Book Review: The Dharma Punks, by Ant Sang

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_dharma_punks

I was on the train today and a guy leaned over to inspect what I was reading. “What’s that like?,” he asked. I took pause and thought about it. “Well,” I started, “Do you know Jamie Hernandez? Love and Rockets?, Tank Girl, Gorillaz?” He nodded slowly, as the idea dawned on him. “Well it’s nothing like that.”

Back in 2001, fledgling cartoonist Ant Sang must have been at least partially inspired by the new comics that had been gaining momentum since the late 80’s. I know that fellow artist, Simon Morse, was hugely inspired by Hernandez’ anarchic reality. It was miles away from the underpants-over-longjohns superheroes that had dominated the industry up until then. Sang, like Morse, and of course, Dylan Horrocks, was interested in the more intellectual dichotomies that could be played out in the relatively new “graphic novel” medium.

New Zealand was slow on the uptake. Anyone who does get a reputation, after slaving long over a photocopier to produce enough zines to get noticed, is snapped up by the American comic empire – Marvel, DC, etc. Like those guys, Sang was a publishing pioneer, co-founding Tuatara Press with a collective of other cartoonists to release his first small work Filth. In Dharma Punks, this title appears again as the band name of a punk band, which is central to the story of Chopstick, a skinny Kiwi Chinese lad whose identity is intertwined with the fate and manipulated fortunes of the characters in the band – Benis, Jugga, Cat, Side Car and Brian The Goth.

It’s Auckland, 1994 and a group of anarchistic punks hatch a plan to explosively sabotage the opening of Bobo’s burger joint (think fictitious multinational McDonald’s). The night before their plan is carried out, Chopstick sets the bomb that will bring the joint down. But he gets separated from his partner in crime, Tracy, and the night takes a serious of unexpected twists and turns where chance encounters the past and the present. The spirit of Karma and the Zen of anarchy clash, they switch roles – the dragon becomes the mouse and the rodent roars and spits flames. Still reeling from the death of a close friend, Chopstick tries to reconcile his spiritual path with his political actions in this energetic, fast-paced story.

This release is the full collection of Sang’s work from 2001 to 2003, beautifully presented on good quality baxter stock (the holy grail for cartoonists because the ink bleed is virtually zero). It’s been touched up here and there, with new or restored introduction and end papers for each chapter – in simple colourings. The stories seem familiar to me, perhaps because I was an aspiring punk once too – although I never blew anything up. The raw emotion that Sang blends with the kind and rational teachings of Buddha is still refreshing and vibrant. His penmanship has an urgency, without abandoning aesthetics.

I have really enjoyed looking back over this period of Sang’s most inspirational work. Here’s hoping that the graphic novel reading community will demand more of him, and he delivers. Now that would be exiting news!

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

The Dharma Punks
by Ant Sang
Published by Earths End Publishing
ISBN 9780473289065

NZ Post Children’s Book Awards judge Ant Sang tells us a thing or two about illustrated books

Guest post and Q & A from NZ Post Children’s Book Awards judge Ant Sang

In recent months I’ve had the pleasurepp_ant_sang of being part of the judging committee for the 2014 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards. Within the Picture Book category, there have been a huge variety of entries, and with that a huge breadth of styles and mediums.

So you are our illustration specialist among the judges of the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – have you had your expertise in this area tested over the past weeks?
I’ve certainly felt in awe of some of the illustrators and their work during the judging process! It really has been a humbling experience, but it’s fantastic to see that despite the difficult climate in New Zealand publishing at the moment, there is still an inspiring dedication to the craft of book illustration.

What for you, are the elements of an excellent illustrated book – whether a picture book, junior fiction, or graphic novel?
I think the best illustrated books are ones where the text, images, design and production work together seamlessly to produce something greater than their parts. It’s a difficult juggling act, and there’s any number of things which can go wrong, but when these elements are aligned, it produces something magical.

Are there any problems you see coming up often for illustrators who haven’t worked in the printed book medium previously?
For the most part it has been really difficult to tell if the books have been illustrated by a first-time book illustrator. On the basis of the entries I’ve read during the judging process, illustrators are well versed in the language of picture books.

Amongst experienced illustrators, it’s great to see illustration techniques evolving. Some of the digital illustrations are really beautiful – the work of Sarah Nelisiwe Anderson, Donovan Bixley and Patrick McDonald  are deceptively intricate and subtle, often mixing traditional and digital mediums to great effect. And yet, the more old-school styles of paint, watercolours, inks and pencils are more than capable of holding their own. David Elliot, Margaret Tolland and Sarah Davis are just some of the amazing illustrators working in more traditional mediums.

What part does illustration play in distinguishing between a sophisticated picture book and one for younger readers?
I think the text will ultimately determine whether a picture book is suited for younger or more sophisticated readers. The illustrator’s job is to know the audience for the book and to produce illustrations which will appeal to those readers. Illustration can add layers of depth to the story; implying things which aren’t apparent in the story, or emphasising the themes or tone of the story in a visual manner, and these are often the things which can give a picture that elusive x-factor.

What is your favourite pictorial book of all timcv_nicketty_nackettye?
My favourite pictorial book ever, that’s a tough question! How about I list a handful of my favourites? In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, Nicketty-Nacketty Noo-Noo-Noo, by Joy Cowley and Tracey Moroney, Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes, Ed the Happy Clown and I Never Liked You, by Chester Brown, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller.

Ant Sang is a judge for the NZ Post Children’s Book Awards. The shortlist for these awards will be announced on Tuesday 8 April.

Ant was a finalist in the awards in 2012 for his graphic novel Shaolin Burning. He has won awards for his design work on Bro’Town. He is currently working on his first feature film script and an animated short, Wing Chun, a contemporary retelling of the life of the young woman who made the kung fu style famous.