The Underground Artists Giving China Comic Relief
In a crowded train car, angry monsters are devouring passengers. Their wriggling tentacles smash through the glass windows, sending one hapless thermos flying before tearing travelers limb from limb. But these bloodthirsty creatures have humble origins: an average carton of instant noodles.
The nightmarish black-and-white scene is just a figment of independent comic artist Hu Xiaojiang’s wild imagination, but there’s realism at its core. Hu drew “Instant Noodle” in 2008, when a catastrophic snowstorm left millions stranded as they traveled home during the Spring Festival holiday. The chaos saw instant noodles — which typically go for less than 10 yuan ($1.60) per package — skyrocket to 100 yuan each.
Hu, 41, is a prolific illustrator: His work has appeared in big-name magazines including GQ and Men’s Health. But in China’s tight-knit underground comic world, he is best known as the co-founder of Special Comix, a sporadically published anthology that features the best of the niche community.
Between 2005 and 2015, there have been six Special Comix volumes in total, with another currently in progress. Each issue has a different chief editor and a different theme — the upcoming one being “walk.” Hu was in charge of the third installment, which was published in 2009 with the theme “the future.” The issue’s content touched on “every aspect and layer of Chinese reality,” according to the book’s introduction, ranging from Hu’s own piece about the Spring Festival chaos to one on the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake in southwestern Sichuan province that left more than 80,000 people dead or missing.
When Hu was growing up in the seaside city of Nantong in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, there was little room for homegrown comic artists. It was the early stages of China’s reform and opening-up period, and the comic book market was still dominated by Japanese manga and American superheroes.
At the turn of the century, Hu and his friends began associating with like-minded creatives over online forums. It was the advent of Special Comix, a publication aimed at preserving good works and allowing Chinese comic lovers to see something different. “It’s not that we were tired of mainstream comics — it’s that we loved diversity,” Hu tells Sixth Tone.
The publication promotes comics rooted in realism — but that’s not the only thing that sets it apart from the commercially successful works from Japanese publishing house Shueisha or Marvel’s superhero universe. Instead of publishing digital works in which characters have bizarre looks or exaggerated body types, Special Comix favors hand-drawn pieces that retain their creators’ unique styles.
Funding and publication restrictions mean that it hasn’t always been easy to publish Special Comix. The co-founders funded the first two issues out of pocket; it took around two years to recoup costs by selling their first print run of 500 copies at art exhibitions and small art bookstores. The editors didn’t have permits to do large-scale circulation and had to self-publish. For issue five, the editors were able to use e-commerce platforms to sell over 1,000 copies in a preorder run. But this is still a tiny number, especially compared with the 10 million daily users of Chinese comic app Kuaikan Manhua.
Despite its small scale, Special Comix has helped Chinese comic artists gain international recognition. In 2010, the third volume — for which Hu was the chief editor — won an Alternative Comic Award from one of the world’s top comic festivals, France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival. In spite of the award, Hu still doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer, and says Special Comix was never about expanding China’s entire indie comic community. “[Underground comics] don’t need to develop,” he tells Sixth Tone. “The reason we launched Special Comix wasn’t to sow seeds, but to curate excellent examples.”
Hu talked to Sixth Tone about Special Comix’s history and the alternative comic scene in China. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: When did the idea of indie comics start in China?
Hu Xiaojiang: The concept [of indie comics] seems to have come from Hong Kong. When we started Special Comix, we wanted to make something special. I took drafts of the first collection to Suzhou, where [acclaimed Hong Kong comic artist] Craig Auyeung was attending an art fair. Influenced by Auyeung, the pioneer of Hong Kong’s self-styled indie comics genre, we adopted the label [of indie comics].
But it’s hard to be precise. Looking back, the independent works created for Comic King, a teen magazine [from the Chinese mainland] in the early 1990’s, should also be counted as indie comics.
Sixth Tone: Why did you choose to self-publish?
Hu Xiaojiang: Because of the situation in China, we couldn’t publish them officially. We didn’t intend to refuse commercialization, but it’s necessary to keep our publication independent. We will not compromise our content just so that it can be formally published. There have been more risks involved in self-publishing [generally] in recent years. If we were in Europe, we could have been a small-scale publisher, but we can’t do so in China.
During the Angoulême International Comics Festival, a reporter asked if the Chinese government supported us. We replied that the greatest support that they could give us would be to just let us be. Special Comix can inspire excellent creators, but the creativity of Chinese indie comic artists will only truly blossom if they’re given freedom of expression.
Sixth Tone: When you were the chief editor of Special Comix, did you have specific standards for selecting works?
Hu Xiaojiang: I was one of the editors of the second, third, fourth, and fifth collections. First, we give creators a theme to focus on, which creates a common thread running through the issue. Second, we emphasize storytelling. Third, we value reality.
It’s not that we put the artistic concept of realism on a pedestal. I think the artist’s creation has little-to-no value if they’ve over-indulged in personal emotions. Once you reflect on reality, the creation will be fundamentally changed. You’ll no longer be content with random scrawls channeling your thoughts — instead, you’ll have a message to deliver.
But I don’t agree with reviews that call our work critical of society. Most of our contributors are more sentimental than logical: They don’t necessarily read volumes of books or have deep insights on social issues. It’s hard for their works to be critical.
Sixth Tone: How does China’s indie comic scene compare with those in other countries?
Hu Xiaojiang: Commercial comics in different countries have developed signature styles. And although independent comics all have unique styles, they all share something similar. When we helped judge the Alternative Comic Award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2011 [the year after winning the award ourselves], it was like seeing other versions of Special Comix from all around the world. The similarity comes from the temperament [in the artwork], which is individuality and uniqueness.
There is no huge difference or development gap among countries. Our creations are all done by ourselves. There’s no competition in terms of technical aspects or mass production.
Sixth Tone: In China, comics have become a profitable industry. Last year, for instance, Kuaikan Manhua earned $177 million during a financing round. Have you paid any attention to this?
Hu Xiaojiang: I think only auteur comics are valuable. “Auteur” is often used to refer to film directors with a highly recognizable style. But in China, no matter whether they’re indie or commercial comics, their personal style is not as well-established.
I like commercial comics for entertainment, but I think they are expendable [to readers]. In the long term, every comic artist needs to be unique so that their works can have long-standing value.
Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.
(Header image: Frames from ‘Instant Noodle’ by comic artist Hu Xiaojiang, 2008. Courtesy of Hu Xiaojiang)