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Global Trends: It's a Tough World Out There for Native Comics

As the world becomes smaller, individual countries' comics industries are changing. John A. Lent explains.

Fans, students and creators of American comic books are a rather narrowly-focused lot. They concentrate on the smallest details about favorite superheroes, rehash the same historical and anecdotal facts/opinions about series and titles, and, in the process, add to the myth of the genre. Seldom do they look beyond the borders of the United States to acquaint themselves with a wider comic world. Granted, they have paid some attention to comic books from other parts of the world when they have impacts upon or connections with those of the U.S. Thus, they know about Moebius, or the British and Filipino cartoonist invasions, or, in recent times, the craze for Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (animation). But missed are comic books from most of the rest of the world. This essay aims to provide insight into comic books worldwide and discuss the trends and problems facing these local industries. First, the author will concentrate on areas where he has recently interviewed, like Asia, and will then apply these trends to broader, global concerns. Asia's Many Comics Forms To speak of comics on a continent or sub-region level in a generalized fashion is risky, if not misleading. Comic books come in various genres, sizes and formats which preclude easy categorization. Take Asia for example. In comics-rich Japan, manga take on all shades and hues, defying pigeonholing into standard genres. Over the years, there have been samurai warrior, unka (shit, defecation), rorikon (Lolita complex), sarariman (salary men or workers), redikomi (ladies with sex fantasies), pachinko and mahjong (games), and june (for young women but featuring stories of love between men) genres. Hong Kong comics also use many, more standard sounding, genres, such as comedy, romance, ghost, and social or gangster/crime stories. Gambling and kung fu are other genres that Hong Kong has contributed as well. For years, Philippine komiks were dominated by nobelas (serialized stories, one of which lasted for more than a decade) and wakasans (short stories complete within an issue of a komik). However, more recently, the depleted Philippine economy has not allowed readers to purchase komiks week after week, thus the preference is now for wakasans. Similarly, one cannot generalize about the formats and sizes of Asian comics. In Sri Lanka, comics papers (their term for comic books) have 16 pages and 14 stories; each serialized story is given only a page and each is drawn by a different artist. Myanmar comics are large, usually 10 to 80 pages and either of a 5x7 or 71/2 x 9 inch format. Some are written and illustrated entirely by one person, others by three or four. Japanese manga are the size of U.S. metropolitan city telephone books in number of pages and format, and contain little dialogue. In Hong Kong, Jonesky (Chinese name, Tin Ha) brings out its comics in two versions: one visual with the artwork, the other in the form of textual novels. Bangladeshi comic books come in two varieties based on paper quality: white paper or the cheaper newsprint. Those in Thailand are distinguished by variations in size: traditional and pocket.

All types of production systems exist as well. In Thailand, the largest comics publisher, Bun Lour Sarn, brings out 14 different titles timed so that a new one appears every five days. As a result, the company retains 30 cartoonists who work with editors and writers to come up with the themes they eventually draw. Philippine cartoonists and writers work on a regular freelance basis with one of three large comics publishers. Some draw five to eight weekly series. One of India's most prominent and prolific comics artist, Pran, works out of a home studio. There, he and a small staff draw a variety of strips, disseminated first to 20 newspapers and magazines through his own syndicate, and then collected into comic books by India's premier comics publisher, Diamond. South Korean comic books, until the mid-1980s, were confined to a feudal-like system. A master cartoonist would lord over a studio of apprentices, all producing books of serialized stories under his name and in his style, meant for thousands (15,000 at a time) of comic book rental shops. The birth of comics magazines (about 20 existed by the mid-1990s), the very recent use of retail bookstores as comics outlets, and the increased purchasing power of youth, have profoundly altered the industry, causing a severe slump in the rental business, the production of fewer titles with larger paid circulations, and the Koreanization of characters and plots that in the past were Japanese-derived.

What is popular also changes from country to country: love and romance in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, humor in Myanmar and Thailand, fighting and Kung Fu in Hong Kong, adventure in Bangladesh, Malay historical or warrior adventures in Malaysia, and sci-fi with ancient Chinese or Buddhist themes in Taiwan. In fact, Asia abounds with success stories in the comic book field. In Malaysia, Gila-Gila maintains the second largest magazine circulation in the country. In Singapore, the once-a-year Mr. Kiasu comic book has been spun off into dozens of products which may have become more visible than the book. In Taiwan, Tsai Chih-chung has adapted Chinese classics into a comic book format, in the process, selling more than 30 million copies throughout Asia. In Japan, manga sell over 1.5 billion yearly. Finally, in the Philippines, komiks plots and characters still figure in a large proportion of local films. Problems Within the Business There are a few constants concerning comics in Asia, however. One of which is a foreign presence; whether it is that of American in the Philippines and elsewhere, of Japanese in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, or of Indian in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In a number of countries, the first comic books were U.S. imports. As a result some of the first and subsequent local works were clones of those in the West: Taong-Gagamba (Spider Man), Lastic Man (Plastic Man), Kapteyn Barbell (Captain Marvel), or Bulko (The Hulk) in the Philippines. Immad and Gila-Gila magazines were imitators of Mad in Bangladesh and Malaysia, respectively. In other countries, foreign comics still dominate. Doraemon, Asterix, and Disney titles are redrawn and translated by Vietnamese artists who disguise the work as their own. Similar titles appear on a regular schedule from about half a dozen Indonesian publishers. Sometimes the threat, however, comes from closer to home. In Bangladesh, the few existing comics publishers complained that Indian comics have plagued their new industry, not just the importation of them, but also their illegal printing within the country by pirate publishers. Clampdowns in Taiwan and Korea have aimed at stopping both the importation and the publication of their pirated comics. Other problems plague comics in Asia, including a perceived lack of respect for the medium and its creators, the heightened competition for audience provided by television, video and other new media, fluctuations in economies that lessen readers' purchasing power, disproportionate shares of profits eaten up by distributors, and the lack of larger, foreign markets because of language limitations.

Affects of a Nearing Global Community Some of the trends and problems associated with Asian comic books can be applied elsewhere. Australians, for example, still feel a deep concern about the impact of American comic books, as do Germans, East Europeans, Latin Americans and others. In Germany, during the bad business year of 1996, only the larger comics companies showed profits, mainly because they publish many U.S., French, Belgian and Japanese titles. Polish comic books also faced an uphill battle as American comics flooded in after the fall of Communism. A number of local books sprang up, but only lasted a year because of outside competition, a weak economy, a lack of interest by publishers, insufficient comics magazines where artists can sell their work, and an unwillingness by book shops to sell comics. Nevertheless, through efforts similar to those of American fandom pioneers, titles keep appearing and are promoted through fanzines, a comics creators convention, and a comics group in Lodz called Contour. In Macedonia, American comics are popular to the extent that of the two magazines publishing local comics, one is called Disneyland. During the days of a united Yugoslavia, at least three or four agencies functioned solely to import U.S. comic books. In parts of Latin America like Chile, comics creators are trying to shed foreign, mainly U.S., influences. However, they are stymied in their efforts to move ahead because of competition from American comic books. Those who thrive, such as Mauricio de Souza of Brazil, often have done so by imitating North American commercialization methods such as converting their books to animation, merchandise lines and hitting the international market. In Argentina, the Comic Creators association was formed in 1995 to promote national comics through new production and distribution methods.

Much of the economics of comics publishing is related to broader trends, such as those of international trade regulation, globalization, commercialization, and cross-fertilization/media imperialism. Certainly tighter copyright laws, brought on through threats of trade restrictions, have made comics piracy more difficult in parts of Asia. The continued U.S. embargo of Cuba has severely affected comics publishing there, as cartoonists have been forced to leave their homeland.

During the past decade and a half, the lightning speed of the internationalization of cultural forms and their centralization into fewer transnational corporations have caused justifiable concern. The global culture that these conglomerates promote is shaped solely by marketing considerations as they strive to control all aspects. They create the images and also the material and cultural products associated with them like: toys, that reproduce the company's television and film characters; comics and animated cartoons that incorporate a product sponsor within the storyline; comics conglomerates that move characters in guest appearances in and out of their books, often at the loss of creativity and credibility; and comics that take a homogenized appearance from country to country. The U.S. trend of comic book producers merging with each other, distributing firms, and larger media giants, is being followed in other regions, bringing results of synergistic monopolization, standardization of contents, and the narrowing of those chosen to be arbiters of public taste. High levels of commercialization now inundate comics industries of the world, so that merchandising has become the end-all of cartooning, more important than the work of art itself. Cartoonists everywhere complain that the quality of work has diminished at the hands of corporate cartooning. In China, one of the most famous cartoonists/animators, Zhan Tong, said that for cartoonists to get lucrative jobs with commercially-oriented concerns, they had to draw cartoons that would not "jangle anyone's nerves" (meaning safe, bland cartoons). Meanwhile, a professional artists body in the Philippines declared that the quality of comics has deteriorated because of the necessity of cartoonists to speed up the creative process and make more money. In Japan, manga publishers rationalize that it is not important to draw panels in great detail as the average reader only spends a second or two with each page. Slovakian and other comic artists have attributed the lower quality to publishers and editors who know how to make money, but not how to critically evaluate a work of art. Another trend is that of comics cross-fertilization, also termed media imperialism in some circles. The origins of comics in different countries and subsequent shifts in emphases of themes and styles, are often traced to influences from elsewhere. For example, the international connections between European and U.S. comics have remained strong for more than 50 years; the industries often feed on each other. When the relationship between two countries' comic producers becomes imbalanced, heated debates flare up about the homogenization of culture, obliteration of local values, and the killing off of the indigenous comics tradition. Such complaints have been heard from cartoonists in at least the Caribbean, Kenya, South Africa, all parts of Asia, and Brazil. Steps have been taken to assure a place for local comics, with the launching of humor and cartoon magazines (particularly in Turkey and Malaysia), the loosening of censorship laws, the tightening of copyright regulations, and the augmented professionalism of cartoonists. For example, Brazil has had a law since 1983 obligating all comic book publishers to print 50 percent Brazilian titles with native authors. Also throughout the world, publishers have taken comics beyond the children's realm by creating adult titles, often with sexual and violent themes, and developing books, whose aims can range from teaching gourmet cooking (Japan) to eradicating AIDS (South Africa). We can only hope that these small steps will help preserve each country's unique style of comics against an onslaught of obstacles.

John A. Lent is Professor of Communication at Temple University, in Philadelphia. He is also the editor of Asian Cinema, the journal of the Asian Cinema Studies Society, which he also chairs, and managing editor of Witty World International Cartoon Magazine.