Discover China's underground art comics scene

China's premier alternative comics anthology is available on Taobao

Illustration: Yang Xuede
There are many terms that can be used to talk about Taobao – overwhelming, such a good deal, tacky – but anti-commercial isn’t one of them. And yet among the pages selling electronics or knock-off Korean clothes, you can also find Special Comix, China’s premier alternative comics anthology. Cute, blocky cartoon characters sit next to detailed, realistic reminiscences of young emotions or crude drawings of dicks. Finding this noncommercial indie comics anthology on Tabao feels like visiting a hip, underground art gallery in the middle of Zoo Market.

The distribution method of Special Comix, an irregularly published anthology that can run over 600 pages, isn’t the only thing that’s unusual about it. Just the fact that such a large self-published underground comics anthology currently exists in China is surprising given the lack of precursors and relatively small clout of the commercial comics industry here. Countries like the US, France and Japan all have major, culturally dominant comics Comic Relief industries that ultimately led to experimental backlashes against the sequential norm.

Illustration: Wang xx

For those in the Chinese alternative comics scene, though, inspiration often comes from outside the country. ‘In fact, I learned more about Western visual art history in childhood,’ says Zhang Xun, an editor of the anthology. ‘So I think we accept comics from Japan and Europe quite easily.’ The influences for Special Comix that Zhang cites range from European artists like Atak and Anke to ’70s issues of the ground-breaking alternative Japanese manga magazine Garo.

China’s alternative comics scene is similar to those of other countries in more than just style. It also shares a DIY approach to publishing. In the case of Chinese anthologies like Special Comix, this is about more than just rejecting commercialism. Self-publishing allows for a level of freedom in content that government-approved presses would never allow. Zhang describes the reasons for self-publishing as both political and artistic.
Illustration: Chai He

‘We’ve never censored, at least superficially,' Zhang tells us. 'We just try to choose interesting works which we like... That’s why we choose to self-publish. But you know, censorship is always living in our minds and artists’ minds like a ghost.’

If there’s much self-censorship going on, it’s hardly apparent in the works. While few Chinese indie comics boast material that’s directly political, graphic elements like sex, nudity and gore are more common. The sexual aspect is readily apparent in the recently released sixth issue of Special Comix. The theme and title of it is ‘da biantai’, a Chinese term that means both ‘transformation’ and ‘big pervert’.

Illustration: Tang Yan

The ‘big’ part of the issue is even more important than the ‘pervert’ bit. Every issue of Special Comix has a different chief editor, and Tang Yan, the editor of issue six, made the bold choice of going for an especially large format of poster-sized works. ‘I think it was inspired by [American comics artist] Chris Ware,’ Zhang explains. ‘He published a big book [Building Stories]. We all love it, especially Tang Yan. Another influence is many beautiful large silk prints we found in Paris’ comic shops. Tang Yan always focuses on visual art and design, so he tried to collect some works which experiment with large sizes.’

It’s exciting to see such sustained self-publishing in China, but the small local alternative comics scene seemsn unlikely to have a much of a larger immediate impact. Zhang readily admits that ‘it is an art comic book. It belongs to a small group of readers.’

At Zhang’s suggestion, we visited Yan Shu bookstore in Lido, which he described as a hub for Beijing’s indie comics scene. It’s a small, cosy shop hidden away in a residential compound and full of used books, about as far from edgy as you can get. Still, its shelf of indie anthologies and minicomics ranges from cute, kid-friendly works to much more transgressive fare. A sample series of comments from a friend reading one comic: ‘why is everyone naked, is that the theme? They’ve really got a lot of weird sexual fantasies in here. Okay, I need to stop reading this now.’

Illustration: Yan Cong

Da Yi and Pi Gao, who run the bookshop, started stocking indie comics because a lot of their friends were making them, and they've held events like a 12-hour comic drawing day. Pi tells us that ‘not a lot of people came to the event, less than the same event in Shanghai... We don’t have too many customers because of our location. Most people are return customers or come because someone recommended us.’

Yan Shu’s a charming shop, but it’s clear that it’s not an especially high-volume market. That’s where Taobao comes in. One welcome if unexpected effect of Alibaba’s online marketplace is that it’s provided a space for indie creators to sell their works across China. Without an ISBN, Special Comix’s availability was limited to a few independent bookstores like Yan Shu and occasional creative markets. Now, sales to fans have become much easier. The fifth issue had a print run of 2,000 copies, and over 1,100 were sold in five days through preorders on Taobao.

Special Comix Vol. 5

This is fitting for a scene that’s been enabled by the internet, with most of the artists, editors and fans having connected with each other online. ‘I think of course the internet will change the present comics system. Maybe in the future, artists will have another creative environment. I think we’ll still have editors, but not publishers,’ Zhang predicts. The idea behind Special Comix, with its blend of works ranging from technically accomplished to crude and abrasive, is to help inspire future creators to make comics as a means of expression rather than profit.

It’s still getting there. Like any big anthology, the pieces in it range widely in terms of quality, and visual experimentation almost always takes precedence over narrative. ‘These comics are just some experiments,’ Zhang says. ‘Sometimes they’re really bad, like the magazine RAW, from the ’80s. But that magazine led to Maus and inspired a lot of people. Maybe some young artists can find confidence from our works and make really good, pure comics.’

Yan Shu Building 1, Gaojiayuan Xiaoqu Area 3, Jiangtai Lu, Chaoyang district (no tel; Opening hours vary. 朝阳区将台路高家 园小区三1号楼. Special Comix is available at
  • 4 out of 5 stars