Otakus, I am honored to present to all, a conversation with the gifted artist and a dear friend, Sean Michael Wilson. He speaks about his journey as a graphic artist, his outlook of art, the idea of ‘global manga’, and much more. Sean Michael Wilson is a writer from Scotland. He has had more than 40 comic books published, including books on history and society, manga style books, adaptations of classics and his own original stories. His books have been nominated for both the Harvey and Eisner awards. In 2017 his book Secrets of the Ninja won an International Manga Award from the Japanese government. He is the first British person to receive this award. In 2020 he received the Scottish Samurai Award from an association celebrating links between Japan and Scotland. In 2021 his book The Minamata Story won a silver medal in the Freeman Book Awards of Columbia University.
You have been deeply inspired by comic art, always, as it seems. However, what inspired you, as an artist from Scotland, to delve into manga aesthetics?
Yes, I was already in love with comics way before I came to Japan. Even though I have written 14 books about Japan, with Japanese artists, my key interest is not really manga. I was swept up in the glamorous beauty of being a comic book writer when I was 12 years old in Scotland because of British comics like 2000AD, Warrior, and Escape. It seemed a wonderful, artistic thing to me at the time. It has been my childhood dream come true, along with music, which also inspires me deeply. I love 1960s music: mod, psychedelic, RnB, Northern soul, etc. In general, what I like is the joy of doing creative work and the sense of artistic achievement. As for manga, the ones that I like the most are also the ones I’ve been lucky enough to connect directly with in some way, like editing the English versions: creators like Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Masahiko Matsumoto, Yoshiharu Tsuge and Tadao Tsuge. There have been a lot of good English versions of their work published over the last ten years. Tatsumi was in our AX anthology and we put out Cigarette Girl by Matsumoto in 2016. That kind of manga I like and respect very much.
As I understand, you are an anthropologist in academic training, and also take an interest in teaching. If I may ask, how do you incorporate comics in the classroom space?
I don't use comics in most of my own teaching because it's focused on English language support for professors and other students who see me privately. But I often do special classes about comics in colleges and schools. As for my academic training, it informs what I do a lot. My books are often about some aspect of society or history or psychology. Anyway, being a comic book creator means to be a kind of psychologist because you need to consider the subtle gestures and phrases and movements that people make and showcase that in the art. Also, the training I got in the importance of analyzing things and conveying them clearly, helps in the creation of our comic books.
Many artists are now independently getting involved in the manga form to narrate their own stories, which has given rise to the idea of 'global manga'. If I ask you to define 'global manga', how would you do it?
It's not something I focus on, almost at all. When I write a book that is going to be with a Japanese artist, or one on some other topic that is with an artist from the UK, or some other country; well then the idea 'is it a manga or a comic?' does not influence me. I consider the individual artist's strengths and preferences. For example, an artist I work with does not like drawing women figures (although she is a female artist), so if the main character is female, I probably will not ask her to join me on the project. Another artist doesn't like drawing buildings, so I write the script to keep such things to a minimum. So for me, manga and comics are much the same thing, and I use both words when talking about what I do. But if the artist I am working with is Japanese then they bring their own cultural influences to the book, and it becomes manga in that sense.
As an artist, do you think international manga awards (like the accolades which you have won), could inspire more artists from outside of Japan to get involved with manga art?
Yes it does, for sure. I was the first British person to get one of the Japanese government's international manga awards, but since then two more people from the UK have. But we need to face up to the negative aspects here, to be honest: the chances of someone coming from another country to Japan and making a success in the Japanese manga industry are very, very small. I don't say that to put people off, because I really wish more foreign creators could come and get work published in Japan. That would be a good thing and probably benefit me too. But the reality is this: it's extremely difficult. I am the only British comic book creator that has had original books published by a major publisher in Japan for more than 25 years! I say that with regret, not pride. It's a sign of how insular Japan is, and how large the language and cultural barriers are. I wish Japan could open up more to international creators.
The prominence of manga is on the rise, creating a global fandom. Do you think manga/anime/allied merchandise has some USP in terms of soft power? If yes, what might they be?
The first reflection I have there is what is power and why is it useful? What do we do with power? These questions are rarely asked. The main answers seem to be to bully other countries, to influence others in a less direct way, to gain economic advantages, to attract tourists, and to give our own population wealth and happiness and security. Surely the last of those is the most important. So, how much does the soft power of Japan benefit the people of Japan, I wonder? Not much perhaps. Tourists coming in bring money, yes. But if you recall before the coronavirus, places like Kyoto were complaining that they had TOO MANY tourists! They thought it was bringing as much trouble as benefit with rude behavior etc. So if lots more tourists come in again now, that issue will resurface and what to do about it will become a key issue once more. I just asked 3 Japanese students of mine, who are intelligent, with international experience and speak good English, what they thought of soft power and only one of them had ever heard of the phrase! So, perhaps it's not a concept people in Japan think much about.
As for USP, I'm so out of touch with things and modern terminology that I first had to look up what it means! I rarely use such marketing terms myself as I'm basically suspicious of marketing in regards to creative work. Yet, my own books need to sell in a market, so I'm caught up in the power of that myself. In regards to manga from Japan then the unique selling point is that its manga from Japan! I think the main thing of use and interest to me there is how it has helped lots of young folk around the world have more knowledge of Japan, in some ways, anyhow. And that's a positive thing. Perhaps especially with young people in Korea and China, because it's especially important for these 3 countries to improve their relations. But, interestingly it has not helped much the other way: young Japanese people have very little knowledge of the world outside Japan and are traveling to study abroad LESS than they used to, according to govt stats. Plus there are very very few non-Japanese comics published or read in Japan. 99% of Japanese manga readers know nothing about comics made in the USA, UK, France, India, etc. It would be nice if that could change.
Your creation, "Minamata Story" involves itself with the concerns of ecology and sustainability. Do you think manga, or comics in general, can be a vehicle to
disseminate messages about environmental awareness? What kind of impact might it create?
For sure, yes. As various studies have shown, comic books are a good format for conveying complicated information in a way that is easier to process and recall. They can show visuals of people and places we can relate to and understand. In the case of our Minamata Story we can SEE the suffering of the people poisoned by these chemicals that the company released into the water, and we can learn how govt and corporation complicity tried to deny all this for years. By seeing the real people, and the damage that was done to the animals and beaches we can understand how this kind of thing needs to be combatted.
What made you approach Noam Chomsky to write a foreword for your work, Parecomic? Furthermore, what are the new academic possibilities/avenues to explore comic and manga, according to you?
That's easy. It's because he is IN the book, being Michael Albert's teacher at MIT in the late 1960s, and then later friend and collaborator. Although, at first Chomsky doubted the value of a comic on this, since he did not have much exposure to the modern graphic novel types and how much they are used for such 'serious' topics nowadays. But I managed to persuade him! haha... As to the wider academic possibilities/avenues to explore I will say yet another surprising thing: by now 1,000's of graphic novels over the last 20 or 30 years on issues of history, politics, society, psychology, medicine etc have now quite clearly shown how good the art form is for these types of subjects. So, what we lack really is: sales. Most such comic books still do not sell enough in the USA, UK or I presume also India, to give its creators a good enough standard of living. Many creators are struggling, money wise. So, we either need a lot more sales, if operating within this capitalist system, or we need other sources of funding creators. Or better yet, if we finally dump the horrible capitalist system!
Are you familiar with traditions of Indian visual narratives and comic art? Would you like to collaborate with Indian artists in the future?
I know very little about it, I'm afraid. But, YES, I do want to work with some Indian artists! I have discussed that a couple of times before, but it has not come to anything yet. So if any good Indian artists want to contact me please do.
I thank Sean Michael Wilson for his time and patience. :)
Stay tuned for more @DrOtaku