Watch Felipe Smith drawing Reiko Kawamori from PEEPO CHOO
I’ve always been a big supporter of non-Japanese artists making manga. More people outside of Japan are using manga as a way to tell stories everyday and, as a manga editor in America, I want to see that number grow. Series like Bakuman made kids around world want to become manga artists, but the truth is, it’s hard enough to become a professional mangaka (manga artist) in Japan, without even taking into consideration all the obstacles non-Japanese manga artists have to face.
Yet…Felipe Smith had somehow made it through. He became the first American manga artist to be published by a major Japanese publisher. Felipe debuted in America with his graphic novel series MBQ and then moved to Japan to serialize his first title in a manga magazine, PEEPO CHOO, in Morning Two published by Kodansha.
How’d he do it? I was just plain curious. So I shadowed him during Japan Expo. Here are my 7 observations on Felipe. His circumstances are unique, but knowing them might help others think of ways to make manga no matter where they are from.
1. He’s Not a Nerd
Weird but true. When Felipe told me he didn’t really grow up with manga or anime, I was surprised, but then understood why. Some of the biggest talents in the world of manga have told me the same thing. When you try to learn how to draw manga from other manga, it’s hard to shake their influence. Felipe names his real life experiences and observations as the biggest influences on his work.
2. He Learned Japanese
If you want your work to be published in a manga magazine by a Japanese publisher, you gotta learn Japanese. You need to work closely with editors, understand the demands of the native audience, and find the right expressions to convey your story. Felipe learned Japanese before he went to Japan by working at a karaoke joint in Los Angeles. He put himself in an environment where he was surrounded by Japanese language and culture every day. This is a very practical way to learn and proves that you don’t have to take classes or study abroad to learn a language.
3. He’s Culturally Adaptable
Manga is made for Japanese audiences. This is the hardest thing for international artists, or audiences for that matter, to get. Felipe is a Jamaican-Argentinian born in Ohio. He spent most of his childhood in Argentina, a country made up of people from various backgrounds with no dominant cultural standard. His views on cultural bias and stereotyping are an on-going theme in PEEPO CHOO. At the same time, his openness towards culture has gotten him as far as he has working and making stories for audiences in Japan.
4. He Had an Agent
After MBQ, an agent offered to represent his work in Japan. She arranged the meeting between Felipe and the editor-in-chief of Morning Two, facilitated communication in the meeting, and even helped early on in the series translating Felipe’s manga from English into Japanese. That’s great for anybody, but an agent would only invest his or her time like that into talent they truly believe in.
5. He Can Really Draw
Felipe went to The School of Art Institute of Chicago. He has solid grounding in perspective and figure drawing, which helps the audience get into his world. Then there’s something about the style of his characters; they have a cool quality that transcends logic. Having a distinguishable art style that comes from within, yet is grounded in fundamentals, is absolutely crucial for a mangaka to stand a chance of surviving in the world of manga.
6. He Has Stories to Tell
Manga isn’t just pretty pictures but a form of storytelling. To Felipe, it is an ideal medium for an artist to share his ideas and personal experiences with an audience. When he starts planning a series, he already has a concrete ending in mind, because the end of a story is a great place to get a message across and leave a lasting impression with the reader. His use of graphic sex and violence is never gratuitous but actual character development, which moves the story forward.
7. He Just Did It
There are a ton of aspiring artists out there who can rattle off what’s wrong with the manga industry and why they won’t be able to become mangaka. But there’s always a way to keep from doing something. What’s not as well known is there’s always a way to just do it too. Seeing Felipe reassured me this is the case and gave me hope there are others who’ll find their own way into the world of manga.
Is manga just getting your work published by a Japanese publisher? No, manga is a way to tell stories using images and words. The most important thing we all should be doing is to find new ways to deliver diverse stories by different artists to more people.
The skills Felipe acquired working as a mangaka in Japan also apply to creative industries elsewhere. He currently works in Los Angeles as a character designer and storyboard artist for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV series on Nickelodeon. Very recently Marvel Comics announced that Felipe will be writing the All-New Ghost Rider monthly title, teaming up with artist Tradd Moore. He’s also planning his next graphic novel, this time specifically with a global audience in mind. I’ll be looking out for it.
For More Info on Felipe Smith:
Read His In-depth interview by Deb Aoki on Manga.About.com
Article/Photo/Video by mckido: Misaki C. Kido has been working in the manga, anime, comics, and art industry since 2007 as an editor, intervewer, event host, and digital producer who has worked on projects like Weekly Shonen Jump. For more works by her, visit mckido.com