Night Bus by Zuo Ma from Drawn+Quarterly is like reading a dream. Rather than a typical linear story structure with each event corresponding to a single plot in thought, the stories are aesthetic and experiences individual. As Ma mentions in the bookend notes, “I didn’t want to draw ‘stories’ anymore.” Instead, readers will follow Ma down his own rabbit hole into realism, magical realism, and something totally his own.
Night Bus collects eleven tales inspired by Ma’s own life into a single anthology. They overlap with characters referenced or seen in shadows during one story later popping up as main characters to explore. A boy out bug-hunting in several asides takes on his own story when he shares his snacks with a mysterious girl out swimming in a pond where he was warned not to go with his mother saying it is haunted. The hyper-cool Xiao Ma with a decorated jacket and layered hair is in the background before coming to the forefront, showing nonchalance in the faces of mocking people, “Who cares? They don’t appreciate my individuality.”
Many of the themes show Ma’s reflection on things like loneliness, desperation to find success, and the devolution of the world around us. A recurring event is a trip out of the city to the countryside. There other characters somewhat remember people who had long left them behind. The landscape is familiar but changing to something unknown as farming prices drop and factories come in. The first story, “Walking Alone,” is retold as “A Walk” for the last story. The new story shifts events into a different order and gives more focus on some areas and less on others, such as the harrowing experience of witnessing a slaughter for the first time. This near-repetition is a fascinating experience for the reader, much like a recurring dream or even waking déjà vu.
Ma brings plenty of dreamy strangeness in the very real-world experiences of Night Bus. Sometimes the oddness is in the background, such as whales swimming through forest branches or people telling their stories of seeing UFOs. Other times, the thematic dreams defy typical logic, as in “Catboy” where first a stray cat is introduced, then the cat tells its devastating life story, and the artist becomes a catboy himself. As in dreams, the fun is rolling with the illogic, allowing Niu Niu the dog to pop a tape into the VCR to watch a movie and monsters to appear in inking vivid enough to be from Shigeru Mizui or Junji Ito.
More than half of the book is dedicated to the titular “Night Bus” short story. Here Ma intertwines a young woman in huge round glasses exploring a world with disguised alien spaceships and cocoon-people with his own wanderings snapping photos and walking with his grandmother, who wears the same huge round glasses. As the story progresses, the events interweave more and more, much like the night bus itself gathering all the imaginary monsters together into a train that rolls into the sky past satellites and comets. Ma reflects on how, though he never travelled with her, he can still slip on her glasses and see her stories come into focus. Through the pages of Night Bus, readers can, too, showing the power of art to convey not just information but feeling.