Manga Answerman - Can those "how to draw manga" books really teach someone how to become a manga artist?

by Deb Aoki,

There are a ton of “how to draw manga” books – do you think those could really teach someone how to become a manga artist? What do you recommend for someone trying to develop their own manga style?

For this question, I'll start it off with a story. Maybe it was a year or two ago, I was talking with a colleague in Japan about overseas comics creators who want to become pro manga artists, and be published in Japan. We talked about overseas artists who go through portfolio reviews with Japanese manga editors, and those who enter manga contests put on by Japanese manga publishers or government organizations. Then she asked me a question that surprised me: “Why do so many of these overseas manga creators draw in such an… old-fashioned style?”

She thought it was puzzling that she'd see work that was done recently that looked like it was drawn or influenced by manga that was popular 10, 20 or more years ago. “Don't these artists keep up with what's currently popular in Japan?”

Now, this might be going out on a limb, but I think one of the reasons behind this phenomenon are some of the “how to draw manga” books published in English.

Compared to Japan, or even Korea, Indonesia, or China, there aren't a lot of places in North America where you can get hands-on training in how to draw manga from published or experienced professional artists. Most art schools, and art classes taught in the elementary, middle, high school and colleges in Western countries that teach how to draw comics aren't very strong in teaching the mechanics and techniques that go into manga-style storytelling, illustration and character design. In fact, some of these more Western art-centric teachers may outright discourage their students from drawing in a manga style. It's kind of a cliché. Check out this 2010 essay by high school art teacher Sean Michael Robinson, “What Do I Do With These Damn Anime Kids?”

So what's an aspiring artist who loves manga to do? Well, that's where those how-to-draw books come in, as well as YouTube videos and other online learning. But learning how to draw your favorite manga character is only one step on the long journey from being someone who likes to draw to someone who can create full-length stories that other people would enjoy reading, much less be worthy of publication and wider distribution.

Everyone starts off by copying manga creators they like… this is a natural part of an artists' creative evolution. But much like when you first learned how to write letters of the alphabet, you started off copying the letters as your teacher wrote them, and the more and more you did it, you started to develop your own handwriting. And now, you probably don't think very hard about your handwriting – you just write to convey the ideas you want to convey – you're not thinking very hard about the strokes, the lines and loops that go into each letter as you did when you first learned how to write the alphabet.

The same goes for drawing comics. Most people start off drawing in a stiff, very detailed style, or in a style that's quite derivative of their favorite creators. It's only after drawing a LOT of comics that your art style starts becoming something that is uniquely yours.

A good example of this is the work of Natsuki Takaya (creator of Fruits Basket) – compare her earliest work in Phantom Dream (published in 1994) and her current series, Fruits Basket Another (now available from Yen Press) done over 20 years later. You'll see that her later work is more fluid, and more distinctly recognizable as her style of drawing.

As far as how you can start creating your own distinctive style of manga, my advice is pretty simple and basic. First, learn the basics of comics storytelling. There are some excellent books in English that will introduce you to the visual language of comics, like Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner, Dynamic Anatomy by Byrne Hogarth, and Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Matt Madden and Jessica Abel.

As for how to draw in a more manga-influenced style, well, there are certainly a lot of mediocre “how to draw manga” books out there. I won't name them here, because, well, that's tacky. Instead, I'll recommend a few that are maybe on the older side, but are worth checking out: Comickers Art, Style School, Hakusensha's How to Draw Shojo Manga book, and Deleter's Manga Techniques books. However, if you want to see what top creators in Japan are doing now (to ward off the “why is your drawing style so retro” problem), then you're probably best off checking out how to draw manga books and art books in Japanese, as you'll have a better chance of finding more current releases. You can find these kinds of books by browsing the selection at a Japanese language bookstore like Kinokuniya.

Another option is to check out online classes, like Manga School Nakano International, with in-person and online classes taught in English by Nao Yazawa, creator of Wedding Peach. The publishers of Comic Zenon magazine and the organizers of the Silent Manga Audition contest post many videos with helpful tips from pro manga artists like Tsukasa Hojo (City Hunter) and manga editors on their YouTube channel and on their website.

Next, be a sponge and take in all kinds of narrative content, not just manga. Read American comics, French bande dessinée, anime and western animated shows, live action movies, TV shows, games, and novels. Look at fine art in museums and illustrations in magazines or books too. Taiyo Matsumoto (Tekkon Kinkreet) and Jiro Taniguchi (The Walking Man) are both Japanese creators who have mentioned how much French comics have influenced their style. Yoshihiro Tatsumi (A Drifting Life) was influenced by American film noir. And there are many successful N. American comics creators who love manga, but have created works that have a style that's uniquely their own, such as Bryan Lee O'Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City).

Start looking at movies, comics, and other storytelling mediums with a more critical eye – What works? What doesn't? What makes a story compelling? What makes a character memorable and interesting? How does the artist make it easy (or difficult) for you to understand which panel to read first, second, third… on a page? Look at how a filmmaker builds suspense, makes you smile, creates drama with how they frame their shots and pace their stories. For a great primer on film history and theory in graphic novel format, check out Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film by Edward Ross.

In the words of author Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist” – take in a lot of different influences, and see how you can mix/match/remix and create your own way of doing things. (By the way, Kleon wrote a whole book on this topic and did a popular TED Talk on this too.)

Finally, my main advice is to just start drawing. As soon as you think you've got something worth sharing, show it to friends, and people you don't know. Get in the habit of drawing regularly, and when you feel up to it, start posting it online, either as a webcomic, or on social media like Instagram or Twitter.

The more you do it, the better you'll get – or at least you'll get closer to creating your own style of drawing that is uniquely yours – it may look like manga, it may look like American comics, or it might be a hybrid of a lot of different styles. You won't know what your style is until you do a lot of drawing, go through a lot of trial and error, and draw a lot of stuff you'll be embarrassed about when you look at it years later. It may take a while to get there, but nothing really worthwhile comes fast or easy, right?

If you make comics/manga, what is the best, most useful or memorable advice you've ever gotten? Share your stories in the ANN forums.


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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for About.com Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.


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