Leaf – Daishu Ma

LeafHow much power does a single man, let alone a single leaf, have in the industrial world? In this wordless, all-ages graphic novel, our protagonist discovers a leaf that radiates a vibrant light. He returns to a detailed metropolis – depicted in somber grays and blues – and searches for answers. During his quest, he stumbles upon a man who knows what’s really happening in the city’s labyrinthine ducts; a woman who spends her life studying and classifying obsolete flora; and the truth about the ever-dwindling environment. Leaf is a graphically stunning story that unfolds with a dream-like pace.  Shaded in pencil and punctuated by spot colors, drawn in a delicate but concretely realized tonal approach reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji, Chinese cartoonist Daishu Ma’s first foray onto American shelves is ultimately a hopeful vision of the coexistence of the urban and natural worlds. Full-color illustrations throughout.

Wandering around Page 45 – Nottingham’s best comic book shop – I came across this intriguing effort and typically curiosity got the better of me and my wallet.  The best bit about this cover (unless you have a foliage fetish) is that there is a leaf-shaped hole allowing us to see the title on the page behind.  I mention this because it made me feel like a kid again being fascinated by a hole in the cover and on the strength of that and my natural curiosity like the man in the book, the sale was already a done deal.

Stories with no words are always thought-provoking beasts, body and facial expressions become more of an art than just an accompanying depiction to underline words.  Whether subtle or blatant each person will, according to their own experiences and thoughts open the story up to unique interpretations of the nuances within the main framework of the tale.

The pencil drawings are wonderfully realised, mixing different sizes and detailing throughout its pages.  The limited use of colour really brings out the features in each illustration and creates a vivid feel of something magical that is taken for granted in real life.  The imagined world is both grounded in reality but also has a distinct fantastical influence so the reader is both familiar but also intrigued by the setting.

The world we find is one that is in a state of precarious balance between nature and the technologically obsessed bleak towns and cities of human creation.  The loneliness in our civilisation these days and our need to be integrated with technology is underlined in blatant terms but there are still some places of magic and mystery which will intrigue the reader and keep the dismal feeling away.

Contrasting this backdrop of miserable buildings and distant strangers, there are some noticeably warmer and touching juxtapositions in the form of character memories.  The feeling from the reminiscences provide a nice distraction from the main story and also round out these mute people in a way that makes further readings more pleasing as we already have an understanding of the characters when we meet them for a second and third time.

The ending was a little bit of a let down, it was understated and steady which goes with the feel of the book yet I felt I wanted something more. Without giving anything away the books final pages can be seen on two distinct levels which neatly tie in with each other in a pleasing enough way, I just wished there was something with a bit more resolution, or punch, either would have been good.

The comparison to Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is the closest one I can make from past reading experience, this tale is not as good sadly, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact, however it does deal with topical issues and is one that children can enjoy as well as adults or both together.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Leaf is (predictably) over praised by the critics, yes it is lovingly drawn and well presented but the overall story is – whilst being pleasant with some good ideas – ultimately lacking in real impact or enough depth to satisfy and was a little bit predictable towards the end as well.


17 Replies to “Leaf – Daishu Ma”

    1. That is true, it is neatly finished, going on what the reader has just experienced but I just wished for something either more enigmatic or final I suppose. The beauty of such a book is that it will divide opinion and cause debate which is always a good thing.


  1. Your comparisons to the work of Shaun Tan make this really, really tempting. *sigh* my bank won’t be happy!


    1. I didn’t feel this one was as strong as Tan’s effort and it is a little pricey as well, however banks do enough to annoy us, it’s time we stuck it to the (bank) man(ager).


  2. Ah! Yet another graphic novel demanding my attention (because I wouldn’t really give that much attention to a review of one from anyone but you). I’m obliged to say, however, that though I know they are very popular and some do deserve a great deal of respect and applause as an art form, the only one I’ve been really inclined to read is the “Maus” series. What I would like to see is “The Lord of the Rings” in comic book form (why not, it’s been both book and movie already). And that is my weak segue to letting you know that I have once again been able to finish the LotR series–you may recall that I was waiting for a library copy of the last book to become available–and all is right with the world. Shaun Tan, hm? Is he (or she) perhaps any relation to Amy Tan? Probably not. It’s probably the same sort of ignorant question as to whether a couple of Smiths are related to each other.


    1. I am honoured you would say that, I haven’t reviewed many so I must address that and see what other delights I can find for you. There are some wonderful stories out there, the only problem for my pocket is the expense and naturally the library never has the parts of a series I happen to be after at the time which is frustrating.

      LotR in comic book form would be great but would it have that much of a market? Everybody has seen the films or read the book so many times I wonder what slant would be left for the comic book genre, it would be intriguing to see and they are doing Stephen King’s Dark Tower series in that format so who knows. I’m glad you managed to get a copy without a big delay and finally finish it, it is such a good ending after al that has gone before.

      Shaun and Amy aren’t related but being a name in the book world it is a fair assumption to wonder. There is an author with my name out there and to be honest, I don’t know how he has the cheek to publish books in my name!


  3. Your review has a positive ring, but I won’t be putting it at the top of any reading list. You seem kind of brave o me. You will read … no matter what!


    1. There is a certain risk with picking up books such as this as if it doesn’t satisfy emotionally enough the mind goes straight to what else I could have bought with the money. It is worth waiting to pick it up in the library or to have a flick through in the shop, at least that way if you fall in love with it, it will be money well spent. My reckless nature of picking up books can, this time be seen as a semi victory on my part I think.

      The more I read, the better my armoury for reviewing. I like to be able to draw from a wide range of perspectives when I write about books, I’m eyeing up that book giving a history of all the Popes that has been on my bookshelf for a while…


  4. It’s a tough order to live up to Tan or Van Allsburg. They’re both magical illustrators with haunting stories to tell. This one sounds like it’s striving to do similar things and falling just a wee bit short. Not that it’s bad, it’s that the bar is set so high.


    1. I tried not to think of it in terms of other books but from reading the back and flicking through my expectations were high. Perhaps others will get more out of this than I did, I spent time a lot of time taking the book in but ultimately it lacked emotive impact for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m intrigued. I also love covers with cutaways to the page below ^_^
    I’ll have to see if I can find this at my local disorganized bookstore. And then surrender and order it from amazon.


    1. No, fight the Amazon power, although admittedly it is probably a wiser investment to get this on the cheap. I like to think disorganised is the new sexy though, that’s why I always look a shambles.


    1. It is a strange thing, so practised do we become and reading and turning the pages, that it takes a lot to simply slow down and observe all the details. I really wish there was a piano track to this so I felt like I was experiencing one of the old silent films in book form.


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