Naked Body: An Anthology of Chinese Comics is the American reprint of the fifth-anniversary edition of Yan Cong’s anthology Narrative Addictions, which Cong originally self-published in 2014 in China. Cong, who lives in Beijing, is a leading light in the Chinese comics scene. This welcome collection from R. Orion Martin’s Paradise Systems micro-press reveals Cong’s adventurous taste in art and storytelling, and serves as a varied but cohesive sampler of the previously little-seen world of Chinese alternative/indie comics.
When he originally issued a call for submissions, Cong stipulated that submissions were limited to no more than five pages (though a few are longer), to be in full color, and that the main characters in each story had to be naked. Some of the artists made nudity central to their stories while for others it is more incidental. Nudity represents freedom/defiance from a repressive culture in some narratives, while in others it represents vulnerability, exposure, or helplessness. In still other tales it works as a natural springboard to eroticism. In all, nudity works quite well as a theme to build an anthology around, lending an easy unity to stories that are by turns satirical, absurdist, surreal, slice-of-life autobio, speculative, poetic, and erogenous.
To kick things off, the opening story by Shanghai’s Inkee Wang reveals an opposite world where wearing clothing of any kind or covering any part of one’s body is strictly forbidden (the heroine is actually chastised for wearing a tiny bit of nail polish on her little toe). At four pages, it’s really just a brief sketch, but Wang’s large bulky figures, intense color scheme, and expert panel blocking make it both visually distinctive and an effective introduction to a world bizarrely askew.
In contrast, Shijie Hai’s “Mortal Questions,” features a naked man walking down an ordinary city street in the real world, so his nudity excites the attention of shocked and disapproving passersby. As he moves along he muses about his nudity in rather existential fashion (“…we no longer use clothing to conceal, it’s an identity, a personality”), until the surprise ending, when we find out the motive for his actions. Per the naturalistic setup, the art is straightforward and much less cartoony than what’s found in most of the rest of the book—which helps make the concluding reveal all the more effective.
Another comic in which the nudity is central is “Xiao Ma’s New Outfit,” by Zhai Yanjun, a clever satire in which Ma, a designer, creates a new high-fashion craze: an outfit composed of no clothing whatsoever. “It’s genius,” says one admirer. “Casting off the vulgar, unrefined habit of physical clothing, true genius!” The best scenes show various fashionistas in Ma’s outfits running afoul of people and institutions who are unable to comprehend that they are witnessing cutting-edge fashion instead of...naked people.
Wang XX’s “Hair” is a lighthearted piece featuring a young woman in a bathtub, musing over her copious amount of body hair. She notes that one strand of hair on her hand is way longer than any of the other hair: “My body is really showing off!” XX’s drawings have an appealingly childlike quality. The story plays out as a study of mild body horror until the girl simply decides to quit worrying about it.
In Cong’s piece, “Real,” a man sits at a computer looking at online erotica, but rather than enjoying the experience it compounds his loneliness and isolation. “I haven’t made any new work in months,” he laments, “and I can’t get it up.” He spirals downward from there. From the couple of other stories of Cong’s that I’ve seen (notably in his excellent kuš! mini UniGLo Superman), Cong depicts his characters in the nude to telegraph their emotional vulnerability (and simple humanity). His protagonist here has a circular head with a round nose adorning his face like a cherry on a sundae. I find Cong’s cartooning enormously appealing as well as quite skilled, and I would love to see a solo collection of his work materialize sometime soon.
Another comic about emotional distress and inchoate longing is a wordless piece by Zhao Xin, which begins with a woman watching a couple smooching outside. She then proceeds to putter nude around the house while her male partner watches TV, seemingly oblivious to her. Like several of the stories, this might have benefited by being longer, but Xin spins the vignette with both poetry and economy.
A couple of the stories deal with death. In “Not Today,” by Wang Hang, an old man wakes one morning and immediately begins to run to escape the clutches of Death itself, though whether Death is really pursuing him or it’s all in the man’s mind is left ambiguous. Hang’s drawings are awkwardly childlike but energetic, and the final panel is eerily beautiful.
“Another World,” by Sadan, which at nine pages is the longest piece in the book, begins with its protagonist, an old woman who has just died, waiting to be ushered into eternity by a pair of impatient demon-like beings. The twists in the narrative play out very well, and Sadan’s use of color on textured paper to depict the transition into the afterlife is a canny choice. It all adds up to one of the most imaginative, satisfying pieces here.
There are some just-for-fun stories as well. In the meta “About Love,” by Beijing resident Yuwei Gong, a man and a woman in a rowboat not only discuss that they are looking for a sea monster but also question why they are naked (“You have to be naked in this comic,” he tells her). When the woman mentions mosquitos, he assures her: “It’s a comic so they can’t bite you.” When they start to have sex, he even reminds her that she can take her time, because they have up to five pages. It’s all very silly but Gong’s simple green, pink, and yellow coloring scheme and big, bold, painterly images are immediately eye-catching. In “Naked” by Ryan Xie, a locker room comes under siege by a weird little creature flying about in a cloud of shaving cream (!). Only one man can stop it – or can he? It’s a great little romp with appropriately bright, naïve drawings.
I was glad for the inclusion of a couple of overtly queer comics here (newsflash: it is always good to have queer content integrated into anthologies – queer art doesn’t always have to be quarantined into its own safe spaces). Both stories get pretty sexy. In a hypnotic, lushly drawn wordless piece by artist Hanada, two lovely giant nude women wander about, towering over buildings, streams and mountains, and generally love each other up. That might sound overly twee or hackneyed, but at one point one of them gets something stuck in her foot and a good-sized gusher of red, red blood comes pouring out. The other girl licks it lovingly, adding a nice, almost gothic moment to the piece. Hanada features a simple six-panel grid on each page, but it took me a while to get that the panels are meant to be read in columns: the ones on the left top to bottom, then those on the right.
In Leng Zhiwen’s untitled piece, two men have sex, and afterward one of them shares a post-coital memory of boarding school shenanigans with other boys. This vignette has the feel of a real occurrence, with a really swell final page. Zhiwen’s color scheme of intense red, butterscotch yellow, orange, and hot pink (with a bit of blue to lend contrast) perfectly captures the eroticism of the story.
All told, Naked Body is a highly enjoyable and intriguing anthology in the vein of other American Introductions-to-Comics-from-Foreign-Lands collections like Spanish Fever, From the Shadow of the Northern Lights, and Kolor Klimax. The book’s scope is modest, but it’s also more consistent than many such volumes (there isn’t an out-and-out dud story to be found). Let’s give Paradise Systems a round of applause and hope they’ll consider an encore.