Shanghai illustrator Xie Peng’s new graphic novel is a doleful tale, centred on the frustrations of a nameless cone-headed child who grapples with his own existence. The book, co-authored by writer and filmmaker Duncan Jepson, has received widespread critical acclaim. But Xie never set out to create an artistic masterpiece.
A computer games animator by trade, he worked in private for six years, in fits and starts, furiously sketching his responses to boredom at work, falling in love, jealousy and general life experiences in Shanghai. ‘The purpose of my creation was self-therapy,’ says Xie. ‘When I feel stressed, I find that writing helps me cope. I use a symbolic approach, but I believe that people with similar experiences will understand.’ The result is a beautifully presented expression of the pressures of growing up in modern China: the gruelling competition, urban isolation, loneliness and hyper materialism.
Xie’s drawings don’t look traditionally Chinese. The haunting dystopian cityscapes are more evocative of Bob Kane’s 1940s sketches of Gotham City. Yet Xie claims his biggest influence comes from German expressionists. ‘My pursuit of the visual effects is similar to expressionist painters hundreds of years ago – Max Beckmann, Anselm Kiefer, Frank Auerbach – and also cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger,’ he explains. ‘Perhaps it’s because China is facing a dramatic social transformation similar to Europe 100 years ago.’
Given the oblique nature of Xie’s art, Jepson, author of All the Flowers in Shanghai, was asked to narrate the story, particularly to aid western readers. ‘It came to me in dribs,’ he says. ‘I started in October last year and finished it at the beginning of the summer. He sent in these 20 [panels], maybe more – they were in their chapter form. They would begin and they would end with a question. The questions would be something like, ‘Are you ready to die? Is life too long?’ From a westerner’s perspective I thought, “Well, I don’t know if these questions will work” – there were no words at all. To me it was a bit undeveloped – I thought of it as something much bigger,’ says Jepson, who spoke to Xie via email only twice throughout the entire narration process.
Despite the critical acclaim, Xie remains unconvinced he’ll enjoy commercial success. ‘My comics have a small audience, and I understand why. Many Chinese readers are in more despair than me. They need spiritual escape and self anaesthesia – they do not want to read a sad story.’
Darkness Outside the Night is out now for Dhs30, available at www.itunes.apple.com.