Taiwanese Comic Book Industry
Despite a dauntingly challenging market, a growing number of Taiwanese comic artists have found prominence at international festivals. How can they break beyond the barriers and make their mark in the profitable world of comics and animation?
Manhua MomentumBy Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 487 )
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.
On the other hand, comics are a field where young people can easily show off their creativity. Therefore, young Taiwanese are still willing to delve into writing and drawing manhua despite the overwhelming dominance of Japanese manga.
Actually, Taiwan has a few examples of successful comic book exports. Artists Ron Chu, Tsai Chih-chung, and Ao You Xiang have already made a name for themselves in China.
But Huang warns that while the Chinese market is huge, it will not be easy for Taiwan's new generation of comic artists to establish a foothold there.
Aside from matching readers' tastes and interests with their plots and characters, they need to find the right partners in China to publish, market and distribute their works.
"Even the much more formidable Japanese manga are having a hard time getting a foothold in China. They (China) are firmly resolved to keep the Japanese out and nurture original Chinese comics."
In recent years Taiwan's homegrown comic magazines have gone from weekly to monthly, and again from monthly to bimonthly publishing schedules. As a result, comic artists have had less opportunity to see their creations in print. Defying these discouraging circumstances, the new generation of manhua artists nonetheless refuses to put down pen, pencil and brush.
The International Festival of the Comic Strip, held in Chambery, France, in October this year for the first time featured a "theme country." Invited were 11 artists from Taiwan.
In January 2012 the Angouleme International Comics Festival, one of the world's two biggest comic book festivals, will also give Taiwan a high profile. Twenty Taiwanese comic artists have been invited to show their creations at a special exhibition within the Asia pavilion.
"The creativity of Taiwan's younger generation knows no bounds. If they get the opportunity to hone their skills and grow, we can expect great things from them," predicts Summer Hsia, exhibition curator for the Taiwan pavilion in Chambery.
Besides comics, Taiwanese animation has begun to draw attention too. Out of Sight, a five-minute animated video by students from National Taiwan University of Arts, became the most watched video on Yahoo Japan's animation page as soon as it was uploaded. The touching story about a blind girl, who discovers the world around her with her other senses when she is accidentally separated from her guide dog, triggered a flurry of forum discussions.
Commissioned Comics Become Bestseller
Taiwan has also become a topic in the international comic scene for its Creative Comic Collection, an anthology published by the Academia Sinica, the island's top academic institution.
Since 2009 the Taiwan E-Learning and Digital Archives Program under the Academia Sinica (www.digitalarchives.tw) has selected archived materials on certain topics as story material and commissioned local comic artists to create attractive comics that are published as themed quarterly collections.
The aim was to present staid history in a lively, entertaining manner to reach young readers. The collections cover a wide array of topics such as festivals and ceremonies, city life, the role of women, and life during Japanese colonial rule.
The "Guide to Cheating on Qing Dynasty State Exams" by comic artist Shih Liu, for instance, depicts in an interesting, humorous manner the tough reality that aspiring youngsters faced when sitting for examinations during China's last dynasty.
A story about school uniforms worn by girls through the ages helped sell more than 10,000 copies of the volume on Taiwanese women during the past century.
Compared to the average circulation of Taiwanese comic magazines – 2,000 to 3,000 copies – the Creative Comic Collection is a bestseller.
The fruitful cooperation between Taiwan's top research institution and some 30 comic artists has even attracted the attention of the Japanese media.
Huang Kuan-Hua, project manager at the Academia Sinica's Research Center for Information Technology Innovation, hopes that the findings from research of historic documents can become more widely known through the comics.
The comic collection is not only an innovative approach toward promoting digital archive projects and content, but has also become a platform for nurturing local comic art talent.
Alan Lee, comics department editor-in-chief at Gaea Books Co. Ltd., which distributes the Creative Comic Collection, explains that comic artists usually have to fulfill multiple roles, acting as director, scriptwriter, actor and video editor.
Professional manga artists in Japan often have two or three assistants who help with textual research and the collection of story material. Behind the scenes the Academia Sinica plays these roles, so that the Taiwanese manhua artists can concentrate on the artistic side of their job.
In fact, one Taiwanese comic artist, Chen Huang-yu, alias Zeco, owes his breakthrough in Japan to the Academia Sinica project. In 2009 the Creative Comic Collection carried a comic series by Zeco featuring girl soldiers in charge of their countries' naval forces during the Pacific War. Subsequently Zeco's Battleship Girl was serialized by Japanese manga monthly Comic Gum.
Outdoing the Manga Masters
In addition to his talent, Zeco has had a helping hand from his manager Debut Wang, who is promoting Taiwanese artists in the Japanese manga scene.
The 35-year-old once founded the weekly electronic game magazine E-Game, the first in Taiwan to get authorized by Japanese game console makers.
Fifteen years later in 2007 Wang decided to found his own company, drawing on his longstanding contacts with Japanese game developers.
His Friendly Land Co. Ltd. acts as copyright agent and helps comic artists with their professional career development. He refuses to believe that Taiwan is unable to produce outstanding comic artists, just because the local industry is going through hard times.
Therefore, his goal is to market Taiwanese comic artists directly to audiences in Japan through publication in Japanese manga magazines.
Last year one of the artists under contract with Wang, 28-year-old Ponjea, participated in a contest by Weekly Shonen Jump to develop characters, concepts and settings based on a short scenario in the manga Kiba & Kiba by Riichiro Inagaki, one of Shueisha's five top manga writers.
"I told Ponjea, if we draw as well as the Japanese, they still won't want to use us. We definitely have to draw better than them, or else we won't win," recalls Wang.
Although Weekly Shonen Jump has been around for almost half a century, it had never before commissioned a foreign artist. But Ponjea won the opportunity to work with Inagaki, doing all the artwork for Kiba & Kiba, based on the manga master's storyboards, and in the process producing Weekly Shonen Jump's first-ever comic drawn by a foreigner.
"Ponjea is the kind of guy with a strong ambition to make it to the top," notes Wang.
Setbacks and a sense of accomplishment are both inseparable companions on the road to fame in the colorful world of comics. And it is precisely for that reason that comic books and graphic novels with splendid plots will always be around.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz