Paradise Systems on publishing and distributing underground Chinese comics
One fateful day while living in China, Paradise Systems founder R. Orion Martin (writer, translator, and serial Chinese comic scholar) walked past an antique store and saw a towering pile of pocket-book sized comic books with black and white, toilet paper-thin pages. He later realized that these books, called lianhuanhua, had been a huge part of China’s cultural fabric, both mainstream and underground. Being inspired by this history and already involved with the U.S. and Chinese comic scene made R. Orion the perfect candidate to create Paradise Systems — an in-person and online distributor of up-and-coming and underground Chinese artists .
“Lianhuanhua” and the Communist Party
Lianhuanhua 连环画 — “serial linked pictures” — is a specific format of comics that started in the 1920’s when printing technologies became more accessible. It’s a specific style with one image and one caption. The books are 12.5 cm wide and 9 cm tall and the paper is thinner than your average 2-ply toilet paper — think oil blotting strips — and the content is entirely in black and white. These books were sold for virtually nothing, about 2 cents, and were household items throughout the 20th century, until the 90’s.
The consumption and creation of lianhuanhua changed throughout the political phases of China: artists who had no other forms of employment during the Cultural Revolution supported themselves by making comics. The Communist Party viewed lianhuanhua as a tool for building literacy, which is why they were published in such large quantities. Lianhuanhua contain short phrases that can be picked up quickly, not only for the content of the phrase but the context of the drawn situation.
“When making Chinese works accessible for an American audience, a big problem is the strong moral themes, like ‘listen to your elders,’ that works tend to end with, which don’t resonate with Western audiences.” — R. Orion Martin
After the Cultural Revolution, lianhuanhua had a golden age — there were remakes of foreign films, informational volumes for what to do during an atomic war, and fables and more. Foreign content and art styles previously sanctioned were now allowed in, creating a cultural explosion. While the term manhua, meaning “comics” — or rather, “slow art”—has existed in China since the early 1920’s, Japanese manga and the more recent Korean manhwa came and went as China experienced bouts of political upheaval.
China has a different amount of soft power as compared to other East Asian countries, and what narratives and products rise to the surface often depend on the degree of state intervention. For example, the state-sanctioned comics from the ’90s that many children grew up with — like Black Cat Detective (Heimaojingcha 黑猫警长) and The Calabash Brothers (Huluwa 葫芦娃) — often dealt with very black and white themes of morality, while extolling Confucian values. Now it’s the case that native underground Chinese artists like Beijing-based Yan Cong can find inspiration from European and American contemporary artists while exploring more nuanced stories. In fact, there seems to be a stylistic division between mainstream artists whose works look more like Japanese manga — and the avant-garde.
Distributing indie comics without the network of indie book stores
R. Orion says the biggest challenge with indie comics in China is the lack of a network of independent bookstores. To overcome that, many artists distribute their stories in the form of tiaoman 条漫(web based strip comics — which can sometimes be like fan works, not unlike doujinshi of Japanese manga that have amassed huge cult followings) — of which many comics Paradise Systems prints are reformatted in.
Tiaoman comics are popular on social media sites like Douban, a media site for youth culture that’s “a little like Tumblr but with Rotten Tomato’s review function” which allows for cult-like analysis and adoration. The comic artists Paradise Systems publishes are already Douban celebrities and now also have WeChat pages, which is China’s more mainstream social media network — though, finding indie comics on WeChat is often harder because you have to find and friend people already invested in the culture to see the content.
“I think there’s a kind of baseline stereotype of mainland China as not producing interesting cultural products. I don’t know when that started, or why that became so prevalent — but I think it’s just time to give up on that idea.” — R. Orion Martin
The drawback of using official WeChat pages as distribution is the risk of vulnerability to state censorship. For censors, nudity is one of their bigger hangups, even if the nude figure is “an amorphous blob with three dots on it.” However, artists can do what scanlation groups of Japanese manga have done in the past, which is to negotiate with the censors in order to get things accepted. “Sometimes, if you say ‘this is art,” and talk about why, then you can get it through.” Generally, there’s a culture of political cartooning that Paradise Systems avoids — steering away from blunt, political ways of thinking of China and tries to engage directly with topics about the Chinese everyday instead.
Paradise Systems has been functional for less than a year and has since published three titles, including You Lied by Ganmu, Cry by Yan Cong, and Electrocat and Lightning Dog by Bu Er Miao, with three more close to publication at the time of interview. Closer to a collaborative work than one-man project, Paradise Systems depends on its network to proof, translate, design, and print it’s works — working instead in a fashion closer to fan-organized scanlation communities, who crowdsource translations, and often produce work that is illegal but more loyal to the original than official translations.
The transcription and editing of this writeup was made possible with help by Alice Sparkly Kat. Alice Sparkly Kat is an astrologer who reimagines archetypes and time for marginalized bodies — they are currently teaching a seven week course called Astrology and Storytelling at New Women Space, working on an astrological manual, and looking for freelance work! Book a reading at alicesparklykat.com and follow @alicesparklykat for astrology content.