A hero to the rescue
Alan Wan's efforts have won government support for the comic books industry
Alan Wan Siu-lun has good reason to smile: after some lean years for the comics industry, this one is set to be the best in a long time.
Wan, as director of the Hong Kong Comics and Animation Federation, has been instrumental in helping to get a lot of this year's happenings off the ground: the Hong Kong Avenue of Comics Stars in Tsim Sha Tsui has been running all year; mid-July saw the opening of Comix Home Base, a centre dedicated to comics and animation, in an historic building in Wan Chai; the annual Animation-Comic-Game (Ani-Com & Games) fair is under way now; and in November Hong Kong will host the International Comic Artist Conference.
"The government is calling this the year of comics," Wan says.
The industry hasn't always enjoyed the government's support and Wan is grateful - and somewhat amused - by the turnaround. "In the 1980s and 1990s, we made lots of money and we didn't need anyone's help. We were proud of our business because we were very successful, but the government didn't support us. Now we are working closely with the government and they really support us, but our business is downtrending," he says.
Wan knows the business inside out: in 1976, as a 14-year-old comic book fan, he knocked on the door of one of Hong Kong's best-known comic artists, Tony Wong Yuk-long, and asked for a job. Wong told him he was too young and sent him away, but Wan was determined. He got a summer job with another artist and a few months later was back in Wong's office. This time Wong decided to give him a chance.
That was the start of a more than 35-year working relationship: Wan began as one of five assistants working for Wong in his home-cum-studio in North Point. Wong encouraged him to quit school, promising him an extra HK$100 on top of his HK$300 monthly salary.
Those were the golden years for the industry, but things changed at the end of the 1990s when the internet started offering plenty of cheap entertainment options.
In 1999, Wong founded the Hong Kong Comics and Animation Federation; Wan served as secretary. The primary goals were to lobby the government for recognition and support, and to stage its own event as sharing the spotlight at the annual Book Fair was becoming difficult. The first Ani-Com & Games fair was held that year; attendance has grown steadily to 600,000 for the five-day event last year.
Determined to stay ahead of the trend, Wan switched to manga and tried to break into the mainland market with Wong. "At the beginning we made some money, but in China … they aren't concerned about copyright. When people see you making money, they want to join you, even government officials, so it's quite messy."
They tried to enter the online game market, but found that the comic artist mentality didn't fit well with the game-makers' mindset. The next move was into animation and, when this proved a much better fit, Wan set up his own outfit, Anitime Animation Studio.
"In Hong Kong only a few of the big-name comic masters can survive, like Tony and Ma Wing-shing who has a popular title, Storm Riders, that was made into a live action movie [in 1998]," Wan says.
As the popularity of comics began to flounder, falling from a peak of 50 weekly titles in the mid-1990s to about 20 today, the government began to take an interest in the industry. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was the first to show an interest. "He was good at raising ideas, but he wasn't a good management person, nor any good at the follow-up," says Wan.
Then came former secretary for commerce and economic development Frederick Ma Si-hang, who convened a meeting of comic artists after Lee Chi-ching and Lau Wan-kit picked up prizes at an international competition in Japan.
"Frederick Ma helped set up Create Hong Kong, a government department to support creative industries, including animation, comics and games. So our federation also supported Create Hong Kong," says Wan.
The new Comix Home Base has been almost a decade in the making, with government support building slowly. Representing more than 80 per cent of the comics industry, the federation was invited to join the initial tender with the Arts Centre.
The federation has good connections with the old-school Hong Kong comics figures dating back to the 1970s, while the Arts Centre has been able to introduce some of the newer artists, such as Stella So, and comics, such as Death Panda, as well as having know-how about running such an arts project.
So Hong Kong comics finally have a home and the federation has been given an office in the heritage-listed building in Wan Chai. The market is evolving, but the comic book DNA of solid story and character remain fundamental, says Wan. He sees comic artists working with software to add dialogue and music to action, and embracing other media to fuel their storyboard.
"I feel optimistic. Humans need dreams and comics are a kind of dream-making. If you are a good dream-maker with good ideas and a crazy imagination, you'll succeed."
Comix Home Base, 1-11 Mallory St and 6-12 Burrows St, Wan Chai. Inquiries: 2582 0200