Graphic correspondence, Adrian Kinnaird

Island to Island: A Graphic Exchange Between Taiwan and New Zealand
Ant Sang, Tim Gibson, Rachel Fenton, Sean Chuang, 61Chi and Ahn Zhe
Dala Publishing, $45.00, ISBN 9789866634567

Island to Island is the unique product of a joint publishing initiative between the Publishers Association of New Zealand, the Taipei Book Fair Foundation and the New Zealand Book Council, in the form of a graphic novelist exchange: giving three cartoonists from New Zealand and three from Taiwan the opportunity to collaborate and produce a graphic novel together.

In October 2014, Taiwanese cartoonists Sean Chuang, 61Chi and Ahn Zhe travelled to New Zealand to meet and collaborate with local cartoonists Tim Gibson, Rachel Fenton and Ant Sang. The following February saw our cartoonists join their collaborators in Taiwan to continue working on the project and attend the Taipei International Book Fair 2015, at which New Zealand was a guest of honour.

The finished result of this cultural exchange is a graphic novel in which the six cartoonists share personal stories with each other in a series of 18 interlocking tales, which can be read separately but, read as a whole, form a visual conversation between the six artists across two cultures.

It’s an ambitious undertaking to combine multiple artists on a single project of this kind – more often than not resulting in a bland amalgamation of individual voices into a single artistic statement; but, here, their difference in approach to art and storytelling proves to be this book’s greatest strength. Rather than forcing their styles together, the artists have instead “gifted” a story to each other – sharing a memory or story as a response to their conversations and interactions during the exchange.

Despite language proving to be an initial barrier to communication for the artists, they clearly share a fluency in creativity, as their stories manage to capture revealing and intimate reflections of one another through graphic storytelling.

For example, 61Chi’s story for Rachel Fenton observes Fenton’s life up until their meeting through the evolution of her hairstyle, while Fenton’s response looks inward – imagining a room for 61Chi and what it may tell her about her personality and view of the world outside of this dream construct. Ant Sang and Sean Chang share stories of fatherhood, and a combined love of kung-fu heroics. Elsewhere, Ahn Zhe shares photographs of people from her city, in which she hopes Tim Gibson may find character inspiration, and Gibson, in return, offers a parable about reaching for greater creative heights while enjoying present success.

Their artistic styles couldn’t be more different, from Sang and 61Chi’s polished illustrative comic book styles, to Zhe’s photography and Fenton’s impressionistic visual poetry – the most visually versatile across the project – but together they form a wonderfully visual exchange of ideas that more than lives up to its title, making this inter-island cultural collaboration a rousing success.

Presented in an oversized format, lavishly designed by 61Chi as a gift book with English and Mandarin text in mind, Island to Island represents a new benchmark for cultural collaboration in the arts sector and, with a quality result like this, one hopes there will be more to follow.

Adrian Kinnaird is the author of From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics; a review from our Autumn 2014 issue is available in our online archive.

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Posted in Graphic novel, Literature and Review
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