An introduction to Manwa—Hong Kong Comics
Image Credit: Images in this post were taken from 《山海逆戰》, 《鐵將縱橫》2012 & 《鐵將縱橫 完全版》 by Khoo Fuk-lung. Copyrighted by DARK Comics & Toys Limited. I own every single volume of the Manwa.
Japan is famous for its Manga and Anime culture while in the West they’ve Superhero comics like Marvel or DC. I’ve read plenty of them but it seems to me people aren’t aware or even heard of the comics from Hong Kong. I’m going to introduce you to Hong Kong comics featuring the work of artist Khoo Fuk-long. Get ready for Kung-Fu fighting and martial arts!
Table of Contents
Hong Kong comics has been around for so many years. Manwa—in mandarin Manhua—is a Cantonese term for Manga (Comics). Back in the day, people used to call cartoons or picture books “Linwantou 連環圖” or “Gungjaisyu 公仔書”. Nowadays, it can be classified as Indie Comics 獨立漫畫 and “Staple Binding Manwa” 薄裝漫畫 in Hong Kong. This post discusses the characteristics, style and the uniqueness of local Manwa compared to Japanese Manga and American comics.
Indie Comics 獨立漫畫 refers to the works created by standalone artists / illustrators who’re considered to be less commercial and a lot of them cover topics from politics, local culture, people’s livelihood, or social atmosphere. Artists publish their works on different mediums while the form and format vary—on newspapers, the internet, magazines or books. Comic artists such as Lee Chi Ching 李志清 and Li Chi Tak 利志達 to name but a few, they have been awarded for their works internationally over the years.
Local artists Alice Mak and Stella So, they both use Hong Kong culture as the subject and published their works through comic books, graphic novels and animations. A few artists that I personally like: Carrie Chau, Yeung Hok Tak, Sam Tse and Little Thunder.
“Staple Binding” Manwa
“Staple Binding Manwa” 薄裝漫畫 is the mainstream commercial comic book in Hong Kong and is generally published on a weekly basis. In today’s Hong Kong, people simply refer to this type of comic as 港漫 in Cantonese, literally Hong Kong comics.
The format is similar to the comic books in the U.S.—in magazine size using saddle stitch binding. But it’s to be read from the right side to the left. The size of a single volume is 187mm x 274mm folded, slightly smaller than an A4 sized paper. It consists of 34-36 pages including cover and back cover. All pages are printed in full color on coated paper with gloss varnish. Occasionally, during Lunar New Year or the first issue of a new title, some printing effects might be applied to the title on cover. Such as foil stamping or metallic Pantone, etc. Almost all of the Manwa’s title is written in Chinese calligraphy.
Image Credit: Images were taken from Blood and Steel 武道狂之詩. Copyrighted by Unicorn Studios Limited and Tong Li Comics.
Furthermore, some of the artists adapted the Japanese Manga format “Standalone Book” 単行本—book-sized volumes. Sun Zi’s Tactics 孫子攻略, 1996-2005 by Lee Chi Ching 李志清, The Ravages of Time 火鳳燎原, 2001-present by Chan-mou 陳某 and Blood and Steel 武道狂之詩, 2011-present, a Wuxia novel created by Jozev Lau 喬靖夫, Manga adaptation by Unicorn Studios Limited.
Hong Kong Manwa
Hong Kong Manwa is heavily influenced by the comics from the west—America as well as Manga from Japan. The visual and drawing techniques developed throughout the decades. But at its core, the realistic style and Kung-fu elements is no doubt its signature. I’ll try to discuss a bit of the style and the creation process of Hong Kong’s Manwa.
Themes & Stories
The Kung-fu and action genres is probably the most distinguished themes featured in Hong Kong’s Manwa since the ‘80s. At the time, the artists in Hong Kong were inspired by a lot of Bruce Lee’s and Kung-fu films, such as Jacky Chan in Drunken Fist (1982) 醉拳. Wuxia 武俠 is a genre of Chinese “martial arts heroes”. The word combines Kung-Fu and heroism in its meaning. The styles and themes of Manwa have been established since then.
The stories of Manwa are very narrow. The background is usually set in a fictional fantasy world—ancient China or modern-day Hong Kong and features Kung-fu and fighting elements along with Wuxia or gangster stories. The plot usually revolves around the protagonist fighting against the evils—to achieve justice through violence. The storyline of a Manwa usually consists a lot of action scenes throughout each issue and sometimes a fight can last very long that across a few volumes.
Aside from that, some of the swords and weapons that used by the Manwa characters were manufactured as miniatures. It was once very popular in Hong Kong at the ‘00.
The combination of story-telling and visual style creates a manly and masculine theme that favours by male readers. Today, most Manwa readers are in their forties and fifties. Interestingly, people who read Manwa around age thirties like myself are considered to be “young”.
Visual Style & Drawing Techniques
Due to the streamlined production process, Hong Kong Manwa developed its own direction of drawing styles and techniques. The characters and environment are drawn in a very realistic style with extremely detailed line drawings. Various Manwa artists and assistants have evolved and transformed the craft for decades.
Ma Wing-shing 馬榮成 is one of the most famous and successful Manwa artists in Hong Kong. He created the long-running Manwa series Storm Riders 風雲, 1989-2014 which was the best-selling Manwa in Hong Kong that lasted for more than two decades. The artistic elements in his Manwa has a high level of recognition amongst readers and in the industry. The story being adapted as films, TV shows and musical. His drawings is a mix of traditional Chinese calligraphy and ink painting techniques in realistic styles that inspired by the Japanese Manga artists Ryoichi Ikegami 池上 遼一. A 2020 video interview showcasing Ma Wing-shing drawing style.
One of my favorite Manwa artists Khoo Fuk-long 邱福龍 uses his rough, dynamic drawing style to capture the Kung-fu and hand-to-hand combat in a unique way. He choreographed a lot of classic fight scenes and cover illustrations. He is probably hand downs the best Manwa artist that is still active today.
Manwa is produced in this format had a reason. The larger page size is excellent for showcasing every detail in the frame. The fighting sequences are all choreographed which creates a very strong visual impact. In my opinion, it’s an art that unique to Hong Kong Manwa. This is old Hong Kong’s Kung-fu films but translated on paper. You won’t be able to see any comics present in this way other than in Hong Kong.
Manwa Making Process
The process of making a Manwa is streamlined and quite similar to Japan’s Manga. It’s a studio production by a team of around 8 assistants lead by a Manwa artist 主編. Manwa artist who draft the entire storyboard for each issue—圈稿, including character design, action sequences and overall look and feel based on the story. Moreover, some of the artists who is also a writer themselves. They responsible for overseeing the process of producing a Manwa—from the cover illustration to every frame of the drawings are consistent that match the style of his. (Note: As a matter of fact, there’s no female Manwa artist in Manwa industry.)
Lead artist 主筆 of the team will be responsible for drawing “heads” from every angle and character’s facial expressions, in Cantonese 勾頭. On the other hand, “full body movements” 駁身 including gestures and postures are drawn by character artist called 人物美術. They’re the core members of the team as a senior position. Using an inking pen to draw outlines of each character and all other details based on the storyboard drafted by Manwa artist.
Some of them will be doing the patterns on clothes and weapons 衫花兵器 as well as drawing hair 填髮, environment 實景, effects 風位 and line art 補線. A writer & editor for story and dialogue. After assembling the drawings into frames and putting everything in place, they scan the artwork into digital format for adding text and applying effects. After that, they outsource the coloring process and cover painting and get ready for printing and publishing.
An artist alone is impossible to do all that stuff for a weekly published Manwa no matter how talented the person is. They’ve to work as a team to ensure the issue is finished on time and meets the deadline for publishing every week. The schedule is very tight and has very little room for error which results in a high pressured working lifestyle. It’s a very time-consuming process of making Manwa and artists / assistants put in a tremendous of hard work into their drawings.
I was a bit late to the party and became a Manwa reader at around 2006. When you look closely at the artwork created by artists and assistants, you’ll be amazed by the skills, hard work and talent of the “craft” itself. I realized it’s an art form that only exclusive to HongKongers but kind of ironic that neglected by most people in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Manwa is part of the local pop culture. It’s not only a collective memory but a cultural heritage to the people who’ve read Manwa growing up.
Maybe in the next ten years, we’ll not be able to see this type of Manwa anymore. I’m afraid the craftsmanship might disappear and you can do nothing to deny it. I wrote this post just to document the moment I can still enjoy Manwa.