Interview: Creating Manga Art with Rena Saiya and Danica Davidson

by Rebecca Silverman,

Creating manga requires more than just the ambition to do it – you also need a good grasp of storytelling and artwork to carry that ambition through. While there are many books on the subject, we readers don't always know which are going to best suit our needs or even which writers and illustrators are really up to the task of giving us good instruction. That's something that Danica Davidson and Rena Saiya's guides are trying to help with.

Both Davidson and Saiya have worked in manga and comics, as well as criticism, for a number of years, and they've designed their Manga Art series in order to fill some of the gaps they've noticed in the genre. Saiya has taught manga courses in Japan and worked with Japanese publishers as an artist, as well as studied the international popularity of manga as a storytelling medium, which positions her to look at its art both academically and from a practical perspective. Davidson, meanwhile, has a lengthy history of working with comics, from criticism to writing to translation, again giving her an inside look at what people interested in creating their own sequential narratives need to know.

As a note, we only got to cover Davidson and Saiya's more recent volume, which is the second in their series. While Davidson mentions some of what appears in volume one, do be aware that we've only specifically looked at volume two.

ANN: Can you give us a brief idea of how this book differs from the beginner text? Do you cover things like how to determine where the folds in clothing should occur or the variations in eye shape and size?

Danica Davidson: Manga Art for Beginners, which is my first book on manga, is for anyone who wants to draw in the manga style but who isn't quite sure how to start. It begins with how to draw different parts of the body, like eyes, faces, hands, and hair, then goes into how to draw body types. Then it shows how to draw some character archetypes like the kind you'd see in popular manga. So ninja, butler, maid, chibi, magical girl, shrine maiden, students, etc.

Manga Art for Intermediates
is for anyone who has gone through Manga Art for Beginners, or anyone who already has some background in drawing. I like to say that Manga Art for Beginners is to help you draw manga in your notebook; Manga Art for Intermediates is for anyone who really wants to take this to the next step. It talks about what ink, paper and software professional Japanese mangaka use and other tips from Japan. It even talks a little bit about what Japanese publishers look for in terms of what inking you use. You don't have to use the same pens, paper and software as a Japanese mangaka, but there's a reason they use the utensils and techniques that they do, and now you can do the same if you want to.

After that, Manga Art for Intermediates shows how to draw more popular archetypes from manga. Some of the characters we have are nekojin, gag, soldier, bride & groom, seme & uke. We also have a couple types of yokai in there! While we were working on the book, Rena thought it would be good to include some information on how clothing should be folded according to Japanese tradition so an artist doesn't make an accidental faux pas.

ANN: How did you decide which figures to cover in the book? Why, for example, a Heian man and not a Heian woman as well?

DD: We wanted to show character types that manga fans would relate to. So we have many common characters. In the original proposal, there was going to be both a Heian man and a Heian woman. But it's important for me in these books that we really go into detail on how to draw the characters. So many how-to-draw books show maybe four steps and that's it. Most of us can't follow that. We show maybe 15 steps per drawing, on average. By the time we were going to work on the Heian Woman, we had run out of page space. Hopefully we can show her in another book!

ANN: What do you feel sets your book apart from others similar to it? Is there a reason why readers should pick up this particular volume as opposed to one by a different creator?

DD: There were two main issues I had with general trends I saw in American how-to-draw manga books that I wanted to remedy. First, a lot of the how-to-draw books out there just don't look like manga. They look like some hybrid of manga and American comics. They sell well, but I know a lot of manga fans aren't, well, fans, because it's not the style they're looking for. It's very important to me that these books have the right style.
Second, so many of the how-to-draw books rush you. There's an outline, there's a bunch of squiggles, there's a bunch more activity, then there's the finished drawing. Most of us are scratching out heads. As far as I'm aware, our books have more drawing steps than any other how-to-draw manga books.

Another point is that usually American how-to-draw-manga books are written by Americans, and Manga Art for Intermediates has the unique angle of being by both an American writer and a Japanese creator. I know the American manga market and Rena knows the Japanese manga market. I'm always hearing otaku who wish they could learn more about manga in Japan, but the language barrier can make that difficult sometimes. This book has manga-making behind-the-scenes information I'm not aware of in other American books.

ANN: Did you consider having more than one artist draw the examples/guides? Why or why not?

DD: No, it never really crossed my mind. And Rena can draw in multiple styles very well, so I didn't think it was necessary in this particular case.

ANN: How did you decide which inking styles to cover in the book? Would you go into more detail in an advanced text, or perhaps discuss use of color?

DD: We show how manga artists use different nibs to get the right kind of thickness they want when they ink. We also discuss which pens professional manga artists use, so that readers have the option of using the same kind. Rena knows all about inking from her work for Japanese publishers, so she shows the most fundamental way manga gets inked. We didn't really go into color since most manga are black-and-white. Hopefully we can go into more detail in future books.

ANN: Do you have a preference for digital or traditional drawing? Do you think either is better for artists starting out, or does it come down to personal preference?

Rena Saiya: I have chosen digital drawing for business convenience. For artists starting out, it would  depend on their purpose of manga drawing, what they like, and what their financial situation is.

I was doing traditional drawing and I preferred it. But since I decided to expand abroad, I began to start digitally drawing because it's convenient to send manga pages to foreign countries when the manga pages are created digitally.

Either method has both good points and demerits. To begin with digital drawing, a higher prior investment is needed such as purchasing a personal computer, a drawing tablet, and a manga drawing software. In addition, to manage the software, you need to learn the usage and practice a lot. After you get used to it, you don't have to buy drawing materials such as paper, pen, ink, and screentones, though.

As for traditional drawing, you can start with a much lower budget. Some people say they don't feel like they are actually drawing when they are using a computer, so, you can avoid such a feeling and enjoy actual drawing on paper. But every time you run out of drawing materials such as paper, ink, pen-nibs, screentones, you have to buy them.

Therefore it depends on your aim of manga creation, preference, and financial conditions.

ANN: Rena, your website says that you've taught manga creation. How did working on this book differ from what you do in a classroom? Are there techniques you feel work better in that setting or this one?

RS: I have taught manga creation at some vocational schools. With regards to picture drawing, the good point of teaching face to face is that I can correct their works directly if anything is wrong.

When I teach manga-learners through this book, I cannot do such a thing. However, when I was doing lessons in a classroom, I could not afford to show all steps of character drawing like our book does because of the limited time of each lesson.

Since the steps are really in detailed in Manga Art for Intermediates, I think it can lead to fewer corrections.

ANN: Can you (Rena) give a summary of your article on the world-wide popularity of manga? How did you solidify your theories on the subject?

RS: When I explain the reason of worldwide popularity of manga, I try to do so from a manga author's point-of-view, which has been cultivated through my experiences in the Japanese manga industry.

In short, I think there are two big factors which cause worldwide popularity of manga.

One of the factors is, of course, the charm of manga itself.

I believe the biggest charm of manga is its attractive stories and characters (especially their attractive personality rather than their appearances). It's because we know manga whose stories and characters are excellent can sell well even when the pictures are not so good while the opposite type of manga doesn't work well.

In Japan, when manga authors want to start a new manga series, they need to get editors' permission of their plans. The charm of their new stories and the characters in the plans is judged strictly by manga editors. Even a famous manga author's new plan can be declined at this point. Even after the plan is accepted and the new series starts, if it's not so popular, it will be stopped halfway.

I think this emphasis on creating attractive stories and characters in manga is the biggest factor of creating charming manga, which can grab worldwide readers.

Another factor is the difficulty of manga authors' lives. In general, the competitive ratio is very high to live as a manga author in Japan, especially at famous publishers. Manga authors are almost always facing the danger of being fired depending on their popularity. In addition, to meet deadlines, they often sit up all night and sometimes many nights in a row. They have a severe life both mentally and physically.

However, generally speaking, works created through hardships can be good ones, so, as a result, their harsh conditions bring about their excellent manga which can attract many people.

ANN: Danica, what's your background with manga and comics? What made you interested in authoring drawing guides specifically?

DD: I read comics as a kid, but I became a devourer of manga as a teenager. I had started working as a journalist while in high school, writing at the local paper, and I began pitching ideas for anime and manga-related stories to other papers. From there I got to write for Anime Insider. Since then I've written about manga for MTV, CNN, The Onion, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Otaku USA, Graphic Novel Reporter, IGN, Japanator, Shojo Beat, etc. Oh, and I've written a little for Anime News Network!

For a while I had a freelance gig adapting manga for Digital Manga Publishing. They would send me the original manga from Japan and then email me the translation. The translation was set up like a script, mapped out with pages and panels. Japanese-to-English can sound very proper and literal to readers, so it was my job to take what was being said and Americanize it without losing the meaning. For example, you might change, “You insufferable child!” to “You little brat!” I also put in notes of where the translation should be explained.
The gig at Digital Manga Publishing eventually went in-house, but now I help in the editing process for Yen Press, reading over some of their titles right before they go to press to catch any mistakes and make sure everything has been translated and properly noted.

I've been attracted to art and cartooning since I was young, and some of my frustrations with other how-to-draw books led to my ideas for how to do these.

ANN: You (Danica) have written for American graphic novels and books for younger readers in different franchises. Can you tell us a little about that experience and how it informs your nonfiction writing?

I've been writing almost as long as I've been alive. When I was three, I would dictate stories to my parents or follow them around and ask how to spell every word. Now, besides my two manga books, I've written twelve Minecrafter adventure novels (books for ages 7-12 that take place as if Minecraft is real), and graphic novels for the franchises Tales from the Crypt and Barbie. Yes, you read that right. I was recently invited to speak to members of the European Union and their kids about my Minecrafter books and how they can be used to help kids with literacy and how they deal with themes like online citizenship, fact-checking and overcoming differences. (I brought a copy of Manga Art for Intermediates with me to Belgium, where there are many fans of manga and comics, and I had a number of people there excited that I knew both Minecraft and manga.)

For these art books, I'd say my interest in manga and my background in journalism better informs the writing. The journalism makes me want to look at things from all different angles and figure the best way to describe what's going on. And the love of manga is what made the books happen for me in the first place. And with each book, no matter what I'm writing, I want to make sure I do the best I can.

ANN: Ultimately what are you hoping readers will get from your guides? At what point should an artist, in your opinion, begin striving to create their own distinct style and stop attempting to emulate others? How do guides factor into that?

RS: I'd like the readers to use the characters in our book as a kind of a "database" of Japanese manga characters since I tried to design them to be typical and basic ones in various genres. In addition, though the number of the pages is not large, I also introduced drawing materials which Japanese professionals are actually using. I'd like readers to know the right information.

Having a "database of characters" in your mind as much as possible can be helpful when you try to create your own characters or your own new style.  It somehow makes it easier to think of new ideas about them.

Some “database of characters” can additionally be taken into your head from outside Japanese manga style depending on your liking.  But as long as you want to draw manga-like ones,  a database of Japanese manga characters would be mandatory.

With regards to the point of beginning searching your own distinct style, I would recommend around when you enter advanced level. Until then, imitating other manga styles can work as  getting basics of manga styles through it and as I said,  it can be also your own "database."

Some geniuses might be able to skip this process, but in general, this method seems to work.

DD: I hope the extra drawing steps leave readers less intimidated and mystified about how to create characters, the authentic manga style will give fans the type of art they want, and it gets people's creative juices flowing. And I hope it spreads the manga love.

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