By Kiat-Sing Teo
The world of Daxiong is entered through a portal in historically rich Harlem – an unlikely place, to the narrow-minded, for a self proclaimed Chinese artist in the United States to own an apartment. Clad in a deep purple collared shirt, Daxiong guided me through the lavender entrance hallway of his home/studio, and dismissed my quizzical expression at the over-infusion of violet shades from walls to bathroom slippers, by explaining that purple is the mistress’ favorite color. Then, as if on cue, Mrs. Daxiong, wide-eyed and fair-skinned, almost with an air of played down regality, appeared through the doorway with a tray of delicate rosebud tea.
Daxiong – the name, vaguely conjures an image of a likeable character, perhaps a little on the pudgy side (on account of the syllable ‘Da’), but every bit embracing and earnest (on account of the double vowels in the syllable ‘xiong’). Daxiong, the comic artist, or more accurately, in his own words “yìshù gōngzuò zhě” (“艺术工作者” roughly translates to Worker of Art), is as his name suggests, except, he also comes with a passion that pervades and rumbles deeply and quietly through the atmosphere threatening to erupt into a Hokusai tsunami, leaving no mistake that here is a man with complete grasp of his art, and the playing field of his comic world.
So is he truly a “comic artist” since he has worked on Superman and Doctor Light in Samurai (DC Comics, Justice League of America), Star Wars Adventures: Boba Fett and the Ship of Fear, over 100 published titles among others, and is currently illustrator for Star Wars: Adventures of Luke Skywalker and the Treasure of the Dragonsnakes? “That’s what they call me,” he responded, smiling, cheeky and bemused.
One of the most successful artists in Chinese and European comics, he has a string of accolades to his name; from first place at the Shanghai Animation & Comic Competition, to top honors at the prestigious 33rd Angoulême International Comics Festival. Yet still, it is difficult to pin down a definition, especially when the conversation is in Mandarin, and the term ‘manhua’ is used.
According to Daxiong, manhua has its roots in lianhuan hua – a series of comic-strip format pictures with words, often with heavy political connotations. To his own dismay, and also that of many in the generation of Chinese artists postcultural revolution, their works seem to convey the dearth of a cultural spirit/soul, a lament at the estrangement from a deeply rooted history, a sort of helplessness trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered civilization after a longdrawn- out battle, very much in the same tone as poetry of the Song Dynasty. In contrast, American comics tend to exult an optimistic spirit of justice, equality, and a superheroic quest to save the world. And so, the Chinese artist searches outside of his culture to nourish his art, or he could choose to look back on tradition and try to repair the broken links to history.
The latter is the reason Daxiong’s illustrations are chock-a-block rich with Chinese influences; its Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian philosophies. He is careful to point out that this is not contrived, but a by-product due to his own experiences, exposures and understanding of society. The constant negotiations between the illustrator, publisher and market demands, if anything, makes more demands on the so-called comic artist than his other artistic colleagues. Since the value of good comic is its accessibility to the masses, a higher degree of social savvy and understanding of its readers’ psyche is demanded from its artists. Comics convey through graphics and strips words to their barest essentials to transcend any language barrier.
What had been expected to be a journey into a fantasy world turned out more like a crash course on culture and art. Albeit, a fun one. Daxiong clears up the misunderstanding that comics is mere frivolity and fun – incidentally, a sense that does not exist in the Chinese term ‘manhua’ –, and gives us a glimpse to the richness behind illustrations.
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