who Knew the Netherworld’s Bureaucracy Could Be This Adorable?
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Ebi is a Taiwanese comic artist who specializes in romantic comedy and has also created a line of stickers on the social media app Line featuring her cutesy cartoon alter-ego. She is perhaps best known for her romantic comic trilogy centered around an old apartment complex called “Sunshine Manor”. The cast of characters that inhabit the fictive world of Ebi’s Sunshine Manor all seem to encounter adversity – a beautiful college girl strives to succeed in life but is harmed by her own boyfriend, an enthusiastic young girl is teased for being short and chubby, a male comic artist is haunted by introversion and solitude – but ultimately, under the steady hand of Ebi’s prose, they all grow to find their own form of happiness.   

    By introducing elements of folk religion into the familiar romance trope of the “quarrelsome lovers”, My Forty-Nine Days with the Chenghuang presents a breakthrough in Ebi’s oeuvre. Scenes are set not just in the modern world, but also in the netherworld and in a past life of the protagonist, creating a much more complex and fantastical mise-en-scène than in Ebi’s previous works.

    The “Chenghuang” mentioned in the title is the Mandarin term for a god that protects over a city and, in this comic, refers to the male protagonist, Chang Liu-Sheng. In Taiwanese culture, Chenghuang temples serve as something like the city halls of the spirit-world, but due to the fact that Chenghuangs are in charge of punishing evil-doers, escorting the dead into the afterlife and exorcising demons, they often evince a stern and severe disposition. Subordinates that appear alongside the Chenghuang are often rendered with ferocious expressions meant to intimidate and deter evil ghosts and demons, and throughout Chenghuang Temples, aphorisms cautioning against evildoing line the sides of doorways. Given the severe and solemn atmosphere that these temples evoke, it would be highly unlikely for the average person to associate them with romance. Yet, in a move that will surely surprise and inspire curiosity in her readers, Ebi has chosen a Chenghuang as the protagonist in her latest romance.

    In many East Asian belief systems, the netherworld is thought to have an administrative system not unlike the bureaucratic organizations that govern the world of the living – the Chenghuang is just one small cog in the vast machinery of this system. Indeed, Chang Liu-Sheng, the Chenghuang depicted in My Forty-Nine days with the Chenghuang, is a fairly low-ranking official serving under the Grand Lord Chengchuang. (If we were to liken the Grand Lord Chenghuang to a city mayor, a Chenghuang would be more like a village ward.) Classical Chinese literature abounds with legends of the netherworld – Pu Song-ling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, for instance, satirized the corruption and injustice of Qing Dynasty bureaucracy with a collection of stories detailing the negligence of netherworld officials. Yet, compared with Pu’s depiction of netherworld bureaucracy, Ebi’s seems even truer to life: Teams led by different Chenghuangs compete and bicker and Old Lady Meng whose heady potion helps the departed forget the memories of their past life gets updated as a young stunner who seems to be engaging in extracurricular activities with the Grand Lord Chenghuang. Against this backdrop, it is not such a surprise, then, that the female protagonist Chen Chih-Yao’s love story begins with her mistaken entry into the netherworld.   

    Like many other tales of quarrelsome lovers, Chen Chih-Yao and Chang Liu-Sheng’s relationship is born out of conflict: When Chih-Yao finds herself inexplicably cast into the netherworld and realizes her time among the living is not yet up, she gets in an argument with Liu-Sheng’s subordinates “Heipai Wuchang”[1] who had mistakenly taken her in. Liu-Sheng is suspended after protecting his subordinates and, in a fit of anger, casts a spell on Chih-Yao that allows her to see ghosts in the world of the living. From a reader’s perspective with the benefit of hindsight, Liu-Sheng seems almost like a schoolboy who picks on the girl he has a secret crush on – it might have all just been a ploy to get closer to Chih-Yao. When Liu-Sheng returns to the world of the living, he finds an excuse to become the Chen’s houseguest and ensuing hauntings of the Chen’s home become the kindling that fuels Chih-Yao and Liu-Sheng’s budding romance.

    Yet, is marriage truly the ultimate expression of a loving relationship? In the opening scene of the comic in which Chih-Yao’s grandmother arranges a meeting for her with a prospective suitor, her total disinterest in marriage is already on full display. Knowing her grandmother is well-intentioned, she stops short of rejecting the whole arrangement outright and instead opts to scare away her potential suitor by arriving late, dirtying her clothes and deliberately making herself look less attractive. Halfway through the comic, we learn that Chih-Yao’s parents got a divorce, a traumatic memory that sheds a deeper light on Chih-Yao’s reluctance to participate in arranged meetings. In an interesting turn of events, as Chih-Yao’s relationship with Liu-Sheng evolves, she begins arranging meetings with suitors for her grandmother and even lends support to her friend who is going through a crisis in his marriage. Perhaps, Chen Chih-Yao’s indifference towards marriage is not entirely a product of deep-seeded fear, but rather a symptom of the importance she places on not acting in ways she’ll later regret. That is, marriage is one way that people can be happy together, but it is not the ultimate goal.

    Like many other love stories between the living and the dead, the conclusion to My Forty-Nine Days with the Chenghuang will inevitably leave readers feeling despondent. Ultimately, Liu-Sheng must return to his post as Chenghuang in the netherworld, just as Chih-Yao must eventually choke back Old Lady Meng’s heady brew to wipe her mind clean of any memory of the great beyond. In the final scenes, Liu-Sheng’s new outlook towards his past-life memories presages a possible change of fate: He had always remained in the netherworld serving as a Chenghuang due to his distaste for the brutality of the world of the living and his unwillingness to forget the kind deeds of benefactors in his past life, but what new life will await him now that he no longer despises the land of the living and prepares to drink Lady Meng’s brew and reincarnate?

    As for the novel’s conclusion, most readers were quite satisfied with how Ebi chose to bring the story to a close. Whether or not the protagonists ultimately do forget each other, characters like Heipai Wuchang, who turned into cute little dogs, the ravishing Lady Meng prancing along with her parasol, and the stylish Chenghuangs who managed to pull off ancient ceremonial robes and modern tailored suits with the same panache, will certainly live on in the memory of readers. This vibrant cast of characters has injected our conventional understanding of the underworld with new color and perspective.


    [1] Often rendered in English as “the black and white ghosts of impermanence”, Heipai Wuchang are two deities in Chinese folk religion that guide the deceased into the netherworld.

  • Stories Within Stories and the People Behind Them
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Jean Chen ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    I have loved Russian dolls ever since I was a child and how the process of nesting them inside one another is like an endless world that you can just keep extending again and again. I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of form, and at night if I ever had a dream within a dream, my senses all felt exceptionally real, so I’d wake up feeling satisfied up even if the dream within a dream had been scary or painful. There are a lot of films and novels where “the dreamer has a dream within a dream”, but I hadn’t expected to read a modern graphic novel from Taiwan that evoked a similar feeling.

    Of course, Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf isn’t a story about a dream within a dream or Russian doll, but it’s fascinating to see how one story after another is woven into the narrative. Even though this is BliSS’s first commercially published graphic novel, the overall narrative is comprehensive and mature with three-dimensional characters that are filled with emotional details. The highly skilled storytelling technique and smooth pacing of the frames help readers easily immerse themselves in the narrative which combines nuanced moments of both sadness and humor to stunning overall effect.

    Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf begins with Helena, a seven-year-old girl living in an orphanage who loves to read picture books and has just won an invitation to a book signing by her favorite graphic novelist. The author is Mr. Big Bad Wolf, whose books are always solitary and brutal. He also refuses to face his readers, and reluctantly appears wearing a wolf head and bluntly declines to take any questions about it. In a room full of adults, Helena is the youngest person and fearlessly raises her hand to ask, “Why do you wear a wolf’s head?”

    Yes, why indeed? The story starts to unfold as young orphan Helena brings the reader along and opens the first Russian doll. One of them is a grown man and the other is a young girl, but both characters carry deep wounds inside them and the scars from their rough lives are buried in the stories they tell and, then they heal each other as the book progresses. Both of them have a deep desire to tell stories, for Mr. Big Bad Wolf it’s The Scientist and the Giant and for Helena it’s Lara the Witch, but why did they start? And who are they telling the stories to? And why tell them in that way?

    I’ll spare you the spoilers here, so maybe instead I’ll talk about the story within the story. Helena, who has lost her parents, is living in an orphanage with her little brother Arthur and has loved telling him stories and reading picture books to him ever since she was small. She used to use stories to block out the sound of the adults arguing and there was a story that she read to him over and over again while she sat beside his hospital bed. That story was The Scientist and the Giant by Mr. Big Bad Wolf but Helena was still waiting for the end because Mr. Big Bad Wolf was going through a slump and couldn’t draw the rest of the story.

    In The Scientist and the Giant, a scientist comes across a lonely giant who lives underground, and the scientist tells him stories and shares what he’s seen of the earth which brings light to the giant’s world. It’s almost as if hurt people have a special ability to sniff out wounds. As a wounded child, Helena may have smelt the same thing and ran towards Mr. Big Bad Wolf in a time of great sadness and depression. However, she doesn’t understand what Mr. Big Bad Wolf calls a “slump”, and on the tram the two of them have this conversation:

    Helena: What is this slump you keep talking about?

    Mr. Big Bad Wolf: …It’s a state that makes you feel powerless, afraid, or even repulsed by something you originally loved and thought was important.

    Helena: That seems so scary.

    Mr. Big Bad Wolf: It is.

    During their brief conversation, Helena seems to suddenly understand and continues: “Ah so that’s what a slump is! It’s when something that was obviously very important to you suddenly feels awful, and you don’t want to be anywhere near it.…”

    I particularly love moments like these in graphic novels where I’m silently struck by the characters and their lines, and how they clearly feel a strong sense of empathy for each other even though they’ve had completely different experiences. I mean, who among us hasn’t had been through a slump? The story is about Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s pain, but what I really felt was the person behind the drawings. In those painful, lonely moments, Mr. Big Bad Wolf had to rely on his creativity to get him through. However, creating the work itself was also painful as he desperately wanted to tell a good story but had no way of doing so, and in the process, it was like seeing the shadow of Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s author grafting herself onto the story.

    There are also some small things in Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf that I found particularly interesting and have brought me great pleasure as a reader. Firstly, all the characters have English names, but I was really intrigued by how the surnames were set up. Helena’s surname is White, and Mr. Big Bad Wolf’s is Blake, and while I know it isn’t the same as Black, the pronunciation is similar! It seems like the author has deliberately used them to create a contrast between lightness and darkness. And after all, the author also called the doctor Rowan Brown and the teacher Melrose Green! (That might just be me overthinking it? XD)

    Another detail I really liked was the “book within a book” concept. This story has two protagonists – Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf – one is an adult and one is a child, one is male and the other is female, and both of them love to draw and tell stories. In the graphic novel, their own books also appear throughout the story which lets us see their respective personalities and projections of their characters. When I finished reading the book, I couldn’t help thinking, “I’d buy Lara and the Witch and The Scientist and the Giant if they were published!”

    Overall, Helena and Mr. Big Bad Wolf is a well-structured, smoothly narrated, and moving story that conveys universal values which can be felt by readers of all nationalities. Comprised of only two volumes, it is light while still being deep, which should make it well-suited for foreign rights sales. Finally, I just want to add that I really enjoyed the little four-panel strip in the appendix in which BliSS gives Helena’s friends at the orphanage their own little stories so that all the characters get a look in, which was very thoughtful of the author!

  • Heroic Adventures, “Boy’s Love”, and Cute Monsters?
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Weng Chi-An ∥ Translated by Roddy Flagg

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Take a team of intrepid adventurers, multiply by BL romance, add monsters both vicious and cute… it sounds like a formula for manga success. But what if that reliability brings its own risks. Perhaps the reader has just finished a similar work and will find the formula formulaic? Or maybe expectations continually ratchet up, meaning every story has to be bigger and better than the last?

    Formulas for success are helpful, but come with their own problems. Particularly so now, when genres are constantly subverted and mashed-up and the “guaranteed bestseller” formula of last century is now little more than a distant legend. So how to move on? One route is disruptive innovation. Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, for example, switches up the point of view, defying the reader’s “natural” expectations. Another option is to stick to what you know, but know it better. Rather than churn out another formulaic tale, identify the essence of the formula, the variables that attract readers, and put those back at the heart of the story.

    Gene’s The Shimmering Summoner takes the latter approach, and with great success.

    The story’s protagonist, Robin, is a summoner. Magic runs in his family: his father is a skilled mage. Robin, though, is a magical weakling. He tries to conjure up warriors and monsters, but gets only random useless objects. But he is not the type to let a lack of ability stand in the way of ambition and still dreams of becoming a supernova-level summoner and defeating a Demonic Dragon. But with his skills lagging so far behind his hopes, Robin spends most of his time boasting of achievements yet to come, while sponging off Bao, his loyal childhood friend. Bao, by the way, is a boy who loves to wear dresses.

    By a remarkable coincidence (or perhaps, given his failure rate, a statistical inevitability), Robin one day summons up Kai, a boy prince. Kai tricks Robin into visiting the Demonic Dragon’s castle and Robin, too proud to admit incompetence, fights the beast alongside Kai. It’s a one-sided fight, until Robin discovers his true powers. The dragon is defeated and Robin wins his supernova-level stripes. Victory reconciles Robin with his father and leads to a spark between him and Kai, who is now revealed to be no boy prince but a full-grown man prince.

    Robin’s new status brings a steady flow of up-and-coming challengers. To escape, Robin teams up with Kai and Bao and the trio sets off on a quest. During their travels Kai’s secret and Bao’s past come to light, while romance blossoms between Robin and Kai. Ultimately, the three face their final challenge.

    Gene’s characterizations reacquaint the reader with the essence of heroic manga: growing, moving past self-doubt, and finding yourself. True heroes don’t perform great feats, they self-affirm and self-accept. Those who accompany the heroes, meanwhile, lend more than skills with sword or staff. They provide friendship and support.

    The Shimmering Summoner features rich world-building, vivid characters, a fun and flowing story, but not one ounce of filler. Visually, there is plenty of detail with no loss of pace, easy switching between action and internal drama, and a range of terrifying monsters and cute little creatures. All this creates the charm of The Shimmering Summoner – an impressive achievement made to appear easy.

    Developing that ability has taken years. Gene is not professionally trained, but has built up over a decade of experience since she started producing self-published works in high school. She drew webtoons for Comico before beginning the hand-to-mouth existence of a young creative, publishing serials and entering competitions. In 2019, she took the Bronze Prize for manga in Japan’s MCPO Awards. In 2020 she walked away from the Kyoto International Manga Anime Awards with the Grand Prize in both the manga and illustration categories.

    Perhaps Gene too has been on her own adventure and the dazzling The Shimmering Summoner is, like those prizes were, steps on that journey? We’re sure to be seeing more extraordinary tales from this supernova-level artist.

  • Finding Peace in a World of Emptiness and Despair
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Weng Chi-An ∥ Translated by Joshua Dyer

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Sometimes you just open a comic for a quick glance, but in an instant, you know you’re done for. It’s not just a matter of sharply crafted characters, or the depth of the plot – you’ve stepped into an entirely new world.

    Being “done for”, naturally, is a good thing. You’re going to lose yourself in this comic. You’ll skip meals and lose sleep for it. You’ll keep coming back for more, devouring each twist in the plot, and savoring every detail of the world laid out before you, like you did when you first read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or when you were desperately waiting for the final installment of Nagano Mamoru’s The Five Star Stories. The main storylines of these works are unforgettable, of course, but it is the inconceivable act of creating the sense of an entire world that keeps us coming back for more, because our imagination is already off and running, envisioning all of the other stories this vast universe makes possible.

    For this reader, Buke’s Hell Parade is one of these wildly ambitious, and successful works of the imagination. I would say that its meticulously-wrought world stands among the greatest comic creations of Taiwan, except for the fact that I believe Hell Parade is on par even with the greatest manga from Japan, a nation renowned for numerous feats of astonishing world-building.

    In the distant future of Hell Parade, the technologies and energy sources employed today have all been replaced by magic. Legendary creatures like elves and orcs live alongside humans, and sorcerers are employed by the government as a mercenary police force to deal with monsters that infiltrate society through mysterious hell-gates. The story revolves around two young sorcerers, Eli and his partner Sophy, the daughter of a wealthy family. Eli, whose origins are far more mysterious, has a take-it-or-leave attitude towards their low-paid government contracts. When a hell-gate on the northern border acts up, he is sent to the front lines, and Eli’s past suddenly returns to haunt him, revealing a complex and sinister plot operating in the background.

    The full five-volume series of Hell Parade is the product of three years of dedicated effort, yet none of its nearly thousand pages feels superfluous. In an era where the Taiwan comics world is clamoring for original IP, Hell Parade seethes with a multitude of distinct personalities, original in appearance as well as temperament. Whether sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, witches – or even passersby in the street – each leaves a distinct and memorable impression. Buke smoothly strings together scenes that draw out a wide range of moods and emotions, from the endearing, to the fantastically strange, to out-and-out tearjerkers – the effects owing in large part to Buke’s ability to tell stories through her distinctively appealing line work. However, “telling stories” doesn’t really do justice to Hell Parade. The plot achieves its richness and complexity through a multitude of storylines which unfurl and intertwine with the intricacy of a finely wrought sculpture. The ability to juggle so many subplots is, of course, dependent on the complexity and scale of the universe Buke has created. The warp and weft of its many races, regions, cultures, and landscapes interlace to create something akin to the Bayeux Tapestry in its expansive vision of civilization and nature, a complex world that catalyzes the myriad interactions that constitute Hell Parade.

    Character, setting, and plot nestle into one another like Russian dolls, a structuring device that avoids reliance on familiar clichés, and empowers Buke’s originality to shine from Hell Parade with a uniquely dazzling appeal. The deeper purpose behind the battles of men and monsters, the political intrigues, and the ties that bind the major characters are only revealed layer by layer, until the protagonist himself passes through the depths of doubt, and realizes that while his “awful and ordinary” world isn’t worth saving, neither is it deserving of destruction. But where do we find our peace in the midst of despair and emptiness? Of course, this question is directed toward the imagined world of Hell Parade, but it equally applies to our current reality.

    There are no clear, simplistic answers in Hell Parade. Instead, it simply opens a space for deeper introspection. In the final chapters, even the nature of “Hell” itself is only explained in terms that will be mulled by readers for long after the book is finished.

    The five volumes of Hell Parade are complete. Buke’s work is done. But the vast expanse of the imagined universe she has created is so suggestive of further stories, that her fans are condemned to eternally hope for sequels and spinoffs from this masterful world-weaver.

  • Ding Pao-Yen’s Love Letter to Murakami Haruki
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Weng Chi-An ∥ Translated by Roddy Flagg

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Anyone who knows their zines and alternative manga in Taiwan will know the name Ding Pao-Yen. Ding Pao-Yen’s rise over the last decade, powered by a distinctive artistic style and a little darkness in the details, has made him one of the most-watched figures in Taiwan comic book. He self-publishes, but also features in a number of recent local comic book anthologies. He doesn’t just do comic books – he continues to produce illustrations and experiment with various forms of visual expression. His 2023 art book From the Dream Dimension documents his accomplishments during those wanderings between comic book and art.

    Console, 2073, published in late 2022 by Slowork Publishing, was something followers of his work recognized as new. It wasn’t just his first long-form piece – it was his first attempt at bringing his unique style to a mainstream audience after those years of self-publishing. His trademarks – harsh and explosive lines; anxiety and threats of violence lurking in the images – are still there, sometimes obviously, sometimes more subtly. But both narrative and composition have something more rarely seen from Ding Pao-Yen: a warmth, perhaps even a sweetness. Those two aspects could clash but in practice they balance each other, forming a fairy tale for modern times, a balm for every soul trapped between the real and the virtual.

    Console, 2073 is a virtual romance. By the titular year, humanity has mastered the mechanics of dreaming, allowing the creation of a hybrid Dream Reality. This causes a sensation and is integrated into a best-selling games console. But by the time our protagonist, J, comes on the scene, Dream Reality has been banned for over a decade. But hardcore fans such as J, a professional bug-hunter for gaming studios, track down those games, get them up and running, and then plug themselves in. One day, J finds a Dream Reality game, Doomsday Library, at a second-hand market. In the process of debugging and playing the game, he falls for Saya, a cute in-game barista. With her, he finds a happiness and peace which escape him in the real world.

    J becomes obsessed with the game; his feelings for Saya intensify. The boundary between Dream Reality and reality reality seems to fade. Each world bleeds into the other until he can’t be sure which is which. What is the point of the world? What role does Saya play? While finding the answers to those questions, J finds himself forced to make a choice: dream world or reality.

    The roomier long-form format allows Ding Pao-Yen’s superb storytelling skills to come into play, creating a charming tale of virtual-real confusion. There is more, though, to the piece: images and symbolism drawn from the work of Japanese author Murakami Haruki are to be found: in the artwork, in the plot, even in the characters. Console, 2073 is almost a love letter to Murakami, something only a loyal reader or follower could produce.

    This is not just a simple quoting of references. Murakami’s influence here is more profound. Ding Pao-Yen’s visual grammar is a response to that surreal style of Murakami’s, touching on something at the very core of the Japanese author’s work: the darkness that hides below normality’s surface, waiting to swallow us whole. Console, 2073 doesn’t just pay tribute to Murakami. It starts a conversation with him on what it means to be human.

    This is mainstream sci-fi manga which manages to stay true to itself. It is also a work which reflects the author’s thought processes over a long period of time and a dialogue of equals with a beloved author. More importantly, when we find reality difficult and virtuality empty, we can open Console, 2073 and know that we are not alone. There are others, too, who wander confused.

  • Savoring the Inconspicuous
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by Joel Martinsen

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Botany is an approachable subject for a popular science book. No irritating technological or economic issues, an academic background in math or physics isn’t a prerequisite, and you don’t need reference materials on hand to illuminate the unfamiliar science. Plants are our food, our neighbors, and our friends – and the most intimate of strangers. Perhaps the fact that audiences can easily find things of immediate relevance to their lives has led to a sustained output of translations of botany-related nature writing and popular science from publishers in Taiwan, as well as the attention local experts have received in recent years for books like Isle of Healing and The Odyssey of Taiwan’s Montane Plants that combine nature writing and botany.


    Arriving on this tide of interest in native plants is Plant Collectors’ Notebook, a graphic novel featuring plant collectors during the Japanese colonial period. Although the name might suggest this is a non-fiction guide, botanical information is actually only a supporting character in a plot motivated by the collectors’ troubled history, their social interactions, and their coming of age.


    The book’s three protagonists each carry wounds of their own, and as they work with their colleagues collecting plants and producing specimens, they gain new experiences of both plants and life.


    The main protagonist Hsu Liang-Shan is the only son of the proprietor of an herbal pharmacy. Distraught over the death of his younger sister to a heart ailment, he no longer believes in the efficacy of plants as medicine. But when he starts work at the Taipei Herbarium, not only does he recognize the value of his storehouse of herbal knowledge and realize that plants are useful in far more ways than he ever imagined, he starts coming to terms with the loss of his sister as well.


    Liang-Shan’s supervisor, the botanical research assistant Matsuo Haku, is swift and decisive at work. As the story progresses, the reader discovers the link between his self-sacrifice on the job and the sense of inferiority and worthlessness stemming from his frail constitution. What he doesn’t realize is that his enthusiasm for plants is a quiet inspiration to those around him.


    Joining the Herbarium team shortly after Liang-Shan is Wu-Tsao, an orphan raised in a village of mountain bandits. Illiterate but dexterous, she hopes that botanical knowledge will help her face the nightmare of being abandoned as a child. And whether it’s Liang-Shan helping her adapt to a new way of life, or Haku teaching her to read, she’s constantly making new discoveries.


    Concerning scientific nomenclature, Liang-Shan notes, “Whether or not a plant has been given a scientific name, its essential nature doesn’t change. It still grows naturally through the passage of the seasons, and still flowers at the appropriate time!” However, when a plant encounters a collector and is identified and named by a botanist, its fate may still be altered. When a collector searches for plants, they may also be searching for a place of their own within the sphere of botanical knowledge.


    With a collector’s day-to-day life revolving around plants, the graphic novel can’t avoid explanatory dialogue, but author Ejan strategically confines single-purpose descriptive content to two-page spreads that simplify complex topics into plain text. Taken together with the plot and art, the reader can gain a bit of knowledge without feeling like reading is a chore.


    Further reducing the burden on the reader, as well as ensuring consistency with historical and scientific facts, the author sought the assistance of botanists and historians in the outline phase. By the final draft, every branch and leaf of every plant in every panel was reviewed by experts – and possibly revised in response to feedback. In the chapter introducing Wu-Tsao, the bandits don’t just rob travelers; they grow poppies and refine opium in a hidden encampment. A simple decision of what plants the bandits would use for their criminal activity had to take into account what plausible during the Japanese colonial period. This represents significant effort on the author’s part, as well as time spent on verification by editors and botanical and historical advisors.


    Ejan says, “The name of a collector doesn’t go down in history like a botanist, but their work is the foundation for all further research.” Her collaboration with botanists and historians is itself a veiled tribute to that unacknowledged work. Perhaps that is something Plant Collectors’ Notebook has in common with readers: its protagonists silently support the work of botanical research – and plants silently support human life – in the same way that ordinary people like you and me contribute to the day-to-day operation of the world.

  • The Surprising Consistency of Youthful Anxieties Across Time
    Jan 16, 2024 / By Itzel Hsu ∥ Translated by William Ceurvels

    (This article is originally published at Readmoo)

    Yeh Hsing-chiao, the main character in The Banana Sprout, is attending school in a city far from home, but when the relatives he was staying with must leave town for work, Yeh is forced to move into the student dormitory halfway through the semester. Yeh’s first official meeting with his roommate, the infamous oddball Untaro, makes for one of the most jaw-dropping scenes in the entire book: As Yeh passes by the dormitory he delights at the cool relief of a gentle, misting rain, but only seconds later, alerted by the dorm matron’s litany of curses, he looks up just in time to see a curly-haired youth zipping back up his pants before candidly calling down: “My bad!” It is only then that Yeh comes to the belated realization that the gentle rain he’d delighted in was no rain at all….

    Yet, once they become roommates, Yeh quickly realizes that Untaro is not just some profligate libertine – his Japanese roommate’s room is filled with all kinds of books, both in Japanese and foreign languages. Indeed, he is such a voracious reader that even one of his teachers must confess to being less well-read. Untaro often skips class, but he spends most of his time immersed in independent study and has even mastered German, a language that remains elusive to Yeh. 

    Yeh’s diligence and strict obedience stand in stark relief to Untaro’s freewheeling personality. At first, Yeh’s oddball roommate is little more than a constant source of annoyance to him, but through their daily interactions and insights from a teacher, he finally realizes that Untaro’s impulsive behavior is a manifestation of the same uncertainty about the future that Yeh himself feels. After a heartfelt discussion, the two come to a conclusion: given that they both feel uncertain about the future, perhaps they can undertake some common cause to begin looking for the answers they seek. They decide to deploy their respective literary strengths in the making of a new, relatively open-minded literature journal that will offer a challenge to the strict conventionalism of the school journal Soaring Wind.   

    If the time period in which The Banana Sprout transpires was not clearly stated, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a modern, Japanese high school bildungsroman. Many hallmarks of the Japanese coming-of-age tales are present: two young, likable friends with polar-opposite personalities combine forces in pursuit of some ambitious objective – their enthusiasm and drive can be inspiring, their antics both galling and hilarious, and at times the realizations they come to as they grow can cast the reader into a melancholic gloom. Yet, once we learn when and where this novel takes places, it is hard not to marvel at the author, Zuo Hsuan’s talents; this charming and poignant story is the product of the author’s meticulous distillation of a vast amount of historical research. If not for Zuo Hsuan’s elegant reconjuring, even the average Taiwanese reader would find it difficult to imagine what life must have been like in Taihoku High School during the 1930s.  

    Taihoku High School was the predecessor to what is now National Taiwan Normal University. During Japanese rule, the school was a seven-year, all-boys, elite academy consisting of a four-year middle school and a three-year college preparatory program. The four-year middle school (called the “Basic Program”) accepted graduates of elementary schools, while the college preparatory program (called the “Advanced Program”) consisted of students that had graduated from the Basic Program and were automatically matriculated, as well as middle school students from other schools who tested into the program. Because graduates of the Taihoku High School could directly enroll in the Japanese Imperial Universities (the predecessors of Tokyo University, Kyoto University, and National Taiwan University) without taking entrance exams, competition among prospective students was fierce – of the 160 students admitted to the Advanced Program every year, less than thirty were Taiwanese, with the rest consisting of Japanese students. Regardless of their nationality, any student seen wearing the Taihoku High School uniform would likely have been regarded in the much the same way as the bookstore proprietress in the graphic novel saw them – as future doctors and influential politicians in the making.

    Interestingly, this academic “cream of the crop” was far from a bunch of nerdy bookworms – much like the banana leaves that wreathed their school crest, they were full of liveliness and exuberance. The lax campus regulations created the ultimate environment for students to engage in self-guided exploration. Not only were they allowed to pursue whatever academic interests and extracurricular activities they pleased, arming themselves with all the basic expertise any budding intellectual may need, they were also allowed the freedom to experience life unbound by restrictions. As such, some students affected a disheveled and slovenly appearance like Untaro, while others could be seen reveling in late night sessions of song and dance, beating on drums, locked arm-in-arm.… This bold and unrestrained campus culture likely blurred the ethnic lines between Japanese and Taiwanese. In an otherwise strictly regimented colonial society, this tiny campus became a rare oasis of freedom and liberalism. 

    The question is, will modern readers be able to relate to these youths of ninety years ago? In fact, this question did not even cross my mind while reading – I was carried off by the meticulous detail and clean precision of Zuo Hsuan’s prose, and became immersed in the eccentricities and surprising twists of Yeh and Untaro’s world. From a modern vantage, their mindset and behavior vary only slightly from that of today’s highschoolers or college students. The uncertainty they feel towards themselves, their peers and their new environment is entirely relatable to modern audiences. Perhaps, as the story develops further, we will see conflicts of race, gender, and agency which are more specific to that period, but prior to that I assume readers will have just one wish: to see more of these youngsters who, like the banana sprouts of their insignia, embody limitless potential.