Hamburg-based comic artist and graphic novelist Sascha Hommer, 34, was inspired to create a graphic novel set in China after a visit to Chengdu in 2005. A longer stay in 2011 provided further material for the project, which he's now working on alongside his regular work on comic strips and illustrations for magazines, newspapers, and other print media or organizing comic festivals and culture exchanges in far corners of the world. Longtime readers of CHENGDOO magazine might recall Sascha's illustrations in previous issues or the CHENGDOO citylife board game that he co-designed and illustrated. He spent a few moments talking about his inspiration for and progress on the book project.
How did you end up in Chengdu and why did you decide to make a book about it?
The first time I came to Chengdu was to visit a friend in 2005, and I stayed for two months just for fun. [After that], I wanted to make a book about China mostly because of the one-sided reporting about the Olympic Games in 2008. I was very annoyed by the anti-Chinese sentiment in German media, and although I'm not a China expert—I can't even speak Mandarin—just being in contact with people in China and the fact that I'd been to China before gave me the strong feeling that the guys who wrote these articles didn't really know what they were doing. This was the starting point to question the reporting, and I thought it should be possible to present other aspects of the country, and in a different manner.
So with the idea of writing a book about China I arrived for a second time in 2011, but once there I quickly understood that it's nonsense to make a book about China; it's too big, and I don't really know anything about it. But it's different with Chengdu, although I wasn't there for too long, because I had a different access to the city and views the normal tourist wouldn't be able to see, and besides, this book is now my very own and personal story where I document what I've experienced. It doesn't claim to be enlightening, not in a didactic way, anyway, but maybe it could be enlightening in a more subtle way, especially in regard to the reception of the local culture by the expat community.
I don't want to make a book that people buy and think, "Oh now I get to understand the culture in Chengdu." It shouldn't be a travel guide either. It'll be a rather surreal report, where I simply attempt to find a form to reflect what I have seen and the people I met.
When did you start actual work on the book?
The work already started back in 2011, before I arrived in Chengdu. I read a lot about the city and China, books like The Chinese World, and did online research. During my second stay I drew a diary, simple scribbles only I can decipher, which later allowed me to check what happened every day. Between the pages I added random flyers or other papers I came across.
Part of my research was the work for CHENGDOO, which allowed me to get to know the city in ways the ordinary tourist usually wouldn't experience—with, for example, a bike and a predetermined route of stations for magazine distribution which enabled me, despite my general lack of orientation, to draw an inner city map, or at least of some districts of Chengdu.
Now it's been nearly two years since you were in Chengdu. How does the time distance affect your work?
Back in 2009 I made a book about my time in school in the '90s (Four Eyes), and the time distance from the source material in this case was much bigger, but it's interesting to work with your memories, to see how you have been and how your own life worked. At one point you understand that you don't know the chronological sequence of events and that certain etched versions of stories in your memory don't add up once you analyze them more thoroughly.
So for the Chengdu book I use the diary and the storyboard as tools, but if a scene works better at the end of the book, I move it. If I really stuck to the storyboard I'd get bored. It just hangs there on the wall for reference. It's not about keeping actual chronology or the logical sequence of actual events, because at the end there must be a certain logic visible for the reader.
What are some of the motifs that appear in the book?
The quake and stories in general, and stories of rats and cockroaches. A less prominent motif is going to work—I read German texts for recordings as a part-time job. Another is inner rooms and flats. What do flats look like? I had to search for a flat or a room, and that search stretched over two weeks. And table tennis. Only marginally I touch on backpacker hostels because I spent two weeks there, actually a totally boring topic, but because I had to go there against my will, the processed experience may become again an epiphany.
And what about the characters in the book?
The figures are depicted schematically and mask-like to prevent, from the very beginning, readers thinking that I intend to present a portrayal of reality. So the acting characters are shown as aliens. Besides me, there are two main characters who are my friends, and the rest are more or less casual acquaintances who carry one or two motifs or parts of the action, although at the moment I'm not sure which I will finally include and which I may drop because they don't carry enough importance. In any case there are scenes with lots of people in bars sitting together. In the book about my youth I decided to merge several real persons to one character as they symbolize something similar and to simplify of course.
Illustration from Sascha Hommer's upcoming graphic novel about Chengdu. Text reads, "This is my atelier."
When you draw people, they are always a bit cuddly but also a bit disconcerting. Why this mix?
It's a graphical shift into an absurd sphere that creates a certain tension. When I draw a figure with a big head and small body—proportions you recognize as being of infants—but the character acts as an adult, it may come off as creepy. But in many stories which would otherwise seem trivial, it creates a tension I enjoy. Especially in this project it's important for me not to be realistic, not to create a reportage in the original sense, not a portrait of reality. That way it's clear this is a subjective report, and hopefully that is a way that is more telling than a realistic illustration.
So what did you notice about the people in Chengdu?
What stood out in my opinion was that the foreigners who live here together are randomly cobbled from different corners and have to arrange their lives together and of course together with the locals, and especially in the cultural sense have to produce everything they want themselves.
It seemed that the foreigners there fall into two categories—the ones that were accidently stranded in the city and those who consciously decided to go to Chengdu, and this mix is on one hand a bit dysfunctional, but on the other hand it's always an open structure. That also means that a lot of things go wrong and a lot of activities are temporary and noncommittal.
Will we see the book translated into other languages? What about Chinese?
There are good chances for a French translation as my last books appeared in France, which is a very important market. That has a signaling effect, which then again could automatically draw translations into other languages, even more so than publication of my book in my home market.
I don't know enough about the Chinese market, and I guess there wouldn't be many publishing houses which come into question, but it's a young market that is developing rapidly so the situation could be changing already. I'd love to see a translation into Chinese, but such a translation wouldn't be as simple as a translation to French, for example, as the book is aimed at the European reader or anyone else who is not in China [so there would also be the question of point of view]. It would be exciting to see how Chinese readers would perceive this book.
In Germany you seem to have forged a lot of links for Chinese comic artists?
In several editions of my comic magazine Orang we presented the works of Yan Cong [from Beijing], Hok Tak Yeung, and Chi Hoi [both from Hong Kong], and apparently it pays off for them to be visible in European magazines. Yan Cong, for example, was published in Italy after a small publishing house spotted his work in Orang. For me personally it's interesting to dabble in different scenes, as the work flow [in Germany] is different from the young scenes in Beijing and Nanjing that have developed rapidly in the last couple of years.
Are you hoping for the China hype with this book?
To be honest, the idea to make a book that sells well is always in the back of my mind when I start a book, but once I start working with the material, the thought disappears as the material itself becomes more important. It's already the case with this one.
Sascha's book is set to be published next year. In the meantime, see more of his work at his blog.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 63 ("People"). Images provided by Sascha Hommer.