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Inside The Manga Industry with Felipe Smith, American Mangaka: Part II

by Tom Pinchuk,

In the second part of our interview (find part one here), Smith explains how manga distorted his expectations of life in Tokyo a bit, how working with Kodansha got him to look harder at genres and audiences, and what four crucial tips must be followed by any American otaku hoping to work in Japan, too.

Did working through Kodansha's demands for PEEPO CHOO develop any skills you've found useful on subsequent projects?

The quick and simple answer is a huge, resounding... yes! The rigorous schedule and incessant deadlines I kept while creating manga in the Japanese market actually prepared me to work full-time simultaneously in two industries back in the US! Upon my return in 2012, I was hired by Nickelodeon as a storyboard artist – and later character designer – for the Ninja Turtles animated TV show.

During that time, I was approached by Marvel to revamp the Ghost Rider franchise. I created Robbie Reyes, wrote 21 issues of his monthly comic, drew two of them and illustrated covers for ten of them.

So, from 2013 to 2017, I worked in both animation and comics full-time, at the same time. It was a bit nightmarish, but definitely worth the effort. And it was a possibility, in part, thanks to my Japanese publishing boot camp experience.

With that “double-duty” wrapped this year, you've turned to a new project Death Metal Zombie Cop, which was funded through Kickstarter. How does it differ from your recent output?

[It's] my return to creator-owned comics and I'm very excited about it. I've been developing it since the end of PEEPO CHOO back in 2011. In creating it, I'm applying everything I've learned from the Japanese and American comic markets and I can't wait to release it!

You've said you got the idea while wrapping up PEEPO CHOO. What was the inspiration?

...A combination of factors. The most important of which is the need to tap into an identifiable genre with an established audience. Neither of my previous graphic novel series, MBQ or PEEPO CHOO, fit neatly into any genre. I could say, with no real risk of sounding bumptious, that both titles are pretty singular in their approach and subject matter – something I've always strived for. But, by the same token, though well-received, they did not reach a tremendously expansive audience, either.

Did your run on Ghost Rider shape the idea, too?

In contrast, [it's] probably my most-read comic book series to date. It's very true that because it is a Marvel book – and an expansion on a well-known franchise – it already had significant interest and an expectant fan base before its release. But I believe that genre specificity had a great deal to do with its greater success, as well.  All-New Ghost Rider is an anti-hero “action” comic with elements of horror. Those are two tried-and-true genres with an important audience, and well-established tropes upon which to expand.

Sounds like these projects got you to consider potential audiences in different ways?

A fanbase is the life of a creator, and is essential to his or her existence and prosperity. A good creator will foster and grow a fanbase independently. But fitting neatly into genres – as was [explained to me] in Japan – can help a creator unite his fanbase with greater speed and efficacy. Thus, upon finishing PEEPO CHOO – and after four original series pitch rejections – I decided to try my best to find a story I could be invested in and tell effectively that would also fit in a designated, easy-to-identify genre… for once! [Laughs]

So, I picked horror and action – genres I've always liked – and then added “cops and crooks,” which is also a personal favorite of mine. What's funny is that the “zombie” genre element didn't really come into play until later in the development of the pitch, but once I found that piece of the puzzle, my mind was blown. I had never created a story with any supernatural elements, because I'd always strayed away from superheroes. But now, I found myself with a whole new set of storytelling possibilities and I got really excited.

So, your horizons were expanded, both literally and figuratively, after having to see the notion of genre from a different angle over in Japan?

As I mentioned earlier, the one series that caught the interest of my Japanese editor was also the one I eventually decided would most likely find a better place with a Western audience, and it was Death Metal Zombie Cop. As I also mentioned, upon my return to the US, Nickelodeon hired me on TMNT, and then I got a call from Marvel. And when the editor mentioned that he'd like me to pitch him an idea for a Ghost Rider in a car [as opposed to on his traditional motorcycle], and that I was pretty much free to create everything from the ground up… I had a few things I was dying to test out on the American direct market audience.

Now that I'm finally putting together Death Metal Zombie Cop, I can't say I'm really approaching it very differently than my previous creator-owned work. The major difference is that this series will be in full-color and I plan to release 24-page monthly issues, like an American comic series.

PEEPO CHOO explored the misconceptions American otaku have about Japan. How might manga give US readers – and aspiring creators – a skewed view of life across the Pacific?

That's a good question.  Although I've found that the largest portion of Japanese manga stories take place somewhere in real-life Japan, near real-life Japanese landmarks and during some time in real Japanese history – whether it be past or present –  in my experience, a great number of the “Japanese” characters portrayed in these manga do not truly reflect the character and behavior I've observed in the Japanese people.

What shaped your expectations before moving there, then?

...My only real perspective on Japanese culture, like that of many Westerners, was derived from what I saw on their TV shows, live-action or animated, read in manga or magazines, or from any Japanese person I happened to meet. Obviously, first-hand conversation and discussion with people is your best bet, when it comes to trying to understand or familiarize yourself with their culture.

Having lived and worked with Japanese people in LA, I was lucky to learn their culture in action, first-hand. The more I learned, the more I realized that the fictional manga characters I presumed to be realistic because of their true-to-life surrounding locations and attire were anything but.

What specific details might ring more realistic?

[If you are] the least bit observant, you'll see that people do not hug very often, nor high-five each other. “High-touch” is how it's referred to in Japan. And, in my experience, unless there's celebration or alcohol involved, they're rarely prone to any kind of loud outbursts of emotion, wild arm or body gesticulation, or very expressive facial communication. It only takes watching a bit of Japanese TV carefully to discern who is being a TV character and who is just a person [that] happened to be filmed by the camera.

In contrast, a huge number of characters in all media [all over the world] behave astoundingly differently from the norm. Imagine if every person you saw on TV behaved and talked like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. You'd find that pretty strange. This is a topic I brought up to my editors on more than one occasion...

Were you trying to strike the right balance of realism and surrealism?

The concept of “reality” is something that I believed was essential to establishing a believable story scenario. The way characters behave and react to situations is a reflection of that reality. So, if I ever wrote a scene about a person riding a public bus, I would want all the details to be right and make sense…

“Does this person pay with coins or with a card?”

“If they're approached by an inebriated or deranged homeless person, what would they most likely say?”

“If they witnessed someone stealing from or hurting another, what would they do?”

If the character reacts to any of these situations in a plausible manner, then it's realistic, and therefore based on reality. Unless it's a comedy. In [that] case, we are now playing with the conventions of what would normally occur and turning them on their side.

Death Metal Zombie Cop

Did this anthropology study reveal even more about the manga business, in turn?

...Partly because I'm a foreigner, I found myself noticing more and more that these characters on TV, in movies and in manga… in many cases [they] displayed very uncharacteristic behaviors that did not match what I saw on the streets in real life. This truly confounded me, because I realized that my telling of reality in a story seemed to actually be of little importance in the overall scheme of manga storytelling! [Laughs]

I remember telling my editor, “Where's the reality in these stories? People don't own guns in Tokyo. People aren't this outspoken. People don't behave like this here. This isn't real. What's this based on? It's not reality!”

My editor simply answered, “Who cares about reality? As long as it's interesting [and entertaining], it's good.”

Sounds like you went through a process of enlightenment, much like the characters in PEEPO CHOO?

Unlike Milton [the manga's otaku protagonist from Southside Chicago], it was obvious to me that one cannot equate a country's cultural reality to its popular entertainment. [Still], I had no idea how oddly removed from reality I'd find certain aspects of everyday Japanese storytelling – be it in manga or just regular TV. I guess I learned that when it comes to Japanese entertainment, we should seek [it expressly as entertainment], rather than [as] “reality” or “truth”. [Laughs].

How was the series received by Japanese readers? Any surprises?

PEEPO CHOO was positively received by reviewers as a series worthy of merit for being the first of its kind. It also confused some readers, who took to the 2chan internet forums to discuss it and me as a creator. Some speculated that I was just a Japanese mangaka who wrote under a gaijin-poi “foreigner-like” pen-name to try to get attention. Others did a little internet research, found my earlier work –  photos of me – and commented on how “he looks more like a soccer player than a mangaka!” [Laughs]

I remember my editor mentioning that some readers wrote in to the magazine commenting on my art –  which they liked – and on how they had a hard time understanding the motivations of some of my American characters.

Death Metal Zombie Cop

Speaking its reception, if anybody types “Felipe Smith Japan” into YouTube's searchbar, they'll find some interesting videos, won't they?

PEEPO CHOO also received some TV coverage on a few shows, including NHK's documentary show Manga No Genba – “The Place of Comic Creation” – which filmed me working in my apartment and walking around Tokyo running daily errands. [I was also on the] comedic duo Oriraji's show Manga No Hi“Comics Day” – in which I had five minutes to pitch my series' premise to a panel of judges live, in Japanese.

Did you encounter any misconceptions about America throughout this?

...Upon meeting me for the first time, my editor assumed I owned firearms in the US – which I don't – and a few more silly things that escape me at the moment. [Laughs] But, encountering strange misconceptions and being asked outlandish questions by locals is pretty common when you're a Westerner living in Japan. It's something you just kinda grow used to.

What advice do you have for any American cartoonists who'd like to follow in your footsteps?

“Eat your veggies, get your sleep, learn Japanese and get to work!

Creating manga professionally for a major publisher has a quantifiable effect on you mentally and physically due to its rigorous schedule, so it's important for you to eat healthy and get proper rest as much as possible. Sitting in a seat for 12 to 18 hours a day can have a lasting negative effect on you if you let it, so stay active and pay attention to your health.

Do they need to go to the lengths you went to, though – flying over and taking residency in Tokyo?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again… you don't need to be in Japan to create manga. But, if for some reason you want to do it in Japan, you need to speak the language in order to articulate your ideas to an editor. If that's taken care of, and your series concept is accepted, get ready to write and draw non-stop for very long periods of time – rain or shine, for as long as your series goes, regardless of whether you feel like it or not.

With no exaggeration or intent to dissuade, I can tell you from my own personal experience that a professional mangaka has little time for anything other than making manga. I can say, with honesty, that within the arts, it's a profession best suited for a very particular kind of artistic maniac.


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