I wrote this for my "Letter from the Editor" column in the July issue of the SLG fan club newsletter:
When I went to China last month, I experienced something startling and horrifying: I was illiterate. I know a few Chinese characters, but these were largely useless when it came to doing anything practical, especially since I have no idea how they fit together to form phrases and sentences. So, while I was in China the image became supreme. I could only go to restaurants that had pictures of the food. When I went into bookstores (one’s habits die hard), I looked at only children’s picture books, art books and graphic novels.
This is because of something I’m sure you already know: Pictures, like math, form a universal language. And if you suck at math, as I do, the image is the only universal language of any use to you. While I was in China with a delegation of students from San Jose State University, we used pictures often to communicate what words could not, especially when we were talking to fellow students at Beijing University of Technology: a hastily sketched map of North America cleared up what “Mexico” is, a drawing of scorpion described what we saw street food vendors selling on sticks better than any of the combinations of words and hand gestures we attempted. When we were out shopping, the image of a stick figure flying a kite enabled one of us to find a vendor who sold the desired item.
So the reason I sought out graphic novels was not out of professional curiosity alone. It was because all people crave communication, and the image was the strongest way for China to communicate with me. It is also because I adore stories, whether they are in words or pictures. And because of my lack of Mandarin, pictures were where I found stories in China most often, whether it was in the fast-moving action of a Chinese graphic novel, the intricately-detailed painting of a T’ang dynasty master, or in a single image, such as when I was leafing through portraits of Emperors and saw one that differed in style. It was the Qianlong Emperor at twenty-five, the sheen and folds of his splendidly embroidered yellow silk robe so beautifully and realistically painted that I could feel it under my fingertips. This was the official portrait of a Chinese emperor at his inauguration, but it was painted by an Italian named Giuseppe Castiglione.
Just in the imagining, there is a story there, in the details of a single image.