China's subversive illustrator on walking the censorship line, free speech and publishing
Beijing-based comic designer and illustrator Satan Lucky—a light-hearted name choice he made as a teenager—is not a dark character at all. On the contrary, he’s a smiling, cheerful young man with a very independent spirit and a true passion for storytelling.
Since his childhood, Lucky has been fascinated by manga culture and the late Japanese master Osamu Tezuka (author and creator of the iconic Astro Boy) who soon became one of his main sources of inspiration. “Tezuka’s 'Phoenix' is the highest point reached by Asian comics, it’s deeply meaningful and full of poetry, much more than a product for kids" Lucky says.
Since the times he used to stage night escapes from his military-style university, Lucky has had to fight with the firmly rooted Chinese idea that comics are for kids; artwork that tolerates a limited amount of truth and visual brutality. There is not a standard age rating system yet, therefore being published in China often means juggling along a tight rope of censorship—everyone involved, from the author to the printshop, has to be well aware of the risks they face. A rash decision can result in the end of a publishing company.
Lucky’s last encounter with censorship was a few months ago, when he designed a satirical strip about animals sitting in a restaurant and ordering human parts from a menu. He explains, “At first the publisher thought that nudity was too explicit. I can’t say I agreed, since fish and meat usually appear undressed on restaurant menus, but I accepted to put a pair of trousers on the human delicacy. But at the end it was still considered too provocative for publication.”
The usually free domain of the internet can also become a territory of harsh censorship—on local microblogs an "inappropriate" Tweet doesn’t last longer than five minutes before it's removed. However Lucky believes that something is changing, even if we can’t talk about a revolution of free speech yet. “Self-awareness about the sensitivity of your contents is a key factor," he says, "and finding alternatives to deliver your message is also a creative challenge, more than just a compromise."
In "Book of China’s Strange Happenings" (Chinese title: "Huaxia Yishilu") Lucky has bravely accepted this challenge and found a successful mechanism to tell the story of a dystopian society, where reality often transcends the boundaries of imagination. It is a collection of monsters, drawn in the style of traditional ukiyo-e, each of them is a transfiguration of real episodes or phenomena of contemporary Chinese society: The Angry Stare of Pollution behind the Chinese "air-pocalypse;" the Monster of Land Speculation, disseminating buildings all over the city; the thousand ears and eyes of Big Brother; the Mosquito of Inflation, whose flatulences sweep zeros off the banknotes and many others.
“My generation has been fed with utilitarianism and atheism, moral bindings became less and less important, and I see envy and possession as the main causes of many evils and abuses of nowadays society," says Lucky. Still, he doesn’t claim himself to be an "artivist." His main interest is to tell meaningful stories. His monsters seem to be an effort to awaken a generation which probably never had the chance to question the fundamental tenets of their life, to discover their deep desires and ambitions. Overwhelmed by the demands of family, a competitive schooling system and a fast-paced society, many post '80s kids unknowingly slipped into alienation and now seem to be doomed to the role of helpless spectators.
"Book of China’s Strange Happenings," including nearly 50 drawings, is part of Lucky’s effort to get closer to the essence of things. In his words, “If everybody had real freedom of choice in his life, there would not be room left for envy and possession.”
Images courtesy of Satan Lucky