Brooklyn-based small press Paradise Systems has been publishing comics since 2017, with a focus on bringing work from the Chinese alt-comics scene to an English-speaking audience. Their first large collection, an anthology titled Naked Body, is currently going through a funding round on Kickstarter. I got in touch with Paradise Systems’ publisher R. Orion Martin to discuss the project, his interest in Chinese alt-comics, and the origin of the press.
Alex Hoffman: So, just to start, how were you introduced to Chinese alternative comics? What made you decide to start Paradise Systems?
R. Orion Martin: I first saw the work of these cartoonists a few years ago when I was working in China as a translator. The more I read about this community and saw their work, the more impressed I was by the diversity and quality of the comics they were making. After moving to New York in 2016, I realized that I could help these artists reach a larger audience by translating and publishing English editions of their work. Paradise Systems has worked on eleven different books by cartoonists from China since starting in 2017, both building our own platform and working with other publishers. At the end of 2018, we worked with Latvian publisher kuš! on a series of four minis by Chinese cartoonists that I think came out beautifully.
AH: Could you explain to readers the challenges of publishing comics in China, especially comics like Naked Body? How big is the “alternative comics scene” in China?
ROM: Only books with a government ISBN can legally be sold in stores or online, so the channels available to independent cartoonists are limited. Cartoonists sell their work through a small number of independent bookstores, or directly to readers via book fairs or etsy-like webshops. Because of these challenges in distribution, it’s difficult to run a publisher catering to the Chinese market. There’s no equivalent in China to D&Q, Fantagraphics, or Koyama.
Nevertheless, there are thousands of artists who continue to hone their craft. They might be inspired by independent comics and illustrations that are imported to China, or they see other Chinese cartoonists making work and posting it online. As with cartoonists everywhere in the world, the medium just clicks with some people, and they want to make their own comics.
AH: There have been a few Chinese graphic novels that have come to my attention because of the Paradise Systems twitter account. Is the “graphic novel” a common form in China, or are alternative comics more like the work you’ve been publishing over the last two years? Depending on how this Kickstarter goes, do think publishing longer work from Chinese cartoonists would be viable in the United States?
ROM: For most cartoonists, setting out to make a 150+ page book is a daunting proposition, but for those who are interested in taking on a long-form work, all kinds of possibilities open up. Cartoonists like Zuo Ma, Xiang Yata, and Wang XX have made some amazing books that we hope will find their way into an English translation soon.
AH: This might be a premature question, but depending on how this Kickstarter goes, do think publishing longer work from Chinese cartoonists would be viable in the United States?
ROM: Absolutely. Paradise Systems definitely has plans to do more full length books in the future. Doing a book of this size (Naked Body is 100 pages long) comes with its own printing, storage, and distribution challenges, which is why we’ve asked for support as we launch this new book.
AH: It seems from my limited understanding that anthology projects are relatively rare in China. Is that true?
ROM: In the late 2000’s, there was a hugely successful anthology series called Special Comix. It was edited and published by a group of cartoonists, including Yan Cong and Tang Yan, and the result was these massive books of comics, six or seven hundred pages long, full of experimental work by artists from around the country.
Special Comix has been less active in recent years, particularly after the founder of the anthology series, Tang Yan, had a “funeral” for his comics career and stopped drawing comics. But in their place, other anthologies have sprung up. My favorite from recent years is the GAME anthology, published by Wild Things Press. It was over 200 pages of truly outstanding work.
AH: What should readers expect from Naked Body?
ROM: One of the requirements for this anthology was that all the main characters be naked, and artists responded to that constraint in a number of different ways. Inkee Wang’s comic is about a world in which wearing clothing is deeply taboo, and the main character hides her love of underwear for fear of being outed. Leng Wenzhi’s technicolor comic is a semi-autobiographical account of being queer in a boarding school. In general, we looked for artists who represented the diverse styles of work in the Chinese comics community, from lushly detailed to paintings to pared-down, digitally-generated images.
AH: One of the rewards offered is a Kickstarter exclusive comic by Woshibai. Is this something Woshibai has previously published on Tumblr, or is this a brand-new comic?
ROM: It is a comic that he previously published on his Tumblr, about his childhood understanding of how childbirth works. Since he started making comics a few years ago, Woshibai has developed a stunning body of work, ranging from philosophical abstractions to slice-of-life snapshots of his life in Shanghai. We’re always eager to get more of his work in print.
AH: Will Paradise Systems be at any comics arts festivals or small press shows this year? How else can readers get copies of your books?
ROM: We will be at a number of book fairs this year, with tentative plans to attend CAKE, CAB, CALA, and NYABF, and our books are always available on our website. Through our Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, we try to feature some of the outstanding work coming out of the Chinese comics community.
If you would like a copy of Naked Bodies or Woshibai’s new comic, you can get them over at Kickstarter. Thanks Orion for taking the time to chat about the project and Paradise Systems.D
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