The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest foreign movie franchise of all time in China, with a combined gross of $1.48BnUSD, ahead of “Fast & Furious” with $913MM and “Transformers” with $834M .
By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large
It makes since that Marvel Comics has teamed with NetEase an internet-tech giant that is the second biggest game company in the Middle Kingdom, behind only Tencent Game. A company that has a history of working with major American players in the digital space. Being a long time partner of Blizzard Entertainment’s local host of World of Warcraft, a game that has seen a longer shelf life in China than it has in any other market.
With NetEase’s digital ecosystem, and track record of working with major American players, it is of no surprise that Marvel Comics choose them as their strategic local partner – a key to any venture in China – for creating localized Marvel comics featuring local original superheroes, that are technically in the 616 universe (canon), while not yet being on Earth-616, with artist and writers who are local as well.
Marvel and NetEase’s online comic platform released two digital comics this week.
Warriors of Three Sovereigns featuring the superhero Sword Master, and Cyclone with the female superhero Aero (yes, both superheroes and comic titles appear to have two separate names from one-another….), are the first two Chinese Marvel Universe superheroes have be launched specifically to target a foreign audience outside of the U.S.
Co-developed by NetEase and Marvel, with the Marvel Comics editing team guiding the development, based on Chinese myths, history, and legends. Brought into a modern superhero setting, with the intent that if any of these comics / superheroes take off. They can be officially integrated into the Marvel continuity known as Earth-616.
References to Iron Man and Stark Industries are clearly there in Warriors of Three Sovereigns, to show Chinese readers that these new characters belong to a larger world of the Marvel Universe, but here in the U.S. these new superheroes will not be seen any time soon, if at all – even though NetEase states in Chinese that they will be release in the U.S. later this year. It would likely be a digital only release.
Marvel has set up shop in foreign countries before, to establish local superheroes that may-or-may-not join the continuity outside of those country’s local releases. With anime and manga versions of Marvel characters being produced in Japan for years, and in the last couple of years Marvel took one of its digital comic characters from South Korea, White Fox, and officially integrated her into the 616 X-Men.
We could be seeing this in the coming future, but this is not why Marvel is so keen on breaking into the digital comic scene in China – and it is not fully because of the MCU films popularity and box-office dependability either.
It is because of the growing industry that is 2D Culture aka “Chinese Anime” in China. A fast growing industry in China and quite possibly the second most important in terms of future growth only behind mobile games.
A Cultural Industry that has not fully blossomed into its full potential as its main demographic is consumers between the ages of 17-23 years old, Gen Z. A generation that though has a small spending ability at this moment, will the largest spending group in 5 years. A group that as they enter adulthood continues to be deeply connected to 2D Culture.
According to the BBC Marvel has 3.5M followers on Weibo (Chinese Twitter), and of May 10th Warriors of Three Sovereigns had 2M views, while Cyclone had 750K.
Initial reactions appear that Warriors of Three Sovereigns is resonating more with Chinese readers, along with Cyclone being released one day later.
These figures are understandable if you view the links below for free peaks of their first issues, as Warriors of Three Sovereigns has a strong manga feel with a hint of some HK manhua. The Three Sovereigns are classical creator deities in China, and all three superheroes featured in the comic are each the last descendant of each deity. With their powers deriving from a weapon connected to that deity. Hence, the superhero named Sword Master the leader of the Warriors of Three Sovereigns.
In the link below you will notice that the action and monster designs are incredibly well-done, with the monsters reminding me of some American style superhero villains from DC’s Justice League Dark. Though after a couple of pages the panel and page layout becomes a little bland, and the visual story portrays Chinese socializations that feels lackluster without the translation.
With Warriors of Three Sovereigns doing nearly triple the views than its counterpart Cyclone, could come down to its more dynamic panelling that is more aligned with your standard American comic. Something that I felt was more visually compelling through the entire comic, without the ability to read the Chinese lettering, and Aero’s powers without text were quite clearly defined.
Chinese superhero manhua – comics from Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Taiwan – needs to find its own style if 2D Culture (Chinese ACGN) is going to take off as its own thing in world pop culture.
Manhua in the late 19th Century was the precursor to Japanese anime, with modern manhua taking influence from anime in return. Modern manhua comic books have primarily come out of Hong Kong over the last three decades or so.
China and its 2D Culture’s leading platforms such as B Station, who debut on the NYC stock exchange raising $483MMUSD, along with NetEase’s own comic book platform, it is a ripe time to see an evolution take place in China in their very own 2D Culture and manhua comic genres.
With such influences as gonbi ink-wash animation already established in the heyday of Chinese animation, there is already a basis for an original and unique cultural artform to emerge. And, a lot of money to be made from it in return.
I’m excited to see what Netease Marvel does next, and if DC teams with someone like Tencent Publishing! The only company that outranks NetEase for e-publishing and gaming.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.