Anni Chen remembers always drawing. In kindergarten, she wasn’t satisfied with tracing Chinese characters. Her hand would find blank spots on pages to fill with fish or birds. Her teachers didn’t mind, she says; they liked her illustrations. There weren’t many well-known Chinese comic books in the 1990s, so Chen devoured Japanese anime like Doraemon and Naruto. And she kept drawing, filling more space with more personal images. In primary school, as she drew frames in the style of her favorite comics, she began adding herself as a character.
It would pay off. After having her own popular comic series — The 1 Percent Life — she moved on from illustrating to building an empire. In 2014, Chen founded Beijing-based Kuaikan Manhua, which has become the most popular online comic platform in China. Since then, it has attracted more than $200 million in investment, a bet on China finally stepping out from the shadows of Japanese and American entertainment. According to Big Data Research, China’s animation, comics and games market was valued at $22 billion in 2017. Now the country is looking for its own version of Marvel — and Chen, 27, wants to provide it.
Chen wanted to study art at university, but her parents encouraged her to study economics instead. “In that time, China didn’t have many comic artists, and people would say drawing comics would make no money,” she says. Chen came from a fishing village near Shantou; her father was an interior designer and her mother a housewife. While studying, Chen saved up to buy a tablet to draw digitally. She shared what she created on the microblogging site Weibo and built up quite a following: Within two years, she had 10 million followers. “At that time, I realized that comics in China were getting mainstream,” she says.
The 1 Percent Life chronicles the daily life of a Chinese millennial trying to make it in the comics industry. The title “means only 1 percent can become an artist. But I still worked hard and didn’t give up,” Chen says. The comic’s simple scenes of daily life hit a nerve with readers. A typical panel depicts two broke students on a date, eating a cheap bowl of noodles.
While drawing, Chen was also working on creating a platform to share comics and to encourage others like her so that “maybe 10 million comics artists will be born.” With no business experience, she traveled alone from the south of China to the north, gathering tech-savvy friends to build her app, Kuaikan Manhua. She posted her art to the new platform and her millions of fans followed. Within three months, Kuaikan Manhua became China’s top downloaded free app, and new artists sprinted to upload their work. If artists once had a 1 percent chance of making it, Chen had now increased those odds.
Kuaikan Manhua is filled with thumbnails of white hair and out-of-proportion, starry eyes. For a site that wants to champion Chinese art, John Lent, editor at the International Journal of Comic Art, doesn’t see much “Chineseness” to it. Instead, he says, many of the drawings resemble Japanese manga. “I don’t consider those Chinese comics,” he says of Kuaikan’s content.
It’s a shame, he says, as China has a long history of unique comic book art. In the mid-20th century, the communist government distributed millions of 3-inch by 3-inch picture books that told stories of selflessness and sacrifice for the revolution. In the 1980s, Xin Manhua (“New Comics”), which more closely resembled modern comic books, included art and stories less “tainted” by outside influences than those today. The plots borrowed from Chinese folklore and myth, and the art sometimes resembled realist ink wash paintings.
But if Kuaikan Manhua doesn’t best represent the Chinese experience, its readers don’t seem to mind. The mobile app has 130 million registered users with 10 million daily active readers. It has published more than 1,000 comics from more than 500 artists, who have racked up awards from the state-sanctioned China Animation & Comic Competition. In December 2017, the site raised $177 million in financing from international capital fund group Coatue Management, China Media Capital and even media mogul Li Ruigang — known in the press as China’s Rupert Murdoch. Last year it raised another $36 million.
The heavy investment in Chen’s platform comes in part from hope that popular comics will be adapted into more lucrative mediums like games and film. Take My Brother Away — a story with an average of 10 million views on Kuaikan Manhua — was adapted into a live-action show last year.
Chen says she wants Kuaikan Manhua to be China’s version of Disney or Marvel, providing source material for content seen around the world.
That’s an uphill battle. The highest-grossing movies in China, especially in animation, are largely foreign imports. Kuaikan Manhua also needs to hold on to material and artists before they are poached (China has a history of comic artists leaving for Europe) while providing content that doesn’t seem like a pale imitation of foreign art. Last year Marvel released its first Chinese superheroes. Lent thought it was ridiculously unnecessary: “China has thousands of years of superheroes.”
Chen isn’t the only one attempting to build a Marvel-like brand in China. “Many companies are trying to mirror what has been done in the West with [intellectual property],” says Wilson Chow of consulting firm PwC. But to become Marvel, these companies need characters as beloved and recognizable as Marvel’s are. In these relatively early days, though, Chow thinks online comics are a good start. Characters in comics can become characters in video games, which then can become actors in movies — and this process reinforces loyalty and interest, he explains. Now the race is on for fictional content.
It won’t spring from Chen’s mind, as she has stopped making her own comics. She’s busy with business meetings and scouting new artists, firmly a member of the 1 percent.