For many years, scholars attempted to find evidence of clouded leopards surviving in Taiwan, but no matter how many forest paths they stalked, no trace of the creature was ever found. Thus, in spring of 2015, a Taiwanese ecologist’s article in Oryx Conservation Journal declared the Formosan clouded leopard extinct. Nonetheless, historical records, the folk songs of the Rukai people, and even specimens from the hoards of Paiwan tribal chiefs unequivocally declare that the clouded leopard once roamed Taiwan’s high-mountain forests.
What was Taiwan like before the disappearance of the last clouded leopard? In his latest graphic novel Beast of Clouds: The Guardian of Ancient Times, artist Hambuck has attempted to re-envision the life of the clouded leopard. The four chapters of the book cover the leopard’s battle for survival in the primeval forests, the establishment of the first human villages in the mountains, the impact of societal advancement on the natural world, and finally the leopard’s transformation into the spiritual protector of a natural history museum. Throughout the book, Hambuck displays a firm grasp of the interactions between humanity and the natural world and deftly weaves them into his narrative.
The concept for the graphic novel has its origins in the National Taiwan Museum. Museum director Hung Shih-Yu had been searching for new ways to creatively utilize the museum’s resources for community outreach across a range of media, with the goal of more effectively presenting the museum’s collections and research to the public. Founded during the Japanese colonial period, the National Taiwan Museum began as a natural history museum dedicated to the fields of botany, zoology, geology, and anthropology. As such, Director Hung feels the museum bears a great responsibility to address the many issues impacting the natural world.
Hung is also quick to point out that the museum is but one of 25,000 in the world, and that museum visitors have decreased dramatically in recent years due to competition from digital media, to say nothing of the impact of the pandemic. “At International Museum Day the question was raised, how do we use new media and methods to get people back into museums? We’ve been trying out multidisciplinary approaches such as graphic novels to represent the immense diversity of life, and help people better appreciate rare and endangered animals.”
In keeping with these goals, the National Taiwan Museum, in collaboration with Gaea Books, invited comic book artist Hambuck to produce a graphic novel on the subject of the Formosan clouded leopard. The combined background research, writing, and illustration took Hambuck one year to complete, with the museum operating in a supervisory role to “professionally approve” every spot on every leopard. “Nearly every drawing underwent some kind of adjustment,” Hambuck remarked, “altering a spot to make it more hooked, or changing the distribution of spots…” At the beginning Hambuck didn’t know that leopards have patterns of spots on their bellies as well, only adding them after being informed by museum staff.
Beast of Clouds follows multiple generations of clouded leopards living in the mountain forests of Taiwan, noting the unique challenges faced by each generation. The stories of these anthropomorphic leopards help make complex issues more easily understood, whether it be extinction, the relationship of humanity and the natural world, or the tension between the advancement of human society and the exploitation of resources. In addition to the ever-present clouded leopard, the character of Muni, a native shamaness, also serves to connect the stories, cleverly illustrating themes of the affectionate bonds between humans and animals, and the appreciation of cultural heritage.
As the project was getting underway, Hambuck and his editor were allowed to visit the museum’s storerooms, not normally open to the public. There, they could closely examine specimens of the Formosan clouded leopard to learn more about its physiology, appearance, and behavior. Hambuck recalled the sense of curiosity that filled him as he gazed at one specimen: “Although it was just a preserved specimen in a museum, it made me think about all of the things this animal must have experienced in life. It had its own family, going back generation after generation. And eventually, after many years, it made its way into the museum’s collection.”
These musings quickly became the foundation of the plot. “I imagined four stories. First, the leopard in its natural habitat, then the leopard’s early interactions with humans, then an encounter between a museum scholar and the leopard, and finally a special relationship between the leopard spirit and the museum.” A flood of ideas came out of viewing that single specimen. “I really wanted to know all the roads that individual travelled to end up here in the museum’s collection.” In the story, the shamaness Muni has the ability to see the future, and if she is in close proximity to the leopard, her ability is magnified. But this means that ultimately she is able to see the destruction of the forest, and the extinction of the leopard on Taiwan.
However, the clouded leopard lives on as the guardian spirit of the museum. At night, the specimens all come to life, and under the guidance of the leopard, they make contact with a museum curator, I-jou, who has the ability to see the spirits of animals. The most moving scene appears in the last story when another character tells I-jou, “If you speak poorly of her (indicating I-jou herself), I will be very angry.” Hearing these words, I-jou breaks down crying. Hambuck recalls that while storyboarding the scene he also began to cry. There, under the faint yellow lights of the café where he works, he cried with I-jou for some time.
“I felt like that line was for myself to hear. It was also as if the character was there to speak to everyone. Don’t you feel that people are too hard on themselves? That we often reserve our harshest words for ourselves? I thought of speaking those words to my wife, and to myself, and I was quite moved. I wanted to tell everyone in the world, ‘You’ve already worked so hard. Why not go a little easier on yourself?’ There is already enough suffering in the world. So why not let ourselves off the hook, and start treating ourselves better?”
With warmth, humor, touches of action, and stirring emotion, Beast of Clouds effortlessly carries readers on a journey to a magical place. In order to better suit the atmosphere of the work, Hambuck chose to use pencils as his primary medium. “I needed to draw scenes from nature and patterned fur. If I had used the same techniques I’ve used in the past, there would have been sharp distinctions between black and white. I wanted something softer, fuzzier.” After experimenting with pencil, he decided it would be the most suitable medium. “It’s also a very fast to work in pencil. It was a real joy to draw!”
There were unique challenges to creating a fictional work that nonetheless has a strong basis in reality. Laughing, Hambuck describes his initial plan for the graphic novel: “The narration was full-on Discovery Channel!” But even the scholars at the museum had trouble accepting it. “When you’re trying to shake up the traditional ways of doing things, there is a lot of back and forth.” Hung also laughed, describing his role a bridge between the artist and the museum researchers. “If it was too straightforward, too academic, it would never attract a readership. After a lot of discussion, we agreed that there were some things about the clouded leopard and native culture that could not be altered. But when it came to the plot and the development of the story, we hoped the Hambuck would freely exercise his creativity.”
Hung is delighted with the result. “Hambuck brought in so many creative ideas. The clouded leopards he drew are very appealing. They have a lot of humanity in them, which helps to erase the general impression that they were these fierce and terrifying creatures. The most moving parts of the story are the interactions between the leopards and the human characters. I really love this part.”
Ecologically speaking, the clouded leopard is already extinct in Taiwan, but the National Taiwan Museum retains seven preserved specimens in their collection, documenting the full lifespan of the leopard from fetus, to juvenile, to near adult, to fully grown adult. The fetal specimen is likely to be the only one of its kind in the world. The museum has ranked the specimens as part of its first-tier collection, meaning they are among the most important artifacts in the collection, and are placed on permanent display on the third floor of the museum. The ecological diversity of our planet may be under threat, but the museum is planning to map the genome of its specimens to provide undeniable proof of these unique creatures that once roamed the high mountain forests of Taiwan.