Featuring one panel per page and a pocket-sized horizontal format, lianhuanhua have been a staple of Chinese popular culture for decades, providing an affordable, and eminently portable, “delivery system” for mass-appeal sequential art storytelling. Some of the more dominant genres to grace the pages of these easily-digestible miniature magazines over the years, according to Paradise Systems editor/publisher R. Orion Martin, have been “fables, kung fu epics, and unauthorized adaptations of foreign films,” but with his own imprint’s entry into the world of lianhuanhua Martin seeks to bring something of an “art comics” ethos into a field that has been previously closed off to anything that fell outside a generally populist aesthetic sense. As always, he’s clearly not short on ambition.
My first exposure to lianhuanhua Paradise Systems-style comes by way of Shanghai-based cartoonist Woshibai’s recently-released Migraine, and to say I’m eager for Martin to get more of these made would be an understatement of semi-epic proportions, as this is not only a complex and compelling read, but a truly unique one, as well, despite being fairly easily classifiable as yet another entry in a storytelling “canon” we’re all well familiar with. If that makes little to no sense now, read on, and all will be explained —
Illustrated in a thoroughly absorbing style that stresses functionality over obtrusively-laid-on style and written in a distant, dare I say even clinical, tone to match, this book reveals more about itself with each successive read — and re-reading proves to be something of a compulsive experience given that one can go from cover to cover here several times in the length of time it takes to read a standard-format Western comic book. Of course, one wouldn’t want to do such a thing if the story itself weren’t good, but that’s of no concern here as Woshibai’s comic is very good indeed.
Ostensibly autobiographical in nature, the story here is a simple-but-powerful rumination on, and reminiscence of, important and/or traumatic childhood events that flood the mind of a cartoonist after he stops working and dims the lights in response to that titular migraine headache. The succession of memories explored is pretty linear in nature : his mother leaves for Japan when he’s in the first grade, his father subsequently becomes ill, and between and after all that he struggles through the fears, the hijinks (harmless and otherwise), and the uncomfortable onset of early sexual impulses that all kids do, albeit in a manner that suggests he was far more prone to the internalization of shame and guilt than most children. In another life, who knows? He might have made a pretty good Catholic. In this one, he’s a damn good cartoonist.
Some of his actions/reactions, such as covering the telephone with a blanket to silence its ringing as pictured above, may seem peculiar, but when you think back to stuff you did when you were seven or eight years old, chances are you exhibited some curious behaviors of your own for reasons you most likely can no longer fathom. And it’s in that space between the him that he was then and the him that he is now that Woshibai constructs an invisible narrative bridge that is entirely felt and understood despite never really being shown. The idea that a child who perceived things in a singular and “off-kilter” way, one whose developing worldview was informed by abandonment and tragedy, should grow up to be the sort of person who has learned, likely for purposes of emotional survival, to distance himself from the events of his own life even as he ruminates upon them, makes a lot of sense and makes Woshibai himself (or, if you want to be technical about it, his stand-in) seem a very sympathetic character, even as the memories he works through play themselves out absent so much as an ounce of sentimentality attached to them.
That emotional distance is reflected in the individual panel drawings here, as well, most (although not all) of which feature economically-delineated figures presented straight-ahead and in mid-range, in front of either stark white or barely-nuanced gray backgrounds, allowing readers to draw a clear line from childhood to adulthood to the artistic output said adulthood produces. It’s a lot to accomplish, particularly for a character/cartoonist whose facial expressions seem downright allergic to conveying any kind of emotional affect, but no comic since Jeff Nicholson’s sublime-but-harrowing (or maybe that should be harrowing-but-sublime?) Through The Habitrails, which wore its Eastern aesthetic influence on its sleeve, has communicated so much with entirely blank faces.
Questions about how who we were ultimately informs who we are will no doubt linger in the mind of readers here, questions that are compounded and, most excitingly, never directly answered as one undertakes those inevitable and numerous re-reads I was talking about just moments ago. This is revelatory, soul-baring work communicated in the least manipulative way possible and, as such, stands out as one of the most original and intriguing autobio comics in years — from any corner of the world.
The $7 price tag that Migraine carries is admittedly a bit steep given the page count and size of the comic, but I wouldn’t recommend it as enthusiastically as I am if I didn’t think the story it presented more than earned every single penny it costs you. Order your copy directly from Paradise Systems at https://paradise-systems.com/products/migraine?variant=6934101327905