- Comics Art in China by John A. Lent and Xu Ying
It seems almost impossible to overestimate the role John A. Lent has played in pioneering academic research into the (at the time) under-investigated fields of comics and animation in Asia. Starting from (roughly) the mid 1990s, he has published several seminal articles and books that explore the previously uncharted territories of mainly China, India, and Southeast Asia.
Publications about animation and comics-history that adhere to scholarly standards have only started to emerge since the 1970s. Only after the [End Page 41] underground comics revolution of the late 1960s did comics start to be considered worthy of academic examination. Throughout the last two decades of the twentieth century, comics and animation have been increasingly recognized as serious art forms and media that are not tied to a genre or seen as "children's fare." Since the millennium, an entire academic generation, for whom comics always had been a fully accepted means of artistic expression, contributed significantly to the body of work.
Yet these publications largely focused on Western artists and works. There are many reasons for that—among them most certainly the language barrier. The major exception here is Japan—mainly due to the popularity of manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese animation). They have come to be seen not solely as a localized phenomenon, because both manga and anime have generated huge international successes—among many others the manga and anime by Katsuhiro Otomo and the films of Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) come to mind.
For animation, Giannalberto Bendazzi's groundbreaking Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (1995) expanded the scope of investigation beyond North American and British territories. John A. Lent continued and expanded this approach by focusing on Asia in Animation in Asia and the Pacific (2006). Notably, his work always went directly to the source: having lived and taught in Asia himself, he was able to interview the artists he was writing about. And he did this as an expert who deeply knew the creative practice of the media he researched. He also sought qualified input from local experts like the "grandfather of Malaysian animation" Hassan Muthalib. This collaboration came full circle with Lent coordinating a section in Bendazzi's 2015 "sequel" of Cartoons: Animation: A World History: Volume III: Contemporary Times—once again with the support of Muthalib.
Lent continues his research in his latest work Comics Art in China (co-authored with Xu Ying). The book aspires to no less than providing a historical overview of political cartooning, comics, and animation in mainland China (with the exception of occasional references excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan). Although shortly touching on earliest forms of "cartooning" in the region, the main focus of the book lies squarely on the time period from the late nineteenth century until recent years. During the last 15 years they "interviewed at least 121 comic art-related personnel in many cities of China" (Lent 2017, xi), including many major artists who have pioneered the art forms from the 1930s onwards. These interviews alone make the book a true academic treasure trove for any scholar interested in the field. In my opinion, it is essential to understand the creator's artistic intent and creative process in order to arrive at justifiable findings. Combined with a qualified exegesis of the work (s) at hand, arguably the best results can be achieved. Lent's book provides ample evidence for the success of this approach. [End Page 42]
Despite the undeniable excellence and depth of research, this reviewer seeks to express his (mild) concern about the taxonomy used throughout the book. The titular "comics art" alone seems to be lacking precision as it only refers to the medium of comics. It would not entail animation at all—although the Chinese history of the medium is covered in large parts of the book. In a similar fashion, the often-used term of "cartooning" is also lacking precision—as it is...