What Are Taiwanese Comics?

Written by Adina Zemanek.

Image credit: Creative Comic Collection at ROC-NCL-AAC Comic Room by Solomon203/ Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Until recently, comics in Taiwan had negative connotations as children’s entertainment, and homegrown art was perceived as virtually non-existent. Comics were a blind spot for the government, too – the Taiwanese pavilion at the Angoulême International Comics Festival was established in 2012 thanks to artists and fans rather than official projects.

Cheng Li-Chun’s tenure as minister of culture (2016-2020) radically boosted the prominence of comics in the domestic public space and within Taiwan’s public diplomacy. A plan was initiated for the systematic development of the creative industries, emphasising the so-called ACG triad: animation, comics, and games. In 2018, the Ministry of Culture (MOC) established grants encouraging comics production and international promotion; the latter task was also entrusted to the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), an arm’s length institution founded in 2019. The Golden Comic Award (initiated in 2010) and the Taiwan Comic Base (since 2019) contribute to increasing the domestic visibility of this medium. Programmes such as Books from Taiwan and Taiwan Comic City (administered by TAICCA) aim to generate revenue through translation rights sales. The online platform CCC (Creative Comic Collection), also available as a mobile app, is intended for public education through articles and profit-making through serialised comics. Academics have also been involved in these new undertakings (as judges for the Golden Comics Award or MOC grants). Research into comics became institutionalised with the establishment of the ACG Studies Association in 2022.

These initiatives are interlinked and connect the domestic and international scenes: Golden Comic Award winners participate in the Angoulême festival, also attended by artists chosen by the MOC through open calls. Furthermore, the Taiwan Comic Base holds events related to both the Golden Comic Award and the Angoulême festival. In addition, articles published on the CCC platform are translated into English and re-published by other TAICCA projects, such as the Taiwan Comic City.

Official support led to an unprecedented comics boom: the rise of numerous new artists, works and genres, publishers, publication venues and formats, (trans)media experiments, and public events.

State support comes with a degree of top-down ideological steering underpinned by a nationalist agenda. The topic of Taiwanese identity seems to be as present here as in other public and academic discourse fields. The preoccupation with branding the nation is understandable since many new comics-related initiatives are internationally oriented, and nation branding does need salient themes and coherent narratives conveyed across various sources. Sometimes, however, the ideological framing seems forced. In 2019-2020, criteria for appraising applications for MOC grants for individual artists’ projects pertained to national representativity. 40% of the score was to be awarded for originality, but the grant guidelines required candidates to convey Taiwanese cultural elements, thus limiting creativity. The winner of the Golden Comic Award in 2019, the year when same-sex marriage became legalised, was Pink Ribbon (粉紅緞帶), a same-sex love story by Monday Recover (星期一回收日). Legalising same-sex marriage as an expression of democracy could build Taiwan’s soft power, a fact showcased in the artist’s award speech and a key event of the Taiwan pavilion at the 2020 Angoulême festival along with the awardee’s work. Such ideological expectations may engender creativity aimed at gaining official recognition and funding but are not necessarily successful with domestic audiences.

Parallel to these developments, websites of institutions such as the MOC, TAICCA, or the Taiwan Comic Base, have also featured phrases such as “Taiwanese comics” (台灣漫畫, ubiquitous across sources) or “unique style of Taiwanese comics rooted in rich history and cultural diversity” (TAICCA article announcing the Taiwan Comic City project). Apart from making nationalist claims, the frequency of such phrases implies that the categories of Taiwanese comics and their uniqueness are not in the making but already exist. In 2019-2020, these categories seemed to be normative rather than descriptive, as they were not explicitly defined in the texts mentioned above. What are Taiwanese comics, after all?

Several young artists I interviewed in early 2020 confessed they hadn’t given much thought to the concept of “Taiwanese comics”; one negatively assessed top-down expectations imposed by official grants or creative projects. Intrigued by my question, another one provided a complex definition, later continued by other artists invited by the CCC platform or TAICCA to reflect on this national category, thus expanding the public space for such discussions. A key point in their reflections is the necessity of placing Taiwanese comics into the larger context of a culture and industry and strengthening these in Taiwan.

Artists’ definitions discuss national comics as a culture with a history of production leading to the accumulation of numerous works overtime, building local specificity in terms of style; they also mention public recognition for comics as an indispensable part of that culture. Their definitions also perceive local style as the outcome of the industry – not only individual means of artistic expression but also local technologies and conditions of production feeding into mature industry chains that also include economic profit-making. While they associated such internationally recognisable cultures or industries with other countries (France, Japan, or the US), they also discussed another take on national comics applicable to Taiwan – the thematic content and visual aspect of comics, combined with geographic location and personal history. Thus, Taiwanese comics depict material objects used in Taiwan in response to local conditions, everyday experiences and a certain lifestyle shared by people living in the same environment. In these terms, the label of “Taiwanese comics” could be associated with works very different in visual style.

When looking at newly published works developed under the new policies, one cannot help but wonder at their number and diversity. With a bias towards comics termed “independent” or “graphic novels” (therefore, other than manga-esque), my observations revealed the interesting trends below.

In tune with the discourse of Taiwanization since the late 1980s, comics have long been preoccupied with local history, presenting historical events visually and potentially attractive for youth. But new comics such as Son of Formosa (來自清水的孩子, 2020) by Yu Peiyun (游珮芸) and Zhou Jianxin (周見信) self-reflexively inscribe the history of local comics into the history of Taiwan, through the life narrative of Tsai Kun-lin, founder of Prince/王子 magazine.

Recent comics also underscore transnational connections, positioning Taiwan within a global comics scene. Some take up timely, internationally relevant topics such as LGBTQ+ issues or mental illness (Pam Pam Liu’s A Trip to the Asylum/瘋人院之旅, 2020). Others define themselves through genre labels established for Western graphic novels, such as comics journalism (The Reporter File/報導者事件簿, 2022, by Lau Kwong Shing/柳廣成). Authors like Lau Kwong Shing from Hong Kong or the Brazilian Lucas Paixão (盧卡斯, Betel Nut Beauty/檳榔美少女, 2020), now based in Taiwan, have joined the pool of homegrown talent – the latter is termed “more Taiwanese than Taiwanese” on the Taiwan Comic City website. Taiwanese publishers commit to works potentially sensitive elsewhere: Letters from Taipei (台北來信, 2021) by PRC-born artist SoloFish (一匹魚), which makes cross-strait connections between the present and troubling historical events – China’s land reform and Cultural Revolution.

Finally, a strong emphasis on materiality may counter forecasts about the demise of paper comics. Exquisite book design, print and paper quality used to be the signature trait of Slowork Publishing (慢工出版社), and product accessibility was limited by high prices. Slowork has recently been joined by other publishers (Gaea/蓋亞文化 and its subsidiary DYNA Books/原動力文化, Halfton Press/黑白文化 etc.) in producing comic books as beautiful, ingeniously designed artefacts at lower prices, featuring the rather ideological paratext “Printed in Taiwan.” Some works self-reflexively play with their material aspect, imparting an awareness that the physical form is not culturally neutral – The Reporter File or Square Guesthouse/四方館 (2021, by Wulin Syunji/五Ο俊二), a comics reminiscent of dōjinshi and Chris Ware’s Building Stories.

It can be argued that the above are examples of creativity driven by state-led ideological aspirations, which cannot find a wide readership in Taiwan. However, they are intensively promoted to international audiences and may shape their perception of Taiwanese comics. At the same time, the number of such works and the state-encouraged discussions may ultimately lead to a shift in local audiences’ expectations.

Adina Zemanek is Lecturer in Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire. Her research interests include Taiwan’s nation branding and citizen diplomacy. She is currently working on an edited book on Sinophone comics and a Spotlight project application covering the ACG triad.

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