Inside The Manga Industry with Felipe Smith, American Mangaka

by Tom Pinchuk,

“Unlike most manga-inspired artists I know, I wasn't so much wowed by the [style of] manga as I was by its incredible abundance of ordinary, lifelike, slice-of-life scenarios and characters.” Inspired by that  variety, Felipe Smith told the semi-autobiographical story of a Los Angeles cartoonist with MBQ, one of TokyoPop's memorable original English-language manga. At different turns, its lead voices frustrations over the cliches of superhero stories, and of industry pressures to conform to them.

Alternating tensions between manga and American comics abound in Smith's diverse body of work. About a decade after starting MBQ, he created a boldly different incarnation of the devilish hero Ghost Rider for Marvel – a street racer now firmly grounded in the car culture of East LA. Actor Gabriel Luna portrayed this Rider on ABC's Agents of SHIELD recently, while Smith was still busy designing characters for Nickelodeon's latest Ninja Turtles cartoon. And while the Turtles' own cheeky mash of East and West (through spoofs of the more manga-esque eras of Marvel's Daredevil) might be coincidental, it still reiterates a blend of cultures threading throughout much of this cartoonist's CV.

The clash is even at the center of Smith's series PEEPO CHOO, which follows a Chicago otaku who travels to Japan in hopes of at last living in the “geek's paradise” manga seems to have promised. Reality confounds his wishful expectations to darkly humorous effect, of course, and numerous pages see older fanboys and young otaku shout out respective misconceptions into each other's faces. The manga is a pointed cross-cultural conversation piece on its own, but the circumstances of its creation make it all the more of a discussion starter.

Smith put PEEPO CHOO out through Kodansha, making him one of the only American creators to have ever worked in Japan's manga industry. The experience making the series taught him much – about culture, audience expectations and the logistics of producing art on schedule – that's all fed into his next series, Death Metal Zombie Cop. Speaking with Smith reveals a life countless American otaku have only dreamed of living, and surprising lessons about manga he's now putting into practice.

Where and when did you work in Japan specifically?

I lived in Japan for four years, between 2008 and 2012 – spending three-and-a-half years in Tokyo and six months in Osaka – during which time I worked in the manga industry. I debuted with my series PEEPO CHOO, which was serialized monthly through Kodansha's Morning 2 Magazine for a year and a half, and compiled into three tankobon-style volumes.

For the remaining two years of my time in Japan, I pitched various new series ideas which were turned down by my publisher until my last pitch, which caught the attention of my editor at the time. After developing it for a few months I suspected that, with minimal tweaks, the series might find a better place with a Western audience – due to theme, genre and its protagonists. So, I decided to move back to Los Angeles in 2012.

Was working in Japan a life-long dream?

[It] was a dream, but not a life-long one – because I didn't develop an interest in Japanese comics until the age of 23. After I moved to Los Angeles and ran into the manga section of my first Japanese bookstore, it was a wrap.

What made the manga industry seem so alluring?

At the time, I was really over comics, in general, because I had no interest in any of the predominant genres – like super-heroes, fantasy or sci-fi. Looking through Japanese comics, I quickly realized there was an industry [covering] dozens of genres untapped by the American market, and that perhaps one of those would be just right for me. The more I found Japanese comics that interested me, the more I got excited about the possibility of working in an industry that provided material I could be excited about.

You're part of an exceedingly rare fraternity of cartoonists. Are you aware of any other creators who've gotten to do what you did with PEEPO CHOO?

Other than myself, I've not heard of another American working as a mangaka – creating, writing and drawing an original series for a Japanese publisher. The only other American artist I can think of who's worked in the Japanese comics industry is Jamie Lynn Lano, who [was] an assistant under Takeshi Konomi on his manga series the Prince of Tennis. I had a chance to meet her during a panel we participated in at San Diego Comic Con in 2014.

I'm sure one day another American will write and draw his or her own original series for a Japanese audience, [and release] it through a major Japanese publisher – but I don't believe it's happened before or since PEEPO CHOO. So, I will take both the “first-ever” and “only” titles right now, in 2017!

Was there culture shock upon arrival?

Surprisingly, I didn't experience much initially. I'd lived with Japanese roommates, worked at a Japanese karaoke bar in West LA for three years – where I learned the language and day-to-day culture – and had many good Japanese friends whom I'd met in Los Angeles. [They'd] returned to Tokyo after their studies… so, I was very fortunate in that respect. I was in a foreign land with familiar faces.

The culture shock I experienced came later and involved more complex aspects of life than taking your shoes off upon entering certain buildings, bowing when meeting someone or making copious slurping sounds when eating noodles [so as] to compliment the chef.

What took more getting used to, then?

Forecasting Japanese manga audience responses, publisher expectations, interpersonal relationships, and the navigation of a very traditional, historically homogenous society as a multicultural, multiracial foreigner who's fluent in Japanese was less “culture shock upon arrival” and more “culture beat-down throughout the duration!” [Laughs] It was definitely an eye-opening experience that I can say has equally influenced and edified me as an artist and a person.

Producing a series on schedule can be an arduous endeavor, wherever you are. Having worked in both countries' industries, how do the typical outputs of Japanese and American titles compare?

On a weekly series published in, let's say, Kodansha's Weekly Morning Magazine...? A mangaka – who generally plays the role of both writer and artist – is required to produce 18 pages of finished story and art on a weekly basis, without a break, until the end of his or her series. [If it's a success], it will serialize for many years. If you compare that to the 20 pages produced by a team of usually two-to-four people – writer, penciler, inker and colorist – for an American comic book on a monthly, not weekly, basis for DC or Marvel, you'll soon realize how strenuous a mangaka's job can be.

Meetings with an editor to hash out the details of the upcoming chapter and working out the thumbnails for it usually takes around three or four days until approval. This gives a mangaka about three days to draw, ink and tone 20 pages of art for the following week.

Smith's new series, Death Metal Zombie Cop, successfully kickstarted in 2017

You mentioned Lano's role in Prince of Tennis earlier. The assistant system is more prominent in Japan than in other countries' scenes.  How does it work out, based on what you observed?

[It's] in place to help keep this incredible production pace, but I find that most Western mangaka hopefuls – as well as professional artists – grossly misunderstand how this works! [Laughs]

A weekly series mangaka will many times have three or four assistants – sometimes as many as eight, as I've witnessed when visiting a prominent mangaka's studio – to aid him or her in completing chapters on a weekly basis. However… the publisher does not provide these assistants! And they don't work for free, as an intern does.

Mangaka have to pay their assistants out of their own pocket. And each individual assistant's daily fee is roughly equivalent to a full page-rate – for script, pencils, inks and tones – received by his “sensei,” the mangaka employing him. So, if you're employing eight assistants for three days to complete 18 pages for the following week, as a sensei, you've paid out your full fee for the chapter to your assistants – plus the equivalent cost of six additional pages! So, not only have you not received any payment for this chapter, you've also lost money.

Surely, money must be coming to the sensei from other channels in order for this system to work?

...If you're able to employ eight assistants, it means you've published various volumes of your current or prior manga series – and are receiving royalty payments for them. So, you can afford to pay your own chapter fee entirely to your assistants. This is referred to as inzei seikatsu, or “royalty-based life.” [It's] basically how a mangaka is meant to make a living. The more success you have as a mangaka, and the longer your career, the better chance you have of hiring more assistants to lighten your workload.

Did you have any assistants yourself?

Because I was a shinjin sakka – or “new creator” – with no prior work on the shelves, I could only afford one assistant. [This assistant] helped me with backgrounds and tones, for only seven days out of the month. The remainder of the chapter I would do by myself.

Since you didn't have a team, how'd your workflow compare to mangaka with whole staffs?

I, personally, did not publish in a weekly magazine, but rather a monthly one. So, my workload was considerably less than that of a weekly mangaka's – but still twice or sometimes three times that of an [American team]! On average, I wrote and drew between 40 and 60 pages of content [a month] when serializing PEEPO CHOO. Because I published it monthly, I had a little more time to work on the story and art, but it was still incredibly hard for reasons other than the strict deadlines and time limitations.

Were these challenges more creative in nature?

I serialized through a seinen publication, so to entertain the target [adult] audience, I had to understand – or try my best to understand – what an average adult Japanese reader finds entertaining. Since I don't share their culture [or common experiences], this of course took a lot of hard work and research. I relied heavily on my editors, and those around me, for input.

If you could consult your editors that much, were they very hands-on?

A mangaka's storyline discussion meeting with his editor can sometimes take up to three or four hours. I was told by my editors that I was easy to discuss story with, because I always said what was on my mind and made my intent very clear. Apparently, many Japanese mangaka are a lot more subdued in nature and not very articulate with words. So, these meetings can take a few hours, just for the editor to get them to open up and express what they're aiming for in their chapter.

Even though I had the advantage of being a chatterbox, in comparison, language hurdles and cultural [and] ideological differences many times caused my meetings to go long – sometimes even up to eight hours.

Meetings that long certainly fit the reputation of notoriously long hours mangaka must work through. What part of that grind was most challenging?

...Nailing down my story and nemu – or “thumbnails” – for the upcoming chapter was probably what took me the longest and was the most difficult. Believe it or not, drawing and inking 60 pages in about 15 days was the relaxing part of serializing PEEPO CHOO.

Can you take breaks on weekends with that kind of publishing schedule?

...I had an average of about three days off a month, which I would take between chapters of PEEPO CHOO

US superhero comics go on for decades, with a succession of different talents. In manga, this happens less often. Series are bound with their creators, and usually not continued by other talents. Having worked in both areas, how would you characterize this difference in traditions?

I'd first like to note that, traditionally, most manga series are associated exclusively with their creators and – unlike American superhero titles – are rarely ever worked on by other talents, since the vast majority of manga titles in the market are auteur works distinct for their creator's personal idiosyncrasies rather than a publisher's “house style”. What sells these books – especially non-shonen works – is the creator's unique take on a genre and his or her storytelling sensibilities.

That said, discussions of manga do frequently cite “tropes” series seem expected to fulfill?

In my own experience, I find the use of tropes is usually dominant in genre shonen or shojo titles, since they're meant for younger readers. Therefore, the inclusion of core themes is very much encouraged – if not demanded – by the publisher. [This is just how] certain elements are expected in comics by the American industry's “Big Two” [of Marvel and DC Comics].

In contrast, the seinen adult titles tend to rely a little less on archetypes, and many times favor the subversion of commonly-known ones to achieve a unique storyline. In adult manga, it is when you do something unexpected that you entertain, so adhering to commonplace conventions is probably not favored by most cutting-edge editors.

Was that the case for PEEPO CHOO?

[Since it's a] story of Japanese and American mutual cultural misconception and misunderstanding – with a cast of foreigners, written by an actual foreigner – a vast number of Japanese manga tropes went immediately out the window. They did not apply to half of the cast.

On the other hand, the remaining cast – the school girl, the traditional Yakuza boss and the maniacal Yakuza underling – were in fact Japanese and therefore had to remain somewhat traditional to read as legitimate national characters. So, there was definite discussion of tropes and “what this character is usually like.” But once that was established, it was up to me to figure out a way to put an interesting spin on these known archetypes in order to make them more entertaining to a seasoned manga-reading adult.

Did you have to work with any unexpected editorial rules, even with apparent creative freedom?

While creating PEEPO CHOO, I always enjoyed creative freedom, but editorial guidelines were absolute gold and enormously helpful in forecasting the adult reader's response. The most I can recall [consciously] adhering to an actual trope or convention was when dealing with Aniki, a very traditional Yakuza boss [in the story]. I wanted him to feel legitimately Japanese –  legitimately Yakuza – and not like a laughable, American-made Kill-Bill-esque Asian mishmash character with no credibility.

One of my editors would get a bit scary sometimes [though], particularly during one imminent deadline, and yell at me over the phone – in pretty near-Yakuza fashion. [Laughs] I think he gave me some pretty good first-hand examples of how a Yakuza boss exerts his power and dominance. I can laugh about it, now.

Thanks to Felipe Smith for the opportunity.  

Encounters with Yakuza-like editors aren't the last of Smith's surprising experiences. Come back for Part 2 on Wednesday, January 24th and learn how manga skewed his view of Japan, how readers suspected “Felipe Smith” might be a Japanese author's pen name, and how eating your veggies and getting sleep are actually crucial for any artists hoping to work in manga, too!

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