It took Chinese artist Xie Peng four years to illustrate Darkness Outside the Night
, a visceral, often violent graphic novel that explores themes of solitude, depression and anger as it follows a nameless protagonist through a surreal Asian metropolis. The nightmarish world it depicts, we are told in the novel’s forward, is borne out of Xie’s anxiety about modern living. No answers are given and no hope is provided in what is ultimately a bleak portrayal of humankind.
Xie’s brilliance was first spotted by Han Han, China’s bad-boy superstar blogger, who ran extracts of the artist’s work in Party, a literary magazine that was shut down by the authorities after its inaugural issue. Now, a British publisher has resurrected Xie’s work as an e-book. In the process it has combined Xie’s post-apocalyptic images with words by author Duncan Jepson. The result is a lavish, and damning, portrayal of both life in contemporary China and the inner demons we all face.
Graphic novels are gaining traction in the West: 2012 saw the ‘book of the year’ and ‘biography of the year’ shortlists of Britain’s Costa Book Awards contain, for the first time, a graphic novel each. However, in China the medium remains largely unexplored, with most fans satiated by a diet of Japanese comic books.
Xie created Darkness Outside the Night as a series of text-free chapters, inspired by artists such as neo-expressionist painter Anselm Kiefer and avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett. Jepson, who only spoke to Xie twice during the writing process, was asked by his literary agent to turn these ‘silent’ panels into something more palatable for Western audiences by adding a narrative, however sparse. ‘I did the first draft which contained ten times the number of words [you see today],’ he explains. ‘And then pared it right back to what I think of as more like a poem.’
The resulting novel, which has yet to find a publisher in China, delivers a sorrowful, but beautifully drawn, message about Chinese society. At one point the protagonist stares woefully into a shop full of toys he’ll never own; in another scene he gorges on cake before vomiting up blood. ‘There is a lot of pressure and strain [on China’s youth],’ explains Hong Kong-based Jepson. It’s a concept he elaborates on in the book’s introduction: ‘In 1987, when I was a student in Beijing, any conversation with local youths would understandably always find its way to their frustrations with their lack of opportunity compared to those in the West. Twenty-five years later, people now flock to the cities to look for those possibilities, and unfortunately money has become everything.’
For Beijing-born Xie, the novel is also something much more personal. ‘The purpose of my creation is self-therapy,’ he says, comparing the creative process to a group psychotherapy session. ‘I want to convey my personal predicament,’ he adds. ‘I was on the brink of collapse. I think those who suffered setbacks and feel depressed yet still maintain their sensitive side will find my work easier to understand.’
Darkness Outside the Night rails against a society that it portrays as hypocritical and culturally barren. But it is also about a man who rails against himself. The nameless protagonist represents an everyman; somebody – anybody, irrespective of country – who has ever felt anxious, fearful or morose, or who has ever experienced that most reducing of emotions: self-hatred.
Darkness Outside the Night by Xie Peng and Duncan Jepson is published by Tabella Publishing, and is available from iTunes now for 50RMB.