As in many other parts of the world, comics were a popular form of creative expression in China in the early 20th century. In particular, the small, handheld lianhuanhua format took root in the country in the 1920s, and thrived even during the first few decades of the PRC, until eventually fading out in the ‘90s, presumably superseded by newer forms of mass media.
Nevertheless, a thriving underground comics scene continues in China today, and translating its output to the English-speaking world is the mission of Paradise Systems, a New York-based publisher founded by translator R. Orion Martin. Actually, that’s half the mission — Paradise Systems aims to facilitate the flow in several directions, promoting Chinese comics to English-language readers and throughout the Chinese overseas diaspora, while at the same time introducing kindred American comics artists into China.
So far, Paradise Systems has six titles under its belt, including two in a series of contemporary lianhuanhua. Its seventh, for Xiang Yata, is due out soon. Ahead of that I spoke to Orion about his goal of bringing “weird, sincere, experimental storytelling” from China to the US, and vice versa.
RADII: Who all is behind Paradise Systems? Why was it founded?
R. Orion Martin: I began Paradise Systems in order to give a platform to the outstanding work coming from the Chinese comics community. I’m the only person who works on Paradise Systems full time, but it’s a team effort with many friends pitching in on design, translation, editing, and distribution work. And of course, it would be impossible to publish these terrific comics if the artists weren’t making them.
Why the specific focus on US and Chinese comics? Are Chinese comics something you’ve followed for a long time?
For the past six years, I have been working as a Chinese translator. I spent three years living in China, and during that time I began to follow the independent comics community there. I was impressed by the quality and variety of work that is being produced. Many cartoonists, including Yan Cong and Ganmu, have been active for decades, self-publishing their work and exhibiting internationally. I began to think about how I could help get the word out.
Ganmu – You Lied
Certain kinds of Japanese comics (eg manga) have been circulating in Western culture for decades now, and enjoy widespread mainstream recognition. Can you talk a bit about the history of comics in China? I’m ignorant on this topic, but I’d imagine that there wasn’t much room for the development of a comics tradition or industry during the Mao years… You do, however, publish a series of contemporary lianhuanhua, small books of drawings that were popular in China in the early 20th century. How do comics artists today connect to these or older traditions?
Compared to Japan, China has a more fractured history of comics making. Today, for example, there are significant barriers to independent publishing and distribution in China. It is technically illegal to sell independently published works.
Lianhuanhua Image from “Arrest of the Orchid”
But historically, comics have been wildly popular in China. Lianhuanhua were a form of Chinese pulp comics that were a staple of Chinese print culture throughout the 20th century. They first appear in the 1920s, and then remain popular during the Communist era (Mao himself advocated using lianhuanhua as a tool to promote literacy). In the 1980s, there was a tremendous boom in lianhuanhua production, with 8.1 billion comics printed in 1985.
The lianhuanhua industry collapsed in the 1990s, and has now been largely forgotten, though some publishing houses continue to put out comics in a lianhuanhua style. Paradise Systems publishes a series of books that call back to the dimensions and format of lianhuanhua. We’ve published two so far, and I should stress that these books are distinctly contemporary works that abandon some of the stylistic formalities of lianhuanhua.
Migraine, a contemporary lianhuanhua by Woshibai
Are there any aesthetic or thematic similarities that connect the Chinese artists you publish? What about the American artists?
I’m interested in books that unite the two defining aspects of comics: stories and illustrations. Each book that Paradise Systems has published features some of the more reality-bending features of hand drawn illustrations, whether that’s a main character who can pull cute animals out of her cell phone screen in Gantea’s Two Stories, or a world in which tangled vines might swallow one whole, as in Ganmu’s You Lied.
Paradise Systems’ mission extends beyond bringing works from China to the United States. It’s our goal to build more connections between artists and readers in both countries and throughout the Chinese diaspora. So while we are translating works from China, we also promote groundbreaking works from the US to Chinese audiences.
Gantea – Two Stories
Besides publication and distribution, what else have you done to promote the artists you work with or the mission of Paradise Systems?
In addition to attending fairs like New York Art Book Fair, we’ve held a few events in New York. At a recent panel discussion at Printed Matter, we brought three accomplished Chinese illustrators, Jun Cen, Lisk Feng, and Woshibai, together to talk about their work and about the Chinese comics scene in general. Recently, we’ve been working with Latvian publisher kuš! on a series of books by Chinese cartoonists.
Your mission statement places an emphasis on “weird, sincere, experimental storytelling.” Can you give some examples of the weirder or more experimental titles you’ve published?
One of the greatest strengths of comics as a medium is that one person can craft all aspects of it, creating something deeply personal. Keeping that in mind, I think each of the titles we’ve published showcases the unique worldview of the author. For Gantea, that means pairing her cute, stylized characters with moments of heartbreak or wonder. For Woshibai, it’s a detached, almost philosophical interpretation of his childhood. These works are moving because they’re intimate and honest to the creator’s experiences.
Yan Cong – Cry
Your latest book is for Yan Cong, whom you call “a pioneering figure in the independent comics community in China.” In what way is he a pioneer? Can you give a brief description of the new book, Cry, and how it fits into your overall mission?
Yan Cong is a legend in the Chinese comics community. In addition to authoring several volumes of superb comics, he has edited the work of other cartoonists in the community. He was an editor of Special Comix (SC漫画) and started his own long–running anthology, Narrative Addiction (叙事癖). Yan Cong’s work is heavily influenced by European cartoonists, and this transnational connection has been very important in bridging the divide between disparate communities of cartoonists.
What are you working on next?
We will soon be releasing a new book by Xiang Yata. Her comic, Captivity, is rendered with absolutely gorgeous linework. It is a showcase of her experimental approach to layout and narrative, and I’m extremely excited about how the English edition is shaping up.
Browse all Paradise Systems titles on their website, and follow them on Twitter/IG/Tumblr for more regular updates
Cover image:Bu Er Miao – Electrocat & Lightning Dog; All images courtesy Paradise Systems / R. Orion Martin
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