Comic Artist AKRU
Making Taiwanese History Come Alive
A twentysomething woman brings to life 19th-century Taiwan in her modern graphic novels. Every composition and every line in her drawings reveals her imagination and her feelings for her native Taiwan.
Making Taiwanese History Come AliveBy Margaret Pai
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 487 )
"Where cold and warm ocean currents meet, you'll find a small island blessed by the ancient gods. Legend holds that a fairy once plucked a feather from her body and put it into the soil to germinate. From that seed sprang a tree."
The story tells of a 19-century English botanist who ventures into the mountains of central Taiwan to investigate a legend of immortality.
In contrast to the currently popular fast-paced, action-packed Japanese manga, Wings of Kopule tells the story of Taiwan in a poised and serene manner.
Wearing a bright smile, Shen Ying-jie, who works under the pen name AKRU, begins to tell how she got into writing and drawing comics. When the slender, bespectacled author speaks, the audience immediately quiets down, a response much like that which her graphic novels demand – undivided attention and full immersion in the story.
A storyteller requires curiosity and powers of observation. AKRU likes to read geography magazines, and feels a keen interest in people and the intricacies of life. Having majored in anthropology, AKRU adds a historical dimension to her fiction.
The Wings of Kopule is her first graphic novel, published in the "tankobon" paperback format. The story already took shape when AKRU was still a college student, and she came across historical records about the arrival of missionaries and explorers in Taiwan. She discovered that 19th-century Taiwan was much different from what she had previously imagined.
Stimulated by these discrepancies AKRU felt she had a story to tell. "I hope to share this amazement with my readers, to convey it to them," AKRU says. Although she speaks with a small voice, it still contains a hint of the excitement she felt at the time.
Wings of Kopule and her second graphic novel The Bai Hua Café, which is set in Taipei City in 1935 during Japanese colonial rule, exceeded sales expectations. However, becoming a comic artist and illustrator was not originally part of AKRU's career plan.
As a child AKRU liked to draw and write. She loved to read the comic series Dragon Ball and the works of Rumiko Takahashi, Japan's queen of manga. While she had a smooth school career, managing to get into the anthropology department of prestigious National Taiwan University, AKRU's interest in comics never faded.
Her parents, of course, hoped that AKRU would choose a proper career in a "stable" job. Now that AKRU has amassed several awards and is commercially successful, they now view her work as being "more legitimate."
After graduating from university, AKRU did 2D graphic design for a video game company. At the same time she created her own original stories and did illustrations for Taiwanese fantasy and science fiction publisher Gaea Books Co. Ltd.
Well Packaged Local Content Yields Record Sales
After leaving the electronic game company, AKRU told the editors at Gaea Books that she wanted to write a different kind of graphic novel.
Since AKRU's subject matter and drawing style targets young adults, the publisher mustered the courage to promote her new novel with a more sophisticated marketing campaign and spruced-up packaging that stood out. With a gilded title on the cover, the book was priced at NT$240, more than double the standard NT$99 price tag of the average Taiwanese comic book.
This marketing strategy proved highly successful. AKRU's two graphic novels sold nearly 20,000 copies each and even attracted readers who had never before shown an interest in comic books.
Alan Lee, comics department editor-in-chief at Gaea Books, believes it was crucial for AKRU's success that her fantasy novels are based on story material from Taiwan and that they were packaged as high-quality books.
However, many professional comic artists have problems keeping pace with the demanding pace of the industry when it comes to creative output.
"I don't think fast enough," concedes AKRU, who manages to complete one graphic novels per year at most. She devotes considerable time to researching the historical background, digesting the collected material and composing her stories.
She is still learning how to produce a fixed volume of drawings within a set time frame. Trying to do several projects at a time – illustrations, commercial comics, and self-published works – AKRU usually works 14 to 16 hours a day, but still cannot meet the industry's high output standards.
But as Lee puts it, "AKRU is highly focused and very diligent. She has a passion for comics that's unshakeable."
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Name: Shen Ying-jie
Key Works: Wings of Kopule, The Bai Hua Café
Recommended comic works: Ichiko Ima's Beyond Twilight, Konno Kita's Under the Rose, and Taiwanese comic artist Sally's One Day series.
"QWQ": This comic book is really touching. I really like this work, and I can't wait to read the next one!
"Bee": Once again the subject is related to Taiwan. I really like how AKRU sets up the background of a story.