All About Benjamin
One of the brightest stars of China’s rising manua scene, Benjamin is a wonderfully expressive artist whose images evoke three-dimensional beings. His writing is poetic, often stilted, and emotive, as though words and images are sometimes not quite sufficient for expressing everything he has inside. Remember, a collection of two stories—No One Can Fly, No One Can Remember and That Summer, That Year—is now out from Tokyopop. We talked to Benjamin via an email interview that was kindly translated by his agent in Paris, Patrick Abry. My thanks to both Benjamin and Patrick for their time.
How do these two stories intertwine in your mind? Were they always connected for you?
That Summer, That Year was finished before No One Can Fly, No One Can Remember. Both of them give a sense of destiny. The people with different backgrounds and different identity under the same circumstance had different destinies. The destinies differ between the person who knew how to surrender and the one who did not. This is a common problem for the young people. Among the two main characters in the two stories, one thought himself special, another thought himself a normal person. Finally, the one who could not adapt to the city life became crazy. The other who thought himself a normal person went along well in life, but still felt the sorrow for the wasted time of his youth. In No One Can Fly, No One Can Remember, I described how a young person dealt with his relationship with the society. The main female character chose to give up, while the main male character still held on to the spiritual dimension, but gave up direct conflict with the society.
These are the kind of problems people must go through when they are young.
The theme of Remember seems to be not only memory but also how art affects our memories and alters our own perceptions of events we’ve experienced. When you look back on this work now, do you experience what you were going through while you were creating the stories originally?
Yes, I can feel it vividly. Each movement, even the smallest, I put my heart in it. In order to design the movements of the figures with distinctive characteristics, I spent a lot of time and energy to think and draw.
Your artwork is beautiful and distinct. In some ways, it seems not only photographic at times, but also to have 3D depth to it. How do you achieve the look you want for your stories?
Although I am one of the first persons in China to use a computer for drawing, I never like to rely on photo modifications as a drawing technique, or even drawing by taking a photo as model. Relying heavily on photos would make your illustration look flat, vulgar, and redundant. I try to feel the ambiance of the story’s setting and the feeling of each character. Of course, when lacking a true live model, I use photos to transcribe a few details to make the drawings more vivid. When I look back today, I think that at some points I still depended too much on photos, which, to some extent, made my drawings seem flat. Now my drawings tend to improve.
How long does it take you to create a page?
For illustration, one to four weeks. For manhua, one to two days. That Summer That Year was around three to four hours per page.
Were these stories inspired by any of your own personal experiences in the industry?
Of course, the experience in China brought me a lot of interesting material to create my work. Here everyone is somehow twisted and everything is not the way you might think they are.
Based on the pieces you have written regarding the stories in Remember, you seem to be very hard on your own work, and very critical of what you have done. Is it difficult for you to revisit work you’ve done in the past?
When I review the works I have done before, there are some technical problems that make the drawing not so beautiful. But even in the ugliest drawings I have done, I still can find the things I have stuck to for so many years, which are the interest in society and the sympathy toward the weak.
In the States, you’re known as Benjamin. Where did that name come from, and is there an identity attached to the name?
Twelve years ago, I loved the movie The Graduate, so I used the name of the main character to publish my work. Deep in my heart, I think I am him, the one who grew up from childhood to maturity.
What is the influence and reach of manhua in China now?
The influence of manga is huge in China, widespread. A large portion of the young people are reading them; some of them are pirate books downloaded from the Internet. There are very few genuine ones. But in China, there are even fewer young people who read Chinese manhua. Young people who read them are the ones in the lower age bracket—for example, below high school. In China, it is said that when the child is old enough for surfing the Internet, about 13 years old, he or she will never buy comic books again. So now the mainstream comic books are for children. So when we talk about influence, I think, it is mainly reaching the very young readers.
How do you see manhua expanding into the United States and the rest of the world? Do you see it building an audience and creating a medium that is separate and unique from comics and manga?
There is no doubt that the Chinese manhua would be distinguished from comics and manga, thanks to the great variety of unique styles used and experienced by Chinese authors to organize the story and drawings, like in my books. For now, the influence is still small. In the future, it will depend on the talent and opportunity given to more and more manhua artists with different styles. Diversity would be the style of Chinese manhua.
What are you working on next? What other books of yours can we expect to read soon?
I published two novels, The Basement and Where Shall We Go in these past few years. Now I am working on the third one. And another manual, Savior, is coming to an end. I hope to see it published in Europe this summer.