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Taiwan’s comics gaining in popularity

The 2010 Comic Exhibition held in Taipei drew 540,000 visitors during the six-day show, shattering the previous attendance record, according to the Taiwan Review magazine.

Comic books and comic strips have been popular in Taiwan since the beginning of the 20th century. Present-day comics show the strong influence of Japan and the US. For a long time, comic strips were published mostly by newspapers and it was not until 1935 that Taiwan had its first full length comic book.

In the 1950s, after the Nationalists retreated from China to Taiwan, comics carried anti-communist messages government propaganda. This was the first time Taiwanese comic creativity hit a dry spell as authors started to write stories less likely to draw attention from government censors, reported the Taiwan Review.

Many artists switched to alternative better paying jobs as they could not make a living from their comic work. The drought in Taiwan-produced comics was one of the reasons that Japanese comics was able to dominate in Taiwan in the 1960s. Another reason for Japan’s success was due to the common Asian cultural background, unlike American comics.

Chen Cheng-wei, assistant professor of comic culture and history at Feng Chia University, told Taiwan Panorama magazine that Taiwan comics boomed in the 1990s due to the success of licensed comics after the passage of the new copyright Act in 1992. Japanese comic publishers began selling licensing rights in Taiwan in order to prevent pirated comics.

Taiwanese comic publishers also began handing out awards as well as signing contracts with local artists and actively fostering local talent. At the same time, specialist comic shops and comic rental chain stores began to take root throughout Taiwan, further driving the development of a strong comic culture and pushing the popularity of Taiwanese comics.

However, over the last decade rising paper costs and the impact of the internet have taken a toll on the industry. There is a huge overlap between comic fans and avid internet users. As such, online entertainment has begun eating into potential readers’ collective attention, and the ability to freely share information online has taken a bite out of traditional publishing profits, reported Taiwan Panorama. This is particularly true with a large number of mainland Chinese websites providing pirated comics for free online.

All this has affected comic retailers and rental stores especially hard, with many going out of business, and the number of comic magazines on sale dropping from a peak of over 30 to fewer than 10. The visibility of Taiwanese comics is getting lower by the day, and once-popular artists have decided to either try and crack the Chinese market or move into the gaming industry.

Neil Chen, editor-in-chief of Taiwan’s leading comic publisher Tong Li Publishing, told Taiwan Panorama that in order to revive Taiwan’s comic market, building a comprehensive supply chain and providing a platform for talent will be crucial. There needs to be a tight-knit, professional industry supporting these artists, editors and writers. Such support can smooth the process of taking a comic from inception to market place.  Most Taiwanese comic artists have been left with little choice but to go it alone.

Local problems aside, Taiwan’s comic industry also faces formidable challenges from Asian neighbors like China, South Korea, and Malaysia, in addition to the comic superpower Japan, whose governments have begun to support the growth of their animation industries.

Yang Chung-wei, publicist-general for Sharp Point Press, who has attended Chinese animation shows for years, observed that the Chinese animation industry faces the problem of a lack of creativity, a monotony of themes, a lack of brand awareness, and an abundance of pirated copies of Japanese cartoons. Yang believes that Taiwan, with a more established civil society and a greater talent pool can produce works that are of higher quality, in terms of both production and content.

In recent years, the Taiwan government has also stepped up its efforts to promote the comic industry. The Creative Comic Collection, for example, is the result of an ambitious project sponsored by a national program that started digitizing archives in 2002. The goal is to gather documents, archives and artistic creations representing the richness of Taiwanese culture, and has resulted in unprecedented recognition for comics, according to the Taiwan Review.

In 2010, the government held the Golden Comic Awards for the first time to encourage individual authors and to promote the industry. Despite the struggle, there is also encouraging news in the industry.

Pon Jea, a rising star in Taiwanese comics, is now working with master Japanese comic artist Riichiro Inagaka on the single-issue Kiba & Kiba and marks the first time in its 42-year history that legendary Japanese comic anthology weekly Shonen Jump has published the work of a non-Japanese artist. At the same time, Lin Li-jing, a comic artist living in France, has gathered a team of 15 Taiwanese comic artists to publish an anthology called Taiwan Comix, which was warmly received at the Angoulême International Comics Festival. It was Taiwan’s first serious foray into the European comic book market. Given the set backs in the industry, these heartening steps forward have given the industry hope for a new age of renaissance in Taiwan’s comics.