Monday, August 28, 2006

A manga on Darwin and his theory of evolution

It was a wonderful turn of events that Otsuka-san from Kodansha Scientific had contacted me, because that allowed for a very natural transition to manga. I had already resigned myself to having an awkward and bumpy transition, because my background is very academic and in a totally unrelated field (I went to Harvard for college and MIT for a Ph. D. in physics). But it ended up that my science background would be what would make Otsuka-san give me a try after reading about me in the paper. On the surface it might seem like he’s crazy for picking up a person with no experience, but I’m grateful that he took that risk.

So when Otsuka-san gave me the reins to the project, I suggested that we make a manga about Darwin and his theory of evolution. I chose this because I remembered a conversation I had decades ago with my grandfather (a chemistry professor) who said that there are four great classic works in science. There’s the Traité Elémentaire de Chimie by Lavoisier, the Principia by Newton, The Origin of Species by Darwin, and...I forgot what the fourth is. Oh well, anyway, I love biology and thought that’d be a cool topic.

And so we began that project.

I was already OK at drawing, but when you actually sit down and try to make manga as a beginner, you realize how little you know and get stuck on pretty much everything. How do you organize the manga frames, and how does the choice of their contents change the reader’s experience? What kind of style do I want to draw this in? What about the tone of speech of the various characters? What about the period costumes? How do I draw this and that? What kind of character designs would be appropriate? Etc., etc. Lots of considerations.

There were some subtle but practical considerations too. If you’ve ever read manga or comics, you’ve probably noticed that in some long running series, the mangaka’s drawing style may evolve due to changes in his habits or taste. Sometimes you see characters getting shorter, probably because it allows the mangaka to more easily fit them in the frames and fully articulate expressions using the entire body (this happened in Dr. Slump and Orewa Teppei). Well, in my case, I knew I’d improve over the course of 220 pages, so I decided to start working from somewhere in the middle of the book. That way, people don’t have to get shocked with my worst work on the first page.

In any case, this first project took a bit over four years to complete. One of the reasons was that I had never written anything in Japanese other than letters to my relatives when I was a kid. The book was also about Darwin’s biography mixed in with some history and modern scientific concepts and facts, so researching the content and deciding what to use from the sea of material took extra time.

But my manga skills did improve a lot because of these struggles. At the beginning, character designs took weeks until I came up with something satisfactory, but near the end, I could look at a portrait and caricaturize it on the spot. The first page I sent to my editor took an entire week to complete, but by the end of the project, I remember once finishing 8 pages in 6 days (and that's with a regular day job).

Someday, I hope to be able to make images appear by willing them into existence. I think I still have a ways to go...

In later posts, I’ll talk about how I went about creating this manga book and how my editor and I managed to work together despite being on opposite sides of the earth.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Why manga?

Good question. At this point, you’re probably wondering what got me interested in manga in the first place.

I was born in Tokyo, but when my father took a position at MIT, my family moved to Boston, which is where we’ve been ever since. I was still a baby when we came over, so I don’t remember anything of my birthplace. But we spoke Japanese at home, so even my first word, hikouki (airplane), was in Japanese.

It was on a visit to New York City, when I was just a few years old, that I had my first encounter with manga. New York has always had a large Japanese population, so it’s been home to several Japanese bookstores at any given time as far as I can remember. That’s where I discovered and became engrossed in the classic children's manga, Doraemon, and picture books about Japanese folktales, Nihon Mukashibanashi. These days I can get all my Japanese books online, but, back then, the highlights of many travels was visiting Japanese bookstores in major cities like Paris, Dusseldorf, and, of course, Tokyo. For me, those childhood memories seem to have permanently associated bookstores with treasure hunting and manga with treasure.

My ability to speak, read, and write in Japanese owes many thanks to manga and to my parents and grandparents who never hesitated to get me access to these books.

Essentially, I grew up with manga, and always admired the medium for its accessibility and entertainment value. My favorites include Cyborg 009, Black Jack, Orewa Teppei, and Fist of the North Star. I’ve also been heavily inspired by some of the Chinese literature classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh.

Manga is a well established medium in Japan, as can be seen from the fact that a third of printed books is manga. Men, women, and kids of all ages read manga because there’s not a genre that hasn’t been covered. Erotic manga is very popular (what, you thought manga would be any different?), and you’ll find manga from the most typical of topics such as sports, action adventure, and romantic comedies, to the esoteric, such as competitive sushi cuisine. This is very different from the states, where although superhero movies have been extremely big recently (I loved Spiderman 2 and Batman Begins!), the comic book industry has become relatively minor.

So my strategy is to start out in Japan where the market is much larger and the business models are well established for mangaka to head their own business. That way I can concentrate on my manga and not have to spend too much time promoting my work.

As a child, I was encouraged by my father to do what only I can do. Now that I’m trying to find my own path, I hope to stay true to that guide. The way I see it, individually, we’re all unique in our genetic makeup and our life’s experiences. But whether someone ultimately does what only that person can do depends on what that person ends up doing with his uniqueness.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Tragedy and an unexpected gift from heaven

With only a couple of weeks remaining before my graduation ceremony, my father passed away of a heart attack, at the young age of 54.

Having grown up in a safe and sheltered environment, I was dealt my first major shock in life. My father was a physicist, which is one of the reasons why I went on that path. Since the time I was a kid, he and I had worked on many projects together, and, as a person who worked passionately on his ideas, he understood well the need for me to switch careers and pursue what’s ultimately most meaningful to me.

I thought grad school was tough (especially after deciding not to continue on that path) and that everything would be rosy once I was done with it, but it ended up being a hard time that followed for our family. It also reemphasized the importance of making the most out of life, as it is a limited time that is given to each of us.

But then, a little miracle happened. I got an email from Otsuka-san, an editor in the science department at Kodansha (a large publishing company in Japan), asking me if I wanted to work on some science books together. It turns out that he had read my father’s obituary (my father being a prominent scientist) in the Asahi newspaper that included a little blurb about me. Earlier, the writer of the obituary thought my career change kind of curious, so had interviewed me on my manga aspirations and included that in the writeup. Who knew that this would actually make a connection!

At first Otsuka-san asked that I do a dozen illustrations for a new science book series he’s starting. I said I’d be more than happy to do that. I figured this would be a great way to get some practice and start building up a portfolio. Then he asked if I had any samples of my work that he could check out.

I’m thinking, “Uh oh...”

Now I’m getting nervous. I’ve been stuck in the lab for the past seven years so I hadn’t done much in terms of drawing for a while. In a panicked frenzy, I made a few pages of what I thought would be found in a book on evolution and emailed them to him.

His reply was positive, and suggested that we skip the illustrations thing and do a 220 page all-manga science book. He added that I can choose the topic and come up with the content.

I was floored. I had never even made a 17 page manga short story. The last time I even drew a few pictures in sequence was probably a decade ago, sometime in college. But not willing to pass up a great opportunity, I said with acted confidence,

“No problem!”

This was definitely an answer first, worry about it later kind of situation. Thus started my first major project.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Reporting from the path of manga

I’ve always wanted to be a mangaka (manga author) since the age of five. Typical, right?

It didn’t end up being that simple.

It’s because I’ve also wanted to be a scientist since the same age. I love nature, math, designing and building stuff, computers, and generally geeky things. So I ended up pursuing a track in physics.

Before I knew it, I found myself in grad school. But halfway through the program, in my mid-twenties, I realized something about myself that’s really important. Now you might be thinking, “why the heck did it take you so long to realize something so important?” Well, you might remember from biology class that more complex organisms tend to take longer to mature. So if it takes an amoeba two days to split in two, a mosquito a couple of weeks, and a chimpanzee twelve years, I think I’m starting to look pretty good.

In any case, what I realized was that as much as I like science, I didn’t like always being cooped up in the lab. I had this nagging suspicion that the answers to many of life’s questions couldn’t be found there, and that I needed to get my “data points” from a larger world, so to speak.

I also felt that although making progress in science is a creative process, it wasn’t using all of my artistic skills. On the other hand, drawing pictures or making plastic models (I’ll get into that later) may be more artistic, but I didn’t find them to be that intellectually stimulating by themselves. I wanted to do something that was truly meaningful and would leave a lasting impression on people, while tapping into as many of my skills and interests as possible. Finally, after a lot of soul searching, I decided to become a mangaka, so I could pursue my ideas while expressing them to others in the form of visual stories.

Soon after, I became that stereotypical guy who’s always doodling or daydreaming in the wrong place. Alright, maybe I was always like that, except now we can consider it official. Despite that, I eventually managed to finish grad school. I picked up a day job at a nearby software company called the MathWorks, and worked on my manga projects at night. I must admit it’s not the most efficient way to work on manga ideas and improving skills, but dreams alone can’t pay the bills. So until the day my manga brings in a reasonable income, I take consolation by reminding myself that “every superhero needs a day job.”

Well, that’s how it began. I’ll continue with how things turned out since changing career paths. Once we’re done with the history, I’ll start posting real-time updates.

In case you prefer reading in Japanese or are interested in the language, I’ll be keeping a Japanese version of this blog updated in parallel here.

I look forward to sharing my experiences with you!