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 lacking a clear definition. It can refer to (printed) political cartoons, comic strips, and even traditional hand-drawn animation (see Becker and Goldberg 1959). To his credit, Lent is fully aware of this ambiguity and he ably demonstrates his knowledge of the precise terms in his preface (ibid, xii):
In these pages "comic art" is an all encompassing term. (…) "cartoons" normally refer to political and social commentary drawings, "comic strips" are sole or multiple panels used in newspapers to tell a humorous episode or continue a serialized story, "comic books" and "xinmanhua" are periodicals with a number of stories that can be serialized or completed in one issue; "lianmanhua" are palm-size books than usually tell one story with one image per page; "animation" consists of filmed cartoons using movement and sound; and "caricature" means a likeness of an individual that is highly exaggerated.
Having demonstrated his high competence with this able explanation, Lent does not go further in explaining his reasons for seeking an all-encompassing term for a variety of clearly distinguishable art forms. There is also the slight but crucial difference between the titular "comics art" and the term "comic art" used throughout the book.
As reviewer, I see the redeeming feature in this (proportionally) minor quibble as the aim of Lent to create a connective thread throughout the whole of the book: a focusing on the social and political contexts that a term like "comic art" implies by hinting at satire, parody, and exaggeration. Contextualizing political cartoons, comics (or manhua) within a larger political and cultural framework is one of the major strengths of the book. The chapters about cartoons during wartime and liberation/Maoist campaigns (chapters 3 and 4) clearly stand out in their masterful linking of the personal to the political. The authors excel in unearthing connections and interdependencies previously unknown to the reviewer.
For example, the reader learns that the famous animation director Te Wei (1915–2000) began his career as a cartoonist (in the sense of Lent's definition)—working for humor magazines from 1933 (p. 53). He later joined the National Salvation Propaganda Corps to support China's war efforts against Japan, still working in print before going on to head the Shanghai Film Studio from 1949 to 1988 (ibid). Such cross-media careers (transitioning from print to screen media) also support Lent's concept of approaching the subject with the all-enveloping term "comic art"—and reveal the thought behind it. [End Page 43]
Equally important are revelations about the influences of Western and Japanese artists on the stylistic developments in manhua. On pages 40–41 Lent and Xu Ying provide a fascinating insight into how these inspirations contributed to shape Chinese comics and political cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s onward.
Such information also adds significant new arguments to the academic debate about appropriation: It clearly refutes simplifying notions of Western countries "stealing" from Asian cultures by providing evidence for a vivid artistic exchange between cultures instead. This exchange often enabled innovation and evolution of comics and animation in the first place—on a global scale.
Chapter 5 continues the story by focusing on manhua from 1976 onwards—following on from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. One could argue that the last chapter in the book, focusing on animation, could easily necessitate a book (or multiple tomes) of its own. But it does work in the bigger framework of socio-political contextualization and brings the story (almost) up to the present.
With the depth and richness provided in scholarly research, one would wish for more images to accompany the text. The image quality also occasionally leaves something to be desired. In some cases this is understandable due to the age of the artifacts, in other cases greater efforts might have been feasible. Moreover it would have benefitted the text a lot to be more often linked to clearly corresponding illustrations—highlighting points, personal and (most importantly) art mentioned. The reviewer is well aware of the difficulties of obtaining publishing permissions from multiple sources and bygone eras. Therefore he acknowledges the limitations this imposes. In relation to the otherwise grand achievement of the book this remains a minor concern. Yet, should the reader be looking for a work with a focus on the visual and images in superb reproduction quality, I strongly recommend Paul Gravett's excellent book Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics (2016). This would make an excellent complementary piece, as it also provides context on the greater region. A book solely focusing on Chinese animation is Rolf Giesen's 2015 publication Chinese Animation: A History and Filmography, 1922–2012. It is of little surprise that John A. Lent is also acknowledged as a contributor to this book. It is of further note that Lent himself also published the book Asian Comics in 2017 that also could be considered a companion piece to the volume at hand.
In summary, Comics Art in China is most impressive in its sheer scope and depth of scholarly research encompassing many decades. The abundance of first-hand information received through interviews with major artists leads to major discoveries and new insights into a field that still stands as (comparatively) under-researched. The book is competently written and [End Page 44] adheres to rigorous academic standards. The addition of various appendices including notes, a bibliography, and a tremendously helpful index make it even more valuable for the serious scholar. Truly Comics Art in China is definitely a "must-have" for every academic, student, practitioner, or enthusiast interested in the topic.
Hannes Rall is an associate professor for animation at Nanyang Technological University Singapore and an independent animation director. His research and artistic work is focused on exploring adaptations of classic literature for animation and most recently on animated documentary and expanded animation.