Interview: Billy Tan

Meet the comic artist behind books like Uncanny X-Men and Green Lantern

Shanghai Comic Con 2016 is just around the corner, and as year two of the geekfest approaches, Time Out are talking to some its special guests. We sat down with comic artist Billy Tan at his new Shanghai studio, Tan Comics, to find out all about his Mainland project and what he sees in the future of China's comic scene.

Can you tell me a bit about your journey as a comic artist? Were you into comic books as a kid?
I don’t think there were too many comics that I could access. As I got older I could get Hong Kong comics, but not so much American comics, not until I went to the states. I was born in Malaysia and moved to states when I was 18; Kansas first, an hour away from Wichita in the middle of nowhere. Then I moved to University of Kentucky, and that’s when I stepped into American comics. There were a lot of comic book stores nearby, as they were quite popular in the '90s; X-Men was hot. So I was introduced to [comics] and loved them. I was amazed by the art in comic books and how artistic [the genre] could be. It’s interesting media and you tell a story with it, and then I found out that this can be very artistically done. That’s what made me decide to give it a crack.

When I was in college I visited Marvel studio in New York trying to have someone look at my portfolio - not really visited actually, I was on a class trip. I was alone, trying to get into the comic book industry, and went into the Marvel studio demanding to try to get someone to look at my portfolio. The secretary said there was no way someone was going to see me, but I refused to leave. I waited and finally a very furious editor came out to see me. Back then who knew how to get into [the industry]!

How I really got in [to the scene] was through a competition by Top Cow Productions, run by Mark Silvestri. I was one of the few very talents that got hired by the that environment one tends to learn very quickly. I was in the middle of a massive talent pool, some of the best in the industry. Tremendous talents. You learn a lot…in that environment you can’t help but to learn things, just by talking. You sort of improve yourself rather quickly in a short period of time. I was with Top Cow for 10 years, and worked on series like Witch Blade, Tomb Raiders, Spirit of Tao - and then I moved on to Marvel.


What was your first project at Marvel? What happened from there?
My first project was X-23, about the clone of Wolverine. That was my first book, and I wasn’t thinking that much or expecting that much as far as the books that I’d be getting; I would've been happy to just work on anything for Marvel. I think I was pretty lucky. They had me on pretty high profile books in a short period of time, like Uncanny X-Men; after that, the new Avengers. It’s amazing to work under such big talents - I think I learned a lot from the writers, some of the top writers in the industry. I learned a lot artistic wise, but working with amazing writers helped me learn to see how they tell stories, and it opened up my mind to how many varieties there are to artist approaches in the industry.

I worked with Marvel for about six years. I was a little burnt out from drawing all of those characters. I was happy to go on to DC Comics, [where I] was hoping to move on to a single character book, and then they offered me Green Lantern - there’s a huge number of characters, including a whole alien universe. But of course I was happy to draw monsters and aliens. I worked for [DC] for 3 years, and then moved to Shanghai.

What would your younger self say if you went back in time and told him that one day you’d be drawing for Marvel and DC Comics?
If it was when I was 18, I think I’d be happy and be like ‘yes!’, but anything younger than that, probably not a clue! I’d be like what the hell is that? But at 18, it would’ve been mind-blowing. Dreams do come true I guess.

So what’s Tan Comics all about here in Shanghai? What’s your first series?
When I moved to Shanghai I met Tu Heng, Director of Intellectual Property (IP) Investment at Shanda. He asked if I’d be interested in doing something IP with them. It sounded interesting; I like their ideas and they have quite interesting approaches as to how to create an IP universe. I came up with some concepts and he liked them, and that’s where it all started.

Our first IP is called Wu Ling Hou; Generation Wu in English. What we are trying to do is create a universe - well, we are the superhero universe, but our first IP is not superhero, but more hero-based. They don’t have the amazing powers that the Western heroes have, it’s more based on the traditional martial arts point of view. We try to take an image of what the many years of Chinese tradition and culture, and martial arts has always been of interest wherever you are in China. It’s a strong interest so why not make use of it? We collaborate, put a spin on it - asking the question, would could it turn out to be when you incorporate technology with martial arts? Our story happens in current contemporary times, so what could some new generations of martial arts artists face versus [those faced by] the older generations of martial arts? You know - conflicts between the two generations.

I want to build a cultural phenomenon, a super hero universe that originated from China or Asian countries. Something that generations to come can call it their own. Something that they will be proud of. Hopefully just as good as Marvel - but of the East.

What do you think of the comic scene in China?
First off, I think a lot more audiences are more attracted to the manga. Japanese manga was easier to access and came into the market much earlier than American comics, so they have a huge fan base. I guess the comics overall are sort of leaning towards that format, whether it’s art-wise or storytelling wise.

What we are trying to do a little bit differently is complicate things a little bit, whether with storytelling or art-wise, towards the American style. Hopefully [Chinese readers] will be able to accept it. All the stories are in China; the characters are people they can relate to. They could be students dealing with their high school exams and then some incredible situation comes that normal people aren’t faced with…things I guess that heroes would be dealing with. Plus they have get on top of their homework, daily chores and all that.

So it’s normal people in extraordinary situations?
Exactly. Well not too normal… after all, the characters have some powers, but maybe not superpowers.

How big a deal is Comic Con for Shanghai? Can it rival comic events like those in the US?
It just started, last year was the first one, and I think we did pretty good and that it could only go bigger from there. It was the first time that fans were being introduced to the very Western comic style and they were pretty excited about it; they got to meet artists that they otherwise couldn't have. Hopefully it will grow more to like what other countries are doing - with movie viewings, and so on - but I think they are doing a great job. Of course it’s not going to rival things that have been there for 40 or 50 years, but I think that it’s growing at a rapid speed. I think it will catch up to SFCC, watch out!

Alright, now it has to be asked - which comic book character would you want to be and why?
I’m not going to say [a] flying [character] or something cheesy like that. I think Dr. Strange would be pretty cool. You've got magic, you can travel through the universe, you can do things that other people can’t do. If I could add healing powers then I think that would be perfect.

Do you have your own personal favourite in terms of genre?
I like superhero and I like fantasy. I like that spirit of being able to self-sacrifice and help others and all that, and the fantasy part of it I like because there’s no line to be drawn.

Is there anything still on your list in terms of art goals - like a series you’d love to do the artwork for in the future?
I would like to be able to work on Batman someday, but not as much as I want to make [Generation Wu] happen. Right now this is the thing, trying to make it into a cultural phenomenon. We’ll be the Star Wars of the East.

So you have a seven-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son - have they come up with their own stories for you to bring to life?
I think the little one thinks she does better work than me. The older one thinks it’s cool that his dad draws comics. But he truly knows a lot more American comics than I do - that’s a shame. [He] often talks to me about characters - what could a character do, what’s their power and all that. It’s pretty fresh you know, being only 13 years old.

So, how about the new series, when will it come out?
The first books are going to come out digitally first. Right now we are aiming for January. It all depends how fast we go script wise. It takes time to familiarise the crew with how things work. Basically everybody is coming from different places, they have to work well and mesh well together. They all do good work but now I am trying to ramp up their speed a little. As we accumulate enough of the series we will go to print later.

Do you plan on a print edition? What about distributing outside of China?
Digital is definitely the thing here, it is very easy to access - on the train, on your phone, anything and anywhere. Right now we are just focusing on Chinese platforms. We have yet to consider the Western approach and how we would do that. Right now our focus is in the Chinese market, trying create a good foundation here.

Any last thoughts for your fans, and those who could become Generation Wu’s readers?
I wish everyone will give us a try. Whether you’re comic book-based or not, [this is] history in the making, so you need to check us out. 20 years later you can tell your grandson, ‘hey you know this company that is so big now? I was there reading their first comic, I was there 20 years ago.’

Be sure to visit Tan at the Shanda booth at this year's Shanghai Comic Con. Follow him on Weibo to stay up to date on the release of Wu Ling Hou and hear other Tan Comics news.