If you’ve never heard of the Shanghai cartoonist who goes by the mononym Woshibai, don’t worry, that’s probably by design. One of the most popular underground artists in China today, he’s about as secretive as you can get in a country with unparalleled surveillance and clamped down internet. He’s like if Banksy was Daft Punk, only his canvas is digital and he’s a pretty big deal on Instagram.
Now the enigmatic artist is set to take his work offline with the simply titled 20 km/h, which collects dozens of comics drawn and published online between 2017 and 2020 in a lovely package you can enjoy without the fear of jeopardizing your social credit score.
Not quite comic strips, not quite stories, Woshibai’s cartoons are more like illustrated vignettes that vacillate between minimalism and abstraction – possibly too abstract for some, honestly. It’s not surprising to learn that Woshibai is a professional illustrator as his comics are beautifully rendered with the mathematical precision of a draftsman, yet with the pondering reflection of a philosopher.
There’s no dialogue, and (despite crediting Megan Tan and Francine Yulo’s translation from the original Mandarin) there’s not much text, apart from each comic’s title. While this could seem a little strange, Woshibai has called this as a “wordless” collection – a stark contrast to how word heavy his comics can be elsewhere. This also lets the visual storytelling take center stage, even if many of the comics don’t really have much of a narrative.
A common theme has Woshibai’s anonymous characters reaching out and grabbing background objects, bringing them into the foreground and sometimes in the reverse. The Earth, Moon, and stars are frequent subjects and Woshibai seems content to play fast and loose with scale and proximity. An ice cube becomes a work of art, a book becomes a portal to a different (better?) world. What happens when money literally grows on trees? A man snaps a picture of a humanoid beast inside a zoo cage, only to surprise us with who is on what side of the cage. Others focus on the creation of something from something else; a seashell from rock, or people from marble. A tree trunk becomes a ladder to clouds populated by…other ladders?
With many of the comics I’m not convinced that Woshibai is actually trying to ‘say’ anything other than to illustrate a mood, like an author scribbling incomplete bits into their notebook. We’re looking at ideas, concepts, threads of thoughts that never go anywhere because they don’t really need to. It’s not unlike those acid trip sequences we used to see all the time in cartoons where the animators were relishing the chance to play with the medium of movement itself. And you know what? I’m here for it.
Whenever we talk about a collection of comics that are available to read and enjoy online the question always comes back to: why buy what you can read for free? With 20 km/h, that’s easy. Apart from being (during those holiday seasons) highly giftable, having a good chunk of Woshibai’s comics bundled in one place creates a type of comfortable rhythm as it’s easy to lose yourself flipping from one to the next. Most are just a few pages long and are over before you know it.
Regardless if 20 km/h is your first toe-dip into the world of Woshibai or you’re just excited to be able to pick up a handsome volume of his work without breaking the bank (seriously, prints can go for a pretty penny) there’s bound to be something here that tickles your cerebellum or appeals to your inner surrealist. Just be careful not to get caught in the slipstream; you may not find a way out.