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Taiwan 'boys love' comics hit hot spot at home and abroad

Exhibition shows Taiwanese creators making waves in 'boys love' space

BL comics on display at Taiwan Comic Base. (Taiwan News photo)

BL comics on display at Taiwan Comic Base. (Taiwan News photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — One genre of Taiwanese comics in particular has experienced unprecedented popularity over the past two years after more than 30 years of development — "boys love" (BL) comics.

Taiwan Comic Base, a government-funded initiative to facilitate the development of original Taiwanese comics, is hosting an exhibition on Taiwanese BL comics. Taiwan News recently met with BL researcher, translator, and author at the Base, Miyako Chang (張曉彤).

She described how Taiwan’s unique social and cultural environment makes its BL comics different from the rest.

If you ask a BL fan like Chang what BL comics are, they will describe narratives of romantic pursuits involving beautiful young men in a range of art styles that draw inspiration from Japanese manga. The stories might take place within realistic environments (think office, or classroom), fantasy worlds, or in historical or mythological contexts.

For the uninitiated: A possibly surprising feature of BL comics is that the vast majority are not made by, and are not even for gay men. The comics revolve around stories of romance and lust between always handsome, often young men, but have been described as only being tangentially connected with the lives of real gay men.

BL comics are almost always created by women, for women.

The genre began in Japan, and by some accounts was a result of girls taking an interest in their male counterparts’ comics, and the masculine, handsome, and heroic characters that they found within. Chang said this type of character was not found in women’s media (comics or otherwise), which often focused on demure figures interested in stereotypically feminine pursuits.

"The greater the difference between men and women (in terms of social standing) in a society, the more popular BL will be," Chang said. "In Asian countries, this difference is often pretty big, and that is where they are most popular."

Female readers took the masculine characters, and created their own fantasies with them. According to Taiwan Comic Base Industrial Manager Miyako Chang, women used the characters to express feelings of love and lust forbidden to them by society.

Taiwan 'boys love' comics hit hot spot at home and abroad
A character from a modern incarnation of a Pili production made with budaixi, or glove puppets. (CNA photo)

When BL comics first started coming into Taiwan from Japan in the 1980s and '90s, Chang said the process happened again, but this time with Taiwanese characters and stories.

The 1990s saw an explosion in the popularity of puppet dramas produced by Taiwan company Pili. The dramas used traditional glove or budaixi (布袋戲) puppets, and featured characters and stories from Chinese history, mythology, and fantasy realms.

Just like in Japan, Chang said Taiwanese women took a liking to the powerful, masculine heroes, started to create their own fan fiction, and Taiwan's local BL scene was born.

Since then, Taiwan’s BL has slowly developed, and the first commercial BL comics publishing house was established in Taiwan in 2014. Before that, Chang said there was still a huge amount of BL being produced, but it was mostly made by individuals who often produced fan fiction.

After the first commercial BL publishing house was launched in Taiwan, Chang described the development of a genre that explored a range of themes outside what Japanese BL comics might provide. While stories of feminized or adolescent men exploring love and relationships in high-school, university, or work remain popular, social changes in Taiwan have found their way into narratives too.

Before the practice was legalized in 2019, debates around gay marriage made their way into Taiwan’s national discourse, and creators began to explore the impact this would have on their characters, Chang said. Searching for a husband, campaigning for equal rights, planning weddings, and other activities came to adorn the usual stories of male-male love and sex.

Chang also described a Taiwanese BL series that explores themes of aging, and has characters in their 30s, which she said is uncommon for the genre.

There are also BL comics that take place in fantasy worlds, which further free creators to explore sexuality in a narrative form free from the constraints of gender. If a supernatural being is not even human, creators can focus on the relationships between characters rather than any struggles they might experience in society because of their sexual orientation, Chang said.

Taiwan 'boys love' comics hit hot spot at home and abroad
A character proposes in a Taiwanese BL comic displayed at the Taiwan Comic Base exhibition. (Taiwan News photo)

Chang said there are some BL creators who believe that to be a true BL comic, stories have to involve some depictions of sex. People are reading them because of the character’s pursuit of one another, and some hope that there will be a “happy ending," Chang said.

Not all BL comics are sexual though, Chang said. BL comics run the gamut from simple romances, right through to hard-core pornographic material that requires an age warning.

She said that the percentage of Taiwan BL comics with pornographic content is probably high when you compare it to other genres. However, compared to other countries’ BL, it is probably about the same.

She said that it might be slightly less than Japan, a country that sells more lower quality mass-produced comics, produced specifically for the porn market.

Like most groups, gay men are unlikely to have developed a universal consensus on BL comics. Some, however, have expressed opposition to women fictionalizing their experiences for entertainment.

Chang said that when BL started to gain popularity, there were some issues between creators and gay men. They did not want to be used as a woman’s simple “fantasy”.

She also admitted that in the early days making BL in Taiwan, there were no political motivations behind the work. Also, the comics did not seek to improve societal conditions for gay men.

Chang said that with the rising popularity of BL comics, some gay men in Taiwan came to appreciate seeing depictions of people who looked and acted like them in mass media. This at a time when society at large still did not accept homosexuality.

However, she said that from the perspective of the creators, the BL genre is still largely women creating content for women. “Women read it, but men can read it too,” she said.

Taiwan 'boys love' comics hit hot spot at home and abroad
A school scene, commonly found in BL comics, is pictured in the Taiwan Comic Base exhibition. (Taiwan News photo)

Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA) is a development agency for Taiwan’s creative industries, established by the Ministry of Culture in 2019. In addition to achieving success domestically, the agency has been helping Taiwan’s BL comics find new audiences abroad.

Global business manager at TAICCA Yun Li (李昀) said the agency has chosen Thailand as a target market for BL comics, due to the massive popularity of gay TV dramas in the country. In June, TAICCA traveled to Bangkok to exhibit Taiwan BL comics, and Li said she saw a lot of potential in the market, and the trip was very successful.

Thai industry figures said Taiwanese BL comics are likely to be popular in Thailand because of some similar cultural themes, like bubble milk tea, street food, or student life. The editor of a large web comic platform said that Taiwan’s BL comics are “fresh and easy,” and will likely be well received in Thailand.

Li also said her team recently returned from France, which she described as a taste-making country for Europe in terms of comics. She said that while BL comics aren’t as big as some other styles, major French publishers have shown interest in expanding their BL lines to include Taiwanese content.

TAICCA is not limiting its international promotions to just BL comics. It also promotes a wide range of Taiwan's creative products abroad.

Li said that decisions around what kind of content they promote and where they are based depends on the target audience of a given country.

“In June we had a comic and novel promotion event in Korea, but Korea’s culture is very different from Thailand, and more conservative," Li said.

"TAICCA didn’t choose BL for that market.”

“Encounters – Taiwan BL Commercial Comic Exhibition” is being held at Taiwan Comic Base, and will run until June 31.

Taiwan 'boys love' comics hit hot spot at home and abroad
(Taiwan Comic Base image)