Comic strips are stories told through a series of individual images. This requires not only the representation of the three-dimensional world of solid objects on a two-dimensional plane, but also that of the passage of time within the narrative.
Taiwanese cartoonist Chen Uen’s (1958-2017) Legends of Assassins, published in 1986, was the first comic strip painted in color and traditional Chinese ink, and it was based on the Biographies of the Retainer-Assassins in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Photos 1 and 2 relate scenes from the tale of a swordsman from the Spring and Autumn period named Nie Zheng, who traveled to the state of Han to assassinate the prime minister Xia Lei on the behalf of his benefactor.
These photos were facing pages in Legends of Assassins, the right side being a full-page picture of Nie Zheng rushing headlong into a group of soldiers, his sword held behind him slicing out an arrowhead path through the crowd. As the comic is opened to this spread, the full-page frame describes Nie Zheng’s speed and sheer power carving through the stunned soldiers, undeterred by their numerical superiority.
Photo courtesy of Chung Meng-shun, Chen Uen Studio
The left hand side of the spread, photo 2, is divided into scenes in quick chronological succession. The top quarter is a horizontal sequence to be read from right to left, starting with a close up of Nie Zheng’s face, a look of murderous intent flashing in his eyes. This is followed by a scene in landscape format with him brandishing his sword and pursuing Xia Lei, who wheels around, shouting to a soldier “kill him!” The next frame shows the soles of Nie Zheng’s feet as he springs into the air, the soldier slashing the empty space where he once was. This sequence builds up tension leading to the action in the scene below, taking up three-quarters of the page, where Nie Zheng, as if in a movie still using a low-angle shot, goes in for the kill.
Chen Uen, painting on xuan paper, uses Western perspective to create the feeling of space, and borrows the vocabulary of cinematic shots, interspersed with close-ups to tell the story. Meanwhile, for details such as the forms of the characters and the depiction of their clothing, the depiction of their clothing, the soldiers’ equipment reminiscent of those of the terracotta army and the architectural elements, he uses traditional Chinese ink wash techniques.
Despite the status generally accorded comic books, with Chen’s work, the comic book became a vehicle for experimenting with artistic possibilities. It is no wonder the National Palace Museum is currently putting on an exhibition of his works. “The Legacy of Chen Uen – Art, Life and Philosophy” runs through Sept. 17.
Photo courtesy of Dala Publishing Company
(Translated by Paul Cooper)
Photo courtesy of Chung Meng-shun, Chen Uen Studio and Dala Publishing Company
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