As we know, or at least as all wuxia junkies know, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels have inspired so many television series, movies, games, and even comic books—either the faithful ones or the I-don’t-care-I-just-want-to-make-money ones. But there are a few which stray a little from the original storylines but were done wholeheartedly and with so much enthusiasm that they manage to keep the spirit of the works being adapted. The manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (or, in English widely known as The Smiling, Proud Wanderer) is one of those few. Created by Lee Chi Ching and first published in Hong Kong in 2002, this set of 26 volumes succeeds in delivering the heart of the story in its own style, but still with its unfortunate shortcoming.
First thing first, here I must confess that I’m still nowhere near done reading the whole four volumes of the book. However, from the first volume’s five chapters I’ve slowly read I gather that Lee Chi Ching has his own way of introducing the story to the reader. Instead of starting it with Lin Pingzhi’s incident when he is out hunting, just as in the book, in volume one Lee opens the story with some kind of reflection on what jiang hu is, on repaying kindness and taking revenge, on who belong to the orthodox sect and who members of the demon cult are and the clear line between them, and lastly, who will be the last to laugh.
Lee subsequently goes on to tell the backstory where the Huashan Sword School’s disciples are on their way to Hengshan to attend Liu Zhengfeng’s hand-washing ceremony, and how Linghu Chong strays away alone drinking then accidentally meets Yi Lin. This, and the fight between him and Tian Boguang in the darkened cave, are not told by Yi Lin herself in a flashback, as they are in the novel, but rather stand on their own to usher the reader to the point where we’ll finally see Lin Pingzhi—battered, angry, hopeless and restless under the pouring rain—on his journey to save his parents.
Narrativewise, I found it a better way to begin the story: it’s more enjoyable, less boring, and quite exciting. Not that I dare to question Jin Yong’s intelligence and ability in storytelling, it’s just so much better this way. This lack-of-excitement in the original book’s opening was the reason why I needed weeks just to finish the first chapter while I wasted no time in devouring the entire volumes of the manhua in succession. The manhua version really is a page-turner, with fighting-while-sitting between Linghu Chong and Tian Boguang and Lin family’s unfortunate demise being displayed in turn. It’s easy to catch up and the reader can easily get the idea of the fate that will later get the main characters finally meet.
And Lee goes on using the same style, but mostly he keeps his work faithful to, or at least in line with, the original storyline. But even though Lee seems to mix his own way of story introduction with the narrative Jin Yong has already set up, the entire plot doesn’t fail. It is so engaging and nice to follow and makes sense. I think Lee knows that this way, his manhua will be more effective in delivering the story yet at the same time doesn’t lose its charm as comic books.
However, the enjoyable narrative is not accompanied by enjoyable pictures. It’s such a shame because it is a manhua, a.k.a comic books, where what readers enjoy most are the pictures. For one thing, the characters’ depictions here are not consistent. At times they look just as they should be, but at other times they look older, too much older to be in line with how they are portrayed in the book. Especially, much to my disappointment, the character images of Ren Yingying, our female lead. Lee actually has drawn her very well and beautifully, but in some parts she often looks much, much older. She’s supposed to be 17 or 18, isn’t she? And she is known to have a very long hair, so why so short? This is also the case with Linghu Chong’s portrayal, but the inconsistency is pretty less in number.
In general, frankly speaking, the characters’ pictures are quite good and pretty well done. They look so “classic”, unlike those drawings Tony Wong did. I can say I like Lee’s style of manhua. But, once again, the drawing here seems to be the biggest shortcoming of the entire 26 volumes. Besides the inconsistency, it also has a problem with how Lee represents the fighting scenes. Some look nice, some look just okay, and some look very confusing. Sometimes I couldn’t catch up with the sword movements and where they are pointed to, and that’s a very big problem to me. What’s the point of reading a martial arts manhua when you cannot enjoy the martial arts?
So overall, this manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu is more appealing in terms of narrative, but not quite in terms of drawing. It just didn’t really live up to my expectation. Not completely disappointing, but I think it should have been better artistically.