Unworldly Comics: Interview with Woshibai

Illustration a pool of water stretching into the distance.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Woshibai first tried his hand at drawing comics, but his dreamlike works, powered by a simple yet instantly readable art style, have drawn the attention of audiences across the globe. Working almost exclusively in sketch-like black and white drawings, Woshibai creates a fantastical world where scale, dimension, or reality can shift at any moment. His wide panel comics (a format known as tiaoman “strip comics” in China) compress setting, action, and conclusion into a tightly packaged bundle that is perfectly suited to internet dissemination or a lianhuanhua-sized book.

I recently spoke to the Shanghai-based cartoonist about his creative practice.

Illustration of a planet hanging over an empty orchestra setup.

R. Orion Martin: Can you tell me about your background in art and how you started drawing comics?

Woshibai: I have always loved to draw. During high school I studied sketching and watercolors at a small studio and I studied Industrial Design at Shanghai Normal University. It wasn’t until I enrolled that I learned I have no interest in Industrial Design. I used to cut class and spend my days drawing in my dorm room, studying images and artworks I found on the internet.

After graduation, I worked in the video game industry and did occasional illustrations for magazines or brands. In 2016, The Good Life and Elle Men commissioned me to draw comics, and that was the first time I tried the medium. Then in 2017 the editor Tian Ke asked me to take part in the Soft Candy series, and for a long time afterwards I was drawing one comic every week. Throughout this process, I built up experience and confidence in my work, and I came to enjoy the process. The response online has been more than I could have imagined, and I’ve continued making comics ever since.

ROM: What attracts you to the format of comics? What are you interested in exploring in your work?

WSB: In comics, the author controls both time and space just by using static images. This is the aspect I find most attractive. I’ve found that some feelings or situations that are difficult to convey in a single image can be seamlessly articulated through a comic. For any skilled artist, I think trying a few comics would naturally be an appealing option. I haven’t been drawing comics for long, so right now I’m trying to establish a preliminary framework, a synthesis of artistic style, worldview, character, and event.

Short comic of a man waking from sleep and walking into a garden.

ROM: You work in a wide range of styles. How are these multiple veins of work different?

WSB: I usually draw fantastical or dreamlike comics, but at times I suddenly feel compelled to draw a fragment of a memory or of everyday life. Certain art styles are more suited to the different subject matters. When I’m composing fantastical works, I have to imagine all sorts of things, but my realistic comics are taken directly from my life.

ROM: What’s your process for developing the unique plotlines of those works? Are they based on dreams? 

WSB: I begin by sketching on paper. Occasionally I can imagine a complete scenario all at once, but more often than not the sketches are just scattered drawings. They serve as a primer for the works, a starting point for divergent ideas and new connections. Sometimes they lead me to a dead end, and sometimes it takes me to a story that I never would have expected. My inspiration doesn’t come from dreams, but from the images bubbling up to the surface of my mind. 

Comic of a tiny person going to work with full sized people and climbing a ladder to get up to their desk.

ROM: How do you know when a work is ready to be published?

WSB: I have a QQ chat group with a few friends where I upload draft comics. When they all agree that a certain outline is good, I draw it out.

ROM: The same characters often appear in your works. Do you see these isolated episodes as building towards a larger plotline?

WSB: In the past, I thought about making the individual comics coalesce into a plot, but I gave up on that idea. Maybe what I really want to express is just these fragmentary stories. I’m not interested in forcing some far-fetched concept onto them in order to fit them all together.

ROM: Have you noticed certain types of work are more popular with different audiences?

WSB: I’ve noticed that Western audiences are more accepting of the “weird” comics or comics that lack a concrete plot, while Chinese audiences seem to like cute things. I think Western audiences also prefer things that look “cool,” but these are just general impressions. I’m not too attuned to that.

Illustration of a pool with a forest behind it.

ROM: Is it different interacting with audiences in the United States and China?

WSB: I don’t think there’s any difference. I have received a great deal of kind and forthright feedback from both sides.

ROM: Recently there has been a lot of amazing work coming out of the independent comics community in China. Can you speak about your thoughts on making comics in China?

WSB: That’s right, I recently submitted work to the GAME anthology by WildThingsPress, and all of the other works were outstanding. I read the Special Comix anthologies and Yan Cong’s Narrative Addiction series during college. Those independently published comics left a deep impression on me. I was also inspired by the writing of [Chinese author] Zhu Yue. I think making comics in China, it’s easy to feel the influence of these local creators. The development of social networking services has also made it easier for authors to publish and disseminate their works.

Comic of Woshibai as a child covering a phone with a blanket because he was afraid of it.

ROM: You made some delightful sketches while tabling at abC Shanghai. What materials do you use for your published  works? 

WSB: Actually it’s been some time since I drew on paper, so I was a little out of practice. I usually just do the sketches on paper and use a computer to organize them and draw the final versions.

ROM: What are you working on now?

WSB: I’m drawing more comics for my social media and doing some illustrations. I plan to put a collection of my comics out when I feel there’s enough.