Plunging comic sales in Hong Kong force artists to find a new perspective
Hong Kong has a great comics heritage but plunging sales have seen mainstream genres give way to more diverse alternatives
It's a blustery Friday evening as Typhoon Rammasun sweeps past Hong Kong, but the atmosphere inside Comix Home Base in Wan Chai is easy-going as 10 of Hong Kong and Taipei's top comic artists gather for a talk. They are there for "A Parallel Tale", an exhibition that weaves tales of the 1980s and 1990s in Hong Kong with those from across the Taiwan Strait.
"The 1980s and '90s were interesting times for both cities," says Taiwanese comics publisher Huang Kuan-hua, opening the discussion. At the time, Hong Kong was the cultural capital of Greater China, a position that extended to comics, he says.
Independent artist Ah Tui agrees: "I always looked forward to getting the Hong Kong comics when they came to Taiwan. "These imported comics were so precious."
In the world of comics, Hong Kong punches well above its weight. It's the third largest comics market in the world, after Japan and the United States, and a glance at the stack of kung fu serials on any newsstand - or the crowds lining up for this year's Ani-Com and Games fair, which runs until Tuesday - will show that it's not only an important source of entertainment, it's part of the city's cultural DNA.
"Comics have become part of our daily language," says Connie Lam Suk-yee, executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre. "Look at MTR advertisements, or publicity events in shopping malls, and how they attract the public with comics. It's the cultural representation of our society, but it's also a commodity."
Sadly, in recent years, it's a commodity that has been losing its value. Whereas action comics could once sell up to 300,000 copies, a run of 5,000 is now the norm. "It's cheaper for publishers to translate a Japanese manga than it is to invest in an original work by a Hong Kong artist," says Li Chi-tak, who launched his career in the early 1980s. The decline is not limited to Hong Kong; even Japan has seen a collapse in manga sales over the past two decades.
There is an upside. The fall-off in mainstream comics has been accompanied by a creative rebirth, with a new generation of artists producing comics that are more individual in focus than the formulaic works of old. "It's more contemporary, more personal, less genre," says Lam.
That is drawing attention from countries such as France, where comics are regarded as a form of art and literature, not just pulpy entertainment. In recent years, several Hong Kong artists have exhibited their work at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, arguably the world's most prestigious comics convention. At home, it has meant a shift in focus from selling books to something more artistic, such as when M+ commissioned Li to create a comic for its Mobile M+: Yau Ma Tei exhibition. "The business of comics is changing," says Lam.
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Six decades ago, the business was straightforward. Although Hong Kong comics trace their origins back to the early 1900s, when illustrated magazines such as The True Record offered revolutionary propaganda, it wasn't until after the second world war that they became Hong Kong's dominant form of entertainment. Children would crowd around streetside comic stalls, reading the latest instalments of series such as Uncle Choi, the story of a war hero during the Japanese occupation that was popular in the 1950s, and Old Master Q, which launched in 1962 and is still published today.
Comics were an industry more than an art form. "It was like a factory - a single piece might have six or seven illustrators, so it wasn't easy to have a personal style," says Lee Chi-ching, who is known for his wuxia (martial arts) comics.
That meant comics followed the changing tides of the entertainment industry. When Bruce Lee became popular in the 1970s, so did martial arts comics. Tony Wong Yuk-long's Little Rascals series, launched in the same era but later renamed Oriental Heroes, drew from wuxia themes of brotherhood and warrior-heroes, spawning legions of imitators. But concerns over the violence depicted in these comics led to the passing of the Indecent Publication Law in 1975, which required government inspection of comic magazines, prompting a move towards daily publication, but also a reduction in violence. Still, crime sells, and as gangster movies became popular in the 1980s and '90s, so did gangster-themed comics.
"In the early 1990s when I was in secondary school, there were government TV advertisements to discourage reading comics," says Lee Chi-hoi (better known as Chihoi), a comics artist and co-editor of Long Long Road - 25 Years of Independent Comics in Hong Kong. "The term 'comics' was [considered] equivalent to 'pornographic and violent'. In schools, the teachers wouldn't allow us to read comics." Chihoi thinks this anti-comics mentality was one of the factors that brought about the decline of the local industry. "Our generation was disconnected from the local comics history," he says.
But that history went down more than one track. Lam remembers Miss 13 Dot, a comic from the 1960s and 1970s that followed the happy-go-lucky adventures of a modish teenage girl. "I got my fashion sense from 13 Dot," she says.
The seeds of alternative comics were being sown as early as the 1970s, when some experimental comics magazines were published. That trend continued into the 1990s, when two pioneering alternative artists, Li and Craig Au Yeung Ying-chai, launched Cockroach, a magazine that collected works from nearly 30 independent artists.
Most of these early efforts faced the same problem: a lack of long-term support from publishers. That began to change in 2006, when Joint Publishing began releasing the works of alternative artists. "As many of the indie artists' work looks more 'sophisticated' or 'intellectual', the indie comic books are better distributed in bookshops rather than at newsstands," says Chihoi.
The rise of alternative comics marked a shift in Hong Kong's culture - or perhaps a return to a long-suppressed aspect of it. Interestingly, the first editions of Little Rascals featured characters from local public housing estates, but this street-level realism gave way to escapism after the government imposed its censorship.
Now, alternative comics are again holding up a mirror to the city. Chihoi points to Yeung Hok-tak's 2002 How Blue was My Valley as an example of comics' revived relevance. "It became a classic because it touched on issues of collective memory, urban redevelopment and renewal, conservation and real-estate hegemony before these terms were widely used in public," he says. "I think many comics by new artists since then are expressing their view of these issues."
That can certainly be seen in Ping Pong, a new comics magazine launched in May by Leumas To Hon-cheung, an emerging artist who cites Chihoi and Li among his chief influences. "My inspiration comes from my observations of life," he says. "I think we have to start getting to know ourselves, reflect more on our situation, question ourselves and think independently from the extremes in the media."
Stella So Man-yee, known for her detailed, whimsical drawings of Hong Kong streetscapes, believes comics need to "reflect the local culture and society" if they want to stand out internationally. Chihoi puts it this way: "If in the colonial old times we were in search of our identity, at the moment we are getting more and more sure of it."
The nature of comics is changing too, with the web making it easier to self-publish. "When a comic is successful, the opportunities are endless," says Lee Chi-ching. "Although the market is at a low point, comics have a lot of potential to transform into something new."
The shake-up in the field has also opened the door to more diversity. "More girls study art than boys" yet the comics industry is dominated by men, says So. Freed from the shackles of genre - the commercial imperative of "fighting comics" - more women are finding a niche in the comics scene, following a trail blazed by Miss 13 Dot artist Theresa Lee Wai-chun and McDull creator Alice Mak Ka-bik.
As the scene evolves, Lam hopes Comix Home Base will become its nucleus. Since its launch in 2006, it has sponsored artist exchanges, conferences and research projects; its move to a permanent home in Mallory Street has given it space for exhibitions, workshops and a comic library with more than 1,000 titles.
"If you want to cultivate artists or audiences, you need a platform, and this is it," says Lam. "Now, if someone wants to know more about comics, they know where to go."