The Wordless Protagonist of 'Leaf' Doesn't Save the World -- Just Improves It
The absence of life-or-death consequences in Daishu Ma's debut graphic novel lowers the stakes while raising the novel’s quiet complexity.
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.