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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2008, 14:36 GMT
When Manga meets communism
Manhua image by Benjamin le Soir

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

From traditional ink drawings to worldly-wise crime tales, a new exhibition of Chinese comic art reveals the complex relationship between artists and the state.

Comic-book heroes have frequently been called on during their countries' hour of need - from Desperate Dan bashing Hitler during World War II, to a recent proposal to pit Batman against al-Qaeda.

Several images at the London College of Communication's exhibition of Chinese comic art - known as Manhua - show how the communists in China have also harnessed comic art for propaganda.

In one series of pictures, perfectly-formed youngsters stare hopefully into the mid-distance, a giant red flag fluttering in the background. Elsewhere, a lantern-jawed fighter pilot overcomes his inner demons and external enemies with uncommon bravery.

"There was a collection produced in the early 1970s called the People's Comics," says the exhibition's curator, Paul Gravett.

"They showed an idealised society with a highly idealised view of the family. They were very seductive - they showed people smiling and enjoying life - they hit all the right buttons."

He says organisations both in the West and in China continue to use comic art to promote themselves - albeit in a slightly more post-modern way.

Chinese state media reported recently that an anti-corruption comic aimed at government officials was in production. Meanwhile, the UN has commissioned US publishing giant Marvel Comics to help promote its work, and the US Army uses comics to educate cadets about other cultures.

Pushing the boundaries

"The US military has found comics to be much more effective than traditional training manuals," Mr Gravett says. "The academy at West Point is now using the graphic novel Persepolis, which chronicles the life of a young girl growing up in Iran, as a learning tool."

The government will always ask them if it is good for China and good for the children
Yishan Li

Beijing may have left the stark propaganda of Mao's era behind - but Manhua remains very much under the influence of the state.

Yishan Li, whose artwork is on display at the exhibition, says government-backed comics still offer the best-paid work in China - and the commissioning process engenders a level of government control.

"Officials review a project and they have to write a report to ask for funding - the government will always ask them if it is good for China and good for the children."

She says this leads to comics with a moral message, often trying to teach young people to be nice to each other and not break the law.

The imagery in Manhua is generally less controversial than its Japanese counterpart, Manga, which often contains violent and sexual content laced with acerbic social commentary. But there are several Manhua artists pushing back these boundaries.

Creativity stifled

One comic strip at the exhibition features two Godzilla-sized politicians embroiled in fisticuffs above the Hong Kong skyline, demolishing any buildings that stand in their way. Another features a misshapen man-child, his shaven head branded with a barcode, struggling to come to terms with modern working life.

However, both of these comics were produced away from the Chinese mainland. UK-based artist Coco Wang says government intervention in China is stifling the development of Manhua because artists find it so difficult to produce work that is both permissible to the authorities and interesting for the readers.

She collates and publishes a number of China-based artists whose work she says would be "almost impossible" to disseminate inside the country.

"The government is very sensitive to anything that is political, sexual or violent. So the underground artists have kept their distance from the Chinese publishers. All the underground comics are self-published."

Looking west

She says working outside of the mainstream industry has allowed the artists to create more experimental and challenging work, but she fears it is unlikely to gain a foothold in China.

"The underground works are not growing in importance in China, but they have the potential and opportunities to grow in the West."

By Hok Tak Yeung

Manhua artists - both mainstream and underground - are beginning to find markets for their work far away from their homeland.

France in particular has taken to the comics. Mr Gravett says more than 4,000 comic books were published in France last year, and traces the popularity of the art form there to the generations of French raised on Tintin and Asterix.

Edinburgh-based Yishan Li is working on several books to be published in France this year. She describes her own work as "girly stuff" - ranging from historical detective dramas to young girls' adventure stories - showing there is always room for comics devoid of political content.

"People turn to comics because they want to laugh," she says. "They want to be entertained. They don't want something that'll make them feel like they're watching News 24 - that would just be depressing."

Manhua China Comics Now exhibition is part of the China Now season, a six-month festival of Chinese culture.

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