The piece I have in mind today is Hong Kong-based Suen Wai Kwan’s (孫威軍) graphic novel The Legend of Guan-Yin (觀世音), a 5-volume series about the timelessness of Buddhist compassion. I use the words “graphic novel” rather than “comic” because comics belong to the realm of American or Japanese superheroes. Graphic novels are “comics” through which the art is a means of sharing concerns about the human condition (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Mike Carey’s Lucifer are classic examples). The Legend of Guan-Yin might not attain cult status like Sandman, but it certainly deserves to be called a graphic novel.
The Legend of Guan-Yin is set in two periods of history: one in futuristic Hong Kong and the other in the ancient past. We are taken through the journeys of two protagonists. One is an arrogant and wealthy piano player named Lan Mi (藍米), and the second is a playful princess called Shan Er or Benevolence (善兒). She is also known as Third Princess (三公主). The characters’ personalities are fairly typical: Lan Mi is somewhat estranged from both his kickboxing brother and violinist girlfriend, his mother is bed-ridden in hospital, and there is a jealous rival out to destroy his reputation. As for Shan Er, she demonstrates an uncanny affinity with animals throughout the series and is so saintly that the word “romance” never appears once in her vocabulary. Needless to say, Suen is modelling her after the bodhisattva ideal found in all Buddhist traditions. Her human side is shown fully in her naïveté and horror at her father’s (the king) hunger for power. The few non-fictional Buddhist figures that Suen uses make very brief appearances, and are used to drive the plot along (I translated a segment of volume 3 here, which features the Buddha, with Suen’s consent).
Suen spins out a plot that is straightforward yet contains its own twists and turns within. Shan Er, who grows up with two spoilt blood sisters, has a fairly simple and straightforward plot: the discovery of the king’s violent military campaigns leads her to flee with her sidekick, the young yogi apprentice Xiao Dong (小冬). Their adventures centre on her growth and eventual conversion to the Buddha’s Dharma. In another world and time, Lan Mi undergoes various crises before finding true peace in Guan Yin’s love. Since he juggles two protagonists, Suen needs to give Lan Mi and Shan Er a balanced share of attention, and I think he achieves this, although Lan Mi’s resolution is more satisfying to me than Shan Er’s. But just how are the two connected? The clue is in Guan Yin herself, but any further details will spoil how Suen brings together a musical maestro and ancient princess.
The art is good. Generally, Suen seems to prefer drawing gracile, thin characters (be they tall or short). His attention to scenic backgrounds is also pleasing to the eye. Much of the dialogue consists of reflections or monologues, which may feel overused to some. But I feel he has inserted these reflections only in places that need them, especially when some context needs to be explained. His style is neither revolutionary nor conservative: it is cautiously experimental, similar to many Chinese comic artists.
I do hope that someday this series can be translated into English, not only to invite many more to enjoy this creative attempt to popularize Buddhist thought, but also to promote Suen’s art and storytelling. Perhaps one day someone will feel this is a worthwhile task. Another one of his works is Painting Warriors (繪戰師), a graphic novel about a fictional war on the Silk Road between Crusaders from Jerusalem and the Tangut Empire. Whilst noticeably bloodier and intended for a readership with an itch for action, it enjoys the same kind of storytelling enthusiasm in The Legend of Guan Yin. The latter is recommended, if only for a fun read, and is certainly a welcome change from the usual scholars’ works, whose authors face cultural, professional, and even psychological pressure to make a religious idea more complex than it really is. Not that Buddhism is simple, but simplicity can also have depth. And that is what The Legend of Guan Yin is like.
You can read more articles written by Raymond Lam on http://mingkok.buddhistdoor.com/en/section/12805