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Comic book culture gets a boost

ONCE Chinese cartoonists and comic book writers were looked down upon, as merely children's entertainers. But today they are getting support from the government for titles like "Little Piggy's Time Machine." Cheng Zhuo and Duan Jingjing report.

When Yao Feila published the first installment of "Mengliren" in 1995, he had no idea how the theme of the comic would come to reflect the trajectory of his own life and career.

"Mengliren" - Chinese pinyin for "The Dreamer" - was a series of tales about a schoolgirl superheroine who saves the world in her dreams.

The tales were interwoven through the dreams, daydreams and the "real" world of Li Mengling, the main character who finds herself in impossible situations that she must dream her way out of.

The series ran for six years in "Beijing Comic," resonating among its following of teenagers and young adults with its depiction of youth and the trials of life blended with surreal and fantasy elements.

When "The Dreamer" began, Yao was just a college student who made comics from the stories he dreamed up every day, but its success prompted him to follow his own dream of becoming a professional comic book author.

"After graduation, I had a strong desire to continue the story to flesh out my memories of youth," he recalls.

"The Dreamer" became part of the collective memory of a generation of Chinese and its fan website on still collects tributes.

"'The Dreamer' was a friend of mine all through my six years in middle school, and it still sometimes comes back to me," says a posting by "Winds from Iserlohn" on the site.

Abandoned dreams

But, like his schoolgirl heroine, Yao hit some hard realities.

China's comic book industry was still in its infancy when Yao made his career decision, and they struggled together for acceptance and a market.

"At one stage, with just 5 yuan (73 US cents) in my pocket, I had to sell my refrigerator to buy food," he recalls.

Frustrated at struggling alone, he founded the Summer Zoo Cartoon Studio in Beijing in 2004. The studio was later moved to Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province.

The group included artists such as Qi Xiao, who works under the pen name "Zhuletao" and is known for her colorful picture comics.

But their fortunes showed little improvement - and they took a turn for the worse when financial problems forced the closure of "Beijing Comic" in 2006.

Yao describes the ensuing period as an "ice age" for the Chinese comic industry when authors had to beg publishing houses to print their work.

"I published only three books in the three years after founding the studio because I had to do all the work myself."

"I saw or heard of comic book artists having to abandon their dreams almost every day during that period."

Then, in 2006, the government of Hangzhou announced a series of policies, including funding and promotional support, and favorable loans and taxes, to support creative cartoonists, and Yao's dream continued.

The city government took the view that the cartoon sector was a key player in its cultural industry strategy rather than just a milk cow, says Yao, referring to earlier attempts to kickstart the industry.

'Gold rush'

The first official support package for China's cartoon industry was launched in 1995.

The program, together with some early successes prompted a rush of blind investment from both private and local government sectors.

But mostly they had no proper market research, nor a clear concept of target consumers of creativity.

The "gold rush" fueled low-grade competition and formed a vicious circle, says Professor Chen Shaofeng, deputy director of Peking University Institute for Cultural Industries.

Chen says some local governments subsidized TV animations based on the length of the time they were broadcast, so some cartoon producers made lengthy, empty animations and pushed TV stations to air them - even at midnight. "No one would watch them, but the producers didn't care."

China has plenty of cartoons, Chen says, but probably fewer than half of them are profitable.

Comic books or animations themselves are not lucrative, but in developed markets such as Japan and the United States, they are marketed with derivative products such as toys and clothes to form a profitable "industrial chain," Chen says.

In 2008, the Ministry of Culture (MOC) also launched a support program for Chinese cartoon works and artists.

The program provided 7 million yuan to support 101 publications, artists or artist teams.

In 2009, the sum doubled, with 108 publications and artists receiving funding.

Cartoons are time-consuming, and can take a long time to make money, says Song Qihui, head of the cartoon office in the ministry's cultural industry department.

"We support the works and the artists we believe have creativity, good stories and market potential, to encourage them to continue," says Song.

Cherishing hope

The ministry cannot ensure all the publications or artists it supports will become commercially successful, "but we do take the response from consumers as an important element when choosing eligible candidates."

The scheme means more than just funding in a country where cartoonist have long been looked down upon as children's entertainers, says Song. It shows the appreciation of the government, which Chinese cartoonists need.

The ministry also encouraged exploration of the market for derivative products, and was offering professional training in cartoon products marketing and promoting.

The government is encouraging Chinese cartoons to go international, Song says.

In 2008, the ministry gave 300,000 yuan to support Yao's "80 Degrees Celsius" and Zhuletao's "Adventures of Mata."

Last year, the Summer Zoo won funding as a cartoonist team.

The studio has grown into a 30-strong cartoonist team with support from the ministry and the local government, Yao says. They include six contract comic authors and professional assistants to help draw and color.

They also have marketing personnel and staff coordinators.

Last year, Summer Zoo published more than 20 books, such as "Traveling with Ruffle" and "Little Piggy's Time Machine," with a total circulation of 500,000 editions.

It offered more than 10 serials to major comic magazines in China, such as the Comicfans and the revived Beijing Comic and is exploring the market for mobile comics and online cartoons.

It has opened a cartoon products store selling derivative products of its popular cartoon works.

The team is even reaching out for the foreign readers.

Summer Zoo cartoonist Xia Da first won fame in Japan with her serial "Zibuyu," or "Confucius Did Not Say," the story of a little girl's mysterious experiences in a remote village, published by Shueisha Press, a major comic publisher in Japan.

Yao is optimistic about the future.

"When you cherish hope, your efforts will be rewarded eventually."


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