White Terror Told through a Fairytale Journey in Search of Butterflies
By Weng Chi-An ∥ Translated by Jacqueline Leung
Jan 16, 2024

(This article is originally published at Readmoo)

Comics as “the ninth art” in Francophone culture is a discourse repopularized by BD Louvre, a 2003 exhibition of comics at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The concept was subsequently introduced to Taiwan by Dala Publishing Company and became prevalent in discussions about Taiwan comics. The “ninth art” status is mostly mentioned to elevate Taiwan comics, which has long been awarded little respect, as epitomized by the controversy of The Legacy of Chen Uen: Art, Life and Philosophy exhibition in 2018. All ostensible reasoning aside, the challenge of whether Chen Uen’s work deserves to be exhibited beside the “national treasures” of the National Palace Museum is a poor veil for the prejudice that disregards comics as great works of art.

Still, to use this saying as a sort of polite comeback diminishes its full implications. To define comics as an art form is to admit it to the “palace of art” where they can be collected, displayed, and appreciated. More importantly, it liberates the creative freedom that comics can offer to its artists. Like other art disciplines, comics is a form that comes with infinite possibility and does not need to be limited by the genre tropes or the graphic and language conventions of commercial comics. Artists should be given creative license to explore and discover, and rather than gratify the reader, they should center their artistry and confront the reader’s expectations on an intellectual and emotional level – like graphic novels, which have become prominent in Taiwan these several years. While there are different definitions as to what a graphic novel is, the general consensus is that it is not strictly commercial and is a form that expands visual storytelling. For this reason, graphic novels are also seen as an avenue for Taiwan comics, once deeply influenced by Japanese manga, to assert itself.

Sleeping Brain, published by Tōkhiu Books, is one of the most compelling new Taiwan comic and graphic novel titles that exhibits the qualities of “art”. Tōkhiu Books was founded by renowned Taiwan comic critic Wu Ping-Lu, who studied comic art and publishing in France and Belgium and is also an advocate for graphic novels in Taiwan. The release of Sleeping Brain was one she spared no expenses for. The design of the book, the selection of paper and printing – they were all of the highest quality. The book is like a fine art catalog, exquisite to touch and showing complete disregard to market practice or people’s expectations of how comics are to be published.

Sleeping Brain is also unique for its story and storytelling. Gong Wei-Hua, a second-generation immigrant entomologist from China, and Aramura Kiichi, a freelance Japanese photographer, venture into Taiwan’s woodlands in search of butterflies. They meet in a chance encounter deep in the mountains of Yilan. Kung wants to catch butterflies and turn them into specimens for his collection, while Aramura wants to take photos of the butterflies with his camera. Both characters have the rare Papilio maraho butterfly as their ultimate goal, despite their different motivations. They come across a mysterious girl who cannot speak but keeps a large collection of endangered butterflies among trees. In this dreamlike wilderness, the trio encounter phantoms from their past in the scintillating light and darkness of the present. Their entanglement in a series of pursuits and complications arising from the butterflies becomes what is ultimately an allegory of the White Terror in Taiwan.

KUCHiXO uses a highly imagistic approach for this book, which is rife with symbols and signs. The story is drawn in color pencil with a childlike sketching style to resemble illustrations for fairytale books. Changes in the color tone convey alterations in time and space, while colorful silhouettes depict the flight of the mysterious butterflies. It may seem like Sleeping Brain was made with a sense of freehand nonchalance, but every aspect of the book is meticulously designed, from its colors and illustrations to its storyboard and shading, and all of these aspects deserve attention and study. With how the story progresses, Sleeping Brains may read like a fantastical fairytale of an incredible journey in search of butterflies, but it is in fact an unflinching contemplation on Taiwan’s history. The characters and the butterflies are symbols of us living on this island with our complicated past, our embroiled present, and our unpredictable future.

Sleeping Brain may not be the easiest read with layers of symbolism that call for associative thought and interpretation. However, the book’s refusal to offer that unthinking “thrill” of commercial comics is what gives readers room to feel the story emotionally and reflect on it from an analytical point of view. These qualities are what make Sleeping Brain so impressive as it demonstrates what comics can achieve as works of art.