Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Problems of OEL Mangaka

 NOTE:  There seems to be a massive amount of confusion regarding the work I do and whether or not I consider myself a 'mangaka' or an OEL 'mangaka'.  I call myself one for the sake of this post, because the manga-inspired community can't agree on a better name, although we'd desperately like one.  We are very much aware that it's an outdated term with nasty connotations, and managed to figure that out years ago.  Many of us have tried to ditch the 'mangaka' moniker and don't consider our comics to be manga, but have faced audiences, editors, professors, and peers who insist that this is what we are.  I personally consider the comics I make to be children's comics or indie comics, and the manga influences are mainly an aesthetic choice that reflects my taste for cute things.  I titled this post in such a way so that it would reach the highest number of people Googling the term OEL Mangaka, and am not labelling my current work as manga, nor myself as a mangaka.  If the post is read in its entirety, that fact is made evident.  Seeing people argue in my comments section over whether or not I consider myself to be a mangaka is rather annoying, as the entirety of my blog focuses on anything but.  Before speaking for me in the comments, or making an assumption about who I am as an artist, please have the decency to actually read some of my blog.

Becca: I have a confession to make. It probably isn't shocking to any of you.  Many of you probably harbor the same secret.

When I was 14, I wanted to become a mangaka and move to Japan.  I dreamed that I would make manga and direct anime, and that somehow, I'd overcome the cultural differences that stem from being a whitebread suburban girl who spoke not a word of Japanese.  Somehow I'd be able to show the country that birthed my major inspiration what I was made of and earn the respect of the manga-reading masses, despite the fact that there was plenty of native manga to be had.

I read a lot of manga at that time, and flirted occasionally with OEL (original English Language) manga.  I read Ninja High School.  I followed the Rising Stars of Manga contest, although sometimes it was with disdain.  But for far too long, I figured my 'real' audience would be Japanese.  I didn't go out of my way to support American artists who drew with a manga influence until late college.  For as long as there was a viable for American comics inspired by manga, I had no interest in an American audience. 

To be honest, I was naive and a bit ignorant.  I didn't really peruse the artist alley at the many anime conventions I attended, partially because I was usually rushing from photoshoot to cosplay competition, but also because a lot of the artists would attempt high pressure sales tactics that made me uncomfortable. The fact that at many conventions I attended, the Artist Alley was far out of the way of the main convention didn't help much either, and as I hadn't a strong interest in actually tabling there, I didn't go out of my way to find them.

After I gave up my dream of moving to glorious Nippon, I figured I'd become an American indie artist.  I didn't really see my drawing style as being particularly 'manga', I thought it was just cartoony.  Since being introduced to indie comics in late undergrad, I devoured a steady diet of both manga and indie comics, and took a lot of inspiration from these American comics, mainly in how I told stories. Unfortunately for me, editors viewing my work could see that there was more manga than indie to my style library, and cautioned me that American-drawn manga didn't really sell.  I hadn't really realized before then that many of the companies that sold OEL manga and manga-influenced comics were closing up shop or were simply no longer taking solicitations.  The aesthetic that inspired me to make comics in the first place was becoming a major hurdle to finding paying comic work.

So what happened?  So many comic artists draw heavy influence from manga in a variety of ways, and manga is becoming an acceptable comic solution in the West, so why are so many manga-influenced artists having a hard time selling their work?

Because we get zero support on the home front.

OEL manga doesn't sell in the US.  At least, not to the people we'd like to sell it to.  When I go to anime conventions, my comics don't sell to the audience.  They sell to other artists tabling at that convention.  My comics sell to other artists who are familiar with the situation OEL and manga-inspired artists face at nearly every convention we attend.  I might as well not even bring comics to anime conventions, because that audience isn't interested in seeing comics from American artists.  If I only attended anime conventions, I'd be better of churning out fanart prints, charms, and buttons.  Comics currently don't make me any money.

What's sad is that, when polled, a lot of those customers who are skipping my comics for my charms and buttons tell me that they draw comics too.  They tell me that they draw manga, and that they plan on moving to Japan one day.  They tell me that they aren't interested in reading American-drawn manga, but they sure are interested in producing it.  They want to show me their sketchbooks and portfolios, for my feedback, but cringe when I tell them the OEL manga is a huge bust.  They can't see that they're a huge part of the problem.

Any older manga-influenced comic artist worth their salt knows how that story ends.  I can think of TWO artists who have done that- Jamie Lynne Lano and Filipe Smith.  Two in all the history of comic artists talking about moving to Japan and finding love and acceptance.  That's a pretty small percentage.  So what happens to the rest of us?  Do we stop making comics because the style we use is a hard sell?

I wish I could say 'no, we're made of tougher stuff', but for a lot of artists, the answer is 'yes'.  Or the answer is 'change to something more marketable'.  But some of us are genuinely attached to this aesthetic.  Some of us genuinely enjoy American (or British, or Austrailian, or any other OEL) comics influenced by manga style tropes.  Unfortunately, we seem to be in the minority when it comes to buying, at conventions and at book stores.

The community who supports us is the community we've first supported. If you want to make manga-influenced comics, you have to SUPPORT manga-influenced comics.  And that sort of support is shown through dollars and cents.

Ways to Support Your Local OEL manga comic community:

  • Attend conventions, and hit up the Artist Alley FIRST.  Before you spend your cash on electronic cat ears and rubber dragons.
  • When hitting up the artist alley, look for mini comics and print-copy webcomics.  Consider starting a mini comic collection.  It retains its value a lot longer than fanart prints do.
  • Support artists with similar styles online.  If you're broke, you don't HAVE to commission them or contribute to their Kickstarters, but sending a kind email or leaving them a pleasant message can really do a lot to encourage them.
  • Share artists you like with your friends.  OEL manga and manga-inspired comics are a bit of the redheaded stepchild of the comics community.  These comics are just as legitimate as any other comics out there, and no more derivative than superhero comics. 
  • If you are an artist, help other artists when possible.  We're all going through this together, but our community is really fragmented.  We need to pull together as much as possible.
  • TALK ABOUT IT.  Not complain about it, but TALK about it.  Creating in a vacuum isn't good for you, and it isn't good for the community.  Purchase OEL manga, review OEL manga, recommend OEL manga.
  • As an artist, avoid becoming the stereotypical 'manga kid'.  Consider subverting your artstyle for assignments that don't call for such stylization (figure drawing, technical drawing), and focus on improving your basic skills.
  • Learn the basics and practice the basics of sound art.  Good composition, solid figure construction, airtight color theory will help you from being lumped into the same category Chris Hart is in.

And really, we all want to avoid these stereotypes.

When I was a graduate student in the Sequential Art Department of SCAD, every year there was an event called Editor's Day, when SCAD would invite in editors from various comic companies.  During my time there, every year, a student would ask about manga at the Open Forum, and every year, their hopes were shot down as they were told that American manga just didn't sell.

Every year, I bristled a bit, because this was a gross simplification, a dismissal of a problem that myself and many other artists are currently facing.  We know for a fact that manga is hugely popular, we know that American audiences are more than willing to buy fanart from American artists, that this is plenty good enough for the average anime fan.  Many of us know that for awhile, the American manga market was flooded, and that a lot of subpar comics were published because publishers were looking to take advantage of the manga boom, creating a generation of distrust from American comic buyers.  Some of us were able to create a name for ourselves during this time, and some of us came in just a little too late, and all we have are the ashes of other artists dreams.  Some of us are trying to create a reputation during a period when, if you draw with a manga-influence, not only do you have to be good, but you have to be so far above the competition that you exceed the editor's bias.  For many in this comic-crafting generation, being published by an existing comic publisher is probably not an option, and we need to take a grass roots approach.

This is where conventions come in.  New Orleans, Savannah, and Nashville share one awful trait in common- there's a severe lack of a comic scene.  Because my convention options are limited, I attend a lot of anime conventions, and try a variety of tactics to entice customers and develop a fanbase.  Unfortunately, comics are still a hard sell at these conventions, though I, and many other artists, strive to improve the reputation OEL and manga-inspired comics have earned among the audience that should be our biggest supporters.

Things were a little different in the days of Ninja High School, Cathedral Child, and the Rising Stars of Manga, a bit before the easy access the internet provides consumers.  Before scanlation sites that make it easy to consume all the manga one can handle at little charge, and before webcomics really took hold.  Maybe the customer base was more appreciative then, or publishers were willing to take more risks, to be honest, I'm not sure.  I was 14 then, and I had my head up my rear, stupidly assuming the market would never change.  Now I'm, well not 14, and the market has changed drastically, and it's up to my generation of comic artists to change things for the better.

Heidi: My own experience with OEL manga and the manga boom was very similar to Becca's, though it differed in places.  Like her, I consumed any and all manga from Japan, but scorned anything that was left to right (Korean or American, though at the time I thought it was all American).  If it wasn't “legit” manga I wanted nothing to do with it.

I actually remember when Dark Horse was translating Hellsing, in some of the volumes they translated Hirano's requests for an assistant (and the address on where to send your stuff to) and I was determined to fill that position – I practiced drawing Seras and Alucard for hours, readying my sketchbooks to be the amazing girl from the States who blew them away.  I even tried to learn enough Japanese to write my heartfelt letter about how I really wanted to be an artist and wanted to help him out.  (never mind that I was 16...)

I remember submitting to the Rising Stars of Manga contest as well, and being rather butthurt that they didn’t take MY AMAZING submission (this was again the same time frame, I was 15) and sending fanart to the addresses in manga hoping that the American staff of Viz or Tokyopop would send my art on to the original creators saying “oh look how good this is” (man, did I have my head up my ass... but I'm admitting all this now).  Of course these things were never going to happen.

I think possibly I didn't actually want a Japanese audience as much as I wanted to show up other Americans and be “the one who made it.”  Regardless, I scoffed at all kinds of OEL manga, pointing out all the ways I thought it was too American (never mind my art wasn't very good at the time . . . if you really wanna see, check out the last pages of my Deviantart page, I have stuff going all the way back to 2003!) 

Its taken a lot of time and maturity to get to the point where I can look at OEL manga and really appreciate it.  But I also see there's a continuance of the same attitude I had – kids who are in middle or high school, or even college aren't interested in the “American knock-offs,” they only want the real stuff – and the sad part is they aren't even willing to pay for it.  Even sadder, they won't even read FREE webcomics made with the same anime aesthetic, just because its not “good enough.” (or really, because its not Naruto and not popular).  Sadly though, we've idolized anything coming out of Japan without actually looking at the actual quality of it – and this is not meant to insult anyone American or Japanese, but I've looked back at my manga collection that I had when I was in high school and some of the art and stories are horrendous.  And as a young artist, I was hell-bent on copying that aesthetic, without understanding anatomy or storytelling. 

I think OEL manga gets a bad rep partially because American manga fans tend to be so much like I was – we only want the “pure” stuff, we want to think that we're special snowflakes or somehow better.  But we won't help other American artists who are working just as hard (possibly because no one is validating our own special snowflake-ness by buying our art.) 

But OEL manga has really dive bombed because our audience isn't buying.  We, those who consume and create it, won't necessarily touch it.  People who are in to American comics (especially the Superhero genre) scorn the OEL manga industry (not true of everyone, but many fans).  Indie comic artists and purveyors tend to hate that OEL manga gets lumped into their category, which has been its own thing for decades.  And the intended audience of 10-25 year olds, especially girls, that manga resonates with often has such a purist attitude towards manga that they won't touch it if there's an English name on the cover.  (I've even seen people make up Japanese pen names to combat this, but with the internet, if word ever gets out you do that you're shunned for life.)

I actually become curious at this point at how things like MegaTokyo have become so successful when the audience is so discriminatory in what they read, or those how to draw manga books, when they are almost always produced by American artists who may like manga style and be able to ape it, but haven't necessarily learned the art behind it.

I've actually said before that the term OEL manga seems like part of the problem to me too.  By giving ourselves “manga” in the title of the comics we make, and then having to specify that its English or American, I think we're creating a bias against our work from both sides – fans of manga and fans of other comics.  Many of the artists who create OEL manga and webcomics are really adapting styles into a very awesome conglomeration of American and Japanese aesthetics (see Winters in Lavelle, TJ & Amal, Mahou Shounen Fight, and so many more) and its obvious that manga has inspired us, but we're learning real storytelling techniques and real art to give actual substance to our work instead of filling it with pre-drawn backgrounds (yes, those are available in Japan) and an overabundance of shoujo bubbles and screentones.  And its sad that so many Americans are shunning that kind of hard work and dedication.  Yes, I know that Japanese manga-ka work very hard and are often grossly underpaid, and yes there are a lot of amazing manga out there that I also read.  But their American counterparts are often working just as hard, without the aid of assistants or screentones or having been someone else's assistant (and often times getting a jump start into the field) and are often not even making enough to eat – sometimes even WITH the assistance of a second job.  And because the publishers here in America have discovered that there's no profit in OEL manga, they can't get in with companies. 

Perhaps the long and the short of it all is that we've doomed ourselves. But as an adult I consciously make an effort to change for the better, and I suppose I can only hope that there will be more people who do the same.

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