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Friday October 23, 2009

Storming to the top

Hong Kong’s favourite comics son Ma Wing Shing returns with Storm Warriors, the sequel to his Fung Wan-inspired Storm Riders.

A gold fish will always be confined to the pond. But when it meets cloud and wind, it will become a dragon.

THAT line was part of the prophecy that drove Hong Ba, the original arch-villain in Hong Kong’s popular Fung Wan (literal translation: Wind and Cloud) comics, to take Nip Fung (Wind) and Bou Keng Wan (Cloud) under his wing as disciples.

Ma Wing Shing, in a picture taken shortly after forming his own publishing house – Jonesky Publishing – in 1989.

And it was also the exact same prophecy that inspired comic artist Ma Wing Shing to create those two characters 20 years ago.

Ma was one of Hong Kong’s comic industry’s rising stars, working on a best-selling publication in one of the former British colony’s biggest comics publishing houses Jademan, when he decided to strike out on his own and form his own publishing house.

Before doing so, he consulted a fortune teller and was given the above line foretelling his future. Armed with the prediction, he was inspired to create a comic about two warriors – Wind and Cloud – whose powers complement one another.

Iconic work: The fifth issue of Tin Ha Comics, which featured the debut of Fung Wan (Wind and Cloud). Fung Wan would go on to last more than 20 years, and become the top-selling comic in Hong Kong.

“That line given by the fortune teller was what inspired the comic. The other idea I had was that without the wind, the clouds would not move; and so, these two have to work together to achieve greater power,” recalled Ma during an interview at the Hong Kong Comics and Anime Expo recently.

Today, it seems as though the prediction has come true. Ma’s company, Jonesky Publishing Limited, is now one of Hong Kong’s biggest comic empires. At the forefront of its success is the fortnightly Fung Wan (also known as Tin Ha) – Hong Kong’s best-selling comic book.

Fung Wan has spawned a thriving franchise that has produced video games, action figures, a TV series, an animated feature, and two live action movies starring Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng as Cloud and Wind respectively (the first, Storm Riders, was released in 1998; while the sequel, Storm Warriors, will be released in December this year).

The comic book celebrates its milestone 20th anniversary this year, and it is an achievement that’s come from Ma’s blood, sweat and tears.

In the beginning

Born in 1961, Ma had been interested in drawing comics since he was a child; doodling in class and spending more time reading comics than studying. At 15, he quit school to join a comics company called Hei Po; drawing a salary of HK$50 a month that was barely enough to feed himself (in order to save transport costs, he slept in the office).

After going through a series of small-time office boy-like jobs (one of his duties then was to send the finished comic prints to the printers every week), he eventually got his first assignment – drawing the background in a single panel of a comic.

The current incarnation of the Fung Wan comic now depicting the titular characters Wind (left) and Cloud as older, much wiser warriors.

“I spent the entire night drawing and correcting that panel, and although it was finally accepted, I remember thinking to myself, ‘If I couldn’t even handle a single panel background, how was I going to become a proper comic artist?’” he recalled in an autobiographical comic strip on his website (comicsworld.com).

To cut a long story short, after overcoming countless obstacles along the way, Ma eventually produced his first self-penned comic called Daydream. After Hei Po closed down, he went on to join other companies, while furthering his studies at the Hong Kong Academy of Fine Arts at the same time.

In 1980, Ma eventually ended up at the legendary Jademan Comics, owned by the “Godfather of Hong Kong Comics” himself, Tony Wong Yok Long, creator of the popular Little Gangsters (later renamed to Dragon Tiger Gate).

It was at Jademan that Ma made his first big breakthrough, with the comic The Chinese Hero (Zhong Wah Ying Hong). The comic owes its origins to Tony Wong himself, who supplied the title and the lead character’s name Wah Ying Hong, but left the rest to Ma.

Inspired by Bruce Lee’s movies, Ma eventually came up with the story of a Chinese martial artiste who upholds justice with his superior martial arts skills, and The Chinese Hero was first published in 1980 as a supplement to Wong’s Drunken Master comic.

In a comic industry full of heroes with rippling muscles and exaggerated artwork, Ma’s realistic and beautiful handiwork on The Chinese Hero was a breath of fresh air. The title was an instant hit, selling 45,000 copies upon its release. Eventually, it proved so popular that it was given its own weekly title in 1982.

Riding on his new-found popularity, Ma decided to leave Jademan in 1989 to set up Jonesky Publishing Limited, where he quite literally kicked up another storm in the industry.

Setting up shop

“My greatest motivation (for creating Fung Wan) was starting my own company. We didn’t have a choice at the time – it was either sink or swim, so for our first and possibly final publication, we wanted to have something we could be proud of,” recalled Ma.

“Getting readers to recognise your work and start buying your books was the hardest part (of starting the company). I remember working myself to death just trying to make it through.”

A young Ma Wing Shing celebrating the 100th issue of The Chinese Hero, which was his biggest success during his stint at Jademan Comics.

The first issue of Fung Wan was published in 1989, a comic titled Tin Ha (literal translation: Under The Sky), and it has not looked back since. Unlike many long-lasting Hong Kong comics, Fung Wan emphasised character development over mere action and fighting, complemented by compelling stories, and Ma’s now trademark artwork.

Today, the focus of the comic has shifted to the next generation of warriors – led by none other than the offspring of Wind and Cloud. Even the Fung Wan name has been discarded – the comic is now merely called Tin Ha.

Jonesky has also grown by leaps and bounds, adding more titles to its stable (including Black Panther, which is a modern take on the Chinese martial arts world); and importing Japanese manga like the incredibly popular Slam Dunk for the Hong Kong market.

The debut issue of Tin Ha Comics, which was the first title in Ma Wing Shing’s then fledgling company Jonesky Publishing. Although the title is now best known as the ‘real’ title of Ma’s Fung Wan comic, it wasn’t until the 5th issue of Tin Ha Comics that Fung Wan made its debut.

The company also manufactures merchandise based on their creations, including action figures, collectible figurines, prop replicas of the weapons in the comics, and trade paperbacks compiling the series.

Still, Tin Ha remains the company’s bread and butter, and its popularity is phenomenal – the Jonesky booth was by far one of the most popular at the recent Hong Kong Comics and Anime Expo, with fans enduring long lines and fighting over exclusive merchandise.

But after drawing the same comic for 20 years now (yes, he may be the big boss these days, but he still continues to draw the comics himself), even Ma is starting to feel that it’s time to end the storm.

“I feel very proud that Fung Wan has succeeded and lasted 20 years, but I feel it is time to seriously consider ending it. And when I do, I want to make sure we do it properly,” he said. “What will I do after it ends? I don’t know, but I’ve been drawing comics for 30 years now ... so I don’t think I’ll ever do anything that is not related to comics.”

He did have some advice for budding artists though.

“You don’t become a comic artist to become rich! If you have that kind of attitude, you won’t succeed,” he said. “To do well, you need good sales, and for that you need to produce good work all the time. So my warning to those wanting to join is ... be prepared go through a lot of suffering first!”

Related Story:
Realising the storm

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