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

(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.