San Diego Comic Con 2014
Making A Living in Manga in Japan

by Bamboo Dong,

The Making A Living in Manga in Japan panel was moderated by manga expert and writer Deb Aoki, Chromatic Press co-founder and comics editor Lillian Diaz-Przybyl, and artists Steven Cummings (Wayward), who joined via Skype, Felipe Smith (Peepo Choo), and Jamie Lynn Lano (author of The Princess of Tennis).

Please note that this is a partial transcript of the panel; some sentences and segments have been trimmed or paraphrased for length.

Aoki: There are people on stage who have lived the dream—people who have lived in Japan and have worked in Japan. Felipe published Peepo Choo and Jamie worked on Prince of Tennis. What made you decide to move to Japan?

Lano: I didn't move to Japan to make comics—I didn't think it was something you could do as a foreigner. I moved to Japan because I graduated college and wanted to live in the "land of anime." Some time down the road, my friends told me that [Konomi, the creator of Prince of Tennis] had put out an ad for assistants, and it was non-smoking, and it said newbies were okay. I applied, and it happened. I was a huge fan of the series before, and I had considered going into comics as a profession in high school. So it just happened for me. I didn't move there with that specific intent. I just fell into it. It was hard work, but it wasn't the intent.

Aoki: What was the interview process like?

Lano: I had to send in an application, a resume in Japanese, and a photograph—this is common in Japan. I had to recreate two specific pages from the Prince of Tennis manga, volume 27. So I sat down and got all the materials and got the materials from the art store. I looked at it really close, and spent a couple days meticulously drawing it, even though I had no idea what I was doing. Three to four days later, I got a call from who would later become our editor at Weekly Shonen Jump. The editor had me come into the studio and gave me Konomi-sensei's cell phone number. "Go to this station way far. Call him, and he'll come pick you up. Here's his cell phone number." So I did, shaking the whole time, and what I thought would be a one or two hour thing ended up being three days.

Aoki: I guess the interview turned out well.

Lano: It turned into a three-day thing. When he first showed me around, he was like, "Here's a bunk you can use" and I was like, what? A bunk for what? We went to the store later that night, and he was like, "I'm going to buy you some snacks." I turned to the other assistant and asked, "Are we staying overnight?" He helped me get through the experience. It's embarrassing when you have your idol—who's really hot, by the way—he handed me a 10,000 yen bill and was like, "Buy anything you need. The [guy assistant] and me, we're going to go downstairs and shop for food." The other girl assistant was like, "Don't you need underwear?" But at the time I didn't know the word for underwear. So I didn't buy any because my Japanese sucked at the time… Apparently I was good enough to get past this; he kept me on for a long time.

Aoki: I assume, Felipe, your experience was different.

Smith: Yeah, I moved to Japan to start my series. It was a trial period—I guess those three days were yours. Because later on when I started doing the series, when I realized I couldn't do 60 pages a month by myself, I started trying out assistants myself. You have to pay for their help even if it didn't work out. You still have to pay then. The biggest thing I remember is I met my editor at San Diego Comic Con in 2007. My agents arranged the meeting, so at the time, I could already speak, read, and write Japanese. I learned it working at a karaoke bar in West LA.

…It was in a Japanese part of town, and all the customers and employees spoke Japanese… If you're going to learn a language, if you submerse yourself, then you have to do it… I told the boss that in the interview and he was like, you're American and you're a college grad, and we pay minimum wage here. There's no career in being a karaoke clerksman. I said, "I want to draw manga, and I need to be fluent in Japanese to do it." He was an artist and a musician, and he played professionally in many bands. He opened this bar after he had stopped doing music professionally, so he had a spot in his heart for artists. He said, okay, we need an American guy to deal with rowdy, drunk American karaoke customers.

Aoki: How long did it take you to become fluent?

Smith: In three months, I could lead customers to their rooms and take their orders… It seems fast, but it was complete desperation. Everything I wanted to do, I was told I couldn't do it. Never underestimate a human in dire need. It was like that. In a year, I could talk and I could throw people out of karaoke rooms in Japanese. Around that time, I was starting to enter contests for manga—contests used to be pretty big around 2003 or 2004. Everyone wanted to do it. There were strong communities of manga readers and artists. For me at the time, there was an international contest and the main prize was sa trip to Japan, seven days. I asked my boss for time off—I was super broke at the time. I would force people to tip the waitresses because part of that tip was mine. Tipping is not customary in Japan, so half our customers wouldn't. We'd have to remind them that we are in California and you need to tip. I told my boss I wanted to enter this manga contest, and that I needed two weeks off to do the pages. I went and I drew the pages. I did end up winning first prize, so I got the trip to Japan. My boss was ecstatic. He was like, "If you need anything, call my mom."

Aoki: Steven, how did you get to Japan?

Cummings: I took an airplane.

Aoki: Why did you want to make comics?

Cummings: I wanted to raise my son. All of my family is spread out, and my wife's family is in one spot. We thought it would be easiest in raising a child to have family everywhere. I just moved here just to have a baby. I could work remotely, so working with my US clients wasn't a problem.

Aoki: Have you been published in Japan?

Cummings: I've done lots of illustrations. Game illustrations, product illustrations. In fact, my editor is probably in the audience right now. I was approached by Kodansha to do a short comic and I was really excited until I went to the meeting and they asked me to draw a superhero. And that was a dead end.

Aoki: Lillian, did you ever live in Japan?

Diaz-Przybyl: I did. I double-majored in Japanese and English, so I studied abroad in Japan for six months. I took a course in anime and manga production. It wasn't a serious course. We took tours of studios like Toei and had guest speakers. Stu Levy was one of the guest speakers. He mentioned that Tokyopop did internships, but they were unpaid and in California, and I was in the East Coast. It put it on my radar. So when I was graduating, I just applied to a junior editor position at Tokyopop on a whim. I worked more with licensed manga, and stuff coming from Japan. That was when we started doing original English language manga, so I was trained in the style of being a manga editor.

Aoki: What is the way of editing that's different than in America?

Diaz-Przybyl: There's an intensiveness that you can achieve in the Japanese industry just by sheer proximity. I went back and forth to Japan a bunch of times on licensing trips. I talked to a bunch of creators. If you ever read comics or watch anime where the editor knocks on the artist's door and asks for pages… that's a real thing that happens. They will sit with you until your work is done. You don't have the ability to do that in America. Everything's digital, and can be done remotely. Your ability to go and sit on somebody until they finish their work is different. It's a different way of managing talent.

Aoki: Felipe, you know this first hand.

Smith: I've had meetings that started at 3 AM when I was getting ready to go to bed… I've got buddies who work for Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse; depending on the schedule, they'll start the comic before it's serialized. For most artists, a page a day is solid, but most people are doing less than that… In Japan, it's a lot more. If you're going to be putting out a monthly or a weekly, then you're having your meetings where you decide on your story, and changes that need to be made… In a seven day week, it will take four days to write the script, write it out, have your editor tell you to rewrite it. That just happens. Maybe you'll have a fight with your editor. It gets really personal. You see them more than anyone, unless you're married., You'll have just as many drinks and meals… My editor once told me, "Don't think of me as a human, think of me as a crow. I'm a savage. I need to eat."… He's a great editor; I learned a lot, but I got phone calls after meetings that we just had. We'd have meetings at 8 PM after dinner, and we'd sit down and we'd figure out pages… and he'd say, "Okay, we're done, go home. Do these pages." …I'd leave, draw a little, and get a phone call saying that he'd thought about it some more, and we should have another meeting…

Aoki: Jamie, I know you mentioned encounters with Konomi-san's editors and tough deadlines.

Lano: I worked with the editor a bit, but he was my boss' boss, so I never really experienced that. It was more the opposite of that. We were the assistants, so it was our job to take the pencil and turn it into a finished work…

Aoki: Tokyo is a very expensive city to live in. Were you able to make a comfortable living just being a manga assistant?

Lano: I was able to live. It was comparable to minimum wage. It was enough to live on my own. I couldn't go out, but I never went out anyway, and at work, there would be food.

Smith: I could not afford to pay for an assistant. You have to pay for their work, their transport; you have to feed them, all their meals. I had an assistant, he was a guy. I tried different people out… I taught him how to do certain things on the computer… Eventually he didn't have to come over to my place to do it. I could just talk to him over Skype.

…I was a foreign mangaka so some of the assistants I knew they were testing me. Besides drawing, the assistant has other duties, like cooking, cleaning, shopping, just going out and finding magazines the sensei likes. What I didn't realize was that I was breaking the standard that they were used to. So some of the assistants would go and not do anything, and they got the boot real quick. One guy… I felt bad about asking him to cook, and I had to feed him, so I could get ready and I would cook and make the salad… I would cook for him, and my colleagues would say, "No, what are you doing. Dude, you're doing it wrong. The assistant is supposed to cook for you while you're working." I'd clean the apartment so the assistant wouldn't think I was a slob… I paid him the standard.

Aoki: How much?

Smith: You can't pay less than $100 a day…

Aoki: Japan has a large manga industry, with a lot of homegrown talent. Have you run into any problems?

Cummings: I talk to these people on the phone, but when we meet, they get this look of shock, of "you're a big white dude. How did this happen." I've had people ask me, "Which parent was in the Marines?"… I've had meetings where we talked for hours and it was going great, but then they'd say, "It's a shame we can't hire you because you're a foreigner."

Aoki: Any advice for people who want to work in Japan?

Lano: Never give up. Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it because you can. Just keep on going. If it's your dream, it's worth pursuing.

Smith: Learn Japanese.

Lano: My Japanese sucked. I don't think it's necessary. I learned on the job.

Smith: If you're going to create manga of your own, then it's necessary.

Lano: If you have a translator…

Cummings: You need to learn the language if you're going to try and make a living as an artist. Don't turn down any offers that come your way. If you have your heart set on manga, but get an offer for an illustration, do it.

Diaz-Przybyl: Two things. One, never give up, and two, always be hungry.

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