The Wordless Protagonist of 'Leaf' Doesn't Save the World -- Just Improves It

(Images Fantagraphics)

The absence of life-or-death consequences in Daishu Ma's debut graphic novel lowers the stakes while raising the novel’s quiet complexity.


Publisher: Fantagraphics
Author: Daishu Ma
Publication date: 2015-07

Artist Daishu Ma was born in China, studied in England, and lives in Spain. Her first graphic novel, Leaf, was published in China in 2014 and since in France, Sweden and recently the US. The wordless narrative explores the paradoxical role of nature in an urban setting as a nameless protagonist studies a mysterious, glowing leaf. Ma achieves this without using a single word -- even though her images convey not only the fact that characters are speaking to each other but the content of their undrawn words too. She even conveys the content of a flashback story told by a leaf expert about the pioneering founder of the city.

Wordlessness aside, it is tempting to read the novel as a dystopia, but the genre would be both reductive and misleading. Though the labyrinths of buildings and machines might recall Metropolis at times, these city-dwellers are not dehumanized cogs in an industrialized underworld. Ma peoples her world with women and men of all ages, including playing children, doting parents, and smiling grandparents, all individualized through meticulously rendered patterns in the fabrics of their scarves, shawls, hats, and other clothes. None wear uniforms of any kind, and so the unnamed city is free not only of police and military but of any suggestion of government control. The most overt city employee -- an older man who disposes of leaves and switches off the lights of a public art display -- wears the most personalized clothing of any character.

Most of the population seems to be employed in a vast industrial complex where each sits in an identical cubicle operating control panels before an enormous map of the city. Though all wear their own individualized clothing patterns, together they form a larger weave, each part of the collective action. Though they lose their individuality in the process, they regain it at the end of the work day when Ma draws them once again in street-level activity as detailed and personalized as before. They are also free to leave the city and wander in the surrounding forests, which Ma establishes from the opening pages. Though city life is imperfect, it is maintained through individual choice.

When the protagonist gains access to a more foreboding industrial complex where leaves are incinerated, he faces no human opposition. He must navigate a maze of ducts and stairs and ladders, while opening heavy grates and decoding complex control panels to prevent the automated scoops from destroying his leaf, but no guards or people of any kind stand in his way. As a result, Leaf is a story without not only a central antagonist, but any antagonists at all. Even the leaf sweeper only briefly resists the protagonist before becoming his primary helper, revealing how the city machinery works and showing him how to access its hidden areas.

The novel’s dystopic expectations may be a connotation of Ma’s gray-based pencils. The precision of her layered crosshatching produces a dark tone, one contrasted by the wide white gutters and their regularity. The layouts fluctuate between 3x3 and 2x2 grids, sometimes implied by combined panels, producing a formal constraint that echoes the grays’ dystopic connotation. But Ma does not offer simple binaries between natural goodness and urban badness. Though the opening page depicts autumnal leaves falling from a soon-barren branch, the images are constrained by the same window-like grid as the city images. When the city dwellers wander back home, Ma merges natural and urban motifs with tree roots beneath leaf piles transforming into pipes. The city includes trees planted along sidewalks, and the novel’s largest tree centers the city’s largest outdoor space.

Despite the pencil grayness, the novel is most striking in its use of colors and its vying plot between blue and yellow pencil highlights. Again the two colors are not aligned along a simple nature/city dichotomy. The autumnal leaves are blue-tinged, and when the protagonist returns home the city is infused with blue light fixtures, blue windows, and once even blue open flames. But the protagonist has discovered and brought back a special leaf: one entirely blue but for white spots that appear to glow like light sources.

When he drifts asleep with the leaf in his hand, he has a brief, one-panel vision of gray leaves with white glowing circles. It is Ma’s first use of yellow, and the color does not return until over 20 pages later when the protagonist glimpses a glowing yellow light fixture outside an apartment building. When he approaches, many other lights and windows are glowing similarly, including the candle on the table of the leaf expert he meets. When he pulls out his special leaf in these lighting conditions, it appears yellow too -- though the circles remain white as before. After studying the leaf, the expert places it in a jar and transforms it into a yellow glowing circle, which recalls a photo album image of her father standing in a jungle among similar glowing yellow circles.

The next morning, the sun rises yellow, and the protagonist purchases leather straps to carry his glowing yellow jar everywhere with him. Now other sources of light are yellow too -- until the jar shatters and the leaf is carried up the disposal duct. When its glow fades, the city is blue-highlighted again, including the night moon, city window, and the flashlight the protagonist uses to track down the leaf to the enormous disposal compartment which is filled with not just leaves, but countless floating yellow circles. He eventually releases them all through the industrial smokestacks, and they float everywhere in the forests and city, including the leaf expert’s windowsill where she places a tiny potted tree. In the final image, a bird lands on the sill, surrounded by a budding branch, the city background, and the yellow circles.

Page two featured a bird departing its nest to fly away with its flock, so the last image is a return of nature, now in an urban environment. Clearly too, yellow is the superior color, contrasted to the autumnal blue of the opening page. Yet blue is also associated with nature and light and even warmth and joy as the community gathered around the blue light of the city center tree.

Again, the novel is not a simple tale of goodness and light triumphing over darkness and evil. Just as the tyranny- and victim-free community challenges dystopia norms, Ma’s color motif creates a more nuanced plot struggle. The absence of life-or-death consequences lowers the stakes while raising the novel’s quiet complexity. Her protagonist doesn’t save the world. He just improves it.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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