Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Night Bus’

“I’m so nervous, I just sit and smile … your house is only another mile”

Drawn & Quarterly has this newly translated collection of stories from Zuo Ma, who wrote and drew these over the past decade or so. Orion Martin translated this, and we’re going to take a look!

I’m not the smartest person around – I’m clever enough, I suppose, and my memory is pretty good, and I have a head full of useless trivia, but that’s about it – and so whenever I read something or watch something that is smarter than I am, I furrow my brow and react like a stereotypical caveman – “Greg’s brain hurt!!!!” So it was with Night Bus, a surreal journey through Zuo Ma’s unconscious, where I keep thinking there’s something I’m missing and all the smart people with their tweed jackets and hip spectacles are laughing at my distress at not quite getting it. It’s certainly an interesting comic, but a dummy like me doesn’t think it’s quite great. Perhaps you’re smarter than I am (which isn’t too huge a leap to make) and you can get more out of it than I do.

Zuo’s art is gorgeous, and goes a long way to making the book worthwhile. He uses a rough line for the scenery, which is often riotously overwhelming, as nature is always encroaching on civilization in the book. We get beautiful trees and bushes coming right up to streets and houses, looming over them in a not-exactly-menacing manner, but in a way that implies the humans are simply holding them back briefly and will one day lose all that they’ve built. Small, stony paths take characters deep into forests, turning their worlds stranger and darker, and weird creatures come out of the wilderness to interact with them. The natural world is in contrast to the man-made, which appears a bit shoddy and mediocre. The streets of the towns are often crowded and messy, buildings sit half-done or in disrepair, and there’s that brutalist sense of design that seems to exist in communist countries. The most charming man-made places are those where nature has regained some control, as Zuo blends the foliage with the architecture, creating a pleasant blend. As this is a wildly surreal book, we get odd animals and people throughout the book, and Zuo does an excellent job making the animals anthropomorphic so they fit into the weird world easily and the people seem unconcerned when, say, a giant fish tries to sell them something in a market. There’s that sense of unreality about the book, but Zuo’s great attention to detail, as he draws every crack in the sidewalks and every beam of wood in the dilapidated houses and every leaf on the trees, means that the book feels grounded even as the stories get more fantastical. Zuo does a marvelous job creating this world (the book is set in China, naturally, and occasionally the characters find the Yangtze, but that’s the only location marker, if I recall correctly), and it helps the stories feel more “real” even as they get weird.

The stories are all loosely interconnected, as several characters show up in different ones, but they each tell a separate tale. Zuo, apparently, enjoys going back to old stories and reworking them based on changes in the passage of time, so we get an example here, as the final story is a “remastered” version of the first, done three years later after some things had changed in Zuo’s life and in the landscape of the story. It’s actually a pretty keen thing, and it would be interesting to see other creators do that kind of thing. The stories in this book are definitely surreal, as Zuo employs dream-like logic and odd characters to create this world. The two main discernible themes are the problems with aging and a nostalgia for a more idyllic past. The main character, a fictional surrogate for Zuo named Xiao Jun, worries about his grandmother, who’s beginning to forget things about him and others in her life. He also frets over the loss of his childhood surroundings, as progress is coming for the rural town where he grew up, and he’s not sure that’s necessarily a good thing (it’s not necessarily a bad thing, either – Zuo does a nice job keeping it ambiguous). Xiao appears in the book as a young man and a young boy, often in the same story, and while not all of the stories focus on him, his twin thoughts about aging and the loss of the past imbue the book with a general melancholy. It’s not exactly sad, just wistful. But the plots of the stories aren’t the point, and even Zuo’s themes aren’t all-encompassing. The stories are generally surreal, and that’s where the book loses me a bit and why I’m not smart enough to appreciate it. Of course I know that surrealism confounds meaning – that’s the point of surrealism – but whenever I read something like this, I sense there’s symbolism relating to the main themes – which are fairly easy to discern – that I’m missing. Perhaps it’s just that Zuo likes drawing humanoid chickens slaughtering actual chickens or dogs standing on their hind legs dressed like people, but at the same time, I get a vague sense that they actually do mean something. Whenever I read critics/reviewers writing about things like this (not this, as I haven’t seen any writing about this particular comic), they seem to know more about the symbolism than I do, and they seem to get more out of it. Again, I’m aware that you get out of art things that are personal to you, so I shouldn’t worry about how someone else reads this, but still … Then I think that those critics might be afraid of not seeming smart, so they make shit up and they don’t really recognize all the symbolism. I would never do that to you, good readers. When I don’t get something, I say I don’t get it. And I’m not completely positive I get Night Bus. That doesn’t completely invalidate it, of course – even the weirdest stuff in here is tinged with that melancholy I mentioned above, and the tone of the book, as well as the gorgeous art, goes a long way. But the surrealism keeps me at a distance, and I don’t love the stories contained herein. Perhaps you will get more out of it than I do.

I don’t know if there’s more to Night Bus than what I can glean from it. Zuo Ma is striving for a mood, and he hits it quite well, and the evocation of a setting and the feelings associated with that setting are well done. If that’s all it is, that’s fine, if a bit facile. I don’t get much more out of this, but again, I’m not too bright. This is a fascinating book, but it’s frustrating. Maybe I just need to stick to The Bachelorette and leave the smart books to the smart people!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


    1. Actually, fun useless trivia re: Shortbus to tie it into this book, one of the stars of the movie was Sook-Yin Lee, who dated Chester Brown for a while. And of course, many works by Chester Brown have been published by D&Q, like the book Greg is reviewing here.

      It all connects!

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