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Chicks On Anime
The Artist's Alley, Part 1

by B. Dong, S. Pocock,

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

During Anime Expo, Sara and I had the great opportunity to talk art and comics with Lanny Liu and Ziang Her, two artists who have previously been featured on ANN's column, The Gallery, which is written by Evan Miller, who also sat in with us. Our two-part conversation, the second half which will be posted next time, discusses some of the challenges of being an artist in these times, and also the journey towards being published.

Bamboo: Could you tell us a little about who you are and what you currently do?
Ziang My name is Ziang. I'm currently a freelance designer. I used to work in the industry, where I was pretty much a graphics artist. I did layouts, designed characters, and did advertising design pages.
Bamboo: Where was this?
Ziang This was for the Fresno Bee. I worked there for a bit over a year, and decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing. I did some covers for clients – that was more graphic than illustration though – and I'm currently working with other clients on art commissions and stuff like that.
Lanny I'm Lanny and I'm working as an illustrator. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm as well-seasoned as Ziang. Well, I think I'm just differently seasoned than Ziang. I've worked in the manga industry. And I'm working on trying to get more published, to really have a book out. I'm just trying have a “manga” published, which is what I guess you'd call it, since people have to label each other. That's pretty much it. I'm working on submissions and trying to find freelance work. Making money.

I won the romance category of Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga 7, which I guess was a double-edged sword.

Bamboo: What do you mean by double edged sword?
Lanny Well, for a long time, Tokyopop was the only game in town. The only place to go for anyone who wanted to be a mangaka. When they first launched the contest, I entered that year, and I continued to enter every year after that. It was the type of things where a lot of other people wanted to turn in submissions and win. Of course, it rises to the point where people think that once they get in, it will really help open doors. By that point, I was already in touch with an editor there, and I managed to make my way into the industry anyway without help. When I finally won, it was still great, but it didn't open up as many doors as I hoped. Which I guess was kind of good after the whole Tokyopop fallout.
Sara: Now that Tokyopop has fallen out, what are you hoping for in terms of getting published? Are you looking at self-publishing, or is there another company in the United States to get published by?
Lanny I guess I can mention this, but I'm working with another author who has submitted our project to Del Rey. Del Rey is a good option right now, and I've been working with Jason Thompson on a project. We tried for Viz, but their potential line for original content has been put on hold, since the person who was running that line left the company. We've been trying to push that project to a lot of other publishers. We've been rejected by Dark Horse so far, twice. We've been trying for Slave Labor Graphics and Oni Press as well. By September, depending on what happens, we'll just start running the story as a web comic. So we're working on that, and I'm also hopefully working with another writer, and that project might end up in Japan, but I don't want to say too much on that. It's a secret; I don't know where that is going to go.
Evan When Tokyopop fired a lot of people, I think a lot of artists were hurt by that, because there were a lot of potential projects and a lot of things that were up in the air. I think publishers really need to take a more protective role and step up, and actually take a look at the talent that is out there. However, they want to make money, and right now the publishing industry, the anime industry as a whole, has fallen on hard times.
Bamboo: Well, in general, the entire economy's not doing really well. People don't really have money to just run out and buy comic books. Especially from new artists, who people might not be familiar with. You don't want to take that kind of risk. But for someone who does freelance art, do you find that the economy is also impacting you?
Ziang For me, I haven't really felt the impact of the economy because I specialize in what I do, and I've become known for it, and people continue to come to me for art they are specifically looking for. Often, more often than not, I can negotiate the price with them. So, I have yet to see it impact me directly. I guess I'll have to see how things go at the convention, and compare the results to last year. That has been one of the little worries I've had, but so far, it has yet to really impact me.
Bamboo: But what about outside of conventions?
Ziang Pretty much the same. Like I said, it's because of the style of art that I do. I do a lot of specialized work, a lot of graphite art. People who commission me want that kind of art, and so for the most part, they know what the price is. If they want to add this or add that, I tell them what the price increments are, and they're usually okay with it. So, it's not really impacted me outside of conventions either.
Bamboo: Sara, with your job as an animator, your company gets jobs with clients to animate certain projects. Is it similar for you, also, that for the most part, your clientele and the volume of incoming projects has not changed?
Sara: Yeah, it's similar. I think that the entertainment industry, in general, is kind of recession-proof. For animation, there's a lot of work to be done and money to be made in commercials, and people are always going to want to make commercials. This summer, I'm going to work on an ad for Blue Cross Blue Shield. You know, people need health insurance. But the business is going to need to advertise.

I have a comment I want to make about the whole Tokyopop fiasco. I wonder if it might've almost been a good thing, because it seemed to me that a lot of American artists who specialized in the manga aesthetic were putting all their eggs into one basket, and flocking to Tokyopop and making connections just at Tokyopop. I was wondering if it's worth it to just branch out a little bit. And maybe work a little harder to get more contacts in the industry, in general, instead of just talking to someone that you know supports that type of work. I know that for animation, back when the Disney studios first closed, the animators were thinking, “oh, what are we going to do now?” It kind of forced us to think in broader terms of, “oh, this is what I want to aim for.” What are your thoughts on that?

Ziang I actually never submitted anything to Tokyopop, just because with me, I'm really attached to all of my characters. When I read through their contract terms I saw that I'd be giving up a lot of my rights to my creations. So I decided that I would promote myself, branch out and get my name out there. For the most part, I think self publishing, like doing a web comic or taking a collection of your work to conventions – not just anime conventions, but Western comic book conventions, is good. As long as you are out there trying, you are a step ahead. People talk about wanting to get published and wanting to be out there, but they're not doing anything about it. I think that exposing yourself to constructive criticism can grow and expand you, and I find that that helps you find your own style and influence, beyond anime.

The manga/anime-art industry in the United States is very minimal, compared to the Western comics industry. With me, I was first influenced by Western comics and anime, and my art kind of went that way. I'm now working back towards more of a Western style, with an anime influence, because I want to keep my work more diverse. I want to do fantasy art, more like game character designs. Since a lot of those games are influenced by Asian art, knowing both western and eastern art styles is important. I've never really considered myself a manga artist, but I've never really fit into the mold of a Western artist either. So I guess for me, the hard part is being out there and trying to look at your options to prove yourself. I can't do that by relying on one company.

Lanny For a long time, Tokyopop was the only thing in town. Of course, there are other options, but a lot of people who want to release manga don't realize there are other options. They don't do the research, and Ziang mentions that Tokyopop's contracts were iffy. I knew that, but because they were the best place for manga to be really big, versus indie publishers like Oni Press and Antarctic Press, which are other options. For anyone who wants to be in those big bookstores, it's a chance you have to take, even if you realize you are going to get burned. Hopefully, by the time you have a second work, after having something on your resume, you can go out there with more options, which is what happened to the first round of Tokyopop artists. They've gone on to different publishers, like Svetlana Chmakova with Yen Press and Queenie Chan with Del Rey. I think even now, there are still artists who go to Tokyopop anyway. They're still coming out with new stories with their Pilot Program, with news artists and new authors. So even after a lot of other big artists and lawyers said, “Don't do this, this is bad, go self publish, go look elsewhere,” people still go anyway. I'm not sure why people put all their eggs in one basket, or if they have considered alternate options.
Ziang Only recently are there more options beside the indie publishers and self-publishing. Now there is Del Rey, Yen Press, and Seven Seas. There are a few more options, but because of the economy, we're strained again. So it's still tough.
Bamboo: But because there are only like a finite number of publishers, I imagine there are certain things that they look for that they think might sell better. Things like boys love, maybe, or certain genres. As an artist, do you ever feel like you have to pander to audiences just to get published?
Evan I know a lot of people who have worked with Tokyopop, like Lincy Chan, who did the Rhysmyth series. She wanted to do a project, but they didn't agree with that she wanted to do specifically.
Lanny Tokyopop thought the original would make for a good game crossover. Rhysmyth is kind of like a DDR-esque game, and so they thought it would be a good promotional tool – so that's why they picked it up. The original story had rapping and dancing in the game. It was very intense.

Sometimes you have to do stuff that you don't truly want to do. There is always someone telling you to do it a certain way. And when you really want to do something you love, you have to kind of fight for it. I remember reading a list from Del Rey, for what they were looking for. They were specifically looking for more teen-oriented stuff, because they want to make money, and the target audience is teenagers. I thought that was kind of sad, because there is also an older audience for original content. So I was really excited when they said they wanted 18 and older content for their original line.

Sara: Does the same thing apply when you get commissions, rather than when you just freelance?
Ziang I get a lot of requests for original characters. I refrain from doing any fanart, because I feel that as an artist – and maybe I'm in the minority on this - I just feel bad for drawing someone else's character and making money off of it. And for me, that crosses the line. I wouldn't want anyone to draw my characters and make money off of it either. But you do have to compromise sometimes. I guess if you become known for a certain kind of work, people come to you. You might have a particular style that companies look for, and they request that. Even if you say, “hey, this style might not work well for what you're looking for,” people will still ask you to do it. We all know that compromises are inevitable sometimes.
Evan That's the reality everywhere, even with Japanese artists I've talked to. Even if you have an original idea for the manga, it will be changed for the reading audience and a lot of fans don't realize that it's still an original vision but still the editors will change it to fit the feel of the magazine that it is serialized in.
Sara: I've read that editors in Japan actually have more control over the story then the artists do.
Evan It moves case by case. I know that Felipe Smith, who did MBQ for Tokyopop - he's in Japan now, and he had to change his original story a lot, just because he was writing in English and there were a lot of things that didn't translate right.
Bamboo: For his current project or MBQ?
Evan His current project with Kodansha, which is called Peepo Choo. There were a few of things that needed adjusting. Since Felipe's original work has swearing and so many American pop culture references, when he wanted to write for a Japanese audience – and it should be said that he knows the Japanese culture really well as well - but there were still a few of things that the editor had to go back in and revise because it didn't translate well, translated in Japanese it sounded odd, or it just didn't engage the readership like he intended. So, editors in Japan are given a very heavy hand because they have a vision in mind for the people who are reading the magazine, and editors will heavily edit things or tell people to redo entire sets of pages if they don't like the feel of it.

Check back next week for the conclusion of this discussion.

Transcribed by Keith LaPointe

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