Looking on the Past

Zhang Leping’s manhua The Wandering Life of Sanmao (三毛流浪记) follows Sanmao, a young boy continuously faced with personal and political hardship. This is a comic which reflects the time which preceded it, with veracity and tenderness. Prior to his comics career, Leping served as a captain of the Military Affairs Department comic propaganda team. The Sanmao books were created in 1935 shortly after what is referred to as the January 28 Incident – which left China in a state of economic and social turmoil.

Zhang Leping b. 1910, in Jiaxing, China

The Wandering Life of Sanmao (second in the collection) reflects Leping’s experience, particularly one of living among the orphans left behind by war. The Wandering Life of Sanmao offers a comic in which humor is analogous to tragedy, without any sense of irony, a hard punch to the gut. While political comics often can be snide about the way they disseminate their ideology, despite Leping’s fierce nationalist alignment and debilitating alcoholism, he chose to instead use empathy and not intellect to tell his story. The comic is rich in historical content, as the reader can experience China fighting a westernization, through its backgrounds, the passing civilians in visual description and demeanor. Leping writes a wonderful child hero, whose heroism is in his endurance. Sanmao, named for the three hairs on his head, begins as an ordinary child, who has his life essentially taken from him as a result of the war.

The drawing of the original black and white comic is superb, and though never published in the US is completely readable through images alone. Except for signage and a handful of panels, the bulk of the comic is pantomime. Even the dialogue expressed between characters is drawn and not written! Although the relationship between words and pictures in comics should never be debased (as it may be in the show-don’t-tell school of comics) the silence experienced in this comic is unbreakable, and this is a comic that keeps you within its timing, only refraining for pauses of humor, a softness. Leping’s work is noble, leaving his reader in awe of how a man who has experienced so much can describe innocence as he does. This particular collection of comics has been adapted into color comics, animation, film and even live theater productions over the span of 80 years.

Reading and making comics keeps you in a state of constant self-edification. At times we can get caught up in learning about the future direction of our art worlds, and we forget to pull from both sides – the vanguard of the present and the bottom of the past. Though the story of Sanmao is well ingrained in Chinese popular culture, it may fly under the radar of the contemporary comics readers. The reason to discuss this topic is to resurface an older history that belongs to many – not just the comics audience, not only the art-book community – and show the potential comics can have.

The Wandering Life of Sanmao is available in Chinese and French. The French edition won a Heritage Award at the 42nd Angoulême International Comics Festival (in 2015, 23 years after Leping’s passing). The classic black and white comic is harder to come by, but for those within driving distance, UC San Diego (California) has in its faculties a full collection of reprints.

Following is an excerpt from the 1981 published collection of 155 pages of the story of Sanmao (I wish I could inform you about which publisher, but I can’t read Chinese – if anyone reads this and knows, feel free to let me know.)



Erik Nebel

Erik Nebel is a contemporary comics maker, whose body of work is predominantly published digitally. The comics world is founded on a history of printed matter, and it often unintentionally disenfranchises work that is strictly made for the web. Web comics typically have their own forum apart from comics made for print, which is self-categorizing. Erik Nebel’s comics dominate their platform, in terms of simplicity for means of visual distribution, as well as accepting and employing the screen to their advantage in regard to color and motion.

Erik Nebel, from a formal standpoint, uses the elements of color, scale, pattern (repetition) to create a connection with their audience without means of establishing “character” descriptions. We look to Erik’s images of fluid, moving, form-ambiguous figures across the page, with the only rigidity in their work in the sequencing across the template of three rectangular panels.

Erik Nebel

It is a primitive instinct to read groups of figures as multiple persons when placed in the same space, so the setup of the comics are a defining line, implying a narrative. It’s a simple mechanism (the three panel grid) but without it, it would be a different kind of comic. If anything, the stationary structure of the grid enhances Erik’s graceful forms, and stark choices in color/contrast. Comics made for print usually see a loss in translation to the digital screen, but this is where Erik does their best to exploit the gap between the two. Nearly every strip they create vibrates between lines, flat against flat.

Erik Nebel

In 1963 Josef Albers published a book known as Interaction of Color, and described various principles, one being the Bezold Effect. This effect describes a color illusion called “optical mixture” where two or more colors perceived simultaneously are seen combined. From the impressionistic painters we have learned that they never presented, let us say, green by itself. Instead of using green paint mixed mechanically from yellow and blue, they applied the two unmixed in small dots, allowing perception of the green – as an impression. (Incidentally this is the same principle used in 4 color process printing).

Bezold Effect

Bezold Effect

Nebel’s colors are joyous and spontaneous, working to retain your attention as the eye reads the figure. The colors appear to have no code, which is important to the narrative of the non-binary; the stories are of figures in ecstasy, emotion.

When we look at the way the images relate to figures in art history, we can see Matisse. Bold color and iconography only suggesting “Humanity”, to tell stories of spirituality. When we talk about the Eastern perceptions of gender in imagery, they see male as an Earth figure, carnal and woman pertaining to the spiritual. The figures we see in these stories are both and neither. They are charged and meditative. I do not assume any comics maker is looking to be regarded through a lens outside their intentions, but the language of images is made for these sort of relationships.


Erik Nebel

Looking outside of a formal breakdown of Nebel’s comics, we see a space for loud, silent moments. For figures which best express themselves by means other than speech. We are challenged by Erik’s images, in such a way that while the digital screen generally promotes the shortening of the attention-span for images, this timing is thrown off by the interactive quality of Erik’s work.

Timing is one of the variables in comics that is controlled through the panel (largely through multiple panels), and Erik manages to alter this further through means of color, in very limited space. This questions what other ways of interacting with our readers we cartoonists may be overlooking.

Erik Nebel is not only a deft cartoonist demonstrating new boundaries, but with these comics is forcefully pushing a space for social change.

Erik Nebel


Erik Nebel has been published in print in Best American Comics 2015, and listed under Notable Comics in Best American Comics 2016. They have a 96 page compilation through Yeti Press of their online work. Erik Nebel participates with The4PanelProject (exploration of the four panel comics format) and you can see more of their work on their tumblr, where they post a new comic everyday.