Shaolin Burning by Ant Sang

Shaolin Burning
by Ant Sang
Harper Collins, 2011

By most definitions this is only the third NZ graphic novel ever published, counting Maui: Legends of the Outcast by Robert Sullivan and Chris Slane, and Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks. It’s a handsomely-produced 190 page paperback written with CreativeNZ funding, which is particularly glorious because Sang has obviously written exactly what he wanted to, and the only identifiably “local” content is the hilarious Kiwi idiom of the characters – well, it would sound silly if they talked in a 16th century Chinese dialect, wouldn’t it?

After a long diversion from print comics designing the bro’Town characters, Sang has regained the momentum built up from his exceptional Dharma Punks series (published in eight issues from 2001 to 2003) which told the story of a single night in the life of a gang of young ’90s anarchists as they attempt to sabotage the opening of a fastfood restaurant in Auckland. Hopefully the success of Shaolin Burning (it’s been in the Weekly Bestsellers List top 10 for several weeks now) will lead to a reprinted collection of Dharma Punks.

Facially, the characters in Shaolin Burning still look a little bit like Sang, but now they have a rubbery Eisner expressiveness, and he throws himself into the action sequences with an expressive glee in his brushwork – during moments of high kineticism the characters are almost blurred into calligraphy. The text is unobtrusive and cleanly arranged over the artwork (in Illustrator?) which sounds like a simple thing to get right, but you’d be surprised at how rare really good text arrangement is outside of the large (superhero) comic studios.

I still think the artwork should have been printed at a higher contrast – I think it was originally drawn in colour, and although the monochrome print job is high-quality, Sang’s subdued range of tones comes over as dark and muddy. Mind you, it’s not a very happy story, so that may have been intentional.

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