Li Chi-tak, Hong Kong’s indie comics godfather, gets solo show at international festival

Prestigious French event honours local artist’s 30-year career, as interest in Asian artists continues to grow around the world

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 February, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 February, 2016, 7:16pm

Li Chi-tak, dubbed the “Godfather of Hong Kong independent comics”, became the first local comic artist to hold a solo exhibition at the prestigious Angoulême International Comics Festival in France last weekend.

Entitled “Li Chi-tak, Hong Kong Wizard”, the retrospective showcased 80 of the artist’s works from the past 30 years, some exhibited for the first time. Also on show were meticulously drawn, lurid images in full colour from his new book The Beast, a collaboration with Belgian author Jean Dufaux that was launched at the festival after a 10-year gestation.

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Exhibition co-curator Connie Lam says it was an honour for Li to be selected to show his work, and it was also important for the Hong Kong comic industry as a whole in raising the profile of its artists.

“Many people think the comics scene in Hong Kong has been having a hard time,” says Lam, who’s also executive director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, “so this is particularly encouraging for up-and-coming artists.”

One of Hong Kong’s most prolific comic book artists, Li is known for the wide diversity in his work – he’s explored fantasy, history, action, politics and comedy – as well as his ability to employ different styles.

Lam says the exhibits on display at the festival were specifically chosen to showcase this variety, which, she maintains, set him apart from other artists.

“The French audience may have heard about Li Chi-tak, but only know him for a certain style,” she says, pointing to a copy of Li’s comic book Spirit, which was translated into French in 1998. “In the exhibition, you can see his different styles chronologically, which shows his development.”

As well as pages from Spirit and The Beast, highlights of the exhibition included the cover picture of Tong Men Shao Nian, the comic book Li self-published in 1987.

“We chose this as the iconic image for the exhibition because it represented a turning point in his career and influenced a lot of people in that generation,” says Lam.

Action heroes featured heavily in the retrospective, including Li’s sharply dressed spy K, and an unused cover illustration from Black Mask, perhaps his best-known work after it was made into a movie produced by Tsui Hark and starring Jet Li.

Also on display were several of his illustrations for Japanese magazines, including drawings from the short story Kagamijigoku, as well as some of his comic strips from Campus Chinese, the Hong Kong Economic Times’ educational supplement, later published in the compilation The Voyager.

While remaining relatively obscure on the international comic scene, Li had won some new fans at the festival, which has been held in Angoulême annually since 1974.

“I didn’t know the artist before this expo, but there is so much variety in his work, I want to know more about him,” says Martin Georis, a comic artist from Belgium who visited the exhibition.

“I don’t understand the stories where there is no translation, but the pictures themselves are very interesting, and make me want to know the whole story.”

Several visitors to the exhibition noted the difference between Li’s work and Japanese manga, which has been more prominent at the festival than Hong Kong manhua (to use the Cantonese word for comics) in the past.

“I don’t like manga, but I like Li Chi-tak’s work,” says graphic design student Yves Durif. “This kind of drawing and this kind of detail, his style … it’s different from manga”.

The contribution of Asian artists – manga, manhua and the Korean manhwa – at the Angoulême Festival has been increasing in the past decade alongside a growing interest in manga and other Asian comics around the world.

A third of comic books published in French now originate from Asia, and last year the festival’s top prize went to a manga artist, Katsuhiro Otomo, for the first time. In line with convention, Otomo was the president of the jury at this year’s festival.

Li, who has long cited Otomo as one of his main influences, describes the Japanese artist as “a worthwhile recipient of the honour” and says his success was “very significant for the Asian comics scene”.

Now that his latest book has been published, Li is planning to turn his attention back to the Asian market. He says his remaining ambitions include having a publication in Japan: he’s had short stories published in Japanese magazines in the past, but has never had his own publication.

Li is also keen to get involved in making a movie from another of his comic books. The artist says he didn’t have a lot of involvement in the big screen production of Black Mask and would like a bigger role in the adaptation of another of his titles.

“Otomo’s made two movies,” he says with a smile.