2019 / 6月
Hsu Mao-sung's Life in Comics
Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Geof Aberhart
Hsu Mao-sung has dedicated his life and his considerable creative energies to Taiwanese comics, and in his decades of work, this national treasure has been witness to the ups and downs of the industry.
Hsu’s 1998 The Past and Present of Tamsui won a Golden Tripod Award from the Government Information Office, and in 2004 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Taiwan Golden Comic Awards. Two years later, he took first place in the National Institute for Compilation and Translation’s annual Excellent Comics Awards, and in 2017 he was honored with a Special Contribution Award at the Ministry of Culture’s 8th Golden Comic Awards. Hsu has been an enduring pillar of strength for Taiwan’s comics industry.
Buried in comic books
“For as long as I can remember, Dad’s been drawing comics.” To his children, Hsu Mao-sung has seemed much like a comic-book character himself, mysterious and aloof as he spends more than 12 hours a day working on his books. “Mom’s always had to run the household and manage the family by herself.” Focused on his art with tireless drive and unflinching tenacity, Hsu has been a model of self-discipline for his children.
Born Hsu Sung-shan in 1937, in what is now Kaohsiung City’s Qiaotou District, Hsu Mao-sung began his career in comics in his early 20s and is the epitome of a true Taiwanese comics artist. Together with You Longhui, Hsu has become one of the legends of the industry.
Hsu’s work builds on tales from Chinese myth, mixing in elements of Western mythology to create an ever-changing cast of characters with immense mystical powers. In the era before the Internet, comics fans would lose themselves in the vibrant worlds Hsu created.
Songshan Studio hits the big time
When Taiwanese comics were at their peak, Hsu eagerly set about training students and working with apprentices, establishing a unique style.
In the early 1980s, he set up Songshan Studio, working with students like Shang Guanping, Qiu Yue, Xie Tian, and Yang Zhenyu. The market was a big one at the time, and so they worked day and night. Virtually every trade paperback put out by Yisheng Books during the period was produced by Songshan Studio.
“Back before television, comics artists were big stars.” While things were booming, Hsu also got into publishing. “Live by the comic, die by the comic, I guess,” he sighs, recalling how government censorship and changing times soon saw the comics market tumble back down to Earth. Hit hard by the crash, Hsu even had to sell the family homestead to pay off his debts.
“I remember we had to move around a lot, and I ended up changing elementary schools a bunch,” says Hsu’s daughter Elizabeth. Lacking a stable income and reduced to renting, Hsu had to move house frequently, shifting around Southern Taiwan with his wife and three daughters in tow. “I worried so much every time we had to pay the tuition fees,” says Hsu. He buried himself in work day and night, chain-smoking and sustaining himself on the energy drink Paolyta and rice wine, hunched over his art and ignoring even his own health.
Darkest before the dawn
Hsu Mao-sung was only able to enjoy a brief period at the top during the time the comics industry thrived. Wanting to curb “degeneracy” in society, the government began to subject comics to “review,” essentially tying the hands of publishers and striking a massive blow to the livelihoods of those in the industry.
With the industry in the doldrums, many people chose to leave for pastures new. “Drawing is what I love, and I also had an unshirkable responsibility to my apprentices,” Hsu remarks, explaining what kept him gritting his teeth and fighting on.
To make ends meet, at the recommendation of a friend Hsu Mao-sung began turning his hand to vermilion painting. His huge, majestic paintings of the bodhisattva Guanyin became the subject of several exhibitions and received rave reviews, even if the actual turnout for the exhibitions wasn’t quite as stellar as those reviews. “Honestly I think I could have put a bit more into those paintings. That’s why I didn’t come out on top that time.” Hsu is still embarrassed about it all: “I basically lost my daughter’s dowry.”
Dedicating a decade to making a masterpiece
“In fact, it’s hard going making any money drawing comics in the south,” says Hsu. For Hsu Mao-sung, who self-deprecatingly calls himself a “madman,” drawing is in his blood, so despite the hardships he has never been able to put his art aside. In a time when cameras were still few and far between, his father had been a well-known local portrait artist, and so from a young age Hsu picked up both art and a habit of being meticulous.
With no tolerance for mistakes, Hsu developed an eye for detail and a persistence in getting to the core of things. These traits can be seen clearly in his comics art, particularly The Past and Present of Tamsui and his magnum opus The Buddha. “More than a decade ago, my daughter sadly commented that I hadn’t created anything for them.” Touched to the core, Hsu set about spending the next ten years on a full-color work to rectify that.
“I spent over two years just going over all the Buddhist scriptures and related documents,” he says. A devout Buddhist for nearly half a century, he wholeheartedly devoted himself to completing this noble task. Just setting out the thousands of characters that would appear was a massive and laborious endeavor that spanned more than 700 pages.
Wanting to be loyal to scripture, Hsu visited major temples across Taiwan, as well as ancient temples, grottoes, and other places in China, to take in all the details. “To draw the Bodhi tree, I searched all over. I went to many places and took photos for reference.” To complete this masterful legacy work, Hsu harnessed a lifetime’s experience and research.
“I’m very grateful to Dyna Books for publishing, printing, and laying out a book like this which is so unlikely to sell that well. They did a better job than I could have ever imagined.” After Hsu had spent more than three years completing the manuscript, his daughter thought carefully about how to handle the last mile, turning it over to trusted hands to finish. “It’s my father’s life’s work, and I hope it won’t just be restricted to the religious world, but be of educational use to everyone.” Having inherited her father’s desire to record history in comic-book form, Hsu’s daughter is surely a safe pair of hands for his legacy.
A life in comics with no regrets
“Drawing comics is demanding work—you’ve got to be scriptwriter, director, actor and narrator all at once, and you’ve got to be able to capture readers’ attention with pictures, dialogue, plot, and writing.” A truly masterful piece is a work of art worthy of passing down to future generations.
On Hsu’s old desk, he keeps a small mirror that he uses to try out characters’ expressions. “My brain never stops. What’s most worrying is that I often find myself talking to the characters in my dreams.” Having spent a lifetime in the comics world, he long ago stopped drawing a line between reality and fantasy.
“People used to say comics were just kids’ stuff, easy to draw, but in reality there’s a complicated process behind them, especially the more realistic ones.” Each stage from the composition of the first draft to inking, from storyboarding to line drafting, rewriting and coloring, is time-consuming and laborious. “Paper quality is also very important, since you can’t let the colors get smudged,” explains Hsu of the need for specially selected paper. “No matter how hard up you might be, you can’t skimp on the paper.”
“The linework in The Buddha is very dense, which meant it was stressful on the eyes and the hands, so I could only get a page or two done a day.” As a result, Hsu was finally able to finish the book after a decade of work. Spending so long hunched over his work led to Hsu injuring his lumbar spine, paying a physical price to produce a masterwork for the generations.
“I never had a formal teacher, I’ve really just been blessed from above.” The plaudits may keep coming for Hsu, but now in his eighties, he views brickbats and bouquets with equanimity. “I’ve still got so many ideas in my head, but these days the body isn’t quite as willing.” Hsu’s trembling hands are no longer up to the task of his old intricate linework. Nevertheless, he remains committed to the cause of helping Taiwan create its own style, the same commitment that has kept him going throughout his lifelong career in comics. Time may be taking its toll, but at heart, Hsu Mao-sung is as tireless as ever.