Dispatches from China's Earthquake

Thu, May 29th, 2008 at 12:42pm PDT | Updated: May 30th, 2008 at 9:01am

Comic Books
Adi Tantimedh, Guest Writer

Coco Wang's first strip about the earthquake in China
"...I have been crying my eyes out in the past three days, I have never felt more proud of my country and people... their love, courage and kindness rock me to my core! I have decided to tell these touching stories by drawing comics. I am going to send you comic strips almost everyday from now on..."

Thus wrote Chinese comics artist Coco Wang in her introduction to the first comics she created about the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake went live this week.

On May 12, 2008, a massive earthquake hit the Sichuan province of China, with tremors felt in Shanghai and Beijing, even as far as Thailand and India. While the province's capital city Chengdu was left largely intact, many of its surrounding townships have been devastated. According to the BBC, more than 71,000 people are dead, missing or buried under rubble. Entire towns may have lost a whole generation of children. Further aftershocks in the past two weeks demolishing 420,000 more homes in the province. Millions are now homeless. Countries such as Russia and Korea have already sent aid and relief supplies.

On Tuesday May 27, British comics historian and curator Paul Gravett began running a series of comic strips by Beijing-based artist Wang on his website. Joe Gordon of the Forbidden Planet Blog was the first to call attention to Wang's comics, and by Tuesday afternoon, they had reached our attention.

Detail from Coco Wang's second strip
Each strip tells a true story of the aftermath of the quake and the human dramas that occurred as rescue efforts continued in the search for survivors. Parents, soldiers, rescue workers and strangers dig through rubble, desperate to save if not their own loved ones, then someone, anyone, as many as possible. The comics have the immediacy of journalism as seen in the works of Joe Sacco ("Palestine"), the deceptively simple line work of the drawing style communicating almost unbearable emotional impact reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi's "PERSEPOLIS".

On top of working on a Master's degree at Kingston University in London, Coco Wang currently runs a studio Coco & Dodo with her business partner Dodo Wang. The cartoonist has pledged to continue drawing new comics based on the newspaper reports she has been collecting about the rescue efforts in Sichuan. The new comics will be posted on Paul Gravett's website. CBR News spoke with Coco Wang about the work and the tragedy that informed it.

Detail from Coco Wang's third strip
Many are still not that aware of the earthquake, seeing it as an abstraction, especially since it didn't take place on their soil. Do you hope that the comics, through the borderless reaches of the internet, will help them understand the tragedy and see it in real, human terms?

Absolutely. My purpose of creating these comics is that I want to create a forever monument of the victims, dead people, rescuers and volunteers of 5.12 earthquake. A way to let everyone in the world remember this event, remember the sorrow and regrets, remember the love, courage, hope and kindness of every Chinese who was involved in the earthquake. Especially, I want the foreign people to know these stories. I lived for almost 10 years in the UK and was exposed to Western culture, so I understand the way Western people see Chinese people. They see too little, they know too little, they remember us by Chinese food take-away, Bruce Lee, pandas, dagons, kung-fu. Giving wrong comments before fully understanding the situation is an easy thing to do. I am not saying that Western people should start learning our great Chinese culture, but I hope they can realizes that there are far more to Chinese people than meets the eye, as you said, understand the tragedy, understand the Chinese people in real, human terms. Instead of looking at us as fried-noodle cook, toy manufacturers or post-production animators, and being able to see our great capacity for kindness, generosity and courage.

I too was not aware of the seriousness of this catastrophe when I first heard it in London. On the 12th of May, I was in London, preparing to leave for Beijing on the 15th of May. My mother sent me a mobile message and said there was an earthquake in China. I was sleeping and thought it was just like before that people just felt a little shake. Not even when I turned on the TV and saw the news on BBC the next day, I still did not fully realize the total disastrous impacts the earthquake had on my people. Not until I arrived at home on the 16th of May, I turned on the TV, "it is not to be believed...", that's what I felt at first, the scenes of dead and injured people are simply too nightmarish to describe.

Detail from Coco Wang's fourth strip
A dead mother holding a baby in her arms, her shirt was open and the baby was still drinking from her bosom. A wife kept her promise ("You must survive and take care of our son") to her dead husband by sawing off her leg by herself to escape death. Hundreds of dead children cramped together in a hole like a pit from hell. A father risked his life to retrieve his dead daughter's mobile-phone which recorded the only image left of his daughter. A policeman was saving other children and missed the chance of saving his own son. A police woman just gave birth and was feeding breast milk to ten orphans from the earthquake. An old beggar took hundreds of coins he collected in months to a bank to exchange for a 100 RMB note, and gave it to the earthquake charity. Too many stories, incredibly sad, unbelievably moving.

Your first impulse upon returning to China was to head for Sichuan province to help in the rescue efforts, but this was not to be?

I have not succeeded in making my way there yet! I wanted to as soon as I arrived in Beijing, but my friends told me off since they all tried to do the same but failed. The situation at the hit areas is extremely unstable and chaotic, lots of volunteers wanted to go to help but their journeys to Sichuen are causing serious damage to the transportation of Red Cross, medical teams and military rescuers. However there are plenty of media reporters from every newspaper, TV stations and websites, so we had no difficulty of learning the stories of the front. For an entire week, almost **al** Chinese TV channels are broadcasting news and stories of the earthquake **24 HOURS NON-STOP!** The amount of information I can receive is just shocking.

When did you decide to draw the comics?

I cried the whole day away on the 16th and started to draw the comics on the 17th. I had to find a way to let all these suffocation sadness out of my chest. At first I was too depressed to do anything, but as soon as I started drawing, I felt much better and felt I was able to contribute something. However, the process is still quite painful. Reading these sad words again and again, like living in a nightmare, everyday I keep returning to those photos of blood and death, hearing cries and screams from TV, drawing every horrible moments, try to feel what they felt.

Detail from Coco Wang's fifth strip
Paul Gravett has been a key figure in British comics, publishing the alternative indie comics anthology "Escape" in the 1980s, which introduced creators like Eddie Campbell, Paul Grist, Phil Elliott, Woodrow Phoenix and many others now firmly established in the comics scene. He currently runs COMICA, the London International Comics Festial that takes place every year at the Institute of Contemporary Art. How did Paul Gravett come to run your comics on his website?

As soon as I finished the first short story, I sent it to all my friends in the UK. Paul was very moved by my comic and wanted to feature it on his website, he also brought them to the comic event in Erlangen in Germany.

Last night I was invited to an evening TV program of China Education Channel (CETV) to talk about the earthquake comics. I also told them that I drew these stories in English so that everyone in the world would be able to learn our stories.

The comics are often unbearably moving, but they are not bleak. All are filled with hope and compassion. How did you decide which stories to illustrate?

There is not much sense of "deciding which one to draw," as I read these stories on websites or newspaper, I started to cry, too many moving stories, I want to draw them all, I don't want to leave anything out. I have put them all in line to be drawn in the future, one by one, I will try to cover as many stories as possible. I intend to gather over 100 stories to be put together as book. I would like to publish the book in Europe and US, so that I can donate the profit of the book to the victims of 5.12.

At the moment I am still in the middle of my Illustration MA degree. After the earthquake, I have changed the subject of the Final Major Project of my MA degree. I was going to work on a graphic novel of Chinese AIDS orphans. Now I have dedicated all my time on the earthquake stories.

Detail from Coco Wang's sixth strip
How long did each story take to draw?

In the first five days, I was so feverish that I could complete one story in one day, I had new stories to send out everyday. And in the first five days I could not sleep, I was so tired and sleepy, but I could not fall asleep, I cannot get those stories out of my head. The least possible place to fall asleep is my bed, I had to try to sleep in a sitting position, or leaning against the wall, or on the floor with my cat, anywhere "informal," but it didn't work much.

How many comics will you be drawing in total?

I want to try to make over 100 stories. This is an extremely significant event, the volume of the book is a definite way of demonstrating the importance of its content. I want to feel the weight of the book when I hold it in my hands.

For readers interested in detailed coverage of the earthquake and aid programs, we've included the following links:

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TAGS:  china earthquake, coco wang

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