First came manga from Japan. Next came manhwa from Korea. Now, the latest arrival from Asia is manhua from China - and one of the leading creators of this small but fascinating group of artists is Benjamin, nee Zhang Bin.
Unlike his Japanese or American counterparts, Benjamin grew up creating comics in a world where comics publishing is tightly controlled by the Chinese government. While things have loosened up a bit in recent years, the government-run Chinese publishing companies are reluctant to publish stories that depict problems that young people in China are facing today. As a result, both Remember and Orange were first published in Europe before they were made available to readers in China.
Originally from Northern China, but now mostly living in Beijing, Benjamin has been making a splash in Europe thanks to the efforts of Patrick Abry, the publisher of Xiao Pan, a French company that specializes in discovering Chinese comics creators, as well as publishing and promoting Chinese manhua outside of China. TokyoPop has been introducing the Benjamin's artistry to North American audiences with their releases of Orange and Remember.
In Orange and Remember, Benjamin gives readers a glimpse into modern China through the eyes of some tormented teens. Orange delves into suicide, sexual promiscuity and alienation through the eyes of a teenage girl. Remember focuses on a comics creator who tries to overcome the numerous "can'ts" and "don'ts" he hears from publishers. These books delve into dark subjects, Benjamin illustrates these tales with rich, saturated colors and his unique, painterly style.
In February 2009, Chinese manhua artist Benjamin was TokyoPop's special guest at New York Comic-Con, where he wowed fans by drawing sketches with only florescent high-lighter markers. "Benjamin works in Painter and Photoshop, and he works very quickly," said Abry. "He can do a painting like this (holds up a poster of a full-color illustration) in about an hour."
Since NYCC '09, Benjamin's artwork has appeared in Marvel Comics, and Orange was selected by the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) for their Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Most recently, Benjamin was TokyoPop's special guest on a recent TokyoPop Insider webcast from France.
I met Benjamin at New York Comic-Con and chatted with him briefly. Perhaps it was due to the language barrier, but I found him to be a creator who's passionate about his craft, but a little cryptic when I asked him to explain his storytelling style. I also spoke with Abry to get more background on Xiao Pan's efforts to bring manhua to the international stage. Part 1 of this interview is my chat with Benjamin at NYCC '09. Part 2 is a transcript of his TokyoPop Insider chat held in February 2010.
PART 1: BENJAMIN GETS A 'MARVEL-OUS' NEW YORK WELCOME
Q: Welcome to New York Comic Con! Is this your first time at a American Comic convention?
Benjamin: It's very interesting. It's the first time I've seen an American comics show. There's Superman everywhere!
Q: Do you like Western comics?
Benjamin: I don't really understand it, but I like it.
Q: I understand you had a meeting with editors at Marvel Comics this morning. How did that go?
Benjamin: It went pretty well. I may be doing some work for them in the near future.
Q: Oh, very exciting! I'll look forward to seeing that.
NOTE: Benjamin's artwork for The New Mutants was previewed on Marvel.com in May 2009.
EARLY INFLUENCES, BRIGHT COLORS AND DARK STORIES
Q: So when did you decide that you wanted to be a comic book creator?
Benjamin: About twenty years ago.
Q: Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?
Benjamin:: It's a bit of both. When I was in school, I didn't have much time to learn about drawing and art, so a lot of it is just training myself, drawing by myself. In China, I also studied fashion design.
Q: In particular with Orange, it's a story where you're writing from a girl's point of view How did you get in touch with those feelings and experiences?
Benjamin: When I was in China, I learned a lot about young girls who were going through depression and that a lot of young people that wanted to commit suicide because they are depressed. I wanted to draw attention to this situation, and let people know about it.
Q: Why do you think teen girls are experiencing these kinds of feelings of depression, anger and desperation in modern day China?
Benjamin:: Some of these girls, they've grown up physically, but emotionally, they don't feel ready to enter society, and so they're very scared about it.
Q: Is this a recent development that's unique to China today?
Benjamin: When I went to France, I noticed the same kind of mood with teens there too. So it's not just something that happens in China.
Q: When Orange was published in China, how did your fans react to reading a story about a teenage girl who wanted to commit suicide? Did they tell you that reading your story made them feel a certain way or...?
Benjamin: Orange hasn't been published in China. I finished drawing that story five years ago and at that time the publishers were scared to publish it because it talked about really sensitive societal issues. They said that the Chinese Government might not like it. In the future they may publish it in China, but they first published it in France and they had a lot of good response to it there.
Q: But Remember was published in China, right?
Benjamin: It was a bestseller - it went to number one.
Q: Did you hear from readers about why they liked Remember so much?
Benjamin:: There was a lot of reactions to Remember when it first came out, but it was published five years ago, so I'm not very interested in it any more.
At the time, a lot of people did give me a lot of feedback, but mostly they only wanted to talk about my story on a very shallow level. A lot of readers just said, 'Oh, the male character is really handsome' or 'the girl characters are very pretty,' or the story is very moving. They didn't actually understand what I was trying to portray; that Chinese society won't allow young people to make their dreams come true.