As long as there are young would-be artists, there’ll be works of art lamenting how tough it is to be a young would-be artist. Add to this somewhat self-pitying sub-genre Chinese manhua artist Benjamin’s Remember (Tokyopop), a glossy color paperback collecting two stories about the stresses facing young creative souls today. Set in urban mainland China, the graphic novel’s two pieces depict two young male artists as they struggle to both live in the city and grow as talents. The title tale ends on a note of melancholy triumph; the second, shorter piece concludes with its center figure broken. Both works feature characters who suffer a mental breakdown.
The first piece, “No One Can Fly; No One Can Remember,” proves the more fully conceived. It concerns a would-be comic artist who’s been knocking against the rigid standards of an outmoded comics industry that persistently undermines the young man’s attempts at developing his own unique voice. “You artists are way too young to have a style that looks like anything,” a geezerly editor states, all the while encouraging our hero to swipe from the hottest manga arriving from Japan.
The key to breaking way from this stifling career path lies in our narrator/hero meeting a young girl named Yu Xin, herself a former artist who has given up her career to become a secretary. An unstable type, given to standing perilously close the edge of subway platforms, Yu prods our guy into fully expressing himself, which culminates in his creation of a fantastic larger-than-life comic strip. “Comics are for showing dreams,” we’re told, and in this magical realistic moment, that statement proves accurate.
As if to balance the first tale’s moment of huge (if ambiguous) artistic triumph, the second piece, “That Year, That Summer,” concerns an unsophisticated country boy who cracks up during his first year at a city art school. His heart, the story’s narrator tells us, “had been full of innocence,” yet the “big city’s abandon” ultimately proves too much for him.
The art in Remember is produced in painterly color, though Benjamin keeps the pallet limited in both of his tales: primarily shades of green and blue, with an occasional splash of red or yellow to grab your attention. His brushstroke art captures the half-formed nature of his characters’ lives beautifully. At times the expressive nuance of the art clashes against the more black-and-white worldview of its struggling characters, but perhaps this is intentional. “Comics are just lies, you know that, right?” one character states in the first story, but you know that Benjamin doesn’t necessarily agree with that particular adolescent overstatement.