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January 27, 2010

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In search of a Chinese superhero to join aging Monkey King

TOY shop owner Ye Xiangfen is stocking up for the Chinese Lunar New Year with lots of Chinese superheroes for the kids in nearby kindergartens and primary schools.

"Kids just love whatever is on the screen right now, and recently there are more domestic animations to compete with the foreign ones," says the 48-year-old seller in Tianlin neighborhood of Xuhui District.

The Spring Festival season is a peak time for toy sales boosted by movies, and the market is traditionally dominated by foreign action heroes such as Transformers, Ultraman and Jedi Knights.

A Chinese newcomer to the ranks - Armored Hero, is based on a popular TV series.

The movie "Armored Hero," which began screening last weekend, was launched along with comic books, toys, clothing, bags and other products.

Such a simultaneous, coordinated launch with merchandising is rare in China because creative companies are afraid of piracy. They fear giving away their ideas before they are broadcast and copyright is sold. This means there's no integrated industry chain of multimedia and spin-offs to create buzz and popularize the new superhero, or any creation.

"Japanese and American companies have been doing this and coordinating for decades, but we are the first in China to form an integrated industry chain of creative, production, operation, broadcast, books and toys in the Chinese animation market," says Xie Kunze, general manager of Brand Business Department at Guangdong-based Alpha Animation & Culture Co Ltd, producer of "Armored Hero."

"We hope to continue this effective model and carry on with this trust among companies," Xie told a press conference last week in Shanghai.

Ye says her store, which also sells small items and stationery, will definitely benefit from the coordinated launch.

In the last few years Chinese animators have been trying to gain a foothold and appeal to kids hooked on Japanese and Western heroes. Chinese figures are still largely derivative, but there's less out-and-out copying of imported heroes and cloaking them in Chinese robes.

For many years the Chinese comic/animation industry has been criticized for lack of original ideas, absence of an integrated industry chain, effective marketing strategies, and other tools to sell uniquely Chinese creations.

What makes a superhero is not just a compelling original idea to capture the imagination, but also - and equally important - the timely, systematic, thorough and widespread marketing of that idea through spin-offs, such as toys, T-shirts, comic books and multimedia, including movies, TV, songs, the Internet, online games, ringtones and so on.

One result of a weak chain and lackluster creations is that millions of Chinese kids have grown up with foreign superheroes and foreign creatures (like Doraemon and Hello Kitty from Japan). Foreign imports dominated the kiddie cartoon business.

A national survey in 2007 asked kids to list their favorite cartoon characters, and only one Chinese hero made the grade - the Monkey King that was created more than 70 years ago.

Since then Chinese animation studios and individuals have been trying to forge riveting new Chinese superheroes - these traditionally begin in TV. In the past few years many domestic animation series have been broadcast and quite a few have received high ratings.

None has swept the field, but there is promise.

These new heroes have a sci-fi style and glittering metallic aura that can be traced back to popular Japanese heroes of the 1980s, though some simple traditional Chinese elements have been added.

One new superman is "Armored Hero," a 52-episode TV series broadcast on cartoon and children's channels across the country last year. It was so popular that comic books based on the series were launched four months ago, selling more than 1 million copies. The movie "Armored Hero" opened in cinemas last weekend.

The armored heroes are five young men with a special blood type that allows them to transform themselves into armored warriors and perform spectacular exploits. The five are named after directions and each direction stands for one of the five elements - east for wood, west for gold, south for fire, north for water and middle for earth. The character for their element is carved into their breastplate.

The movie continues the saga and introduces a new character, whose name Li Ziyang contains the character Yang, meaning the sun and yang ("hot") energy. Li can transform himself into an even more powerful armored hero, with all the five elements carved into the armor.

"Many people in the Chinese comic/animation industry have been trying to create our own heroes for a long time and have failed a lot of times," says Derek Wang, a 27-year-old illustrator who draws tattoo images, game characters and comic stories.

Some illustrators have copied and localized successful Japanese animations while others struggle in vain to make a splash with a new take on ancient Chinese legends and characters.

The imitations flop mostly because of general lack of creativity and originality - poor and boring stories and inadequate animation techniques.

Wang says he is driven to visualize ancient Chinese legends and heroes with a modern sensibility but says "there's a long and difficult way to go."

"We, the creators and the audience, are all so deeply influenced by Japanese animation, which is quite different from our traditional Chinese cartoon style as demonstrated by the Monkey King.

"Many people are just putting a Chinese 'jacket' on Japanese imitations, but this is already a big step up from pure copying as in the past," says Wang.

In addition to "Armored Hero," another popular TV series "Explosion Kid" adopts a similar idea of tapping into Chinese elements. Voice is added to the traditional five elements as a sixth powerful factor.

In "Explosion Kid," the young protagonists can remotely control robots representing each element through mysterious-looking cards. The characters for the elements appear on both the cards and the robots.

As with "Armored Hero," toys based on the series, especially cards and models of the robots, are extremely popular among kindergarten and elementary school kids.

Toys and byproducts are vital in selling an image. While Transformers, Hello Kitty, Doraemon and others made huge profits through products, Chinese superheroes made only trifling sums because fear of piracy inhibited creative companies from cooperating.

By the time they sold copyright, pirated products were on the market and kids' attention shifted to the next superhero on TV.


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