BEIJING // In the heart of Beijing's bustling central business district stand the dreams of Chinese manga. Several stories high, wrapped in steel and glass, lies part of China's aspirations to turn the most populous nation into a world-class animation centre. "It is all fake," said Lu Ming, a 26-year-old animator sitting in his room littered with transformer toys, guitars and sketches.
The Chinese Communist Party is putting millions into the animation industry, having said it will invest 24 million yuan annually (Dh12.9m) for four years into development. But China's most successful comic artists see little of the funds and many buildings remain empty. Mr Lu is one of the most respected comic book artists in China. His work is known internationally and in the underground movement on the mainland. He is now trying to publish his latest title in his homeland but is doubtful he will succeed. His work, though mostly apolitical, is deemed too sensitive by publishing houses.
Mr Lu is part of a growing group of manga artists that falls between communist party thinking and new capitalist interests. His work is considered unsuitable by the state, and not commercial enough for companies gaining state investments looking to mimic the Japanese business model. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was commissioned by Adidas to produce billboards celebrating the Games. "That was just work. Not my real passion," he said, putting down the original pencil sketch.
Mr Lu wants to tell contemporary Chinese stories. Tales of woe or of dark anti-heroes on the fringes of Chinese society. His latest work is the tale of an adolescent who turns away from crime, inspired by Bruce Lee. Comic books are on the rise in China. But while the comic book fans are happy, the artists are not. Artists such as Mr Lu focus on selling work to international markets. But despite the injection of government funds, he said, they would struggle to compete with Japanese comics, which are saturating the market through the internet.
"A lot has to do with the government policy," said Spencer Douglas from an animation company in Hong Kong. "It is unlikely that anyone would like to publish something which is boundary-pushing, and if they did they would probably get shut down pretty quickly." It is an indication of the complexities of censorship in China. "It is not because it is against the government or for the government. It is about ideas. Like Batman Begins. The government permitted that movie. It is a simple story between good and evil. But Batman's The Dark Knight is more complicated, so the government censored it in China," Mr Lu said.
According to the institute of comic books, manga, known as manhua in Mandarin, has a combined distribution of three million titles a month, far smaller than markets in neighbouring Japan where manga outsell newspapers. Only 10 per cent of manga in the mainland is produced by home-grown artists. Entrepreneurs are looking at the size of the population and thinking of the potential profit. "I think the money goes to businessmen that say that they are going to invest in animation, but they do not," says Benjamin, sitting across a table looking at his hands.
He is a leading comic book artist, more famous in Europe than he is in China. Indeed, Benjamin last month became the first Chinese artist to produce a front cover for Marvel Comics. But, again, that work will never be shown in the mainland. It is about the spread of ideas, Mr Lu said. A comic does not need to be anti-government to be restricted from being printed; it simply needs to offer ideas that could be interpreted as being so. In essence, the world's next super power is not keen on super heroes.
The first Chinese comics were used as propaganda during the Japanese occupation as a way to build resentment. During Mao's 10-year Cultural Revolution, manga was used to teach communist ideals to the largely illiterate masses. "We want to export our own culture," said Zheng Jun, the rock star turned writer behind the comic Tibetan Rock Dog, which is gaining interest from the Japanese animation company Mad House towards turning it into a movie.
As China continues to export its own culture, it could be used as part of the nation's soft power, Mr Douglas said. The Chinese government's official policy is to restrict the amount of Japanese manga coming into China, an indication of the national rivalry that still exists between the two nations. But it is likely that Japanese manga will continue to rise in popularity in China. Part of the problem is the meek image of comics in China. They are seen as childish, said Cheng Cheng, an animator behind Tibetan Rock Dog.
* The National