Danica Novgorodoff

Danica Novgorodoff on her latest graphic novel

For fans of the Brooklyn–based graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff, a long wait is finally paying off: Novgorodoff—author of Slow Storm, 2008, and Refresh, Refresh, 2009—recently published The Undertaking of Lily Chen, 2014, with First Second after working on the project for five years. Here, on the occasion of Artforum’s summer issue focus on graphic novels, Novgorodoff talks about her process, her references, and the challenges to creating a narrative that, in her words, is both “Eastern folklore and Western drama.”

THE BOOK revolves around an ancient Chinese tradition of ghost marriages, in which two single, dead people are wed so that they can be buried together and keep each other company in the afterlife. The earliest recorded practice of ghost marriages dates back to the second century AD, but in some rural parts of China (especially in mining towns, where many men die before marriageable age) the custom survives till this day. My story takes place in the mountains of northern China, where a young man named Deshi is sent by his parents to find a corpse bride for his older brother, who has just died in an accident. Deshi embarks on the mission with a grave robber, but many things go wrong, and he’s unable to find a suitable wife for his brother. He does, however, cross paths with Lily Chen, a strong-willed (living) girl who demands that he take her to the big city. She’s desperate to escape an arranged marriage and to make money fast and doesn’t realize that Deshi’s planning to murder her till they’ve fallen in love.

I was fascinated by the entanglement of love and death that this custom fosters. The practice of ghost marriages is both romantic and horrifying. No one wants to send a loved one into an eternity of loneliness, but to what extremes should a family go to appease a ghost? A shortage of females (dead and alive) due to the one child policy has led to a black market for dead women and, in some cases, murder. I started to wonder what kinds of people would engage in this trade. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a macabre western: family honor, murder, vengeance, an epic journey, the love of a woman.

It took me a long time to research and write the script. As I wrote, Deshi and Lily kept meeting strange people who altered their journey, so I kept writing new scenes for each encounter. I also adopted a new drawing process in which I would only plan out one chapter at a time without looking ahead in the script, and so it wasn’t until I had completed the project that I realized it was a 430-page graphic novel. I’m a slow drawer, and with one to six panels per page, it was just a hell of a lot of penciling, inking, painting and coloring.

I was nervous about setting the book in China—I’m a quarter Chinese, and my father was born in Shanghai, but I’ve never identified strongly with or deeply studied the culture. I worried that my work would feel fake to those who truly “know” my setting. I decided not to force it to be a strictly Chinese story, but rather to embrace it as a mash-up, a weird concoction of Eastern folklore and Western drama, Eastern landscapes and Western dialogue, the demands of ancient customs and those of the contemporary, capitalist world. So many of us are mash-ups now, anyway.

Paying homage to a variety of visual and cultural traditions, I studied Chinese brush painting as well as watercolors by artists like Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth. My villain, Mr. Song, is loosely based on Tang Dynasty paintings of horsemen. I watched spaghetti westerns, and films by Zhang Yimou. Some of my coloring techniques were influenced by Japanese animation, and the papercuts were copied from the beautiful patterns I found in little shops in China. I looked at portraits by Marlene Dumas, Sally Mann, and Francis Bacon as inspiration for the ghosts. I used my own photographs as source material for most of the images.

When I started this book, I said to myself, “Don’t feel limited, and don’t get bored.” I’m not sure I knew what that meant early on, but I think it opened me up to a different pace of storytelling. There is a very clear linear progression—the characters are moving from point A to point B over the course of one week—but at times the story jumps off that track and onto a dreamlike, ghostly, or mystical detour. As I was drawing, I didn’t rush to arrive at the conclusion, and tried to let myself be surprised by what came next—even though I had written the script, and knew the end of the story.