Crouching Tiger, Hidden Demand 

As a Fremont firm tries to take the U.S. comic market by surprise, its experience speaks to the role of Chinese comics and of China.

They're painstakingly rendered, excessively verbose, and display a lyricism that must surely bore a portion of their target audience. They deal almost exclusively in abstruse dynastic struggles in the Middle Kingdom. Sure, the kung fu is fun, but the sex that has become an irreplaceable staple of the genre is nonexistent, or gummed up with sentiment. They're manhua, or Chinese comic books. Millions of Chinese readers hang on every issue, but few Americans have heard of them. Nonetheless, Robin Kuo has sunk a small fortune into the proposition that American readers will devour them.

Once upon a time, Kuo was just another Fremont tech geek, running a company that manufactured speakers for multimedia systems. But his real passion lay in comic books, and he spent his profits assembling a collection that included more than 1,000 different issues. As the manga craze took off, and Americans started buying Japanese comics, Kuo started a new company called Comics-One in 1999. He began buying the publishing rights to manga books, hired a crack team of translators, and started distributing them throughout the United States. But the rights to the biggest titles were already locked up, and Kuo couldn't catch a break. That's when he had an epiphany: the Japanese line may have been monopolized, but no one had bothered to secure the rights to the booming Chinese comic book industry.

"No one's tried to go after that market," says Nicole Curry, Comics-One's marketing manager. "It's pretty much just ours right now."

Not only were Chinese comics available, but their sensibility, aesthetics, and pacing were so distinct from the manga style that Kuo and ComicsOne editor Sean Sanders became convinced that theirs was an untapped cultural niche. Whereas manga is typically black-and-white, heavily stylized, and covers everything from sports to superheroes to girly coming-of-age stories, Chinese comics are luridly painted, usually restricted to medieval and ancient settings, and obsessed with kung fu. "They're very episodic and epic," Sanders says. "They're primarily martial-arts themes, and many of them take place in ancient China. They have a lot of emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine, Buddhism, Taoism, definitely a lot of traditional Chinese myths. ... We've found that our audience isn't your typical manga readers at all. For the most part, it's ex-comics fans who lost their taste for the contrived, brightly-colored super hero thing, and are looking for something deeper."

These days, Kuo spends his days jetting around east Asia, hunting for new kung fu titles. Back in Fremont, a crew of ten twentysomething editors and marketing specialists translate Mandarin blood oaths and professions of amore into English, amid a small office cluttered with katana replicas, movie posters, and toys. But if they're really going to seduce America, they've got their work cut out for them. The reasons why speak both to the role of comics in China, and China in the greater world.

Although many manga enthusiasts like to date its inception back centuries, the American occupation created the format that persists to this day. American GIs brought Superman, Batman, and Disney comics to Tokyo, inspiring artists and businessmen to create their own serial dramas. In the early 1960s, Japanese comic book godfather Osuma Tezuka established the hyperstylized, big-eye manga look with his Astro Boy series, and today, thanks in part to Japanese economic integration with the West, manga and anime conglomerates churn out movies and comics that have spread throughout the world. The Chinese residents of Hong Kong, meanwhile, lived under British colonial rule, with no comics tradition to emulate. By the time comics filtered into Hong Kong from Japan, Chinese artists were behind the curve. In the '80s, a group of Chinese artists formed a cartel under the name JadeMan and tried to market their comics in America, but the project quickly collapsed.

Now, Kuo and his colleagues at Comics-One have picked up the banner of Chinese comics. They've tried everything to spread the word, adapting movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, hawking their wares at martial-arts conventions, and working on tie-ins with movie and video game companies. It's certainly paid off in the short term; ComicsOne's Crouching Tiger adaptation moved 20,000 copies, a remarkable run for a small company. But their prospects may still be limited, at least for now. According to Diamond Comics Distributors, the industry's universal distribution arm, ComicsOne currently enjoys just 0.35 percent of the American market. "Everyone can watch the movies and play the video games, but they're not going out and buying the comics," says Eric Nakamura, the publisher of the Asian pop culture magazine Giant Robot. "It's hard for me to picture them to catch up anytime soon."

And ComicsOne may have an even bigger hurdle to jump: the structural limitations built into Chinese pop culture itself. It's no accident that Chinese comic books almost exclusively deal in ancient settings and kung fu; just like mainland Chinese movies, they're pursuing the few plot lines that won't get them in trouble with the communists.

China's economy has grown at an annual rate of just under eight percent for the past seven years, and with millions of people poised to achieve some semblance of middle-class purchasing power, there's no doubt that this vast nation is poised to economically dominate the Pacific Rim and possibly the world. But as long as its citizens' political and cultural expression is severely proscribed by the government, China's cultural influence will never match its economic muscle. For years, Chinese filmmakers have been forced to drape their social commentary in allegories so thick you need a decoder ring to get it. Contemporary settings are almost nonexistent, in both film and comics, in part because the less contemporary the setting, the less relevant -- and therefore safer -- the message. You can cite all the Jackie Chans and John Woos you want -- and it's worth noting that both got their start in Hong Kong, under British rule -- but the absence of a free society will always cripple China's artistic influence. After all, just how big an international market is there for tales about the Ming dynasty?

"I think they are more restricted in terms of story lines," says Frederik Schodt, who wrote the definitive American history of Japanese manga. "Not just for political reasons; it probably has something to do with the economic level of China.''

Of course, the very globalization that has liberalized China's markets will inevitably liberalize its society as well. As Nicholas Kristof, the mostly consistently interesting columnist on the payroll of The New York Times, pointed out in his recent commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, China is on the same road trod by Taiwan and South Korea twenty years earlier. The steady infiltration of forbidden thought, will inevitably lead to demands for political and cultural freedom, demands that the country's leadership won't be able to resist. China's artists will finally be unshackled, and their culture will surge forward. But until they do, Kuo and Sanders will have to settle for kung fu themes.

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