Nick Stember, a translator and historian in the field of Chinese comic books has been working closely with the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan and the Grayhawk Agency on the Books from Taiwan project. He has been translating excerpts from notable Taiwanese comics and hopes to catch a publisher’s interest.
Stember will be delivering his talk Telling Tales: Tradition and Historiography in Taiwanese Comics on Oct. 27 at SFU Harbor Centre.
The definition of the term “comics” in the context of China is complex and rich in history. It varies from continuous art sequences to traditional ink paintings or satirical drawings.
“There’s obviously a long history of sequential art in China, with things like the Buddhist cave paintings at Dunhuang, completed during the Tang dynasty, or the many illustrated novels that have survived from the Ming,” says Stember. “Even traditional Chinese ink paintings often tell a story, to paraphrase one of my mentors, a fisherman is never just a fisherman. But more narrowly defined, comics as topical (often satirical) drawings arrived in China 150 years ago, with the opium wars,” he adds.
According to Stember, the earliest Chinese comic strips date back to the late 1920s, when lianhuanhua, or “linked picture books” started to appear.
The art styles expressed in those comics changed through time, says Stember. Chinese cartoonists in the 1920s and 30s based their work on the art styles seen in magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair.
During the Mao Zedong years, comic books suffered a reversal, especially on the mainland.
“In mainland China, Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, who spearheaded the cultural organs during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), also famously disliked comics and animated films with talking animals, so those mostly disappear around this time too. Everything gets very mimetic, very political. In Taiwan, though, even though the country was still technically at war with the mainland, things weren’t nearly as bad with censorship, so there was tons of pulp stuff being produced. This was also true in Hong Kong, where wuxia comics were particularly successful,” he says.
In 1978, there was a surge of various comics in China such as Star Wars, Ninja Turtles and The Man from Atlantis.
“Artistically, the 1980s are a really interesting time in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], because artists were getting influenced by all kinds of things, and seem to have been more willing to experiment,” says Stember. “There was also this golden moment that happened before people could afford TVs or going to the movie theatre, which meant that they read comics instead.”
Lianhuanhua, also known as xiaorenshu, or “kids’ books,” in the form of superhero comics or graphic novels, have adapted similar art styles seen in popular operas and novels, which reach the closest definition of modern day comics, says Stember.
The difference between Chinese art style in comics compared to its Western counterpart is hard to distinguish, says Stember.
“Definitely nowadays artists borrow a lot from manga and anime, so much so that it can be hard to tell where a comic was made without knowing who drew it,” he says. “The manga style of enormous eyes and pointed chins and everything else has really taken over in Asia. But earlier political cartoons borrowed more from the West than the East.”
There haven’t been many Taiwanese comics translated into English to date, says Stember.
“So far we’ve had some success in France, and I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to build on this success in other language markets as well. You can actually read all of the samples I’ve translated online by going to the official website for the project,” he says.
Talking about his work in Chinese comics, Stember says that the comics came first, then the Chinese language much later.
“I’ve been a comics fan since I was a kid, mostly for the art,“ says Stember. “[…]I somehow ended up double majoring in computer science and Chinese, and eventually just Chinese.”