Sunday, February 28, 2016

Interview with Ma Daishu

Up and coming comic artist Ma Daishu graced our shores at last year’s Singapore Writers Fest. Her wordless graphic novel Leaf was sold at the festival, both the English and the rare Chinese editions. What is amazing is that this debut book of hers was picked up by the famed alternative comic publisher Fantagraphics Books.

I reviewed Leaf here:

and conducted an email interview with her recently.

Can you tell us more about yourself? Where are you from and how did you get started in illustration and comics?

I’m an illustrator from Chengdu, China. I’ve been drawing since I was very little but had to stop in order to focus on “proper studies” in high school. I didn’t return to my passion until I finished university and was working my first job in a multinational company in the UK, I realised that illustration was what I really wanted to do in life and decided to pursue it, and I haven’t looked back ever since.

What were your early influences? Did you read lianhuanhua?

Yes I read lianhuanhua! Both of my parents worked so I have a lot of memories of being alone at home and devouring lianhuanhua during summer holidays. I still think that it’s an amazing medium and it’s incredible that they can tell such complex narratives with such a limited format (most of them were palm-sized)!

Did you study art when you were young?

I studied classical Chinese painting when I was young, I remember trying to draw the same abstract horse over and over again, with only three brush strokes! When I was a little older, I went to sketching and life-drawing classes. But mostly I just really enjoyed doodling on the white margins of my school text books.

You went to the UK to study business. How did you end up studying at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London?

I went to Loughborough University for my degree in financial management. After graduating and having worked briefly in a field where creativity is not necessarily considered positive, I decided that I wanted to go back to my childhood passion and pursue illustration. I applied for a multidisciplinary master’s degree at CSM and got accepted.

You taught at the Shanghai School of Visual Arts and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. How was the experience like teaching art?

It was daunting to begin with, I had to learn a lot about how to engage my students and put ideas across using effective and fun exercises. I was a little timid in the beginning but as time went by, I got a lot freer and better. My students and I did quite a few interesting projects together that I’m really proud of.

How did you end up in Barcelona?

My partner is from Catalonia, Spain. After living in London and Shanghai, we decided to give Barcelona a go.

Can you tell us more about Alien&monkey?

Alien&monkey is a small design practice my partner Marc and I set up while living in Shanghai. Marc is a product designer and we wanted to combine our interests to create products that tell interesting stories. One of our projects is called “Sand-made”, we developed a new natural material using sand, and made ephemeral objects that can evolve and change through time and user-interaction.

I saw some of your work in the Alien&monkey website. Can you describe some of the techniques that you use – woodcuts, etc?

Although I really love my pencils, I also like exploring different techniques, and the process of print making has always interested me. I really enjoy the carving process of making a woodcut, it’s almost meditative. I also used an old technique called “tinta magica”, which is basically drawing with lemon juice and then heating it up to make the image appear on paper. I heard that people used to write secret messages like this during the war in Europe, so when I was asked to illustrate a cover of a book set during the Spanish civil war, I used this technique, and it turned out beautifully!

How did Leaf come about? What inspired it and how long did it take you to draw it?

Leaf was inspired by my experience living in China, especially by my visits to factories in remote towns, as well as a trip I made to Nepal. I started sketching some of the scenes and characters while traveling in Nepal, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It has breathtaking natural beauty and amazing culture, but it’s also on the brink of experiencing the same brutal industrialisation that altered many Chinese towns and cities. I was very interested in what these changes mean to the people, especially young migrant workers who leave their small villages to work in big factories of the industrial towns.

Were you conscious of the fact that you were creating a graphic novel? Or did you have something else in mind when you were drawing Leaf?

I knew from the start that I wanted to make a graphic novel, and I was sure that it would be a silent book as well.

How was the book received in China? Was it seen as a graphic novel or as an art/illustrated book?

I think when it was first published in China, it was received with surprise and curiosity, because it had no words and wasn’t a conventional book that most readers were familiar with. A lot of people still associate it with children’s books, although graphic novels are becoming more and more popular in China now. I received some very good and interesting feedback from readers.

How did you end up being published Fantagraphics? Were you surprized by that?

When I finished Leaf, my editor sent some information to Fantagraphics because I’m a huge admirer of their books. They wrote back and said they would publish it, even before Leaf was to be published in China. When my editor told me, I couldn’t believe it, it’s like a dream come true!

What are your current influences?

Ever since moving to Spain I noticed that my drawing are more colourful and surreal. Lately I’m very interested in Russian stop-motion films and works of the great Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti.

Do you read any European comics?

Yes I read a lot of European comics. I really love Cyril Pedrosa (French), Thomas Ott(Swiss), Manuele Fior (Italian), and of course the wonderful Mattotti...Europe has a wonderful tradition of comics and there are so many gems!

Name three paintings that have inspired you.

Ohhhh this is so hard…Since I used to work as an assistant at Tate Britain I’ll name some paintings in their collection that I couldn’t get tired of no matter how many times I looked at them…
The Ancient of Days by William Blake
The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke by Richard Dadd
Pastel Drawing of a Girl by Lucian Freud
The Hospital Drawings by Barbara Hepworth

What’s the next book?

I’m working on a new story that is about loss, memories, conflicts and childhood. It’s told through the voice of a little ghost so there’ll be a stronger element of fantasy to it. I’m also hoping to explore more fun and interesting techniques with this new book.

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