Chinese comics struggling to find own style
For 33-year-old Yao Ting, a Chinese comics artist famous enough for fans to stop him and ask for his autograph, these are both the best of times and the worst of times.
"Many Chinese comics have no real soul, and just imitate comics from other countries, but people like me, we really think that our own Chinese heritage is the most precious," he said.
"My ambition, my dream is to grasp the essence of ancient Chinese history, culture and thought and bring it to the world," said Yao, who finds inspiration in classic dynastic histories and popular novels of the pre-modern era.
China was a latecomer to the comics scene and its community of creative story-tellers feel compelled to go for the tried and proven if they want to earn a living.
"Chinese comics are in the early phase of development," said Zhang Zhou, an employee at a Beijing-based advertising company and an avid reader of local comics. "Our artists are still looking for their own style."
Broadly defined, Chinese comics have a long history, from woodblock prints in imperial times, over anti-Japanese cartoons of the World War II era, to didactic drawings used to teach communist values to the illiterate masses.
But the current frenzy was kindled in the 1990s with the advent of Japanese comics, or manga. And it shows.
From the style -- the trademark huge eyes of the characters -- to the subject matters -- martial arts, teenage love and science fiction -- the main influence on today's Chinese comics is overwhelmingly Japanese.
The heavy Japanese flavor in Chinese comics is extra ironic because the Japanese were originally inspired by China, according to Tao Zhong, an intense 25-year-old amateur artist with a goatee.
"A lot of Chinese culture is now being used in Japanese comics. It's like a mirror being held up to us," he said. "But actually, Chinese culture should be expressed by the Chinese themselves."
An entire subculture has grown up around comics in China, with youngsters dressing up as their favorite heroes with wigs and costumes that make them look like something in between Tolkienesque elves and Tokyo punks.
Their enthusiasm and growing purchasing power is what instills confidence in the pioneers of the Chinese comics industry.
"Comic magazines in China have a combined circulation of three million," said Xu Tao, secretary general of the Institute of Chinese Comics, an industry association.
"But if you count everything, including comics on the Internet and imported magazines, the total market is at least 10 million readers," he said.
Despite the large and growing number of fans, no one has yet got rich producing comics for the Chinese.
After years of hard and scantily rewarded work, Yao Ting now makes about 3,000 yuan (360 dollars) a month, and he considers himself among the lucky few who have actually turned their passion into a livelihood.
"The problem with Chinese comics is you can't make a whole lot of money on them, so many talented artists eventually choose other careers, for instance in advertising," he said.
"Some artists try to solve the problem by focusing on quantity and simply spit out vast amounts of low-quality comics in an attempt to earn a quick buck."
Chinese comic artists look with envy to places such as Taiwan where an agent system makes it easier for budding talents to find an outlet and reach a sizable audience.
"There's definitely a market for comics in China, and there are lots of artists, but the problem is that so far there are no agents," said Tao, the amateur.
"Maybe it's because this kind of new profession is associated with a certain degree of risk," he said.
Tao, himself a member of a minority of Chinese comic artists who seek to tackle large, complex issues rather than just entertain, acknowledged there probably would never be a huge market for his works.
His comics are compact and entirely without text, dealing with timeless subjects such as the future of mankind or the battle of the sexes, often in just a single page.
Few seem interested in changing society with their comics, and even the most ambitious content themselves with expressing intensely private sentiments or semi-religious ideas.
"You can't make cartoons about the leadership," said Bao Wei, a 27-year-old artist from northeastern Harbin city.