A Graphic Description of China – Katrina Hamlin

Review: Darkness Outside the Night, a graphic novel by Xie Peng and Duncan Jepson, an article from H.A.L. Publishing

page164 Darkness

Darkness Outside the Night is a rare specimen: a graphic novel from China.

That particular novelty is both a hot selling point and a potential flaw.

The book’s raw images and sharp words describe life in an unnamed dystopia. There is a nightmarish city and a small, vulnerable protagonist. He suffers intense pain and fear, chased by monsters and misfortune.

In the beginning we see the creature sitting alone in a dark room with only a blaring  television as a substitute for company. We watch him driven to a rage by boredom. He smashes the television to smithereens.

He breaks free from the apartment that looks and feels more like a prison, but fighting boredom gets him nowhere: By doing a violence to his own confined life he is freed from the dark room only to wander out into another kind of darkness, where he faces a greater rage and more violence.

His ultimate fate is not clear to the reader. There is neither a dramatic escape, nor a terrible demise. The only possible conclusion is that life goes on, as unpleasant as ever. The question of whether or not the protagonist will one day find something better lingers.

In short, it’s a horrific and frustrating narrative, and yet there is something captivating about these scenes and their inhabitant. The book is a deeply disturbing creation, and still it’s hard to look away. As a piece of fiction it is a compelling portrait of a lonely character in a desperate state.

However, despite these qualities, the book’s killer twist lies outside its pages. While very little is revealed about who or what or where this tiny gnome-like creature is in the drawings, the reader has little choice but to imagine that the story reflects the Chinese artist Xie Peng’s experiences in modern China.

Darkness began life as a series of images by Xie Peng, who drew them as separate pieces over six years, returning again and again to the same themes. Though they were never mindfully created as a narrative there was a coherence that hinted at a story. The pictures were only later noticed by the Hong Kong-based writer Duncan Jepson, who saw the potential and took on the task of putting words to pictures. His careful storytelling helps the journey to come together without distracting the viewer from the original illustrations. He also has a strong sense of the China background, having lived in Greater China for much of his life.

With the China link in place the book’s effects as a compassionate picture of pain and loneliness are heightened. The anonymous dystopia becomes someone’s home, somewhere real, adding colour and feeling to the dry accounts of economics and politics that otherwise dominate media coverage of modern China. The result is a very beautiful and terrifying tale, which — like it or not — will be difficult to forget.

But the China link may also be the book’s weakness. What would the story be like severed from this context? Would the story still pique a reader’s interest? Those questions may determine whether or not the book finds an audience beyond China-watchers and China.

It’s possible to argue that the connection is not vital: The setting and the main character do not need to be seen as Chinese since the story is coherent even without that link, and the sense of melancholy and restlessness the authors capture evoke big-city life and loneliness the world over.

But it is the China link that makes the wicked twist of the knife, elevating a gorgeous but miserable cartoon to a hard-hitting social commentary — and a human story.

Katrina Hamlin is a writer and journalist based in southern China. Her fiction has appeared in several China- and US-based journals. She is a long-time contributor to HAL Literature publications.

Darkness Outside the Night, by Xie Peng and Duncan Jepson, is available from iTunesAmazon, Google Play, and Kobo.