Night Bus, by Zuo Ma,
translated from Chinese by Orion Martin.
Early in my reading of Night Bus, something strange happened: I began to feel nostalgic for the Chinese countryside of the 1980’s and 90’s. Not that I’ve ever been to China; Zuo Ma’s ability to evoke a sense of place with his incredibly detailed landscape drawings is just that good.
Night Bus, translated by Orion Martin, is Zuo Ma’s 2021 English-language debut, collecting together all his comics, previously published in Chinese. A mix of semi-autobiographical vignettes and magical realism, the stories are loosely connected through recurring characters, done in black-and-white, and generally pretty short. There are 11 comics, but 10 stories: the last comic is the same as the first, redrawn by Zuo years later. It’s a confusing choice – the newer version looks significantly different than the earlier one, and all the comics share similar themes and setting, so even though the storyline remains unchanged, it takes a while to realize it’s the same comic from ~300 pages ago.
And that’s emblematic of the collection as a whole: the art is clearly a labor of love, uniformly beautiful and lush, but the story and characters often feel incidental and the amount of detail on the page can be overwhelming. The characters feel so much like placeholders that there’s no reason to care about them – even the titular “Night Bus,” a loose tribute to Zuo’s grandmother with Alzheimer’s, struggles to find a central character and focus, and so lacks the emotional heft necessary to be successful.
Zuo Ma is one of the vanguards of the Chinese alternatives comic scene, so it tracks: the alternative scene exploded in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, with the increasing popularity of home computers meaning independent creators could find an audience for their works that didn’t conform to China’s strict ethical and moral standards. Comics were often published one panel or page at a time, and the emphasis was on the community that fostered and supported the artists. Zuo admits to prioritizing art over story; while that may work when micro-publishing, it’s a poor choice for Night Bus, which is a little over 400 pages.
As a collection of stories it makes for disjointed reading; as an artifact from and sample of the Chinese alternatives comic scene, it’s a little more interesting. But the context required to understand where Zuo Ma is working from is not easy to come by, even with an interview between Zuo and the collection’s translator, Orion Martin, reproduced in the back of the book.
Recommended as an additional purchase for library collections serving adults or with a large demand for international graphic novels.
Elna McIntosh (she/her) is the librarian at Challenger Middle School in Colorado, and loves graphic novels of all kinds – even the hard ones. When she’s not reading interesting comics, she plays softball, makes comics, and watches TV.
JULIA E. TORRES is a nationally recognized veteran language arts teacher, librarian, and teen programs administrator in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia’s work has been featured on NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice Magazine, School Library Journal, American Libraries Magazine, and many more. She is a Book Love Foundation board member, Educolor Working Group member, a Book Ambassador for The Educator Collaborative, and a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Her co-authored title Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Teens and Tweens is just the first of many forthcoming publications for librarians and educators. Learn more about Julia on her website juliaetorres.com or on social media @juliaerin80