Song, Yang. Wild Animals. Vol. 1. Trans. J. Gustave McBride. New York: Yen Press, 2008. Summary
: Who would have thought there would be youthful ennui during the darkest days of China’s Cultural Revolution? Well, apparently there was, and sixteen year old Ma Xiaojun searches for meaning by hanging out with street gangs and breaking into other peoples’ houses. In one of those houses, he sees a photograph of a beautiful young woman named Mi Lan. Entranced, he becomes obsessed with her and, when he finally meets her in person, begs her to be his big sister. She agrees but remains inscrutable, and Xiaojun becomes ever more and more desperate to prove his manhood to her. Unfortunately, introducing her to his delinquent friends may turn out to be the beginning of the end of his dreams of romance… Comments
: The first page of the first volume of Song Yang’s Wild Animals
begins with the following two sentences: “When I was very young, I left the place of my birth to come to this large city, and I’ve never left. Now it is my birthplace.” As it turns out, everything that this Chinese comic has to offer can be distilled into these two sentences, and whether you consider them captivating or cringe-worthy will likely be a good indication as to how you are going to feel about the title as a whole. Is the “place of birth”-“birthplace” dichotomy supposed to imply Deep Meanings about Ma Xiaojun’s formative experiences in the big city? Or is it just a workman-like, inelegant translation of a printed pile of pretentious claptrap?
The reviewer, for the record, is inclined toward the latter interpretation. In his introduction, the creator states that he intended to draw a comic that reflects “the spirit that is unique and particular to Chinese culture.” It’s an ambitious project, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he clearly does not have the skill to realize it. And so like many an artist before him who has bitten off more than he can chew, he produces a work that just does not make much sense—in the hopes, of course, that you will get confused and assume that the fault lies with you and your failure to understand something smarter than you. Do not fall for it; Song Yang is the one who failed.
The first—and perhaps most telling—failure is the artwork. Heavily indebted to the asymmetrical frames and cinematic angles of Japanese manga, there is nothing particularly innovative happening in the illustrations. Some common manga conventions such as sweat drops, speed lines, and stylized popping veins (to symbolize anger) are utilized uncritically. Even though this is supposed to be a realistic story, the characters’ faces only rarely look Asian and detailed backgrounds (which would remind us that this is the China of the Cultural Revolution) are few and far between. An unequivocal visual offense, however, is Song Yang’s horrid action scenes. Ma Xiaojun gets into a couple of fights, and one long one in the latter half of the volume is entirely unintelligible; it is near impossible to tell even who is hitting whom.
As for the storyline itself, it is, at best, laborious. Written from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood, it keeps hinting at profundity waiting just around the corner. To that end, the reader compensated with nothing “base,” not even comic relief. But given that critical social commentary is highly restricted in Communist China, the plot is actually just nauseatingly selfish and self-absorbed. A guy is obsessing over a girl, but he has no outlet for his desire. Is any more explanation really required? Is reading about a maturing Xiaojun’s pent up sexual frustrations really supposed to be entertaining, let alone a life-clarifying experience for the reader? Are we given any reason to give a damn about him? No, on all three counts. In this, the author has misjudged. If the personal is political, then the political has been buried so deep beneath the stifling, joyless personal it probably asphyxiated back when Mao Zedong was still alive.
And alas, Yen Press’s English clunky, over-literal translation from the original Chinese takes us straight, no stop-overs, from laborious to nigh unbearable. The language of youth ought to zip and zig-zag with the mellifluous phrases of those on the cutting edge of culture. Instead, the prose creaks and groans…and, in places, outright stumbles. Why, for example, should one of Xiaojun’s monologues say that he “slept like a girl” when, as a footnote kindly informs us, that just means that he “slept like a log” or “like a baby”…? To what end does such burdensome translation serve? This is not some textbook translation of some obscure piece of 14th century Chinese literature! All in all, Wild Animals
evinces questionable editorial judgment, and a title that was already going to attract only a small niche audience will see its potential reach even further limited.
Of course, this is only volume one, and it ends on a big cliffhanger that will likely turn into a big downward spiral for Xiaojun. Wild Animals
still has time to redeem itself in the second and concluding volume. At the very least, it certainly has plenty of room for improvement! Rating
- Stupid comics that try too hard to be smart tend to be stulifyingly dull. This is one of those.