Cartoon Culture

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 1998, 12:00am

Are comics trash? A dozen European comic creators looked rather startled to be asked this in a forum dedicated to precisely that question in Hong Kong last week.

A few of the panelists - here as part of the Eurocomics exhibition at City Hall this month - metaphorically glanced at their watch calendars just to check the decade, but then politely and manfully (with one female exception: Kati Kovacs from Finland) made some polite attempt to answer the charge.

The question seemed odd. This was a debate in Europe in the 1960s or even in the 1970s but no longer. And it was almost like asking 'are books trash?' or 'is music trash?' or 'are Hong Kong afternoon forums trash?'.

The answer, patently - and you didn't need to pay 12 European air fares to find it - was that some are, and some aren't.

And trash is not - as Viennese erotic adventure cartoonist Ronald Putzker was quick to point out - such a bad thing anyway.

'Trash is very important,' he stated, laconically and rather cryptically.

Cartoons include nudity and crudity, they can involve violence or pacifism, they can be humorous or they can be so biting that the word 'comic' is completely inappropriate.

And animations have been popular ever since cave-men and women first picked up charcoal and started to scribble on the walls.

Cartoonists from the different countries reported strikingly different experiences.

Places like Britain, Hong Kong and the US have been slow to see comics as art worthy of display in exhibition halls.

However in continental Europe that kind of conservatism has been turned on its head with an energetic 'kerplunk' and there is a mainstream acceptance that comics are not just art, they are also literature.

'In the 1940s in Holland, comics were something that teachers were allowed to take away from children,' said Jesse van Muylwijck, lawyer turned cartoonist famous for his Judge comic strip.

'But now we are even planning a comic strip museum in Holland.' Other countries take the genre even more seriously: Denmark includes animation styles on its high school curriculum, while in France - where 55 per cent of the population admits to reading comics - there is even a government adviser on cartoons.

There it is also considered big business as well as art: whenever a new Asterix book comes out, it automatically sells around three million copies, and becomes one of the most popular publications in the world.

Hong Kong, as local avant-garde animators Li Chi-tak, Craig Au Yeung Ying-chai and Zunzi testified, is lagging way behind.

Cartoons are seen as big business, potentially subversive (Zunzi, for example has published seven books of political cartoons, including one dedicated to the Beijing massacre of 1989) or pure entertainment. But in Hong Kong their artistic potential is rarely celebrated.

They are certainly popular among both adults and children - the 1960s kids who read comics against their parents' and teachers' wills have grown up now, and are parents and teachers themselves.

Indeed comics are so popular that at a recent trade fair dedicated to the cartoon industry, crowds were so huge that the glass of the hall was broken in the rush.

But as in Britain (where Batman and friends take 85 per cent of the cartoon market) and the US, much of the market here is super heroes.

There is a seemingly endless demand for books about floppy haired Japanese youths with special powers, facing the kind of beastly enemies their mothers warned them about, and defeating them in violent ways.

It is not just a matter of KERPOWW and SPLAT: cartoons can tell serious stories too, stories that in some ways have no better form of narration. And the artistic possibilities are as limited only as their creators' imagination.

Cartoonists, after all, are not simply illustrators. As Dutch artist Robert Van der Kroft said: 'We are actors, directors and cameramen as well.' The cartoonist's job is to create a home video that readers can create in their heads, he said.

For hundreds of years, cartoons have been political satirists: the danger of their lampoons recognised by most repressive governments. During Spain's dictatorship, the only cartoons allowed were children's ones. During Germany's Nazi regime no comics were permitted at all. In America during the 1960s underground comic strip publishers were jailed in an attempt to stop their satire.

A cartoonist has the power to highlight social issues in accessible and effective ways: viz the Nike campaign by Doonesbury, which criticised the sports company for exploiting cheap labour in Asia.

Or, of course, he or she can create satire simply for the sake of it: viz Viz.

The Eurocomics exhibition, at City Hall Exhibition Hall until March 1 as part of the 1998 Hong Kong Arts Festival, is a new experience for the local arts community.

Not only are comic strips framed as art and hung on the walls, but there is also a reading corner - child- and adult-friendly bookshelves stacked with books about Asterix and other European adventurers, a drawing corner with live demonstrations, and a choice of videos.

This show is adapted from the European Comics, Another Image show from the Comic Festival of Angouleme in France, and sponsored by the consulates general and cultural institutes of the European Union.

It is as much an example of how Hong Kong can move forward in terms of designing exciting public exhibitions as a way of appreciating the infinite imagination of the animated world.