We all have fond childhood memories of our favorite comic book and cartoon characters.
In Taiwan the classic comics are all from Japan. These include One Piece about pirates on a treasure hunt; Dragonball, inspired by the Chinese classic Journey to the West; Doraemon the robotic cat; basketball action manga Slam Dunk; the adventures of young ninja Naruto; and Chibi Maruko Chan, which tells the story of elementary school girl Maruko Sakura growing up in the 1960s.
Likewise, most action movie superheroes have been adapted from famous American comic strips, from Superman to Spiderman, Iron Man to X-Men, Batman to the Transformers.
The Taiwanese box office hit Seediq Bale, an epic tale of Taiwan's indigenous Seediq people and their fight against the invading Japanese, was also inspired by a graphic novel. The film's director Wei Te-sheng stumbled on the story twelve years ago when reading The Wushe Incident by Chiu Row-long.
Good comic strips are locomotives for the entertainment and creative industries, because they can be turned into animated films, live action movies, and electronic games, which in return usually spawn a wide array of licensed cartoon character products.
During the past two years U.S.-based Marvel Animation, a subsidiary of Marvel Studios, has been scrambling to buy back the film rights to its stable of superhero characters, as it aspires to produce its own blockbuster movies.
Japanese manga and youth novel publisher Shueisha, for its part, has set its sights on the Chinese-language market. Eager to find local talent, the publisher sponsored the recent New Star Cup Cartoon Competition at the 7th China International Cartoon & Animation Festival in Hangzhou. The editor-in-chief of Shueisha's manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump, which sells 2.6 million copies per week, personally flew to Hangzhou to preside over the awards ceremony.
Commercial opportunities, creative talent, cultural exports – the stories that comic books tell go well beyond the covers of each thin volume.
"In Hangzhou more than 1,000 newcomers competed for the New Star Cup. Aside from April Xia Da, China has not yet produced any comic artists that are successful abroad. But the potential of the new generation is obvious and the (Chinese) government has decided to encourage original creations," notes Fang Wan-nan, president of Taiwanese comic book publisher Tong Li Publishing Co. Last month Fang served as juror for the New Star Cup at the awards in Hangzhou.
Fang points out that up-and-coming artists need a stage that allows them to continuously present their creations and build a reputation. During boom times Tong Li had more than 60 artists under contract producing manhua – the ethnic Chinese answer to the American comic or Japanese manga. But today their number has dwindled to around 20.
Online games have lured many comic book readers away. Comic book publishers around the globe also suffer from the rampant spread of pirated copies on the Internet. Moreover, Taiwanese youngsters' passion for Japanese manga is a hurdle for Taiwanese artists. Michael Huang, CEO of Taiwanese teen magazine publisher Sharp Point Publishing Co. Ltd., observes that some 80 percent of locally sold comic books are Japanese.