Hong Kong comic book industry struggles against rising tide of digital piracy

Comic book artists and publishers are struggling against a rising tide of digital piracy that threatens to put them out of business, writes Alan Yu

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 4:58am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 5:06pm

Chiu Yuen-wing is a long-time follower of Japanese manga, particularly Naruto, an enduring saga featuring ninjas with superpowers. Like thousands of fans, the 20-year-old student queued up to check out the latest releases presented at Ani-com, the recently concluded comics, animation and gaming extravaganza in Hong Kong.

But while the annual Ani-com convention still attracts crowds of about 700,000, Hongkongers such as Chiu just aren't reading comics the way they used to.

"At first I would still buy individual copies, but now they're too expensive," he says. "They cost HK$35 per issue, and I can't afford that."

Instead, Chiu and other comics lovers are getting much of their fix in digital form through apps and websites that deliver material - usually scanned from the original - for free.

The stream of free content has been devastating for local comic book publishers, particularly those reprinting Japanese manga, although some independent comic artists have managed to thrive.

"In the heyday for comics during the '90s, we could sell more than 200,000 copies of a single issue. Now even the most popular comics don't sell more than 20,000 copies; that's how staggering the drop is," says Thomas Tang Wing-hung, director of the Hong Kong Comics and Animation Federation. "For a new title from Japan, sales can be fewer than 1,000 copies."

Now even the most popular comics don't sell more than 20,000 copies
Thomas Tang, Hong Kong Comics and Animation Federation

Sales of home-grown comics have fallen, too: new instalments of series such as long-time martial arts favourites Wind and Cloud (also known as Stormriders) and Weapons of the Gods can still shift more than 10,000 copies a week, but lesser-known works might not even sell 2,000 copies - a level that will not cover the cost of printing.

"It's a grim time for the comic publishing industry in Hong Kong," Tang says.

Major publishers such as Jonesky and Jade Dynasty now try to generate additional revenue from collectibles (models of weapons and the like) and sales of franchises for online games or movies. But print sales still contribute about 70 per cent of total revenue.

Print remains the most stable source of income for comic publishers because merchandise sales spike during Ani-Com but are largely quiet for the rest of the year. In 2000, a record year for Ani-Com, the industry sold more than HK$6 million of merchandise during the five-day event, according to Dick Kwong, general manager of Jade Dynasty and secretary general of the comics federation.

Tang compares the industry's predicament to that of Hong Kong music companies, which now depend less on record sales and increasingly on revenues that a chart-topping artist might derive from appearing in movies, commercials and from other sources.

The comics federation, a trade group promoting local works, has tried to embrace the digital revolution instead of being overwhelmed. More than three years ago, it developed iPad and iPhone apps to attract more readers to Hong Kong on the digital format. But despite getting more than 200,000 downloads of the app at one point, Tang says they simply haven't been able to compete with free pirated copies even though instalments from popular series can cost just 90 US cents.

Shrinking revenue has also made publishers even more risk averse, so new artists find it increasingly difficult to get a foot in the door.

But despite the gloomy outlook, dedicated teams at the major publishers work day and night to put out issues every week - a unique feature of the scene here, some say.

Har Wai-yee is typical of these craftsmen. A veteran of the business for more than 20 years, he started as an assistant artist responsible for refining details on each panel, from filling in the background settings to touching up the texture on characters' clothing.

After a lifetime, Har's interests largely revolve around work: all the novels he reads, the television shows and movies that he watches are grist for his mill. To develop a Korean character for a recent issue, for instance, he's been watching a lot of Korean dramas to see how the characters are styled.

Although largely desk-bound, Har has ventured out to research material for some stories: to develop a short series about local firemen tied to the TVB drama Burning Flame, he attended fire station meetings and talked to firefighters to get a feel for what their work was like.

He may now be a lead artist at Jade Dynasty, but Har still sleeps in the office a couple of nights each week to meet deadlines. There's a shower as well as sofa bed there that he uses. "No one makes you stay behind, but that's what the atmosphere is like here," he says, adding that he stays back less often now that he's married with children.

This kind of routine is common among artists working for big comic book publishers, says Jade Dynasty general manager Dick Kwong, who also started out as an assistant.

"In Hong Kong, the assistant artists are very loyal. I worked for years as an assistant, doing anything that the artist didn't - [drawing] patterns on clothing, touching up hair … a lot of people won't do tasks like this because they'll think: 'I made it in this industry; I should be putting out my own creations'," Kwong says. "Even Marvel sent people over to watch our artists at work, and some of the Japanese publishers, as well."

But if they were to join the scene today, Kwong and Har agree that setting out on their own would be a serious option, especially with the example of successful independent artists such as Kong Khong-chang, better known as Kongkee, who has carved a niche with his views on Hong Kong life.

A number of independent comics are less about entertainment and more a form of literary expression or social commentary, moving beyond traditional martial arts epics to short strips depicting local life, culture and politics. And the following for such material is on the rise.

Tsui Wai-kwong, a 54-year-old fan who was at Ani-com, reflects this shift among readers.

"During my student days, I would read Oriental Heroes [a popular martial arts series from Jade Dynasty], and I was quite addicted," Tsui says. "I still have those books; I've kept them since childhood. But as I've grown older, I stopped paying attention."

Now Tsui follows current affairs cartoons in local newspapers, and keeps clippings of his favourites in a folder.

Daily life provides much of the inspiration for Kong. His newest books include Ding-Ding Office, a strip about tussles among employees jostling for dominance and also with their bosses, and Our Sai Yee Street, which chronicles life in a small subdivided flat he shared with his girlfriend.

Kong reckons he's fairly typical of independent artists. His revenue comes from a range of sources other than book sales - using his characters for commercials, in products and making online animated videos. He started out as a freelance graphic artist, but found himself increasingly drawn to comics, and turned full time when he founded Penguin Lab with a partner in 2008.

"Independent comics bear less of a [financial] burden, so they allow for more individual expression. I think this is a unique feature of the Hong Kong market," Kong says.

"Hong Kong is a lot like Europe; European comics aren't like those in the US, which exist mainly for entertainment. In Europe, comics are more like novels or indie movies - a form of literary expression. Hong Kong has both now: the indie scene has grown a lot in the past 10 years and outpaced the larger publishers, allowing the widely different styles to flourish."

But Kong still sees a demand for comics in Hong Kong, pointing to new weekly magazines Mdecomics and PassionTeens.

Mdecomics, which launched about six months ago, takes in a range of genres including a zombie apocalypse set in Hong Kong, a fantasy-adventure about a prince trying to regain his kingdom and a melancholy story about a teenage girl considering suicide.

PassionTeens made its print debut last week, after building a Facebook presence as an offshoot of PassionTimes, the media site founded by Civic Passion activist Wong Yeung-tat.

Although Kong has established himself an independent, he hopes more print platforms will emerge to which comics artists can submit works, as he still sees the print medium's importance.

"It's like marching on the streets to protest: you have to get out there for your grievances to be aired. When you publish a magazine, you're also making a statement," Kong says. "If we can accommodate different styles of comic magazines, that would be ideal."

Kwong also says comics will always be a part of Hong Kong.

"A lot of people say the local comic book industry is on its deathbed, but I don't think it will ever die," he says. "Despite the hardship, it's still something our artists are interested in. Why else would we spend so much time on this? It's about the satisfaction of producing something that people will actually buy and enjoy."