Best known for his award-winning “slice-of-life fantasy” webcomic Tails, Ethan Young turns from the semi-autobiographical to historical fiction for his next project. Nanjing: The Burning City, a graphic novel due out later this year from Dark Horse, tells the story of two Chinese soldiers during the night before the Nanjing Massacre.
This will be big for Young; not only will the year see the release of a graphic novel he’s been planning since college, but he and his wife are also expecting their first child. We spoke about the project, fatherhood and more.
JK Parkin: What can you tell me about Nanjing: The Burning City?
Ethan Young: Nanjing: The Burning City chronicles the journey of two abandoned Chinese soldiers on the eve of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937, as the once-capital is captured by superior Japanese forces. As part of a larger conflict, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the massacre remains one of the most harrowing tragedies in China’s history. The two soldiers encounter allies and enemies along the way, and are forced to evaluate their own concept of morality.
What led you to want to write something on this particular event?
As a Chinese-American, the Nanjing Massacre has always been a very sensitive subject for me, as well as a difficult subject to broach. I learned about the Second Sino-Japanese War from my parents before I learned about Pearl Harbor in school. The conflict is a huge touchstone for an entire generation of Chinese nationals. But ultimately, China’s involvement in World War II, their contributions to the Allied effort, is largely relegated to footnotes when discussed in the States, even with several notable books written on the subject.
My purpose with this book is not only to inform readers of the event, but also to stretch my storytelling skills. I wanted to craft something both classical and cinematic, something I’ve never done on this scale. My hope is that anyone who picks up this book, without reading the words, can visually follow what’s going on.
What sort of research did you do about the time period while working on this graphic novel?
I’ve been doing research on and off for about 10 years. It started with Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking and The Diaries of John Rabe. I also had an amazing book, Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution, photographed by Jack Birns. The early part of the 20th century saw Shanghai and Nanjing both rapidly industrialize with Western influence, so the photographs proved invaluable for setting the tone and atmosphere for my book.
Nanjing was going to be my first comic after dropping out of college. Unfortunately, my skills were definitely not up to task in my early 20s, so I shelved the project and moved onto Tails, holding onto all my notes and reference. I would periodically revisit the story just to remind myself to work on it someday. After I wrapped up Tails, I read Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter and The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence, both of which delved into China’s tumultuous formation into an eventual global power.
Film-wise, I watched Nanking, a heart-wrenching documentary where actors read from the diaries of the Westerners who protected the Chinese civilians. There were also several films: The City of Life and Death, John Rabe and The Flowers of War. I wanted to get a sense of how other creators were tackling the story, and although all three films were good, they all dealt with the redemption of a foreigner. Be it a Japanese soldier, or Christian Bale. It’s understandable, since a foreigner’s perspective provides an objective view of an atrocity. But I wanted to go another way.
What can you say about the two Chinese soldiers who are the focus of the book? Are they based on real people from the time?
The two soldiers are fictional. There’s the Captain, a Chinese version of The Man With No Name, but perhaps a little less stoic. And there’s Lu, a loyal private who grows to question the Captain’s moral choices. I used the structural narrative of a Western to build the story, so the main characters are somewhat archetypal. I’ve casually referred to Nanjing as an “Eastern.”
I wanted to avoid an academic, textbook approach; simply going through the bullet-points of the atrocity with correlated illustrations. I have nothing against such graphic novels, but I find them to be somewhat clinical and detached. With Nanjing, I’m hoping the story will resonate with readers, while still informing them enough about the incident that they don’t walk away ignorant.
What’s your inspiration for the book from a visual standpoint? And are you doing everything yourself, or are you working with anyone on inks, colors, etc.?
Over the years, I’ve become influenced by the works of Miyazaki, Otomo and Kurtzman, just to name a few. I gradually applied those influences into the last portion of Tails, but it’s not as noticeable until you see this new book. In terms of storytelling, as I mentioned before, I want Nanjing to feel cinematic in scope. I’m using a lot of wide panels and a very consistent, three-tiered panel layout. This not only allows the art to breathe, but I feel the consistency in panels is less confusing to a more casual reader. This is not to imply that cinema is empirically superior to comics. It’s just that this particular story will benefit from a more cinematic approach.
The book is in black and white with graytones, which I’m doing all by myself. I hand letter all my personal comics, but this is the first time I’ve lettered with a Crow quill pen. I’m hands-on to a fault.
What led you to work with Dark Horse on this project?
I met my current editor, Jim Gibbons, through a mutual friend, and we immediately hit it off. While shopping the graphic novel, Dark Horse was one of my TOP choices, and I couldn’t be happier right now. (Like, how could you go wrong with Dark Horse?) Jim has made the entire work process smooth and effortless.
I imagine after working on Tails on your own for so long, both in terms of the artistic process and from the business side, you’re probably used to being self-sufficient. What are some of the differences you’ve noted in working with a publisher?
The biggest (and best) difference is the confidence that the work will be published. The absence of uncertainty is the most elevating experience ever. Plus, I know that Jim and the team at Dark Horse are going to promote my book to the absolute best of their ability. When promoting Tails, it always felt like playing catchup.
You mentioned on social media that in 2013 you considered giving up on creating your own comics and just doing art for hire, but you credited your wife with keeping you going. Can you expand on where your head was in 2013 when you were considering that, and where it is now?
In 2013, Tails: Volume Two was canceled by my publisher, and I was emotionally devastated. I asked my wife, rather melodramatically, “Does anyone in comics care about what I have to say?” I’ve been very lucky in my life; I have a strong freelance career and a supportive partner, which is a lot more than other artists have. I figured, that should be enough for me, shouldn’t it? Carol offered her unwavering support, which she almost always offers. She reminded me of my larger life goals, and how you shouldn’t abandon them. It sounds cliche, but those reassurances from my wife meant the world to me. The hardest part about being a cartoonist (besides the financial uncertainty) is the constant search for motivation, which isn’t always easy to find. It can sometimes be impossible to find when your book gets cancelled. So, luckily, Carol resuscitated my motivation.
I’m really, really good now, I would say. But being a neurotic person, there’s always a self-destructive insecurity hidden away somewhere in your brain.
What else have you been working on or have in the pipeline?
I’ve promised my writing partner, Tod Emko, that I’ll start working on A Piggy’s Tale #4 as soon as I’m done with Nanjing, which should be within four to six weeks. I also have a day job as a character designer at Animation Domination Hi-Def, so that sucks up a lot of time. As for Tails, my contract with my previous publisher has expired, so hopefully I can start packaging it as one large omnibus in print. Things are still up in the air with that one.
I’m also expecting my first kid in the spring, so THAT trumps everything else, including my new graphic novel (but not by much). I’m already planning my next big comic project (a sci-fi action adventure), but I probably won’t be able to start working on it until after the first 6-12 months of parenthood. You’re a parent, John, so you tell me. Haha.
Can you draw one-handed? I remember doing a lot of things in those first six months in the middle of the night with just one hand, holding Jack in my other arm. Seriously, though, congratulations and best wishes to you and your wife.
Thanks, John! I can definitely do a lot of things with one hand, but I’ll probably avoid drawing with baby in tow. Now would be a good time for the cats to learn to be nannies.
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