Monday, October 16, 2006

My plans for becoming a full-time mangaka

Since the middle of grad school, I had been thinking of how to actually go about making manga. To be honest, I had no idea where to start.

It wasn’t the drawing part that puzzled me, because I figured practice would make me better and faster. It was the story writing that I had questions on, like “what should I write about?” and “how do I make a story?” They’re actually profound questions, but it’s sort of sad when a to-be writer has no clue about these things. Having been a “science type” for much of my life, I tended to ignore those literature classes in the past.

In any case, after much thought and reading, I’ve found my answers (and more), to many of those questions. Now I have to consider how I want to go about actually pursuing this path.

So what’s involved in being a full-time mangaka?

Mangaka come in a variety of flavors. There are those that work for hire. Perhaps a novelist has a script ready and a publisher needs someone to make it into a one-off manga book. Some mangaka do it for fun and sell photocopies of their work in underground markets. But what most people think of when they hear the term mangaka is those who make a living by authoring weekly or monthly series of fiction.

These fictional series are the most highly publicized manga in Japan, and generally reach the widest audience. They are published in thick 200 to 400 page newsprint magazines that each have weekly (or monthly) circulations ranging from 10,000 to 3,000,000. One of the benefits of getting published in a popular magazine is that the marketing is done automatically. Any reader who picks up a magazine will at least get a glimpse of your work, even if they weren’t originally intending on reading it.

Doing a weekly or monthly is what I eventually want to do, so I’m currently working on plans, drawing styles, and a story for such a series (more on that later).

So how does one begin this path towards becoming such a mangaka? Many people start out as assistants to established mangaka. Others might enter short story competitions in manga magazines and get noticed by editors through them (that was my initial plan, before making my Darwin book). Although I’ve published one book, I still consider myself a rookie because I haven’t worked on a series, which is where the requirements get really tough. You need great ideas and the ability to make cutting edge manga to attract and retain a large readership...all that while maintaining a rapid pace and not skipping a beat.

In any case, my plan is to do a mochikomi, which is like a job interview where you bring in some samples of your work to an editor. Most of the time this simply results in some recommendations for improvement. But if the editor likes your work, he may suggest starting a series on that sample or some other idea appropriate to the magazine.

It sounds like once you have a successful series, things become easier despite the crazy pace. A typical mangaka at a popular magazine might have an editor working exclusively with him. The most popular authors may even have a staff of 5 or more editors, who help out with not just editing but also with the ideas and the dialog. Also, once you have a successful series, it’s easier to justify the hiring of many assistants to help out with the creation of the pages, allowing you to focus more on the ideas and stories.

The tough part is how to get to that stage, which is what I’m trying to figure out now.

Monday, October 09, 2006

My first major milestone

When I was halfway through the drawing phase of the manga on evolution, I felt for the first time that I had some momentum going. As the months flew by, “half-done” became “three-quarters done,” which then became “seven-eighths,” and so on... Once finished with the draft, my editor and I went through an editing phase that took another few months. This was the home stretch, and the anticipation made it a very exciting time. I also made the graphics for the cover, and we decided on details like the thickness of the paper to print on. After hammering out some technical issues preparing the final version of the files, my editor zapped the data over to the press.

Less than a month later, on May 20th of 2005, the book was printed, and soonafter was on bookstore shelves in Japan.

Wow!! What a relief! I decided to give myself a break. Instead of working on manga after my day job, I now had free time. It felt like a vacation. At first I didn’t know what to do with myself, and got really impatient and cranky. But I eventually learned to relax. I treated myself to an Xbox and played Halo 2, watched the Red Sox on TV, and tinkered with some Gundam plastic models.

Of course, I’ve been checking the Amazon Japan rankings every day, even though people recommend not doing that because it’s not a very meaningful gauge of sales and it’ll become an unhealthy addiction. In any case, the book is doing quite well. When it first got out, it was number 1 in the evolution related books on Amazon Japan (out of around 340). Now, it’s usually hovering around the top 20, so it’s selling competitively amongst evolution books. I’ve also seen a lot of praise from professors of medicine and biology in their blogs, and it’s been recommended as supplemental reading in a number of introductory college science classes.

The book got a chance of becoming a bit more international when a few publishing companies from Korea showed interest in translating it. I chose one that focuses on science books, so the translation should be coming out pretty soon.

“So what’s the book about again, exactly?” you ask. It’s about Darwin and his theory of evolution. The beginning of the book focuses on his voyage on the Beagle, and how he came up with his theory and struggled to publish his results. That’s followed by explanations of the theory itself and its scientific implications. The rest of the book goes into recent discoveries related to evolution, touching upon scientific advances like genetics, radioactive dating, modern medicine, genomics, and virology.

Buy a copy from Amazon Japan!

Monday, October 02, 2006

The costs and benefits of changing career paths

Many mangaka start out in their early twenties, if not in their late teens. It’s easier to manage crazy things when you’re young, like pulling off a few all-nighters a week, which may be necessary for a mangaka who’s just beginning his career. And that doesn’t take into account the time constraints you’ll have to balance with if you have a family.

I’m definitely not typical. I was already 27 by the time I finished school and started working on my first significant work. There are mangaka who started later than this, but I’m definitely on the older side. So I like to remind myself that Van Gogh decided to become a painter at the age of 27, and Beethoven’s music only got better as he got older (and that's despite his loss of hearing).

But this raises a question that people sometimes ask: Did my education go to waste?

Well, for starters, I can think a lot more clearly about things than I could before. Physics trains you to think in ways that help you cut through problems in many disciplines, and it’s certainly been helping me as I bumble along my manga path. As I explained in a previous posting, authoring manga requires so many different skills that it’s really helpful if you can do a lot of the learning on your own.

Learning on your own is just like doing scientific research. You have to figure out what people have done in the past, develop your own vision, and invent any necessary skills or techniques you need to accomplish those goals. On a lighter note, I also enjoy the common aspect of buying equipment like faster computers, but the CFO (my wife) reminds me that she’d like to see some returns on our investments for a change. “Ouch!”

One of the questions that people often asked of the great mangaka, Shotaro Ishinomori, was “How much education should a mangaka get?” He would reply, “As much as possible. Having more knowledge will provide you with many more interesting perspectives when looking at things, which will give you a big edge.”

But for me, finishing up my education probably had more personal than practical relevance. Successfully pushing through grad school gave me the confidence to take on tougher challenges and stick with them. Also, if I hadn’t finished, at some point I’d probably start wondering if going into academics was the thing to do. Then instead of just being that physicist doodling in class to the frustration of his professors, I’d also be the mangaka scribbling equations while his editors get annoyed. But now I know that the “road not taken” was deliberately not taken, so I can whole-heartedly commit myself to my new goals.