Brain Diving
Becoming a Manga Monkey

by Brian Ruh, Oct 12th 2010

“Anyone can become a manga artist.” At least that's what Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takeuma say in Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga. Hmm. Perhaps they're not being entirely serious.

It seems like a lot of people are interested in becoming manga artists and working in Japan. In fact, as I was writing this column I noticed that Answerman conveniently fielded a question about this very topic. I totally get the wanting to live in Japan part, but since I got through my junior high art classes on sheer force of will, I've never had any aspirations to try to draw things for a living. I'm really not sure why anyone would be willing to become a manga artist unless they truly loved making comics. Sure, there's the chance of getting a big hit and making truckloads of money, but even then you're faced with long hours of work and the constant pressure of deadlines. In the DVD extra included with Helen

McCarthy's book on Osamu Tezuka I discussed a few columns ago, it shows how the manga master worked at all hours in a private room by himself, racking his brain for new ideas and constantly having to deal with the demands of editors. And this is a man who was probably the most famous name in manga. The stress on newcomers to succeed must be immense – and even more so if you've had a taste of success, since you have to keep producing new material in order to stay in the public eye and keep selling magazines. Or, as Aihara and Takeuma put it, “As a manga artist, you lead the leisurely life of waking up at five in the afternoon and going to bed around noon.”

So you too may be interested in becoming a manga artist. My first suggestion: I'm just a guy who thinks way too much about anime and manga. Are you sure I'm the guy you want to listen to for career advice? My second suggestion: Check out what the pros are doing. This means paying attention to what the people in the Japanese manga industry are saying and how they go about crafting their stories.

For this week's Read This! I'm going to direct you to over to About.com for Deb Aoki's interview with Felipe Smith, author of the manga Peepo Choo, which recently started coming out from Vertical. Smith is one of the few American (and you can add Argentinean and Jamaican to Smith's national pedigree as well) authors to be regularly published by a Japanese company, so his take on the process is particularly enlightening.

In the interview, Smith talks about how he was invited by a Japanese publisher to submit thumbnail sketches one year when he was attending Comic-Con. Once he drafted a story and came up with thumbnails both he and the editor liked, the publisher flew him out to Tokyo, gave him some suggestions for improvement, and made him redo the thumbnails in two days. This is the point where I see quite a few non-Japanese artists, when given such a daunting task, saying, “Screw this guy, I don't need this.” However, not only was this a test of Smith's artistic skills, but it was a test to determine how well he could fit into the Japanese style of production. When you're a manga artist, you really need to just sit down and draw. Sometimes it seems like a near-impossible task, but as we've all learned from shounen manga, as long as you have guts and perseverance, you can accomplish nearly anything.

Smith goes on to discuss what differentiates manga from other comics around the world as well as the specifics of producing his Peepo Choo manga. (Which, unfortunately, I have yet to pick up so I can't offer an insightful analysis at this juncture.) He concludes by giving specific advice to artists looking to follow the example he has set in the manga world. The two main points that come out are to take your editor's advice when he tells you to redo something, and to learn how to use your style to visually convey a narrative that will find an audience. As I mentioned above, many non-Japanese artists would question an editor who kept on telling him or her to keep on revising a comic, but in reality the editors are just trying to help to fashion the manga into the strongest (and, of course, salable) work possible. Although artists undoubtedly put a lot of themselves into the manga they create, sometimes they need to put their egos aside and listen to revisions that would be best for the comic. Smith's last point, I think, points to a big weakness in a lot of the so-called “how to” manga books that have been littering the shelves these past few years. A lot of them will discuss how to draw “manga” characters, which are usually distinguished by large eyes and surrounded by speed lines. However, almost none of the books talk about how to put images and arrange panels together to tell a story. You might have the prettiest artwork around, but if you can't use your art to convey action and character interaction then you can't really make manga.

(I keep thinking of the film Koi no Mon [also known as Otakus in Love] in which the main character calls himself a manga artist, but instead of ink and paper, he arranges rocks in a frame to create his “manga.” It's kind of funny, but I think it makes a sound underlying point – your art may not look like manga on the surface, but if you arrange it in a skillful way, it can become manga.)

Of course, there's not just one type of manga nor is there just one approach to making it. That's why I think it's useful to take a look at a book like Manga: Masters of the Art by Timothy R. Lehmann. In it, Lehmann profiles twelve different manga artists with a wide range of styles and audiences - Kia AsamiyaCLAMP, Tatsuya Egawa, Usamaru Furuya, Takehiko Inoue, Suehiro Maruo, Reiko Okano,  Erica Sakurazawa, Miou Takaya, Jiro Taniguchi, Yuko Tsuno, and Mafuyu Hiroki. Many of these will probably be instantly familiar to the average manga fan while others will be known by only a few. Many have had their works published in English, although there are who have had none of their works translated. This is particularly surprising for an artist like Egawa, who is a successful and popular manga millionaire but who is virtually unknown in English. (Although the OVA adaptations of his Golden Boy series have been brought over here.)

Lehmann begin his book by discussing how he began to become interested in manga – he had been following European comics and picked up a collection of stories edited by Moebius that also included a couple of Japanese artists. This got him interested in manga more generally, and, influenced by Frederik Schodt's work in Dreamland Japan, wanted to create a series of in-depth creator interviews and profiles that discussed their backgrounds and the actual craft of creating comics.

Before his profiles of the manga artists, Lehmann creates three very interesting charts that compare the styles of the twelve creators. The first is a story genre chart that rates each artist on eight different characteristics – surrealism, memorable characters / heart, humor / satire, sensitivity, realism, fantasy / sci-fi, horror / violence, and eroticism. (See the image for an example of the chart Lehmann created for Jiro Taniguchi.) Lehmann admits that the scores he has assigned to each category are subjective, and I'm not really sure that things like “realism” could be considered genres, but the seeing all of the charts next to one another give a good idea at a glance of the similarities and differences in the artists he discusses. The second chart is taken from Scott McCloud's ever-popular Understanding Comics, in which McCloud creates a pyramid chart of comics styles from detailed and realistic in one corner, to simplified in another corner, to abstract in the third corner. Lehmann took the original chart from McCloud's book and added the twelve artists from Manga: Masters of the Art to it in order to show not only how their styles relate to one another, but to comics artists’ styles around the world more generally. The final chart Lehmann uses to introduce his subjects is a timeline of manga, divided by decade (from the 1950s to 2000s) and genre (seinen, shoujo, josei, etc). This is another way of looking at how these artists fit into the comics world, this time with a historical angle. Of course, no two page spread can encompass manga's rich history, and I'm wary of Lehmann's combined “ero / moe manga” category (which lumps together U-Jin's Angel in the 1980s with Kiyohiko Azuma's Azumanga Daioh in the 2000s) but it is again informative to see how these artists relate to their contemporaries. In general, I find such charts and graphs to be helpful ways of conveying information, and it seems like a great way of analyzing comics.

Each of Lehmann's interviews follows the same general tack – he will provide a brief summary of the artist's life and relevant works and then the rest of the chapter will be a transcribed Q & A session interspersed with examples of the artist's works. This is broken up in the middle of the book with a color section of illustrations – each artist gets two pages, save Hiroki, who receives only one. My main complaint with the content of the book is that some of the artists’ answers can be pretty short, and Lehmann doesn't press for much detail. For example, when he asks CLAMP “Who does the most drawing in your works?” their answer is “Everyone,” and he just leaves it at that.  I think this limits the effectiveness of the questions since it doesn't really get at the information he's trying to find out and present to the audience. Thankfully Lehmann asks enough questions that even if an artist isn't forthcoming about any one topic there's always something else to talk about.

One of the most interesting things to the aspiring manga artists is the segment at the end of each profile that go into detail about how the artist creates his or her work and the specific tools used. Many include photos of the artists at their working desks. Sometimes a piece of work is shown in various stages to give the reader an idea of how the creator arrives at the finished product. This is not strictly a how-to in the vein of a magazine like Comickers, but illustrates the general process.

Although the book is supposedly about manga, not all of the artists profiled make a living at being mangaka as their full time jobs. Examples include Mafuyu Hiroki, who is primarily an illustrator, and Yuko Tsuno, who works as a graphic designer. I think it's telling that making manga is not what these “masters” and “creative visionaries” (Lehmann's words) of the form do to support themselves. The manga industry is a tough business and is, at its core, a commercial one. More than anything else, to be successful your work needs to sell. Of course there is room for more experimental manga and there are avenues to pursue your personal artistic vision, but if you're interested in creating manga, perhaps like some of these other artists you would do well to pursue comics on the side unless you are dedicated to trying to strike that perfect and yet elusive balance between art and commerce.

The book concludes with a ten-page manga by Mafuyu Hiroki called Moon Child 2055 that is exclusive to this volume. It's a beautiful and fantastically surreal science fiction story, marred only by the fact that there is no English translation. I certainly understand why the art examples used in the individual chapters are not translated, since they are being used more for their visual impact than as slices of a story, but it's kind of ridiculous for Lehmann to go on at length about Hiroki's art and how honored he was to be able to include the story if it's not going to be intelligible to the majority of the audience he's writing to.

I think that reading about the individual artists like this is not only beneficial for people who want to learn how to make manga, but it's good for manga readers in general. As Erica Friedman recently discussed on ANNCast, part of the reason why piracy runs rampant in the anime and manga communities is a reluctance or inability on the part of fans to see the creators as real people who are affected by their actions. A book like Manga: Masters of the Art is a partial corrective to this attitude, and other than Kia Asamiya and CLAMP you get to see what the artists behind the pens look like. Even though we like to hide behind the anonymity of the Internet, things like piracy hurt real people who invest time, effort, and skill into bringing you your favorite manga and anime. Just something to think about, particularly if you harbor any creative desires of your own.


Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.


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