“You Know This Man Has Translated The Chinese Name of Coca-Cola…”

The Library
by Chihoi
Conundrum International
ISBN 1-894994-72-8
184 pages, black and white, hardcover
review by BK Munn
Chihoi Lee, who creates comics under the pen name Chihoi, is one of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s tiny alternative comics scene. While most of the comics market in China is dominated by Japanese manga and the Japanese-inflected manhua industry, represented in North America mostly by a handful of genre exercises published by the same people who publish Sailor Moon and Bleach, for the past decade or so a small core of writers and artists, influenced in part by the wider world of art and literature, as well as European comics in general, have carved out a niche for themselves producing personal and sometimes political work for a growing audience. Emerging from the 90s magazine collective Cockroach, Chinhoi has gone on to co-found the group Springrolllll, made up of 5 of the most well-known “alt” cartoonists at work in the HK scene.
As evinced in this collection, the first English-only translation for the artist after a series of European publications, and the flagship title of Canadian publisher Conundrum’s new “International” imprint, Chihoi is a very subtle cartoonist, more concerned with self-expression and memory than some of his contemporaries. While not exactly a crackerjack draftsman, his cartooning is nonetheless very evocative and gestural, with an attention to body language, atmosphere, and pacing; adept at creating a feeling of space and interesting patterns, with a meandering line and regular panel grids. While some of the stories here are traditional pen, brush and ink productions, with a moderate amount of hatching and deep blacks, others are reproduced from pencils, full of sketchy lines, smudges, and shading. In this regard he has much in common with some of his more avant garde North American contemporaries like C.F. and even Kim Deitch, although he also cites Anke Feuchtenberger, Amanda Vähämäki, and the FRMK artists as influences.
Chihoi comes across as a very literary cartoonist, in the sense that many of his stories remind us of Modernist fiction touchstones like Borges and Kafka, replete with dreams, doppelgangers, labyrinths, libraries, and odd transformations. The title story, “The Library,” follows an anonymous library patron as he searches for a book mentioned in a text he inherited from his grandmother. A malevolent library clerk lets our hero into the stacks, but confiscates the incriminating book, tearing out the reference and tossing the remaining binding onto a passing cart. The hero then descends through a series of increasingly tiny and more-hellish reading rooms, until arriving in a cramped, Alice-in-Wonderland-style cave where he sits between two skeletons (his grandparents?) and reads the book he has been searching for. The same clerk reappears in the next story, “Borrowed Books,” reprising his role as bespectacled agent of bureaucracy, as part of a narrative in which an old man attempts to accumulate, by hook or by crook, all the books his dead wife ever read, in order to burn them at her shrine and them immolate himself in a fatal fit of loneliness and heartbreak.
Of the other stories, “Sorry” has a Killoffer vibe, “The Sea” and “I’m With My Saint” are almost post-Impressionist, and “Summer” and “Father” read as poignant surrealist-autobio, a la Chester Brown. Chihoi has a lot to say about family, love, and anxiety and his stories reward careful contemplation and rereading. His art is funny, absurd, depressing, and poetic in almost equal measure and the comics in The Library are a welcome addition to the ever-widening world of comics.