Essays

Naked and Famous4 min read

A comics anthology brings the birthday suits – Nick Stember

While the ongoing war of the words between the panicking, pusillanimous Pussy-Grabber in Chief and a certain belligerent billionaire has delivered no shortage of choice headlines (‘BEZOS EXPOSES PECKER’; ‘BEZOS COULD SUE THE PANTS OFF THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER’), I would be remiss not to point out the fortuitously-timed forthcoming publication of Naked Body: An Anthology of Underground Chinese Comics (although, because I can’t help myself: ‘JEFF BEZOS GOES HARD…’).

In just under two weeks, Orion Martin’s Paradise Systems, in collaboration with original publisher Yan Cong and Hong Kong cartoonist Jason Li, has raised $12,570 USD and counting (of an original $8,000 USD goal) in preorders and bonus pledges on Kickstarter – bringing some much-needed attention to this small press publisher of translated underground Chinese comics, while also earning it a place in the annals of Chinese folks going au naturel to prove a point.

Naked Body truly is a work of art. From WangXX’s short but sweet ode to body fuzz (‘Hair’ 毛), to Leng Zhiwen’s 冷志文 colorful football foot-fetish fantasy (‘Pina Colada’), Zhai Yanjun 翟砚军 ligne claire Maoism-to-market parable (‘Ma Ding’s New Clothes’ 马丁的新衣), and Sadan’s (formerly known as ‘Satan Lucky’) characteristic hopping zombies and long-tongued ghosts (‘Other World’ 别的世界), like the not-unrelated Rule 34, there really is something for everyone – but you don’t have to take my word for it! More seriously, though, while sexy comics might seem old hat to overseas fans of the Ninth Art, in China the last publisher to (explicitly, at least) target the adult comics market went out of business in way back in 1937. Yan Cong’s very inspiration to create Naked Body was being told that nudity in comics is unpublishable.

While cultural historian Antonia Finnane has already written the definitive book about putting clothing on in China, when it comes to taking them off the options might seem barer on the ground. You can only imagine how tickled I was to discover that Sinologist Eric Henry bravely stepped into the breach with ‘The Social Significance of Nudity in Early China,’ published in the fall 1999 issue of Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture.

All the classics are there, such as Seventh Sage of Bamboo Grove Liu Ling’s famous zinger from Tales of the World upon being discovered in the buff by a group of visiting admirers: “I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. What, then, are you gentlemen doing in my pants?” Or who could forget the curious account of Mencius going into a tiff after walking in on his wife “sprawled in an unladylike position” in their bedroom? (Leave it to his mother to save the day by telling her irritated issue to Keep Calm and Knock Before Entering.)

Meanwhile, in more highbrow fair, we can add Zhuang Huan’s infamous 1996 installation piece ‘To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain,’ which got a fresh screening when it was featured in Cang Xin’s iconic photograph at the Guggenheim retrospective on Contemporary Chinese Art in New York last year. This being the Year of the Pig, we should also mention Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s tongue-in-cheek riff ‘I Love Contemporary Art Too,’ featuring a stack of similarly disrobed porkers in front of the same mountain range.

As Orion describes it in his pitch: “Naked Body is window into a comics community that most readers outside of China would never have access to … Yan Cong started this anthology by putting out a call that anyone could submit to, and the only requirements were that work be in color, that it be five pages long, and that all the main characters be naked.” Before publishing his nudie magnum opus, Yan Cong (who Orion deservedly describes as an “underground publishing hero”) played a key role in bringing together a rag tag group of cartoonists, graphic designers, fine artists and other malcontents to produce the first ‘special comix’ (SC漫画)  anthology in 2004, with five more volumes (and countless one-offs) appearing in the years since.

Now that the print costs for Naked Body have been covered, stretch goals for the project include more money for the artists, supplementary essays, more prints for backers, and even a bonus comic online. Given the challenges of publishing edgy (not to mention queer) comics in China today, it’s heartening to see a publisher finding some success in opening up a new avenue not only for these creators to reach a new audience, but also pay some of their bills (or least buy a beer or two) while they’re at it. Hats (and pants) off to the lot of them! ∎

The Kickstarter for Naked Body: An Anthology of Underground Chinese Comics is set to run until Thursday, February 28, 2019 at 4:30 AM UTC. You can also check out more underground Chinese comics at the Paradise Systems website and their always very happening Twitter feed.

Nick Stember

Nick Stember is a translator and historian of Chinese comics and science fiction. He is currently working closely with: The Jia Pingwa Institute, in Xi’an; Clarkesworld magazine and Storycom to promote Chinese speculative fiction; and the Books from Taiwan Manhua Project. Based in Vancouver, he is also translation editor for Ricepaper magazine.