'King' still packs a punch

Wong Yat-hei

An artist celebrating a 50-year career has plans to draw new interest to comic books

Wong Yat-hei |

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Artist Wong Yuk-long with his character, Tiger Wong, from Oriental Heroes.
One of the pioneers of Hong Kong's comic-book golden age, in the 1970s and 1980s, quit school at 13 to be an artist.

Wong Yuk-long, known as "Hong Kong's king of comics", created Tiger Wong in the 1970s. Tiger was the hero of Oriental Heroes, a best-selling manhua, or Chinese comic book.

Oriental Heroes was the first manhua to feature action and fighting, and was copied by many other artists. The story, about a fictional kung fu school, was made into a 2006 Hong Kong film, Dragon Tiger Gate, starring Donnie Yen.

Wong, who illustrated Batman Hong Kong for DC Comics in 2003, created several other memorable Chinese martial arts characters and stories, including Weapons of the Gods and Legend of Emperors.

"I didn't go to art school," Wong says. "I was riveted by the comic sections in the newspaper since I was six," adding that he started drawing his own comics at the age of seven. His elder brother persuaded him to send his artwork to a publisher; his first comic appeared in print when he was 10.

An exhibition celebrating his 50 years as a comic-book artist, Wong Yuk-long Comic Exhibition, is running at East Point City, in Hang Hau, until October 20.

Blood and gang fights are common in local comic books, leading to some critics complaining such books are a bad influence on readers. Yet cultural studies expert Yiu Wai-hung believes there is a lot of misunderstanding about local comics.

"They are no different from [American comics] Spider-Man or Batman, which are about battles involving superheroes," Yiu says.

"In the 1990s, a comic got into legal trouble because it contained indecent and adult elements. It led to a government television advert that criticised such material, showing parents throwing piles of comics in the bin.

"This was tough on the local comic-book industry. They were made to suffer just because of one bad example."

Yiu says publishers could change the public's negative view of locally produced comic books by changing their design. "Whenever people see the large, rather thin comic books, they immediately know it's a Hong Kong comic and think it will contain bad images," says Yiu. "So if local comics were smaller, and thicker, like Japanese manga books, people might change their opinion and not take such a negative view.

He says a change in people's hobbies - with many spending their spare time playing and using mobile phone apps - has also harmed the local comic-book industry.

"Gone are the days when men in the restaurant would be holding a comic in their hand while having yum cha," he says. "Now, there are so many gadgets to play with that people have no time for comics."

Wong agrees that other forms of entertainment, such as online games, have lured comic-book readers away. At the peak in the 1980s, his comic-book sales hit more than one million each year; now they barely reach 10,000.

Yet Wong isn't ready to stop creating comic books. He believes the industry can be revived if cartoonists take on new subjects, such as romance and ghost stories, and develop merchandise. This method has been successful in Japan and the US.

"Mobile apps will also bring new life to the comic-book industry," he says. "We're trying to solve technical problems that allow readers to view pictures smoothly on their phones.

"The market potential is huge, because of the millions of smartphone users in Hong Kong and on the mainland. So don't give up on local comics yet."

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