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Coco Wang:

Wild China

Somehow it always seems to happen to me. Whenever I am embarking on another comics project, amazingly the right people seem to come into my life. One of these is Coco Wang, who came to the 2007 Comica Festival and a panel I organised on Chinese comics or manhua. Coco is a very talented Chinese writer and artist in her own right, but she is also in touch with a great many other talents, including a whole other scene I was hoping to find out about - a new generation of ‘underground’ self-published manhua creators, putting out amazing anthologies of personal and experimental work unlike anything I’d seen from mainland China before. Coco has been one of a number of invaluable advisers and assistants to me on the Manhua! China Comics Now show opening on Friday March 7th, 2008, so this is a good opportunity to find out more about her, her work and her insights into the present and future of comics in China.



Wild China
by Coco Wang

Paul Gravett:
Could you start of by telling me a bit about your background and early interests in comics? I know you spent some time at school here in England?

Coco Wang:
Yes, I did my A levels in Queen Ethelburga’s College in Thorpe Underwood, North Yorkshire. It was a girls’ boarding school, quite an experience! Hymn singing every morning and lived next to the stables (the students were allowed to bring their own horses to school)... Very different from London.

I started reading comics since I was four, I managed to read more comics than my friends and classmates thanks to my father who is also a big fan of comics, a big sponsor of my comic books.

What comics and comic creators influenced you growing up? In China and perhaps in Britain too?

Akira Toriyama (Dragon Ball Z, Dr Q - or Dr Slump) was the biggest hit for my generation, we used to exchange his books in school and got caught and punished… And the other equally popular one was Fujiko F. Fujio’s Doraemon, everyone memorized the theme song of the animation… My western comic heroes were Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Garfield, Snoopy… especially Garfield, loved his life-style.

Did you read your father’s favourites too?

My favourites were my father’s favourites actually! My father was very up-to-date in the 80s (although not anymore…), he first introduced Dragon Ball Z and Dr Slump to me… And of course we were both fans of San Mao too!

Your own cartooning includes a special kind of graphic novel or TuWen book. Can you tell me more about your autobiographical comics and more generally about this special genre of memoir/diary comics with looser cartoony style and often unframed layouts?


Coco Goes To Study In England

by Coco Wang

Yes, it is called TuWen, which means Image and Text. I published my TuWen book Coco Goes To Study In England in November 2007, telling my stories about living and studying alone in a foreign country. I came to England at the age of 15 and now have grown up into a blend of the East and the West. My stories involve lots of ‘Culture-Conflicts’ which are very amusing for both Eastern and Western people. TuWen books came from Japan I believe, it was around 2001, TuWen books by a Japanese comic artist (or rather TuWen artist) called Takagi Naoko’s  ‘invaded’ Chinese market (Mainland China, HK, Taiwan) and sold hundreds of millions copies. Since then, lots of Chinese artists started drawing TuWen books. Because of its loose cartoony style, it is easier and faster to produce, not like manhua which requires much stronger craftsmanship.  

You are also developing a fantasy adventure series which you are writing and designing, but working with another artist to do the finished art. Can you tell me about this?

The Xia Dispensary is a fantasy drama, it tells the story of harmony and war between two human races: one thrives with their abilities to create and invent; the other was born with powers of nature. So this story is portraying the relationship between humanity and nature. The hero of the story is a boy who is a mix-blood of the two races, his family runs an ancient Chinese dispensary thousands of years old, filled with secrets and treasures. The boy was destined to be the key to the peace and the war between the two worlds.

I have been working on the story and design since 2005. The story has been taken on as an animation project by the China International Culture Exchange of the Culture Ministry of China, and was brought to The International Anime Fair in Tokyo in 2006. At the same time I wanted to develop it as a manhua project, so now I am working with a storyboard artist to draw sample pages of episode 1. I am looking for collaborators in UK, Japan or China to work on this project together.


The Xia Dispensary

by Coco Wang & Tao Chong

You are also working with your business partner back in Beijing, Dodo. What are some of the successes and projects and the goals of your partnership?

In 2006, I started Coco & Dodo with my partner Dodo Wang on my other comic/illustration project Psycho Babies, which is being developed into comic/illustration related products. We have been making short animations and publishing illustrations/comic strips in Chinese magazines. At the moment, we are working on the collaboration strategy between Chinese magazine Fantasy Art and British sci fi weekly 2000AD, and study programmes which are designed for collaboration between Chinese art universities and Kingston University.

Looking more broadly at comics today in mainland China, what are some of the best being created by the mainstream publishers and creators? I was amazed to see that San Mao (Three Hairs), a sort of Chinese Tintin or Dennis the Menace, is still popular today, with new animated cartoons and even a live-action movie co-produced by China and Belgium coming up.

The Chinese comics nowadays are kind of scattered around, and most feature short stories/works or illustration-style stories instead of series of books like Japanese manga. The major artists like Yao Fei La, Benjamin, Lu Ming have all been publishing comic books but of short length. The focus was on the techniques of painting and drawing (because it is safe to focus on the techniques, because in this way you are not breaking any rules or regulations, so it’s a surer way to get things published). The story/script has always been the weaker element of the Chinese comics nowadays (stories can easily be provocative and get rejected). Perhaps that’s why no series were successful because the story (which are shaped by the regulations) could not stand the test of time. Although it is getting better now and more books are allowed to be published than before, you can still distinctly feel the cautiousness and restrictions from looking at the comic books in Chinese bookshops.

But still, the comics sections in Chinese bookshops look lively because they were filled with comics from Taiwan, Hongkong, Europe etc. We have some big titles: from Taiwan like Zai Zhi Zhong and Zhu De Yong, JIMI; Maidou Pig from HK; Garfield and Snoopy (some things never change with time, they are still a big a hit in China as ten years ago); and some TuWen books from Japan. This is the government’s policy, to strictly forbid imports of manga. Somehow the Japanese TuWen books managed to slip in. Lots of Japanese publishers have been introducing their TuWen books to China because they know their manga would not stand a chance.


Journey To The West

adapted by Chen Weidong & Peng Chao
translated into French by Xiao Pan

The lack of good stories/scripts is also one of the reasons that you still see relics like San Mao and Monkey King being dressed up again for big screen now. The other reason would be the government regulations. The people who make decisions of what to make and what to show come from the older generations who are fans of San Mao and Monkey King. It is very hard to compromise, to produce something that is both ‘trendy’ and ‘traditional’ at the same time. So you see Paul, Chinese comics and animation suffer from the same symptoms: Education and Regulation. My underground artist friends told me their worries: what they fear the most is not losing their freedom - they managed to show themselves to you through me, didn’t they? They want to try and create their own freedom, as they are not getting any from the government. The biggest fear is losing their ideas and abilities to create.

There are a number of classic tales, most famously Journey into the West with Monkey, famous here from the imported TV series, which are being endlessly reinterpreted in comics and animation. It’s a bit like Shakespeare here perhaps?

NaZha (a boy hatched from The Ball of Flesh) is also one of the relics that are being endlessly reinterpreted… so is The Lotus Lamp (the story of a boy who splits a mountain in half in order to save his mother who was trapped under the mountain). Curious to think about Monkey King, NaZha and Lotus Lamp, they are all from Chinese Taoism legends. In fact, you will find all three characters in the same story!

Can you explain how manhua - or more accurately lianhuanhua, the earlier form of palm-sized booklets with one image per page, were once an officially State-supported medium, employing hundred of extraordinary illustrators? And how and why this faded away?

I blame the Japanese manga for that. You are right. LianHuanHua were probably the best, the most home-grown Chinese comics in the history of Chinese comics. But in the 80s, we called that period ‘The Foreign Invasion’. Japanese manga and American Mickey Mouse swallowed our markets and LianHuanHua did not look attractive anymore to young readers.


An example of a LianHuanHua

In more recent years, I gather many Chinese kids grew up reading translated manga - pirated editions and more recently officially licensed ones. How important an impact have manga had in China? Do they threaten to swamp the local home-produced manhua? 

Your questions are like… the key to open our Chinese Pandora’s Box! Gosh I don’t know where to start… Let me think… First… How important an impact have manga had in China? The answer is: Very Very Very important. Do they threaten to swamp the local home-produced manhua? The answer is: Oh my god YES THEY DO threaten us. If manga books are allowed into China, I think it very possibly would be end for Chinese comics. During the Foreign Invasion in the 80s, the home-produced Chinese comics were already looking every inch like manga.

Are the authorities trying to restrain manga’s success, and if so how and how successfully?

Oh yes, the authorities strictly forbid imports of manga (except TuWen books) and this policy has been quite ‘successful’ (you can see the results in all bookshops) except all the pirated editions and free online manga (you will find them everywhere if you know where to look ;).

A key question for Chinese comics to truly flourish will be the support of publishers and the relaxation of curbs on freedom of expression? Do you see signs that these steps might be happening?

I think the increasing number of comics/illustration books would be the signs. But their contents have not been as revolutionary as one would expect. However, we do see more and more publications, festivals, competitions are being organised around comic/illustration artworks, and the internet has been a heaven for free expression and revolutionary artworks (both comics & illustrations). You can find much better and more interesting works online than you find in bookshops.

Chinese manhua artists are frequently enormously gifted illustrators. I am particularly interested that quite a few are now working for the foreign market, from Yishan Li, based here in Edinburgh and working for publishers in France, UK and US. What do you think of the prospects especially in France, where Chinese artists are collaborating with French writers on full colour albums? Some of the work I have seen has been stunning. France really seems like a natural ally and collaborator with China to compete with the powerhouses of the USA and Japan? It also helps that Western publishers can pay Chinese artists a lot more that Chinese ones.

Yes… We do receive a much better payment from the French than from our own people. This kind of collaboration may improve and strengthen our techniques and craftsmanship (like storyboarding skills, drawing, painting skills…), but not very helpful to our own creativity. We receive scripts and storyboards from the French, we are told exactly what to do. If it’s just colouring work, we don’t need to understand the story to do our job. We see the designed characters sent to us, not knowing the process of creation behind these characters and stories, therefore not understanding the essence of the story. We keep scratching the skin, memorising the forms and shapes of these designs, and imitating with a vague understanding.

It seems the Chinese comic/illustration industry, just like every other Chinese industry, is falling into ‘The Big Post-Production System’. China is turning into a Big Post-Production Country for all other countries in the world. Sometimes it’s very sad to think about this. My comic artist friends in Beijing, the ones who are freelance, are struggling hard to survive in such a competitive market. The Chinese publishers pay 50-80 RMB (that’s about 2-3 Euros) per page to a Chinese comic artist, while the French publishers would pay 400 Euros per page. You can’t blame us for working on what the French/Westerners like instead of creating our own original comics that can’t pay our bills.


Cutiebo

by Yishan Li, from her first album of for Dargaud

You might say that ‘the French publishers don’t always just use Chinese artists as tools for post-productions, they do publish some original Chinese comics’. But if you observe closely, Monkey King, Kungfu comics, Taoism, Dragons… We have been carefully choosing the Chinese elements that the Westerners would be interested in instead of what we truly want to do. It’s like English-Chinese food, take away the spices and add sweet-sour flavour. The same thing is happening in animation and film industries. The Westerners loved Zhang Yi Mou’s House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Curse of the Gloden Flowers, or Chen Kai Ge’s The Legend because the audience those movies were targeting were Westerners. If you surf Chinese movie reviews, you would find shocking reviews panning these movies. I went to France’s Annecy Animation Festival in 2006, and I saw some Chinese KungFu animation produced by a ShangHai animation studio, and that animation is only aired in Europe, never in China!  By now you can probably guess why -  the Western TV stations pay a hell of a higher price than the Chinese TV station to Chinese animation companies, just like the difference in payment for comics.

In your view, what makes Chinese comics or manhua different or distinct say from Japanese comics or manga?

The underground comics are the best examples to show that Chinese comics are different from Japanese comics. For the mainstream comics, I wouldn’t say ‘the look’ of them would make them different from Japanese comics or manga. I hate to say this but lots of mainstream manhua really look like manga in many ways… I would say it’s the story that makes the difference, the Chinese morals, spirits, emotions…

In the headlong rush of modern China towards capitalism, have there been any comics which have been censored or have annoyed the authorities?

Well, not the published ones, the authorities certainly would not allow the ‘annoying ones’ to appear in public. There have been lots of ‘annoying ones’ such as the underground comics, but they understand the system so well that they just didn’t bother to make themselves known to the authorities.

The most important discovery you introduced me to were the self-publishing collectives producing ‘underground’ comix like Cult Youth and Special Comics. Can you tell me more about them and how they operate? Is it hard for them? I gather unlike in the West, anyone cannot just decide to publish and sell something in China?

The underground comics are the most experimental works, from ideas and storyboards to techniques and finished works, they are displaying very honest, naked thoughts/desires of some truly original ideas and emotions. I believe there is huge potential in these underground artists. I have had very interesting chats with them when I was China. In a way, they are extremely simple-minded fellows: they simply enjoy drawing comics, making stories, having fun with friends, exchanging ideas and criticising each other’s works. They live very modestly, with little income, some people work in animation or game companies to earn a small and steady income, some people manage to get commissions and work at home.


Supercrazyman & His World

by DragonFlower

Almost every one of them has a ‘double identity’, as an underground artist, and at the same time also as an employee in a game/animation company, or occasionally working for a foreign publisher/company… They don’t want to get into all the fuss of ‘presenting themselves to publishers, going out and making connections, looking for business collaborations…’ They just like to stay at home and draw and draw and draw… You might be surprised to learn how long they can manage to stay at home without going out not even for a short shopping trip. How can they do that? Because they have computers, DVDs, online games, internet, take-away menus (of many restaurants), phone numbers of convenience stores (if you live in a good district, lots of Chinese convenience stores do delivery services, no matter how small item you purchase, they can deliver from chewing gum to gallons of drinking water.)


My Street

by Jidi, one of the more experimental
young manhua talents featured in the exhibition.

Like Special Comics and Cult Youth, they are just a bunch of friends and good buddies who share the same love and passion for comics, got together, everyone chipped in a bit money and printed out a book of their works. They have been taking their books to the DIY/creative market, selling online (the only public place that would not annoy the authorities), but they don’t even bother to take the books to any publishers since they know what the answers would be. And they showed the books to people like me and Craig Yeung, who would be able to bring them to a bigger stage outside China.

Oh yes to mention Craig, Hong Kong is doing much better than mainland China on ‘what to publish’. HK artists have much more freedom and HK markets are more open. But the mainland underground artists’ uniqueness is also their problem: sometimes they are lost in their own fantasies so that their immature storytelling skills stop them from communicating with the readers. Some works you can understand straight away, but others you would miss the essence and goodness of it because of its immaturity, or the artist’s selfish expressions of ideas (being overly faithful to themselves so the story is not really speaking to a mass public).

And the biggest problem, (actually not just the comic artists’ problem, but the problem of Chinese people nowadays), is that most Chinese people are living in a fickle state of mind, and this is stopping people from thinking carefully and thoroughly through things, stopping people from focusing on quality and chasing after quantity. China’s super-fast changing and developing status is bound to make people fickle and unsettled. China is a Fast-Profit-World at the moment, and the most horrifying point is: it is a country of over 1.3 billion people. Oh yes it’s good to see there are opportunities and profits everywhere now, but if you are slow, someone else will snatch the profit away from under your noses. You must be quick. You don’t want to do this job for 5 Euros? Someone will be happy to do this for 3 Euros. Ok, I will do it for 5 Euros, and I was only given two hours to do the job, so I will do it fast and the quality won’t be good, but the ‘good’ part is that my client doesn’t care about the quality, they just want the thing done quickly and throw it into the market to grab that quick profits. Why doesn’t the client care? Because the customers don’t care! Why don’t the customers care? Because there are too many bad quality things in the market that they wouldn’t appreciate the difference of good and bad quality things.

For example, if I was fed a can of baked beans all my life, and suddenly you gave me caviar, for a person who so rarely tasted good things, I would not feel caviar tastes any better than my good old baked beans. It’s a vicious circle. The underground artists are certainly victims of this circle, which not only would degrade their commissioned works, but would also affect the quality of their own (underground) comics. You must understand that you cannot just ‘create something thoughtful and original’ by simply saying to yourself ‘Ok! I am going to be thoughtful and sophisticated for a moment now!’, it’s the living environment that is going to influence your life and work.

Among the many young artists who have impressed me, I was struck especially by Yao Feila. Reading his 80 degrees series of flawed romances, published now in French, I sensed something new developing here, a synthesis of manga techniques, but combined with an elegant illustrative sensitivity specific to China. I sense something is going on here which hints at how manhua might go?

Yao Feila has very successfully expressed the home-made stories, emotions that is moving for Chinese readers. He has developed a lot. If you look at his early works published in old Beijing manhua magazines, you may not recognize they were done by the same person. His early works were very manga. Now he is probably the one who stands most steadily in the Chinese manhua market. His has created a trend and there are already followers such as Zhu Le Tao (a girl that used to be his assistant, and now she is almost as big as Yao Feila, Yao Feila brought her to light I believe…) You can see Yao Fei La in Zhu Le Tao’s stories and style. She was the first successor and won’t be the last.


Attack Event of Peach Blossoms
by Yao Feila

Someone, was it Craig Yeung said that groups like Cult Youth and Special Comics were the future of comics in China? What do you think?

I think it is very possible. The underground artists possess the skills of the mainstream artists, and they have the passion and desire to express very personal and unique emotions/stories (things that the mainstream artists would not do) without worrying about ‘what other people would like to see’. It’s very good 100% orange juice, without any sweeteners. But they need to be careful with the balance, there is a limit for being very individual and unique. If they are too ‘selfish’ to care ‘what other people like to see’, they will not survive. But I think they are the hopes of Chinese comics. If they are given the opportunities to mature and grow, the future of Chinese comics could be brighter than we ever thought it would be. They have huge potential to grow into something very original (well, they have already achieved that) and popular (that’s what they need to work on), if they can be pointed in the right direction. Someone will need to do a little market research, to tell them who is best to go to and how they can develop. And they need a good presentation, to make people see their potential.


Time
by the artist StoryOf
from Special Comics Volume 2

Can you describe some of your favourite stories from these anthologies? Several of them make some very pointed observations about so-called freedom.

I truly enjoy these Freedom stories, you can tell the artists’ characters by looking at all these different expressions of freedom. I quite like Libo’s series of Freedom. It’s very simple and beautiful. Sometimes something just clicks and you can lose yourself in the atmosphere of those images, like taking a deep breath. Also the Trousers Revolution story. It is like a double-edged sword, I can see the communists here somewhere, they could be the suppressors or the liberators themselves. Freedom is being criticized and fought for at the same time. You can make your choice whose side you’d like to be on. Two Qee’s Mr Yi’s is a very amusing and mind-relaxing piece. The confusion and light-headedness of Mr Yi make you feel you are taking drugs as you read the story, it’s very interesting to follow his threads of thoughts and become absent-minded, GOING BLANK!

Another very moving piece you let me see is the short animation Our Songs about the struggles of art college students to make their own comics. Can you tell me more about this?    

Our Songs  is really speaking for lots and lots of young, hot-blooded comic artists who have or had dreams and hopes. Some people’s dreams died as they are disciplined and shaped by animation/game companies. Other people’s dreams are dying as their works are constantly rejected by publishers and they can no longer pay their rent (most young artists leave their families and are living in the big cities with university mates or friends, flat shares, etc). Libo is not good at making up stories, but he is brilliant in telling stories of real life in such convincing way that your mind is haunted with the subtle emotions expressed through every small gesture and design of the characters, sets, light, cinematography. Libo has been a free-lancer since he graduated from The Communication University of Beijing, and is now working with an animation director from CCTV (China Central Television).

Isn’t Japan’s cross-media promotion of manga and anime the very best way to spread manhua as well? Is the animation of manhua being done?

Manhua has not been commercially successful on its own, I can’t recall any big budget animation that is made based on manhua. But there has been a strange working system involving manhua and media, with only one exception I recall. Animation is not profitable in China, but TV series monstrous profits are making legends in China. There have been articles in China saying that the animation industry should follow the steps of live action TV productions. There are two comics (not series, they are both novel length) in China called Five Star Hotel  and Jade Guan Yin (Jade Guan Yin is drawn by Song Yang, who’s been published in France). Both scripts were written by a very famous Chinese novelist called HaiYan. His stories have taken the forms of TV series, films and manhua! I am not quite sure which form was first taken, but the manhua versions of his novels have won him a large young audience.

So perhaps this might be a route to popularise manhua further, at home and internationally. Thank you Coco for your insights. Do check out Coco’s site and visit the Manhua! China Comics Now exhibition at the London College of Communication, London SE1, from March 7th to April 11th 2008.

Posted: March 2, 2008

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