Comics in Taiwan are like bubble tea: you can get them on every street corner, in every shop and on every online platform. Younger generations can't imagine life without comics, yet it wasn't long ago that they became an integral part of Taiwanese culture.
In the 1980s, in the course of democratisation, new cultural freedoms and opportunities for interaction with neighbouring countries opened up. When I say “comic”, however, I don't mean “Batman” or “Mickey Mouse” or whatever else is typically associated with the genre in the West.
“For Japanese people, mangas are like oxygen”
To this day, hardly anyone in Taiwan has read these characters in comic book form (even though they have of course left their mark on pop culture). Instead, the Taiwanese scene is strongly influenced by manga, the distinctive style that developed in Japan.
For the Japanese, mangas are like the air they breathe; they are the oxygen of culture. And even in Taiwan, where every fifth publication is now a comic, mangas now make up almost ninety per cent.
I have been working as a publisher and editor of comics for over 30 years. When I grew up in the 1980s, they were one thing above all: entertainment. Funny, short stories were published which amused the readers and, at best, made them eager to know how the story would continue in the next issue.
Love stories were and are also enormously popular, especially so-called BL or GL comics - that stands for “Boys Love” and “Girls Love”, genres whose fan base is recruited mainly from female teenagers. These stories are about two straight protagonists who fall in love with each other in the course of a story, against all odds.
Often, BL stories are fan fiction about celebrities or existing comic book characters that then take a turn towards the romantic. Here, it is explicitly not about the characters being gay or lesbian in real life. They are fantasies that break with gender roles.
Comics as a form of art and literature have also become very popular among adults. Thematically, the scene has changed in recent years. It has become more diverse, experimental and political. This development is mainly due to an overall change in the country's political situation.
Fifty years ago, most people here still said of themselves, "I am Chinese and Taiwanese." Twenty years ago, the typical self-description went like this: "I'm Taiwanese, but I'm also Chinese." Today, in 2023, just about everyone in Taiwan will say, "I am Taiwanese." The fact that we are more and more working out our own Taiwanese identity is of course also evident in the arts.
When a story is set in Taiwan, this is usually made clear with the help of certain easily recognisable features: sometimes the 101 Tower appears in the skyline or you see the Taipei Metro. Other times, a character eats specific Taiwanese snacks or speaks in the slang of a certain region.
"There are also very personal, autobiographical comics drawn, for example, from the point of view of a child being told by his grandparents about the White Terror era”
Our comic artists are increasingly creating works that go beyond the usual narrative patterns. They address politics, the historical significance of the ocean, the history of the Taiwanese tea trade or the situation of indigenous people.
There are also very personal, autobiographical stories, told for example from the point of view of a child who is told by his grandparents what they had to endure during the White Terror.
Even the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture has started to provide financial support for the comic scene. In 2018, the Taiwan Comic Base, the first museum dedicated exclusively to this art form, opened in Taipei.
At the moment, autobiographical content that brings a specific historical period to life is particularly popular, such as that of Sean Chuang. In his "80s Diary in Taiwan", he describes in detail everyday life at the time - how he learned to breakdance, listened to music with a Walkman for the first time and discovered Bruce Lee as his idol.
It was expected that such a work would mainly interest Taiwanese readers, but in fact it has been shown at comic festivals all over the world and translated into several languages. This recent upsurge in diversity can also be seen in the publishing industry. When I founded the publishing house Dala in 2003, we focused on sex, food and entertainment.
“In Taiwanese literature, film and theatre, LGBTIQ issues are present, but there is a void when it comes to comics”
At some point I started to publish thematic anthologies, for example on the topic of nostalgia. We have also been publishing graphic novels more and more - in my opinion, the arthouse films of the comics world.
When same-sex marriage was legalised in Taiwan in 2019, I noticed that themes of sexual identity and various genders weren't really reflected in comics. Sure - “Boy's Love” and “Girl's Love” have a big market share, but this is not a genre I would describe as coming from the LGBTIQ community.
They're romantic fantasies, not about about the challenges queer people face on a daily basis. LGBTIQ issues are present in Taiwanese literature, film and theatre, but there is a void in comics. High time to change that, I thought. So I gave a free pass to artists with an individual connection to the topic. They could decide for themselves on the content, style and genre of their respective stories.
The result is “Rainbow Apartment”, an anthology of six stories set in 2024, five years after same-sex marriage was introduced. Each story is set on a different floor of a typical apartment building in Taipei. The story that occurs on the first floor deals with an HIV-positive art teacher who falls in love with a nude model.
On the second, a purely “Rainbow Apartments” resembles a house in Taipei that actually exists. Our publishing house, Dala, used to be housed on the top floor.
With the book, we wanted to paint a vision of what we hope will be possible in a few years: that people of all sexual orientations and desires can live openly and freely and not have to hide who they are.
As told to Gundula Haage, translated by Jess Smee