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Ethan Young Discusses His New Graphic Novel Nanjing: The Burning City

Nanjing The Burning CityIn August, award-winning graphic novelist Ethan Young brings bravery in the face of an overwhelming enemy to the forefront of one of the biggest mass murders of World War II.

Exploring the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, Nanjing: The Burning City focuses on two abandoned Chinese soldiers trapped in the city as they desperately attempt to escape. Outnumbered by the invading Imperial Japanese Army, they’ll encounter the horrors and terrifying effects of war—but they’ll soon learn that no enemy can destroy the spirit of resistance and bravery.

Written and drawn by Independent Publisher Book Award winner Ethan Young, Nanjing: The Burning City delves into one of the most contentious events of World War II. Impeccably researched and drawn in Young’s critically acclaimed style, the original graphic novel brings new insight into one of World War II’s forgotten tragedies.

We discussed the graphic novel with Ethan, including the history of the massacre, its lasting repercussions, and how he went about crafting the graphic novel.

Graphic Policy: So what got you interested in this historical event, and how did the graphic novel come about?

Ethan Young: Being Chinese-American, the 2nd Sino-Japanese War is paramount to my cultural identity, even though I grew up in NYC. My mother watched a lot of Sinovision when I was a kid, and I distinctly remember seeing China’s parade of weapons (which is strange when I look back, because that’s the kind of footage we’re getting out of North Korea these days). When I inquired about it, my mother told me, in a very direct fashion, “China was hurt during the war. Now we have these weapons and no one will ever threaten us again.” That was the mentality I grew up with. In high school, I discovered how few of my non-Asian friends were aware of China’s involvement during WW2.  In my early 20s, I started learning more about the specific battles and events within the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, such as the Nanjing Massacre. After leaving college, I wanted to tackle the subject right away for my first graphic novel. Part of me felt that it was my ‘duty’ to write this story. When you learn about something horrific happening to your people, you get filled with a heavy dose of nationalism, which I think is very primitive and tribal, but also kinda natural.  After several early drafts, I wisely put the project aside when I realized that my skills were not meeting my expectations.

GP: How much research did you do before and during the creation of the graphic novel?

EY: I started by reading Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking, which I think almost everyone familiar with the event has come across at some point. There was also The Diaries of John Rabe and the book on Minnie Vautrin.  After I wrapped up Tails and was ready to revisit NANJING, I read Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter and The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence. There were several other books for photo reference and ancillary information, but those were the bulk of my historical research. But as my editor, Jim Gibbons, told me, “There’s always more research.”  Google images was also extremely helpful in pinpointing small details, like finding a clear image of the Kuomintang symbol. Another reason why this book would’ve been so much harder to finish 10 years ago.

GP: How historically accurate did you aim for the graphic novel to be?

EY: Accurate enough that a historian would be comfortable with the artistic licenses I take. If someone is completely oblivious to the events of Nanjing, I want this book to be somewhat informative, but mostly engrossing as a story, while still maintaining a healthy level of respect for the victims of the tragedy.

GP: The story focuses on two Chinese soldiers trapped in the city. Where did that perspective come from?

EY: When initially conceiving the story, my idea for the main protagonist was still fluid. At one point, I wanted to follow 3 separate narratives: a Chinese student, a group of abandoned Chinese soldiers, and a family making their escape. Eventually, the soldiers were the most suitable for the tone of the book. I used the structural narrative of a Western to build the story, so the main characters are somewhat archetypal, and there are some very recognizable tropes when you read it.

GP: With the story focusing on the two Chinese soldiers, do you worry about the graphic novel being called biased? There are some who dismiss the atrocities that took place as propaganda.

EY: To be fair, yes, I am a little biased here. However, I’m more worried that the book will be labeled ‘awful’ or ‘trash’ than being labeled biased. There are parts of the book that do address moral grey areas, so it’s not a concise Black and White, Sheep vs. Wolf story. It’s not like Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, where EVERY Japanese character was a walking stereotype. And as for those who label the Nanjing Massacre as fabricated propaganda, I suggest they watch the documentary, Nanking, which includes recorded confessions from Japanese soldiers.

GP: How much of the brutality do you show in the graphic novel? When I read the Rape of Nanking in college I cringed at some of the acts committed. Did you have problems depicting any of it? Was there input from Dark Horse concerning that?

EY: There was definitely a lot of input from my editor, but also some self-censorship and restraint on my own part. Being a cartoonist is a very solitary profession, so you work in this vacuum, and things that seem tasteful at first might feel inappropriate when you shine it in the light of day. As for the horrific acts of sexual violence that took place, my book DOES address it, but you never see it happen, you only get glimpses of the aftermath. And even then, I aimed to be as tactful and respectful as I could. Jim and I made sure to field outside opinions on the depictions of brutality, to make sure we weren’t crossing a boundary.  When tackling a subject as sensitive as sexual assault, and more specifically, HOW to tackle it with maturity, I always point to Shawkshank Redemption. You never see Andy’s rape, it cuts away, but you know it happens, and it’s equally horrifying when you listen to Red’s stoic narration.

GP: I also remember being rather shaken while learning about it, some of the acts are so disturbing and photos from the time that graphic. How has the graphic novel impacted the team? What was the team like emotionally when working on the project?

EY: As I touched upon earlier, I was imbued with a heavy sense of nationalism when I first read The Rape of Nanking. But dig a little deeper, and you find that the Kuomintang government at the time was riddled with corruption, the city was practically surrendered to the invading army, and you realize how reductive it is to simply point your finger at Japan. Which isn’t an excuse for the atrocities of the Imperial Japanese Army – far from it – but it’s important to gain some perspective, and not allow your visceral reactions to debase an entire people.

I was a little shaken when I went through all my research notes recently. I had put some of the images out of my head for so long that it became a bit jarring to see them again. I nagged Jim until he watched Nanking, and I think that doc ruined his entire night.

GP: Some of what’s been written about the event is the psychology of the Japanese soldiers, and how things spiraled so out of hand. Do you present that at all?

EY: A bit, yes. There’s a Japanese soldier in the book who acts as the moral center for his squad, in the midst of the chaos. But Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death thoroughly explored the disillusioned Japanese soldier, so I didn’t want to repeat and/or rip off that plot device.  Also, I didn’t want to focus too much on the outsider’s reaction the events.

GP: The event was part of the Second Sino-Japanese War which folded into World War II. Interestingly the Germans helped China, and there was a lot of involvement from foreigners, especially to protect Chinese citizens. Much of the recounting of the events is from foreigners who stayed and witnessed it too. How much of that do you show?

EY: It’s interesting that you should mention that. Without giving too much away… there is a point in the story where it would’ve been appropriate to show a Nazi flag, but Jim and I felt it simply would’ve been too confusing to people who are oblivious to the event. The International Safety Zone is an essential element in the plot, but you don’t see a lot of westerners in the book, only some.

GP: This was a massive massacre with estimates of 300,000 people killed. It’s also not really talked about in the west, but still impacts Chinese/Japanese relations today. Why do you think this isn’t as well known in the west as opposed to other events of its nature?

EY: That’s an incredibly tough question. It’s a combination so many multiple factors, first of which is simple: a lot of people don’t read. Statistics show that 33% of U.S. high school graduates don’t read a book after graduating (and 40% after college), which to me, means that the average student is getting the bulk of their historical knowledge from compulsory schooling alone, and when you condense world history into 2 years of junior high and 4 years of high school, a lot will fall through the cracks. So much of China’s involvement and contributions to the Allied effort is relegated to foot notes. I remember having only ONE high school teacher mention the 2nd Sino-Japanese War, and even then, she didn’t go too in-depth.

Second, as you mentioned before, some still write the event off as propaganda. Since it’s impossible to know the EXACT death toll of the Nanjing Massacre, with military records having been destroyed, the topic becomes ‘debatable’ and our textbooks don’t like ambiguous topics (at least from what I remember). Textbooks are very binary in their narratives as well. Slavery: BAD. Revolutionary War: GREAT! When textbooks can only accommodate a certain amount of information, certain things will be considered less digestible than others.

Third, there was a lot of western sympathy for Japan after the atomic bombs combined with American guilt for Japanese-American internment camps, both of which are terrible in their own right, so I don’t want to dismiss those 2 tragedies. Two wrongs don’t make a right. But, sadly, that sympathy didn’t exist in China after the war. Chinese students protested western aid to Japan in the late 40s.  Then, you have the Cold War, and the Republic of China became the People’s Republic of China. The US enters the Korean War, and essentially fought China during that war. US/China relations didn’t really improve until the 70s.

GP: The events of Nanjing are still a contentious issue. What’s the reaction been like to it especially from China or Japan if any?

EY: Nothing yet, really. I’ve gotten some interest from Chinese history buffs and a librarian working in Shanghai was very, very intrigued by the book, so I’ll take that as a positive. The one thing that DOES worry me is when I’ll read a very anti-Japanese comment on Facebook regarding my book. The last thing I want is to incite hatred for a current generation of Japanese people who had nothing to do with the atrocities of the Imperial Army.

GP: What other projects do you have coming up?

EY: Well, I’m hoping to wrap up my kids’ comic, A Piggy’s Tale, with my writing partner, Tod Emko. After that, pretty much promoting NANJING and being a full time dad this spring. But once everything has settled down, I’ve already pitched my next big story to Jim. It’s going to be very exciting.