Black Back Comics: Chinese Manga for the QQ Generation

28 Aug 2008

Recently at a Family Mart convenience store I encountered 黑背 (“Black Back”) comics, the creations of Zhang Yuanying (张元英). I’ve been a fan of independent comics for a while, but I’ve had trouble finding much I like in China. The main thing that has turned me off of mainland Chinese comics is their highly derivative nature. They all seem like copies of Japanese manga! Not 黑背, though. While it does borrow some elements from Japanese manga, it has its own simple style. And it’s definitely darker than the comics of Zhu Deyong (朱德庸), the wildly popular Taiwanese cartoonist.

Apparently 黑背 gained popularity on Tencent’s QQ community through the author’s blog. Here are the three 黑背 books I bought:

我们丫丫吧 宅男宅女私生活 黑背读奥运

我们丫丫吧

A very morbid little book about suicide. It’s basically a guide to suicide in comic form, going through all the various possible methods, rating them according to various factors such as pain, chances of success, consequences of failure. Each section has a little “commentary” at the end using recycled art reminding you why suicide is actually a bad idea, which I’m 100% sure the editor (or censors?) demanded be added in so that the book can’t be seen as totally condoning suicide.

OK, so I like Edward Gorey; I can deal with morbid illustrations and themes. What I really can’t forgive, though, is that the comic just isn’t very funny. I guess I did learn some new suicide-related vocabulary from it, but I hope that never comes in useful. I have to admit, though, that the Mac-using devil character amused me.

1-devil

Also, after reading most of the book, doing Google and Baidu searches, and asking several Chinese friends, I’m still not sure what the 丫丫 in the title means. That annoys me.

宅男宅女私生活

I guess this one is semi-autobiographical. We learn about the married life of the young artist, in comic form. It’s kind of cute, and definitely less morbid than the other book. Unfortunately, it’s still not terribly funny.

Here’s an example of a simple strip:

2-hit

Again, I like the art, but the “gag” is only good for a smile at best. It caught my attention for its use of the term 河蟹 (river crab), a pun on the term 和谐 (harmonize).

黑背读奥运

I was completely surprised to discover that this book was by far the most entertaining of the three. It seems that the most work went into it (wonder why??). The book gives a humorous history of the Olympics, then goes on to give comic commentary on each event. It ends with some lame pro-Olympics propaganda (seems this book was 河蟹d as well).

This is probably my favorite drawing from the book, illustrating the great variety of foreigners flocking to the Beijing Olympics:

O-aliens

The Value of 黑背

Like I said, I like the style of art. It’s cute and fun, but dark at times. That’s a big plus for me. Unfortunately, 黑背 is not terribly funny (Zhe Deyong is far, far funnier), but the Olympic book showed me that there’s some promise there.

I think that the handwritten Chinese characters are a good form of reading practice for a learner of Chinese. Very few Chinese study materials prepare learners for handwritten characters. While the characters in these comics don’t look like typical Chinese handwriting, the variation will still be good practice in stretching basic character recognition ability.

As for vocabulary, the intermediate (and even elementary) learner should be able to read much of 宅男宅女私生活 (see example above), but the others will pose more of a challenge.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Baidu Zhidao is good for modern slang (unless you posted this question yourself!):

    Q. 有一本书叫《我们丫丫吧》,丫丫什么意思?
    A. YY 一般是意淫一下,就是自己感觉上爽一下,没别的意思,YY在淘宝上面就是指衣服了

    Of course, the Taobao part isn’t relevant (YY = yiyi = 衣衣 = 衣服). On the other hand, 意淫 means fantasize sexually, where in this case the author is twisting it to mean fantasizing about suicide. I’m not sure if that is a common usage or a clever invention by 黑背.

    Was there a reason why the devil uses a Mac? That’s pretty funny.

  2. yy means yiyin which bears the meaning of fantasizing things for the purpose of creating one’s own sometimes fabricated joy. (sorry, can’t type in Chinese from this laptop).

  3. Thanks, Micah and Marco.

    I actually came across that page, Micah, but I felt the 衣服 thing kind of discredited it. I couldn’t find enough corroborating info to validate the 意淫 thing, so it’s best to hear it from a native speaker. I also wasn’t sure if 丫丫 was the same as YY.

  4. 我同意Micah Sittig 说的。我想作者的YY 可能是那个意思,想各种自杀的方法,最后他不是没去做吗。(徒劳)
    我也很喜欢朱德庸的漫画,偶尔,我把它作为汉语教材。

  5. The Chinese character “丫” is writen similarly like the English letter “Y”, so here 丫丫=YY, but when we talk we use its English pronunciation [wai’wai], because to talk 意淫 in your daily life is not that suitable and polite, perhaps you could offend someone. You maybe know “歪” has the similar pronunciation of the letter “Y”, so YY has another meaning of 歪想.

  6. […] look at some homegrown Chinese comics offering more than just a riff on Japanese manga. […]

  7. Here you go, I think YY is well explained by above posts. Just want to point out, this usage is very popular on but also mostly restricted to the internet. And from the look of it, the whole series of books might be published on the internet first, and it is full of the ” 冷笑话“ (cold joke) style humor, which is a 1990s generation thing. It’s natural you don’t find it’s funny. Not because you are a foreigner( I know you all hate to hear that), just you are too old or they are too crazy.

    Also, the language of the books is very interesting looking from what you’ve picked out there. Say, very “internet” and “90后”. And they maybe even darker if you fully understand them. Like “B” in “B嘴“ from the second book actually is the equivalent of “pussy” in English(well, you know I’m not talking about some kind of cats, don’t you?). I guess this is just a tip of an iceberg. If you don’t hang out on chinese internet forums very often(I doubt any of you do), you probably won’t know what it’s talking about 70% of the time. So about language learning, I’m not quite sure it’s the right book. Even the “90后” do talk differently in an everyday conversation. However, they may serve as a window to look at the popular culture of china today if you are interested.

    Last thing, an example of “YY”: the criticism of China from the west. You can do it if it makes you feel good, just don’t hope to achieve anything in reality. I’m just providing an example of how “YY” is used on serious matters. Don’t be offended, I didn’t invent it, it’s just how the native speakers say it.

  8. I have to make some corrections to my last post. The part about 1990s generation language is not entirely true now that I have checked out some of the guy’s comic work.

    First of all, thank you John for introducing such interesting stuff. Just as I suspected, indeed it is first published on the artist’s blog. http://blog.tom.com/tianjue8059001 Here’s the link if anyone’s interested about his other work. Now I have read more about his work, I don’t think his language is really that “90后“, he does use a lot of popular internet slangs, but that’s not the focus for sure. He is just using light language to touch some very serious or even dark topics. Like his latest work “与性同行”(Walking with Sex), actually is about sex workers and their life. His humor is sarcastic, more dark than cold and you have to be really aware of the popular culture as well as the social events in china to appreciate it. If the casual mentioning of “周老虎“, ”很黄很暴力“ etc. loses you, then you probably won’t find it funny.

    As for language learning, now I think it’s not a bad idea for advanced learners. You will get to know many slangs, swears and hidden meanings of common words that you usually won’t hear in daily life. They are there, just you won’t hear them much because people tend to be more polite(or uptight) with Laowais. Then again, beginning and even intermedium learners can be lost completely, or simply just don’t get it to feel like continue reading. I guess it can be used as a test to see how involved you are in chinese society. If it makes you laugh, then you must know a big deal more about China than many of the so called china experts.

    This guy is very different form 朱德庸, 朱德庸 is too “小资”. Now something for you to think: 1 What is the meaning of “JB”. 2 What is the meaning of “日本“. You will find the answer in his work.

  9. Chen1,

    Thanks for the comments. I agree that the 网络语言 slant may make it a bit hard for some of us to decipher the humor. I admit that I don’t spend much time on Chinese BBSes, even if I do have a little knowledge of 网络语言.

    Still, let’s take a look at the example from 宅男宅女私生活 above. You have the 河蟹 bit, which is pretty well-known. You have the B嘴 thing, which I’m not sure contributes to the comic much except for a slight effect on tone. (I did actually make a “B-X” association when reading the comic the first time, but I don’t see it as terribly relevant to the context. If I’m wrong, I guess I totally missed something…) I think this example is pretty typical.

    Other places in the book, you have the 黑背 character calling his wife LP, and sometimes referring to his manhood as JJ. Neither of these references is hard to figure out in context, and they’re usually not too central anyway.

    I don’t think the difficulty lies so much in the net-speak used (as you say in your second comment), as in the actual style of humor. I can only speak from my “foreigner that has learned Chinese to an advanced stage” perspective when I say that it’s just not that funny. I wonder if the 90后 crowd finds it absolutely hilarious, or if perhaps they just enjoy it because it’s specifically targeted at them, home-grown on their own web territory.

  10. I’ve actually seen “丫丫” recently in the title of a song by a (rather annoying, depending on your musical tastes) Singaporean twin singing group, BY2. I didn’t get the meaning, either. So, thinks to the other people who explained that!

    At first, I was kind of hoping it’d be kind of like a Chinese “Dilbert” or something, but I’m not sure this is exactly it. Maybe a bit similar, at least with the Mac-using Devil, but not quite the same. Anyways, I thought the Darth Vader cartoon was very funny!

  11. sloppyzhou Says: August 31, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Anyone interested in improving their Chinese via comics and handwriting could also pick up a few of the 绿豆蛙 books. I am in no way saying they’re funny, but my girlfriend gave me a copy recently and told me that if I were able to make jokes like that everyone would think I was really 厉害. I’d rate the humor at about a Hallmark card level and almost never funnier, but the handwriting is tricky and very satisfying to figure out.

    Here’s the link: http://www.uuwow.com/

    Good luck

  12. They’re mildly amusing, some of them. I like the way the color’s done. The humor might be more effective if it were a little more subtle. In the MacBook one, for example, the label on the transporter effect comes a little too close to explaining the joke.

    Good point about the handwriting recognition practice. I’ve noticed that a lot of cartoonists seem to use this kind of writing style, with the circles and oddly-angled elements. Is it an unofficial industry standard, some sort of hanzi Comic Sans?

  13. Isnt 丫 just a sound like “ah” or something similar?

  14. […] another illustration from Black Back’s book, […]

  15. sloppyzhou,

    I used to watch 绿豆蛙 in ads on the subway. Can’t say I’m a fan (hate the style), but if it works…

  16. Martin,

    You’re thinking of 呀.

  17. […] I mentioned in my Black Back post, I think learning to read hand-written Chinese is an important skill that’s not emphasized in […]

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