One of the most solid pieces of advice I can give to aspiring graphic novelists who have taken the decision to jump straight into long-form comics is to build up interest in their project by releasing a largely self-contained chapter as the work is in progress. It builds up interest in the potential book, gives them immediate critical feedback and can, on occasion, lead to early publisher interest.
It’s a route that Hong Kong-based artist Jason Li has chosen for his graphic-novel-in-progress The House on Horse Mountain. Taking an early section from that larger work – based on Li’s mother’s childhood in Hong Kong in the 1960s – he’s released it as the one-shot Teacher’s Pet.
The comic’s protagonist Ann is a likeable schoolgirl who is hard-working and responsible, if prone to the odd mishap here and there. Li follows her daily routine, bringing us into the recognisable elements of her days at school – classroom scenes, her positive relationship with her teachers and her role as a student leader – and also capturing life in Hong Kong at the time, including the harsh realities of social conditions like water shortages and their effects.
Teacher’s Pet, then, acts as both slice-of-life coming-of-age story and social account; a project that one suspects is being created as much for a family record as it is for a potential audience. It’s told with touching insight and amusing asides, depicting events from a suitably child’s eye view of reality; one that is still negotiating the strange, arcane rituals of the adult world.
It’s impossible not to find the eager willingness of the young Ann endearing and this is in no small part due to Li’s engaging visual characterisation. There is also some clever usage of sound effect lettering to bring the classroom environment to life and transport us fully into the hustle and bustle of the school day. While Li’s page layouts are largely conventional in structure, and perspective and anatomy are sometimes somewhat skewed, his panel-to-panel storytelling is solid and flowing. The stripped back, representational nature of his art also ensures our empathy with the cast.
As an introduction to a larger body of work Teacher’s Pet effectively whets our appetite for what is to come. As an opener it does, perhaps, lose some context in that we’re dropped into the characters’ lives with only rudimentary background details but there’s much here to suggest the wider work will be a distinctive piece of recreated comics social history. One to certainly keep an eye on as this project progresses…
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