Does the future of comics look like an angry chicken foot? Or a happy dumpling? A culture-mashing independently-produced digital manga app aims to find out, while contributing to the small but growing list of educational comics apps done right.
Digital platforms and new global audiences for comics are pushing the medium into uncharted territory, but it is not just the big players like Marvel and DC that are seizing the innovation initiative. All over the world, independent creators are finding new possibilities in the traditional forms, tropes and genres of comics, and producing a steady stream of engaging new content to fill up app stores and storefronts.
Last month in New York, I came across a project that successfully combines a number of the most encouraging trends in the evolution of comics as a medium: globally-aware, broadly-accessible subject matter; app functionality that adds substantially to the content; cultural and educational value; and a bottom-up entrepreneurial development model that circumvents the creative and distribution bottlenecks that have throttled the traditional comics industry in the U.S.
And, it’s hilarious.
Dim Sum Warriors, from Yumcha Studios, is a fun and witty manga-style title aimed at kids. The characters are shrimp dumplings, steamed pork buns and other Chinese delicacies known as “dim sum” to American diners. The plot involves intrigues among different styles of Dim Sum (fried, boiled, baked and steamed), represented as various schools and disciplines of the martial arts, and the efforts of royal heir Prince Roast Port Bao to foil a plot against the kingdom. This drama plays out against well-drawn historical backgrounds using clean, clear lines and exaggerated figures to blend humor and action.
The series was created by Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, a New York-based husband-and-wife creative team that has also directed award-winning movies and launched the subversive political humor website Talking Cock in their native Singapore. (“It’s not as rude as it sounds in Singapore English,” explained Goh. “It means shooting the breeze, telling cock-and-bull stories.”).
But Dim Sum Warriors is more than just a fun and breezy manga: it’s a fully-functional and brilliantly-designed interactive language learning app for iPad that glides effortlessly between English and Mandarin. Tapping any line of dialogue on the page not only switches the text between English and Chinese characters, but provides transliteration and audio playback in either language. The context, characters and accessibility of the story make it much simpler for learners of any age to intuit the subtleties of conversation and build firm associations between words, ideas and situations.
“It’s aimed for kids age 7-15, which is really under-served, especially in this language learning category,” says Dr. Woo, an Associate Professor at Long Island University’s College of Education and Information Sciences who designs educational materials professionally. “Plus, parents can pick up a bit of the language [either English or Chinese]. It’s not a ‘Dick and Jane’ book. The story is complex enough to interest readers and make them curious.”
The creators emphasize that their project is meant to blend story and learning, without being overly technical or didactic. “The primary thing was to entertain, but we thought [the language learning component] would add value on top of the main story line. This wasn’t meant to be a textbook,” says Woo. She says they designed the program as an iPad app to take advantage of the growing popularity of tablets in the classroom, as well as to capitalize on the recent embrace of comics and graphic novels in the educational arena.
“One of the difficulties of using graphic novels in the classroom is that a lot of it, especially manga, seems very innocuous, then on page 20, out pop the breasts,” observes Woo. Because Dim Sum Warriors was developed with an educational purpose in mind in the first instance, Woo believes the title will be an easier sell for educators and institutions in the US, China and elsewhere.
Dim Sum Warriors reflects the international backgrounds of its creators. Co-creator Colin Goh, a former practicing attorney who embraced his dream to draw comics, says that growing up in Singapore gave him a taste for a blend of different graphic narrative styles. He enjoyed American superheroes and humor titles alongside Asian manga, political cartoons and more serious graphic novels, and brings that cross-culture, cross-genre perspective to Dim Sum Warriors.
Woo and Goh partnered with TWP, a print-oriented publisher that has worked with Scholastic and Random House, to provide the digital services and assist with distribution. “They’re trying it out and they liked it,” says Goh. “We are both experimenting with each other, I guess. That’s how we managed to get this out.”
The creativity and ingenuity of Dim Sum Warriors is matched only by its market potential. It not only has the usual entertainment reach of a kid-oriented manga title, it has built-in value for parents and educators around the world, particularly overseas Chinese in English-speaking countries who want their kids to benefit from mastering the world’s two most widely-spoken languages.
Goh and Woo are hoping the same grass-roots marketing efforts that propelled Talking Cock to two million page views in the early 2000s and helped their award-winning films make it to screens from Tokyo to Brooklyn can help Dim Sum Warriors stand out in the Apple Store amid a cacophony of new and engaging apps.
Will they break through? As the evil Colonel Quicknoodle (“picture Robert Downey, Jr. as a mutant pot of instant ramen,” Woo helpfully explained) discovered to his peril, don’t underestimate the power of highly-trained, super-powered dumplings on a mission.