How a comics geek quit his boring job and wrote Marvel Comics a Hong Kong Iron Man story

One of Howard Wong’s strangest career moments came in 2014 during an important meeting in Hong Kong with Japanese executives from Bandai, the toy company that produces manga action figures like Astro-Boy, Ultraman and Gundam.

A freelance creative consultant, Wong was there to discuss storylines for a new robot character. But before that, the agenda included updates on a crossover product line showing Star Wars characters as samurais. As the suits reviewed sales projections and production schedule, the Chinese-Canadian writer noticed something odd in the prototype toys.

“The Stormtroopers had nipples on their armour,” Wong says. “So I asked ‘why do they have nipples?’ The executives paused, then also asked, ‘yeah, why are there nipples on Stormtroopers?’”

Urgent emails flew off to Japan. Responsible adults evaluating management decisions suddenly degenerated into a round table of nerds debating whether Edo-period troops for Darth Vader would have protruding areolas.

“I was just curious. I figured the designer was dirty-minded. But it turns out there’s a rationale. Back in feudal Japan, some samurais were Buddhist and had armour shaped like the Buddha’s chest, so that’s why they had nipples,” he says.

The anecdote perfectly encapsulates Wong’s serendipitous career path. He is the comic book fan who’s turned his childhood obsession into a bankable talent. Not only has Wong conceptualised stories for Bandai, he is a successful Marvel Comics author. The 45-year-old created the narrative for Hong Kong Disneyland’s Iron Man Experience ride. They then commissioned an Iron Man story from him to be specifically set in Hong Kong.

The writer and father of two were recently in Hong Kong to promote his children’s book The Unhappy Little Pig, a work he created for this year’s Hong Kong Young Readers Festival.

But it has not always been plain sailing. When Wong got married in the early 2000s, he put away his childish things and took a miserable office job with long hours and little fulfillment.

“There was no joy in my life and my wife saw that,” Wong says. “She asked me, ‘what made you happy before we married?’ I sheepishly said, ‘buying comic books and writing them’. Then she literally replied, ‘do that NOW!’”

Her blessing allowed him to become a full geek again, immersing himself back into comic book culture and writing new stories. He also networked hard and built connections.

Working with an illustrator friend, Marco Rudy, he summoned the courage to submit a story to Image Comics and it was accepted. The result was his 2007 debut book, After The Cape, the story of a disillusioned superhero who has to manage the drudgery of ordinary life.

The series sold well and received comic book award nominations in Canada. Expanding his repertoire and honing his craft, Wong began contributing to various graphic novel anthologies.

The Unhappy Little Pig, illustrated by Adrian Alphona, whose credits include Marvel’s Runaways and Ms Marvel, is a reminder of how his career continues to take him to unexpected places.

“It’s the story of a pig that’s unhappy so he goes off to try different things to make him happy. He wants to act like other animals because he sees other animals happy being themselves,” Wong says. “I wrote this in the early 2000s. The idea came when Arwyn was born. I was looking at her asleep and I thought, ‘I hope you don’t end up like me doing a job you dislike’.

“It’s published exclusively through the festival and they’ve been very supportive. They invited me to come and talk but I proposed maybe doing something more. I still can’t believe I’ve done a children’s book.

“I feel my career is still developing. It hasn’t been easy but the crazy journey is part of the process.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: comic geek pursues A career less ordinary